Question: We are called to be slow to anger (James 1:19-20) because it does not produce righteousness that God desires. But we’ve also read how God can be angry and it is justified considering how sinful we, his people, are. God’s anger is thus a righteous anger. I’m wondering if we can too claim this righteous anger and be angry at situations that are clearly wrong (e.g. I am angry that this injustice happened to them). However, if we are flawed in our nature, can we actually claim that righteous anger?
Thanks for the question, I found that it was helpful that you laid some of the biblical foundations of your thoughts before asking this question and it would be good to expand upon these foundations to encapsulate the concerns regarding this question:
Biblical proposition 1: God has a righteous anger, not because He is just fundamentally an angry God, but because He is fundamentally a righteous God. God is the very standard of goodness, and anything that is contrary to His righteous nature (that is, sin and corruption) is a perversion of His goodness, and He naturally finds revulsion at this twistedness of what He has made good. His anger is the natural manifestation of that twistedness and corruption (Rom 1:18). One important note to also mention is that God’s anger is extremely predictable. There is only one thing that God will ever get angry about, and that is sin itself. He is angry at the moral disgraces that are committed by fallen mankind each and everyday (Ps 7:11).
Biblical proposition 2: Mankind after the Fall has an inherited sinful nature. Without the grace of God, we are unable to do any good works that are pleasing to God (Rom 8:8). There is no one on the face of this planet who is righteous (Rom 3:10-11), and this inevitable reality of depraved mankind means that no one is able to manifest anger within themselves that is seen in a righteous light. The anger of sinful mankind is always tainted in evil, as the questioner kindly refers James 1:20 for us, “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” We don’t get angry at the things that God gets angry about, but often our anger is induced by our own pride and selfish desires often a time. Finding examples of us getting triggered easily over trivial inconveniences aren’t difficult – train delays, spilling our cup of coffee, or hitting every single red light, are just some of many silly instances we blow up about. Our human anger, in this sense, is also often misdirected because not only do we get angry at some of the moral atrocities committed by morally-capable human beings, but we also can get angry at inanimate objects that don’t possess a will to commit any moral wrongdoing to which we should get angry about!
So James’ exhortation for his readers to be slow to anger is understandable, given that our tendencies to be angry are often sinful, misguided and self-centred. But does this exhortation mean that under no circumstances should we ever be angry? Are we not allowed to be angry when someone has clearly wronged us, or has hurt our beloved family members and friends? Must we be slow to express anger at the injustices done to little children who are physically and sexually abused, to infants who are slaughtered in abortion clinics, or to the elderly who are neglected and unloved on a regular basis?
1. The Spirit transforms our affections, such that we are able to be angry at the things God is angry about.
By the work of regeneration done only by the Spirit, Christians have a new heart that has new affections to love and please God (Ezek 36:25-29), which then instinctively begins to love the things that God loves. This also naturally means that regenerate Christians begin to cultivate a hatred for the things that God hates (Rom 12:9). And if we follow on this trend, then by implication we can deduce that with the new heart, true Christians are able to hate and be angry about the things God gets angry at – sin!
In short, regenerate Christians are able to be morally outraged at the heinousness of sin, such that this anger is seen as righteous before God.
2. What does this righteous anger look like?
a) Anger that doesn’t escalate into sin
The apostle Paul sheds some guidance to how our anger is to be channeled in Ephesians 4:26a, “In your anger do not sin.” It is tempting to justify our vengeful retaliation to the evildoing of others, under the pretense that our anger is stemming out of godly hatred for sin and injustice. But no matter how atrocious the sin others have committed, either against ourselves or to others, we must be careful how we respond in the moment. The devil will pounce at any opportunity to grab a foothold, in an attempt to concoct something evil out of your anger (Eph 4:27).
b) Anger that doesn’t persist overnight
The second portion of Ephesians 4:26 says, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,” suggests that we must never go to bed on our anger. Anger that continues to boil past its duration point often expresses our distrust in God’s power to administer justice on those who have afflicted us in wrongdoing. Even if our anger is justified on righteous terms, we must rest on God as the perfect arbiter who will take vengeance on our behalf (Rom 12:19). Righteous anger is anger that rightfully entrusts all things to the Righteous and Perfect Judge.
c) Anger that grieves over the sins of others
If we entrust the judgment for evil to the God who judges perfectly, then our emotional energy can be channeled, not into action that condemns others in our infuriation, but into action that seeks to restore them in love and patience, out of our grief over their sin. Even though Jesus was furious at the Pharisees when they were more concerned about the violation of the Sabbath, rather than for personal wellbeing of the frail man, He was also grieved over their stubborn hearts (Mark 3:5). Though He literally flipped tables over in the temple courts witnessing His Father’s house of worship being made into a haven for merchants (Matt 11:15-18), He expressed His grief over the sin of the Jewish leaders that made this possible (Matt 23:37). Jesus rarely expressed anger in His years of ministry on earth, but whenever He did, His anger was always driven out of a love that seeks to care for the wellbeing of people and for God’s name to not be profaned.
d) Anger that grieves over their own sin
Last but not least, before we could ever express anger over the sins of others that we see, we must be humble enough to express anger and grief over sin that plagues our own lives. Indeed, it is often that we won’t be able to righteously pursue the good of others by removing the speck in their eyes, unless we firstly remove the log that is clearly protruding out of our own eyes (Matt 7:5). Only when we begin to assess the conditions of our hearts and be driven in holy anger against our own sin, that our anger towards the sins of others will not be coated in self-righteous condemnation that seeks to destroy, but God-righteous edification that seeks to build and restore.
As we are continually being renewed in the image of Jesus, may we follow His example of seasoning our anger in love in order to pursue the good of other people, for their sake and for God’s glory.