A Biblical Understanding of Anger

By Jason Harris
The Definition of Anger
The Macquarie Dictionary defines anger as “Strongly felt displeasure aroused by real or supposed wrongs, often accompanied by an impulse to retaliate.” Websters Dictionary defines anger as “A strong emotion; a feeling that is oriented toward some real or supposed grievance.” So anger is a strong emotion of displeasure aroused by a real or imagined offense. I become angry when I am actually, or perceive myself to have been, wronged.
Righteous Anger
By the definition above, not all anger is sinful anger. The term for anger that is not sinful is “righteous anger.” What does the Bible teach? First, the Bible clearly teaches in Joshua 7:1, Numbers 32:13, 1 Kings 16:7, 1 Kings 21:22, Nehemiah 4:5, and many other passages that God Himself has often been angry with those who were stubborn in their sin. Not only that, but God is angry every day with those who still sin. (Psalm 7:11) Finally, God will pour out His anger on sinners forever in a place called Hell. (Revelation 14:10-11) So we know that God, Who is all-righteous, is angry.
Second, I believe it’s safe to say that Jesus was angry when He threw the money-changers out of the temple. (John 2:15-16) Jesus never once sinned. The Bible says that He “knew no sin.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Obviously Jesus’ anger was not a sinful anger.
Finally, there are many examples of men in the Bible who were angry but who were not in sin. We’ll look at a few of those examples in a little bit.
Now if anger is not always sinful, then what is it that makes anger either righteous or sinful? The answer lies in the cause of the anger. First, we must understand clearly that even if the cause of anger is righteous, it is still sin to respond to that strong emotion—anger—in a wrong way. For instance, I may be legitimately angry at something (righteous anger), but if I respond to that strong emotion of anger with yelling, insulting, and tearing down, I am in sin regardless of whether the anger itself was justified.
So if the key to whether anger is good or bad is in the cause of the anger, what is a legitimate cause for anger and what is not? The answer lies in studying righteous anger in the lives of godly men in the Bible.
There are at least two instances recorded in the life of Moses in which he experienced righteous anger. The first is in Exodus 32:19 where Moses comes down the mount after receiving the Ten Commandments from God, and finds that the people have turned to immorality and idolatry. The Bible says that “Moses’ anger waxed hot” and he broke the tablets that were in his hand. We may be able to argue about whether he was righteous in his immediate reaction, but his overall reaction was clearly well thought-out and reasonable. The second instance of righteous anger in Moses’ life is in Leviticus 10:16-17 where the priests have disobeyed God’s procedure for doing sacrifices.
Another instance of righteous anger in Scripture is in 1 Samuel 11:6 where Saul was angered when he heard the news that Nahash the Ammonite was making cruel threats against God’s people in Jabesh. The Bible clearly says that “the spirit of God came upon Saul when he heard those tidings, and his anger was kindled greatly.”
A final example of righteous anger in the Bible is found in Nehemiah 5:6 where Nehemiah finds out that the Jewish nobles and rulers are treating their Jewish brothers poorly in taking their property and even their children as slaves for unlawful debts. Nehemiah “rebuked” the leaders for their wrong and ordered them to restore what they had taken.
So What is Righteous Anger?
Based on the biblical evidence gathered above, the common denominator is that in none of these cases were the people angry in a selfish, self-protective way. Moses was angry at Israel’s rebellion against God. Moses was angry because the priests treated God’s commands lightly. Saul was angry because God’s people were being threatened with unjust destruction. Nehemiah was angry because innocent people were being mistreated. Even Jesus was not angry about Himself but was angry that His Father’s house was being violated with wickedness.
Anger is unrighteous when it is motivated by selfishness and self-protection. Righteous anger always looks out for the good of others, the protection of the innocent, and the glory of God.
Since we have so clearly delineated the difference between righteous anger and unrighteous anger, we may now move on to the problems caused by unrighteous anger. For the rest of this study, let’s assume that we are dealing with unrighteous anger.
What Causes Anger?
Anger is always the result of what we are thinking. We cannot be angry without thinking. Anger is my response to some outside event or influence. Any time I get angry, I have perceived a wrong, and have responded to that wrong. Nobody can force a person to get angry. Nobody can force you to react in a certain way. Anger comes from the well of our heart. (Proverbs 4:23)
Jim Berg explains it this way: “Anger is God’s way of putting His finger on another area of our life that is not yet surrendered to God.” (Quieting the Noisy Soul) Berg is saying that when we respond to life’s circumstances in anger, we are revealing that we really have not given over every aspect of our lives to God’s complete control. Berg further explains:
A man’s anger is [an] indicator of his priorities. Find out what highly displeases him, and you have exposed what he values. No one is displeased if something he values little is taken away or is threatened. But begin to rob a man of his treasures, and you will have a fight on your hands. It may be his control, his reputation, his possessions, his position, or his health. A man’s anger reveals what areas of life are most precious to him. His anger exposes what he has not yet surrendered fully to God to deal with as He wishes for His glory and for the man’s good. (Changed, 213)
Anger is always a wrong response to having our rights denied or our desires crossed. We feel that we deserve something and when we don’t get it, we feel that we have been wronged. If we were content that we have everything we need in God Himself, we would never get angry in an unholy way. Why? Because Hebrews 13:5 says “Let your [lifestyle] be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for He hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” When we know that God Himself will always be with us and will always be for us, then we can rest completely content. Listen to Berg again: “Anger is a strong emotion of displeasure… You can’t be displeased about something… unless you think you have to have it in the first place to be content.” (Quieting)
When we react to circumstances with anger, we are revealing our own heart of unbelief. Berg puts it perfectly when he says that “Anger is when I start with unbelief that God is not enough and I need something more and I’ve decided what I need and I’m upset because I don’t have what I need.” (Quieting) It sounds pretty harsh to say that anger comes from unbelief in the heart, but that is exactly what the Bible teaches. We say we know our God, but we don’t really know our God. We say we believe our God, but we don’t really believe our God.
In his book, The Practice of Godliness, Jerry Bridges deals with the hypocrisy of anger. “An uncontrolled temper is a contradiction in the life of a person who is seeking to practice godliness.” (140) Bridges is pointing out the fact that if we say we are Christians, that God is in control of everything, that God wants the best for our lives, and that we are servants of Christ, then why would we choose to react in anger? The answer is unbelief. We don’t trust our God. We don’t really want to be a servant. We don’t really think that God is in control of everything, and we don’t really think that God wants the best for our lives.
If we were really desiring to serve as Christ did (John 13:14), than why would we be angry when we were treated like servants? Why would we be angry when we didn’t get our way? After all, isn’t that another way to be a servant to our Christian brothers?
The Steps to Anger
Since anger is a result of our thinking, let’s try to outline some of the thinking that leads to anger.
1. Status quo
“The way things are.” We may or may not be content in the broader picture, but life is going along status quo.
2. Wrong or perceived wrong
Someone or something dares to interrupt our life with some inconvenience, some problem, or some circumstance that we are not happy with.
3. Reaction
Any time we are wronged or perceive ourselves to have been wronged, there is always a process of thinking—a choice that we must make. Will I react with faith, believing that God is Who He says He is? That He is kind, and in control, and that He does want the best for my life? Or will I choose to respond in unbelief, believing that somehow God has made a mistake, lost control, or worse, that He wants to hurt and frustrate me.
4. Anger
If I choose unbelief at step 3, anger is the natural response. If my thinking is wrong, it is only logical that I will choose to respond in anger to the frustration that God has allowed in my life.
5. Results
When I get angry, I have given myself over to the control of rage. In Ephesians 5:18, God commands Christians to be “filled with the Spirit.” The meaning of “filled” in that verse is the same as when you hear someone say something like “he was filled with rage.” To be filled means to be controlled! Proverbs 16:32 says “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.” The results of anger vary from mild annoyance and yelling to extreme rage and abuse. Scripture describes the results of anger like this: “Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous.” (Proverbs 27:4) An angry person will hurt everyone around him, and he won’t even know it. He is too self-consumed.

