I’ve never liked seeing people angry. I’m a fairly moderate person, not easily annoyed. I feel sorry for people who blow up easily. When I see someone exhibiting road rage, I honestly feel embarrassed for them. When someone can’t keep their calm when the driver in front of them brakes too hard, it doesn’t reflect positively on their character. But I’ve been changing, somewhat. Instead of completely shutting myself off from all anger, I’ve been realizing that some anger is actually necessary for the Christian. To be like God includes being angry at times. If that sounds distasteful to you, then this post may be helpful.
Before we go on, I want to introduce a relevant thought that I will further develop in this post. When sin is present, God calls his people not to apathy, but to anger. I’ve been reading through the book of Jeremiah in the mornings. One particularly poignant episode is when King Jehoiakim cuts off pieces of Jeremiah’s warning scroll and burns them one at a time, with no concern whatsoever about the coming judgment being read. That is apathy: total lack of emotion when strong emotion is called for. Compare that with Nehemiah’s response to hearing about the ongoing slavery and economic oppression in Jerusalem after the return from exile. “When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, ‘You are charging your own people interest!’ So I called together a large meeting to deal with them.”¹ When action must be taken to stop evil, and those who could stop it do nothing, it is not good in any sense. Selfish anger is dangerous, but apathy is evil. Keep that thought in your mind as you read.
God’s anger must become ours
Whatever we have to say about anger must come from the Christian perspective on morality. Although secular morality hinges on certain things like seeking the greatest amount of happiness for the most people, the Christian perspective of morality is uniquely centered on a person, Jesus. Christian morality tells us that we must understand God’s anger to understand what anger should look like for us.
It turns out that God and anger are very connected across the entire Bible. Again from Jeremiah, I’ve been shocked by the wrath in God’s words to the people of Israel who had turned to idols:
In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who want to kill them, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds and the wild animals. I will devastate this city and make it an object of horror and scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them to destroy them.²
These words are words of judgment that seem utterly foreign to our ears. “Destroy”? “Make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters”? “Ruin the plans of Judah”? This sounds incredibly harsh and even revolting! But God is speaking, and if we are to take Christian morality seriously, we will listen carefully to what He says. Apparently, there are things that warrant anger on God’s part, and He is not at all apologetic about it. In the context of this passage, those things are rejecting God, replacing Creator-culture with creation-culture, and killing innocent children. (If you thought this is an isolated incident of divine wrath, the rest of the Old Testament should suffice to convince you otherwise.) In the New Testament, we read about gentle Jesus, holding little children, feeding the crowds…and telling them that they were better off cutting off their most important appendages than facing the wrath of God because of their sin. And that outside of life in Himself, all people were headed to a place more disgusting than the city trash heap full of putrid fires and never-dying worm populations. At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus was angry at the fake sorrow of those who had no life themselves but were attempting to fill a job of mourning.³ Matthew 23 records his diatribe against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Jesus called them names, called out their fake virtues, and called into question their spirituality. In one awful rebuke after another, Jesus showed how corrupt their religiosity really was. Clearly, God is more than okay with anger. But human anger has hurt us many times. Is anger off-limits to us?
Is anger only okay for God?
Some may feel that God is the only one who is able to be angry without causing damage to others. But if we are to take the Christian view of morality—in other words, Person-focused instead of thing-focused—then we must conclude that God desires us to have anger that mirrors His. I hope Ephesians 4:26 comes to your mind: “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” If God tells us to be angry while not sinning, then it must be possible. Beyond that, we have good reason to believe that Christians should get angry from the examples in Scripture: Paul writes a scathing rebuke to the Galatians, asking how they could be so tricked as to accept something different than the message he had preached. When Elymas the sorcerer attempted to keep the proconsul from the gospel, Paul was so disgusted he temporarily took away his eyesight. Anger is supposed to be part of the Christian experience. But still, the question stays in my mind: why is anger so often hurtful?
Why Christian anger is so different from secular anger
Many of us have turned away from showing any of that emotion because we’ve been hurt by others’ anger in the past. If we are to show Christian anger, how will it be different from the hurtful anger that we’ve experienced from others? First, Christian anger is controlled. The sort of anger that compels people to go on a murder spree, or that pushes people to divorce, or that makes people punch through walls and yell expletives, is not Christian in the least. Moses was denied the Promised Land because his anger was uncontrolled, causing him to beat the rock with his rod instead of doing it in the way God had instructed. Uncontrolled, selfish anger is nothing to be trifled with.
Second, as Christian morality comes from God, our anger begins from the basis of love. The same Jesus who gave his life to save the world from its inevitable destruction also got angry at the Pharisees who kept people from entering eternal life. Jesus was not schizophrenic, unable to determine whether to love or to be angry at the world. He was both, simultaneously. And as we discover more about truth, it makes more sense. How could Jesus truly be loving, if he weren’t angry about the Pharisees keeping others from entering His kingdom? If the eternal life He promised really is the only hope for the world, anything that stands in the way should be relentlessly opposed. Any other choice would not be loving. The alternative to love is selfishness. Think about the uncontrolled rage that often surrounds divorces, murders, and slander. Secular anger is always selfish, while Christian anger stems from love. (Of course, unbelievers can exhibit loving anger at times, due to God’s common grace.)
We often avoid anger because our only context for it is the sort that stems from selfishness. Anger in today’s world is almost always hurtful and destructive. Remember, human anger doesn’t produce righteousness (James 1:20). There is a difference between the sort of anger that produces more sin, and the anger that produces righteousness. Paul summarized the effect of his rebuke on the Corinthian church as having produced “indignation” in their hearts against the sin they had formerly tolerated. So, anger can produce more pain and sin, or it can be a force against sin and evil. If we are to have God-motivated anger that works against evil, we will learn His love. God’s loving anger is the opposite of apathy, and so was Paul’s: he didn’t wink a lazy eye at the sin the Corinthians faced and hope that they would recover soon. He sent a scathing rebuke. Our response to evil must be the same. Instead of ignoring evil with apathy, respond to it with the anger that produces positive change.
But what circumstances warrant loving anger on our part? That’s what I plan to focus on in my next post.
¹ Nehemiah 5:6-7
² Jeremiah 19:7-9
³ John 11:33
3 thoughts on “Anger: the Solution to Apathy”
Wow! Very well written. I think this is the best I have ever read on the subject. James 1:20 is a verse that I have often thought of implying that since there is a fleshly human anger, there also must be a different anger. I am looking forward to the next topic!
I appreciate you thinking about this.
Two questions. Are you simply trying to redefine the word “anger” to encompass passion that attacks what’s bad?
Can brotherly love flow in a relationship where this passion/tension is?
Thanks for the feedback! I am not redefining the word “anger” because it already encompasses constructive anger. Merriam-Webster defines anger as “a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism.” That implies that antagonism does not always come with anger. I wonder if the reason it sounds so distasteful to our ears is that we are so used to destructive, selfish anger that it’s hard to imagine anger that produces anything positive.
On your other question: Of course, there are sometimes that brotherly love looks like strongly rebuking and even evicting someone from the church. Paul told the Corinthian church that if they didn’t evict the incestuous man from their body, he would. Later, he says that his rebuke had brought “indignation” in their hearts against the sin (2 Cor. 7:11). It ultimately resulted in the restoration of the man. That’s the hoped-for result of Christian anger. But even if the person never repents, was the anger therefore unjustified? I don’t think so. The Pharisees didn’t experience mass repentance, yet Jesus’ anger was fully justified.
But that being said, we need to be incredibly careful not to use the idea of constructive anger to justify selfish anger. Selfish anger is incredibly damaging and should always be avoided.