By Jesse Jost
Anger is a very motivating emotion. If you want people involved in a cause, getting them angry enough to step up and make a difference seems like the only way to see results.
Christians believe in a God who displays his wrath in spectacular fashion. The sinless Son of God vented outbursts of anger on the corrupt and hypocritical. So surely “righteous” anger should be a powerful force for positive change in a believer’s life, right?
You’d think so if you never opened up the New Testament. But James warns in James 1:19-20, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
That verse should rein us in before we embrace anger as an unmitigated force for good. “The wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” In Ephesians, Paul warns that we need to be careful not to sin in our anger, or “let the sun go down” on our wrath, because it could “give place to the devil.” (Eph 4)
How can we discern between righteous anger and the sinful “wrath of man”?
At least two sources of outside input shape our thoughts. We have the voice of the Holy Spirit as He convicts us of sin, or whispers His love and encouragement to us.
But we also have the voice of Satan tempting us to sin, driving us to destruction.
It should be easy to discern at any time which voice we are hearing, right? Not always. The Bible says Satan comes as an angel of light. His dark counsel often blows into our souls with an air of pleasure and desirability.
There is a sense of “rightness” to Satan’s counsel. How many times have you heard someone moan after a destructive action, “It seemed like a good idea at the time!”
Anger has a self-affirming quality to it; it’s very difficult to feel wrong while angry.
How can we discern whether the voice feeding our anger is from God or Satan?
One way is to step back and ask what the goals of the Holy Spirit are and what the goals of the Enemy are.
The Holy Spirit wants to exalt Jesus and open our eyes to God’s majesty. He wants to convict us of our hidden sins and show our blind spots. He wants to make us humble and teachable, kind and gentle. He wants us to live in surrender to God, where our souls say “Your will be done!” He wants to us to become like Jesus.
What does Satan want for us? He’s the accuser of Christians, so he wants us filled with a vindictive spirit, especially toward other Christians. Satan seeks to distract us with arrogant thoughts that crowd out awareness of God. He wants us clinging to our self-will, where we want our way in our timetable. He wants us looking nothing like Jesus.
In light of these competing influences, let’s re-evaluate anger. Think back to the last time you were really angry. Did you find it made you more aware of your faults? Did it make you more aware of God’s beauty and holiness? Did it make you more aware of how prone to error you could be? Did it fill you with love and compassion toward the object of your anger?
Or maybe, if it was like my experience of anger, it made you feel more justified and confirmed in you a sense that there is no way you could be wrong, and you just couldn’t believe how someone else could be so utterly stupid, ignorant, or wicked.
For me, anger has rarely produced a desire to surrender to the will of God, but has rather made me cling all the tighter to what I want to see done.
Anger has had a scary effect on me: The angrier I am, the more justified and saintly I appear in my own eyes, and the more villainous the object of my wrath becomes.
Maybe your experience of anger is different. The next time you get angry, try to step back from the emotion and evaluate if the fruit of your anger seems more in keeping with the goals of the Holy Spirit, or the goals of the Enemy. I think you’ll be surprised to find that most anger is not as righteous as we’d like to think.
Anger has hardly ever made me more teachable, more aware of how things look from the other person’s perspective. Anger has never made me a better listener. Anger has never made me more excited about God’s beauty or His Sovereignty.
Anger has never given me a sense of peace – which is convicting, given that we are told to let the peace of God rule in our hearts, (Col 3) and that the God of peace wants to give us His peace always in every way (2 Thess 3).
I can’t say there is never a place for anger. God gave it to us for a reason. Love will get angry when it sees the weak abused by the strong. Even when not feeling the emotion of anger, we should always still experience moral revulsion toward the damaging effects of sin: “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.” (Prov 8:13)
But what I am saying is that when you get angry, don’t fully trust your thoughts in that state of mind.
Question the story you are believing about the person or situation you are angry with. If your anger has given a perch to the devil, then you can count on your perception of the facts being twisted in a way that will destroy harmony or unity. Anger from Satan will not tend toward reconciliation or a greater understanding of the other person’s motives.
It’s why James tells us to be quick to hear, but slow to speak and slow to wrath. It’s dangerous to jump to conclusions while mad.
If you let your anger escalate unquestioned, a powerful vindictive and destructive force could come at you in a way that is so affirming of you and your positions you won’t notice it’s evil power.
We see this effect clearly in others when they are angry. We’ve all shaken our heads in disbelief as someone acts in a way that is so self-destructive when angry. We’re in shock as we watch the angry person destroy relationships with their words and actions.
I can guarantee that from inside the angry mind, these destructive actions seem righteous. The insidiously deceptive power of anger makes it destructive, and prompts the strong warnings in Proverbs about avoiding the angry man.
God has a holy hatred for evil; there is a time coming when His love-fuelled wrath will bring an end to every act of abuse or oppression. God firmly tells us that vengeance is His domain, and not our responsibility. (Rom 12:19) When God gets angry at sin, He is never mistaken, He knows all the facts, and He is always motivated by love.
Our anger can stir a desire in us to crush others who have hurt us. But when we take vengeance into our own hands, we are so blinded by sinful drives and faulty information. We jump to wrong conclusions and our solutions can be motivated by hate, not love without us even realizing it.
The very emotion of anger stirs up our “flight or fight” system, which, studies show, makes us less rational and more prone to violent reaction. When anger flares up, blood flow to our frontal lobe decreases, making us less capable of complex thought. So even in the face of evil and injustice – legitimate causes of anger – we need to cool down before acting, because these situations are always more complex than they first appear.
This is why Paul tells us to “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph 4:31)
Be careful that you do not act out or speak or write or post on social media while in the throes of anger. Wait till you have calmed down, and have surrendered the situation to God before you act. Words and actions formed while angry cannot be easily taken back.
But if people don’t get angry, what will motivate them to take action against the injustice in the world? The answer is not something that comes from inside our sinful hearts, like “the wrath of man” does. The answer is some thing that comes from outside of us – from the heart of God. The answer is love and compassion.
Agape love has a staying power that motivates people to act against injustice for the long haul and make life-long sacrifices. Anger often only motivates till the emotion burns out and then people fall back into apathy. Love, fuelled by the example of Jesus and empowered by Him, will never give up.
This world desperately needs Christians to take action against forces of evil that are so abusive and destructive. There are people who need to be rescued, lies that need to be exposed, captives that need to be set free, and wounds that need to be healed.
But let’s make sure we are guided by the Holy Spirit, so that our actions bring life and hope, not more destruction and divisiveness.
We live in a world being torn apart by anger. Angry individuals are trying to fix the deep wrongs of the past, and they’re leaving even more hurt and destruction in their wake.
If you want to make a lasting difference and produce the righteousness of God and be an agent of hope and healing, be mindful of this check list from James to see if you are being motivated by God or Satan.
“But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (Jas 3:17-18)
If this list does not describe your heart, take some time to retire to your quiet place and give the situation to God. Vent all your anger and hurt to Him. Wail and pound your fists if you need to – He can handle it. He gave us the Psalms to voice words for our anger and frustration.
But the fruit of this time should be a sense that it is God who will ultimately right the wrongs and bring restoration. Our job is to walk in forgiveness and compassion (which will involve seeking justice for the oppressed), and to show the world His love through our words and our actions.