“Righteous anger is being angry at what makes God angry. And ‘righteous anger’ is the right word order. Because God is not fundamentally angry. He is fundamentally righteous. God’s anger is a byproduct of his righteousness.” -Jon Bloom¹
Yes, God’s anger flows from his character. And as we are changed through the lifestyle of grace, God’s character becomes ours. Jonah didn’t have the Spirit within him as we do, and it’s obvious. He got angry over the death of a gourd vine but wished death on 120,000+ people with no mercy. But, if we’re honest, our anger can often mirror Jonah’s more than Jesus’. We can get outraged at the sight of a kid damaging our favorite possession, while at best writing a Facebook post about the evil of child sex slavery. That should make us very uncomfortable.
In my last post, I discussed the nature of Christian anger as opposed to selfish anger and apathy. Reminding you of Jesus and the apostles’ example, I made the argument that some anger is actually necessary. But it must be Christian anger, flowing from the fact that we take Jesus’ life as our model. In this article, I’m answering the question, “So, how should we get angry?”
Be angry at sin.
Perhaps this sounds simple, but only because it accurately describes the truth: sin is the sole justification for anger. Moses’ anger was disobedient and seemingly selfish, while David’s anger at the allegorical rich man in Nathan’s confrontation was self-righteous. But Jesus’ anger was different. Jesus never got angry at the Pharisees for threatening his life or happiness (although he does confront them for their inconsistency in trying to kill him while professing to keep the law).² Jesus did get angry in many instances, and none of them were for selfish reasons. Although I mentioned some of those instances of Christ’s anger in my last post, I will expand these points here and explain how each of them should shape the way we look at anger.
1. Jesus got angry at the Pharisees for keeping people from the life found in Himself.
Matthew 23 records Jesus speaking out against religious oppression. The Pharisees were dead-set against Jesus—not because he spoke against the Bible, but because he questioned and rebuked the hypocrisy of their moral culture. He showed that they were often inconsistent, pretending to follow the law in every detail while actually breaking it in massive ways by their theological gymnastics. Jesus went after the heart of morality: knowing God. He showed that although the Pharisees professed to care about what God said, what people said and thought really mattered a lot more to them. They missed the Messiah while counting out their tithe of herbs.
Remember, if we take Christian morality seriously, Jesus’ example becomes our blueprint. Are you willing to call out sin in the church even when it hurts feelings? In the last 10 years, I’ve heard about several instances of incestual sin in families that I knew of. After the fathers’ sin became public, I’ve burned with embarrassment and anger at the thought that respected members of the church knew these fathers were sexually harassing and oppressing their children, and didn’t tell others. I’m not saying they did nothing, but I am saying that they did far, far too little. How is it possible that children suffered in anguish for years under their dad’s sinful behavior while others stood by and refused to get involved? But then I ask myself what I would do if I knew about something like this. Would I sacrifice relationships and take on a huge burden by reporting the perpetrators? I dearly hope I would; but honestly, my heart is sinful and I don’t always choose others over my personal happiness. I find myself needing to return to meditation and repentance again and again as I view my own unwillingness to act for others’ freedom. But fighting for others’ freedom is the path of Christ, so it shall be our path as well.
2. Jesus got angry at the hardness of his disciples’ hearts.
Coming down from the Transfiguration, His disciples met Him with their continued unbelief. He responded with, “You faithless people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you?”³ Unbelief is sin,⁴ and Jesus confronted that with anger. This grates on my understanding of discipleship as something low-key, educational, and soft-spoken. Jesus didn’t equivocate or only encourage them to have more faith. He recognized that to know truth and yet reject its implications (this is, I think, what Christians mean when they talk about “unbelief”) is to reject eternal life, making it worth the risk of confrontation every time.
