Anger is a strong emotion. In the moment of its intensity it can be hard to focus and to properly direct our anger. When we use the emotional energy of our anger to help address problems, or to eliminate sin then it can be productive. When we use that same emotional energy to attack people and cut others down then we will sin. Righteous anger must have the right response to the situation.
Consider Sarah’s situation as a case study. Sarah had every right to be angry. Julian had, once again, failed to communicate with her and now she was having to scramble around and pull together a meal for some unexpected dinner guests. In just an hour they would be at the front door and she had nothing to feed these friends. How insensitive could Julia be? Her anger brewed as she scrambled around the kitchen, and by the time their guests arrived she was at the boiling point. A few minutes into dinner it began to seep out. Their dinner guests left early, due to the awkwardness of the evening, and as soon as the door closed she let Julian have it. She yelled, ranted, threatened, and attacked. She called names, threw things, and even tossed around the word “divorce.” Sarah had every right to be upset, but her response was not right.
We can judge Sarah’s anger wrong not because it was unjustified. Julian had put her in an awful situation, and when there is a pattern of insensitivity involved anger is an appropriate response. Her anger is wrong, however, because it was excessive and it attacked Julian. This expression of anger is destructive. It does nothing to address the problem, it does not seek to bring Julian to repentance, instead it creates more problems and exacerbates the dynamics between them. This is the case for many of us. Our anger attacks another person and seeks to harm them in order to satisfy our own sense of justice. It is usually excessive too. That is to say, it often expresses itself in a fashion that is unwarranted by the situation. There are lots of other ways that Sarah could have expressed her anger at Julian’s inconsiderate planning. Condemning him, throwing things, and threatening divorce were an overreaction to this situation.
Anger that is expressed wrongly does not help us to resolve issues. God warns us that sinful anger is counterproductive:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)
Righteous anger is constructive, helpful, godly. It seeks to, as Brad Hambrick says, “See sin eliminated and sinners redeemed” (Overcoming Anger, 14). But sinful anger, the “anger of man” (as opposed to godly anger) does not produce righteousness. Anger expressed wrongly makes a greater mess of our situations, it creates more problems, and when it attacks people it damages relationships. In Sarah’s case, she has a problem in her marriage. Her husband is selfish and insensitive, and he demonstrates that with regularity. Her response doesn’t address that issue, instead it creates more distance between them and will only tempt Julian to pull further away from her, communicate less, think about her needs less, and respond poorly to her threats. Her anger adds to the relational discord already existent. She is angry about a legitimate issue, and it should be addressed. Her response, however, fails to do that.
When you get angry are you angry about the right things? When you are angry about the right things do you express that anger in the right ways? Does your anger destroy or offer constructive help? David Powlison very helpfully notes:
The clearest gauge of whether anger is right or wrong in its expression is whether it acts to condemn or to offer help. (“Understanding Anger, Part 1”)
God expresses his anger against sin by both addressing our problem and redeeming sinners. Is that the goal of your expression? Do you seek to exact your own payment for violations by cutting down others? Do you want to see problems resolved and people helped, or do you simply want revenge for an offense? Destructive anger does not produce the righteousness of God, but it is possible to respond rightly to the right triggers.
Evaluate your responses. How often does your anger focus on making others feel your pain and disappointment? How often does it seek to resolve conflicts and address problems? The emotional energy of our anger can be stewarded to help us fight sin and care for others. Is your anger expressed rightly?