It is possible to be angry about the right things, and to express that anger in the right way, but do so for the wrong reasons. We often deceive ourselves and others by suggesting that because anger is warranted that we are righteous in our response, when in fact our anger is motivated by sinful and selfish agendas. Righteous anger does more than look at the external behavior, it evaluates the heart motive that drives its expression. Righteous anger has the right motive behind it.
The heart, we are told, is “deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9). It is not easy to discern out motives and we can often feel justified in our anger because, after all, there was a legitimate offense. Wrestling with our motivations matters, however, because what prompted our response may actually be wrong and this will color the way we respond to the actual offense. An example may help to clarify this distinction between right trigger and wrong motive. Brad Hambrick offers a good example; he writes:
Rudeness in children is wrong. There are many forms of appropriate discipline. However, if our primary motive in disciplining our children is to prevent them from embarrassing us in public, then our anger is sinful. We have made our glory and peace the center of the world and emotionally forced it upon our children. (“Overcoming Anger,” 14)
The situation itself may warrant a level of anger – a moral response to something that is sinful. If, however, our motivation to respond is adrift of God’s concerns for the situation, then we will be in the wrong. We will unintentionally communicate to ourselves and to others that the central issue is our agenda, not God’s. So, in the example Brad uses when our motive for discipline is our own glory and reputation then we communicate to ourselves that it is right to be primarily concerned with my reputation before others. We also communicate to our children that the issue is not God’s command, but dad’s/mom’s appearance before others. Motives that are sinful will color the discipline and the anger itself.
The Bible notes the significance of motive over behavior in multiple ways. Perhaps a prime example, however, is seen in the act of worship. God rebukes the Israelites for their worship because despite the appropriateness of their responses and behaviors, their motives are wicked. They “worship” God in words and actions, but not in heart desires. We read:
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men (Isa. 29:13)
Jesus picks up this same passage and applies it to the religious leaders of his own day (Matt. 15:8-9). WE see the same principle at play when Jesus warns others of the final judgment. Despite their religious duties and moral action, they do not know God. Jesus states:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt. 7:21-23)
Throughout the Scriptures there is a priority placed on heart motivations. It is possible, according to both the Old and New Testaments, to have the right response to an appropriate situation but without the right motivations. God cares about motive and so should we.
We may be angry about the right situations and we may express that anger in the appropriate ways with the appropriate duration, and in a controlled manner. If, however, our motive is actually more driven by selfish concerns we cannot claim to have a righteous anger. Righteous anger must meet the test of right motivation. Think about situations that commonly frustrate you. What is it about those situations that makes you angry, agitated, or upset? What motivates your response? It is your motive the same as the initial trigger? Can you safely claim that you are responding to the right issue with the proper motivation? Wrong motive does not mean that we should not address the issue, but it does mean we need to carefully evaluate ourselves first and repent of wrong motives before we address the sin of another (Matt. 7:5). Righteous anger is concerned about motives and has the proper motivation in responding to the right trigger. Do you have the right motive?