Overcoming Anger

Now that we understand the thought processes that lead to anger, it’s time to go back to Scripture to find out God’s plan for victory over this sin. The path to victory (another way of saying “obedience to God”) with anger is the same as with any other sin:
1. Confess sin to God. 1 John 1:9, Proverbs 28:13
Confession with the intention of doing it again is not repentance. God requires a complete change of mind about our sin.
2. Correct problems with others. Matthew 5:23-25, Acts 24:16
Restitution must be made with those we have wronged so that we can have a conscience “void of offense toward God, and toward men.”
3. Cut off sin at the root. Matthew 5:28-30, Colossians 3:5-7
This is a Bible principle that is often called “radical amputation” and is based on Christ’s teaching in Matthew that if our eye causes us to offend God, we should pluck it out. Ron Hamilton points out three things about radical amputation:
· Radical amputation seems strange to others.
· Radical amputation is painful.
· Radical amputation results in a life-long handicap.
4. Create accountability.
There is strength in accountability. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12) There is safety in being under authority. (James 3:1)
5. Change wrong thinking. Romans 12:2, 1 Corinthians 10:5
The reason David thought right about God when he went out to meet Goliath is because of his years meditating in the field. He didn’t start thinking right about God when he got to the battle! How is your thinking about God? Do you believe God could be more loving? More holy? More good? More in control? If you find yourself thinking wrong about God, you must go back and find out what is reality about God so that you can learn to think right about Him. Memorize the Scripture that will help you to think right about this problem. Some passages that might help are James 1:20, Ecclesiastes 7:9, and Proverbs 15:18.
6. Choose obedience. John 14:15
In Conclusion
We’ve analyzed the meaning of anger and the thinking behind anger, now it’s time to obey. Jim Berg exposes us right to the bone when he says “We would like to think that in this or that sin, we have been defeated. The humbling reality is that we have been disobedient.” It all comes down to our relationship with our God. Do we know Him? Do we believe Him? Do we love Him?

Works Consulted

Berg, Jim. Changed into His Image, BJU Press: Greenville, SC.
Berg, Jim. Created for His Glory, BJU Press: Greenville, SC.
Berg, Jim. Quieting the Noisy Soul, Part 3, MP3 Sermon.
Bridges, Jerry. The Practice of Godliness, NavPress: Colorado Springs, CO.
Jackson, Tim. When Anger Burns, RBC Ministries: Grand Rapids, MI.