Anger, like all emotions, can be good or bad depending on what we are responding to and how we are expressing it. Christians have sometimes had a view of the “negative” emotions as though they were never appropriate, but that they were always wrong and even shameful. The Bible, however, indicates that anger can be a right expression in some contexts and that even God himself experiences and expresses anger. How do we know, then, when our anger is appropriate and when it has crossed the line into sinful anger? These seven tests of righteous anger will help us to evaluate our anger.
Anger is a moral expression. It is a response that claims, “This is wrong, and it matters!” We become angry when we perceive an injustice, when something we love is being attacked, harmed, or neglected. The Bible calls us even to have these kinds of responses of hatred to immorality, injustice, wickedness, and hypocrisy. So we are called to “abhor what is evil” (Rom.12:9); we are told that the “to fear the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13); and we are even told to “be angry and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). Anger is a right emotion when real wrong is being done, and to be angry at immorality is to imitate our God by hating what He hates. Most of our anger, however, is not righteous. We often get angry when our own agenda is not realized, when our own desires are not met, and when we feel we do not get the respect we deserve. We make too much of the sins of others, turning every slight into a grand offense. We make too little over our own sins, those that sometimes instigate arguments and conflicts. We want to evaluate honestly, humbly, and carefully just how righteous our anger is.
Jonah needed this help. As he sits and stews bitterly over the city of Nineveh, who is in the process of repenting of their sinful ways, he expresses his anger to God. We read:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:1-3)
He is angry precisely because God has displayed His grace to these wicked people. But God responds to Jonah’s anger with a pointed question:
But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (v. 4)
God asks Jonah to evaluate his anger. He does it again when Jonah becomes angry about the withered plant, pointing out that God has greater love and commitment to these people whom He created. Jonah desperately needed to see that his anger was misplaced and that he was in fact angry about the wrong things. His need is ours too. We all must learn to evaluate our anger carefully and humbly.
If the emotion of anger itself is not necessarily sinful, that is to say it’s not wrong simply have the emotion, we can still be in sin in our anger. We can direct our anger at the wrong things, and we can express our anger in the wrong ways. So, we can, like Jonah, be angry at something that is actually good or at least neutral. We can become angry because someone else got something that we wanted. We can also express our anger in wrong ways, with too much intensity, for too long, and with too much frequency. The author Hebrews encourages us that mature believers are those who have their “senses trained to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). This is a practice that we want to cultivate and learn. It is a discipline that will come as we seek to evaluate our anger, to ask good and necessar questions of it. We want to know things like: What am I angry about? Why am I angry about it? How am I expressing myself? What impact is my anger having on me and those around me? Evaluation is, of course, just the firs step but it is an important step in the process of moving towards a righteous anger and away from a sinful anger.
David Powlison has very helpfully offered up a guide to doing this well. In his article “Anger Part 1: Understanding Anger” (JBC, 14:1, 1995) he outlines these seven tests or righteous anger. Over the next several weeks I want to explore each of these tests in some minor detail. You can see the complete list here:
1. Do you get angry about the right things?
2. Do you express your anger in the right way?
3. How long does your anger last?
4. How controlled is your anger?
5. What motivates your anger?
6. Is your anger “primed and ready” to respond to another person’s habitual sins?
7. What is the effect of your anger?
Exploring each question in detail and seeking to understand what the question is designed to help us evaluate can be a productive exercise in personal growth and self-awareness. So, check back next week as we start with question one.