Showing Righteous Anger
Q: Are we ever entitled to show “righteous anger”? What would be its Biblical definition?
A: Entitled — now there’s a word we Christians need to use carefully. Claiming entitlement often equates to seeking an excuse. It may lead us to selectively apply Scripture, as is Satan’s wont.
Let’s begin by defining righteousness. Often synonymous with holiness or sinlessness, do we dare pair it with our own anger? Is it possible for any human being to be angry without sinning?
In Matthew 5:21-22, Christ ties hatred to homicide: “You have heard that ... ‘whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say ... that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Similarly, Jesus’ beloved disciple later wrote, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. (1 John 2:9)” Jesus’ warning led medieval theologians to include anger among the Seven Deadly Sins, since it certainly may lead “to judgment.”
Some try using Ephesians 4:26-27 as justification for displaying their anger. Paul wrote, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” The apostle certainly connects righteousness (“do not sin”) with wrath (“be angry”).
We face a two-fold problem with this Ephesians passage. For one thing, Paul sets a strict limit. By saying “do not let the sun go down,” the apostle tells us that we should never let anger turn into the enduring hatred of grudge-bearing. The other difficulty we face comes from the imperative: “Do not sin.” How many of us could take a full and honest inventory of ourselves and find a time when we truly burned with anger yet harbored no sin in our hearts?
“But,” you might ask, “how about Jesus?” We imagine that He was angry when He made “a whip of cords” and “drove [the money changers] all out of the temple. (John 2:15)” Because Jesus is the sinless Son of God, we know that His wrath is always and completely righteous. His actions in the temple even led His disciples back to the Bible as they “remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ (v. 17; cf. Psalm 69:9)”
Of course, this is Jesus. When facing abuses of divine justice or when confronting hatred and extreme violations of God’s Law, we often feel anger towards those whose actions inflict hurt and advance hate. Yet if we act according to our anger, we’re most likely to do so as vigilantes.
God claims exclusive right of retaliation. Hebrews 10:30 echoes the Old Testament, drawing upon Law, Prophets, and Psalms and the reflects the New (specifically Saint Paul in Romans 12:19): “We know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Christ’s Church may excommunicate impenitents and exclude avowed unbelievers from its midst. The Church may not persecute even the most brazen or brutal sinners. Instead, we allow God to judge, knowing that the final verdict will be delivered by the returning Jesus on the Last Day. Until then, we trust Him to work through the governments He ordains, knowing that the “one who is in authority ... does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:3-4)”
How, then, might a devout Christian “be angry” yet “not sin”? I suggest that we channel our emotional responses to injustice and evil according to the will of God. Unless acting according to a specific command of God or as agents of the government, Scripture leaves us few options.
If we anger because we have been wronged, Christians heeds their Lord: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. (Luke 6:27)” Instead of getting even, we provide aid and comfort whenever our enemies have need (cf. Romans 12:20).
If we burn because of wrongs against others, rather than retaliating against the villains, we provided redress for the victims. Feeling anger — and addressing our actions — against various perpetrators rarely comes without sin. Perhaps our anger is best resolved by our actions against the circumstances.
God doesn’t tell us to hate those who impoverish others; He calls us to “remember the poor (Galatians 2:10)” and, as Jesus says, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked (see Matthew 25:35-36). Likewise, He commands governments to visit His punishment upon the wicked but calls Christians to visit those imprisoned with love.
Are you blessed with restraint and perception far beyond the capabilities of other believers? If not, heed Saint Paul and exercise your “righteous anger” by exercising Christian charity: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)”
For more, see the 2006 post Praying Evil Upon Our Enemies.
Looking for more ways to care for the needy? Stop by LCMS World Relief and Human Care for a place to start showing “Mercy Forever.”
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
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Newspaper column #588:1