I’m not sure I challenge people enough to believe. I can easily be soft on unbelief, treating it as something that people will just get over. What if unbelief is so deadly that it is worth stopping everything to tell our friends when they are not living or talking according to the truth? (Note: I am not referring merely to asking questions. Shutting down honest questions, especially about sensitive topics like the existence of God, is not helpful in most cases. Those with doubts should be pointed to the truth, not told to be quiet.) But I’ve come across many people in the last few years who seem convinced of God’s existence, and yet live in perpetual doubt. Why doesn’t Christianity work for me? God must not love me the way he loves others… I will never be able to get over this sin. The doubts go on and on, and the thing that always bothers me is that people don’t seem to recognize that if we have good evidence to be convinced that God exists, then belief in His Word is the only rational conclusion. Sometimes I simply want to sit people down and say, “Folks, act according to your beliefs! Either God does not exist and you should stop saying these doubts and just live life as you please, or He does exist and unbelief doesn’t make any logical sense!” So, if people are honestly questioning God’s existence, then point them to the evidence. If they believe in God, but just can’t stop talking about their doubts, perhaps we should tell them to stop talking and start living according to the implications of their beliefs. Perhaps, in these cases, that would be more like Jesus than patting them on the shoulder and telling them that we’ll be praying. Again, we cannot turn to selfish anger in our conversations. That would go entirely against the Christian conception of morality since Christ is our example and He never got angry selfishly. But what, precisely, is Christlike anger? How does one decide whether the anger they are wanting to express is righteous or sinful? I wrote more on this in my last post on anger, but basically we need to notice the source of our passion. Is it based on my personal desires of image and happiness? Or is it flowing from the love I have for God? Are the passionate feelings I want to express guarded by God’s peace,⁵ or is it pushing me toward unfettered displays of rage? Jesus wasn’t using improper language and punching walls when he preached Matthew 23. He was angry but guided by the Father and not randomly spitting out curses.
3. He got angry at the tomb of Lazarus.
Francis Schaefer believed that Jesus’ anger at Lazarus’ tomb was anger directed at the abnormality of death; He was angry that sin had so destroyed His perfect creation that people should be brutally separated from each other in death.⁶ That’s very possible, although nothing in the text says that explicitly. He also seemed to be angry at the fake mourning heard all around Him, as that is the immediate context in John 11. Whatever the case, Jesus was again angry at sin. Because Jesus acted according to all the truth, we can assume that his anger over the effects of sin was at least part of the complex emotion he experienced at the tomb of His favorite friend.
This fact that sin has ruined the beautiful creation of God is something that could stir us much more than it does. The world is not as it should be, due to the sin of humanity. The world is not as it will be, because Christ will return and “make all things new.”⁷ These facts practically mean that as we interact with our world—although we always sorrow deeply with those who sorrow—we should experience anger at the devastation and death caused by sin. And we should allow our anger over the curse of sin to compel us to share our hope with those still slaves to sin so that they can experience the coming restoration of all things.
4. He overturned tables and whipped animals out of the temple area.
Jesus saw the defamation of God’s name as being a travesty. It was not something to ignore, as if it were not His business. Jesus entered the ring with authority and with honor, making it clear to everyone there that His “house should be a house of prayer for all people,” not just Israelites. Let me highlight what was going on here: unscrupulous businessmen discover a financial opportunity with the few Gentile converts to Judaism who come to worship at the temple. In the court of the Gentiles, the place where they were allowed to come and pray, instead of being welcomed, they were apparently vastly overcharged and cheated by the money-changers and sacrificial animal-sellers. Jesus walked into the temple, viewing the place where His Father’s name was to be honored by people from all over the world, and “passion for God’s house” directed His anger. He flipped tables and whipped animals, explaining loud enough for everyone to hear the reason. God’s honor was at stake, and Jesus’ anger displayed God’s heart to all who witnessed it. The underlying message was that the Son had come to take back His Father’s inheritance. It was a stunningly beautiful moment.
Like Jesus, we shouldn’t view anger as an embarrassing protocol for emergency situations where real Christian virtues like being nice must be laid aside. Instead, the honor we feel to be a part of something as great as God’s kingdom should compel us to speak out against those who defame His character through their actions. Let us stand up in our arenas and point people to the truth when others try to plagiarize God’s Word and yet live contrary to it.
To put it mildly but distinctly, anger should never spring from selfishness or hatred. But not all anger is evil. Christian anger is simply Christ’s character becoming ours as we relate to sin around us. It starts from His love and ends in reconciliation, not hatred. Go to Jesus, not to the painful examples we have of selfish anger all around us, to discover what Christian anger is. And don’t just treat it as something to get and add to your bag of ‘Christian reactions,’ as though God’s desire is simply to make us do good things. Discover Jesus, and as you know His example more, you’ll discover what true life looks like in every area—including anger.
² John 6
³ Mark 9:19
⁴ Rom. 14:23
⁵ Phil. 4:7
⁷ Rev. 21:5