Then Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead, and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treaty with us, and we will serve you.” But Nahash the Ammonite said to them, “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel”
I Samuel 11: 1-2
Is it ever right to be angry? This seems a silly question. Surely there are times when anger is an appropriate response. Sometimes it is the only appropriate response. Nevertheless, ‘When is it right to be angry?’ is a confusing question for many Christians. Most of us have seen or personally experienced the destructive consequences of mismanaged anger. Scripture warns against the foolishness of freely giving vent to an angry spirit. Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:9).
The New Testament speaks of two types of anger. The first is described by the Greek word thumos, which means an overflowing outburst, like a volcano. The second is described by the word orge which is a more settled or abiding condition of the mind, sometimes with a view to taking revenge. Orge is less sudden in its rise than thumos but more lasting in its nature. The Hebrew word for anger signifies “to quiver with strong emotion.” (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, W.E. Vine).
Many of us, including Christians, struggle with the twin demons of sudden outbursts of anger and seething, long-term anger. We know it is destructive – inside and out — toward others and ourselves. And yet we are told that, in part, it is God’s nature to be angry, and we must seek to flee from the wrath of God. Modern culture, and even modern believers, scoff at the title of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’ But the question remains for us as humans, ‘Is it ever right to be angry?’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘When is it right to be angry?’
Does scripture help us address this question? Anger is depicted as a very destructive emotion in most places. A man of quick temper acts foolishly (Proverbs 14:17); Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly (Proverbs 14:29). Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare (Proverbs 22:24-25); Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city (Proverbs 16:32); Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20).
One of the fruits of the flesh which prevents us from inheriting the kingdom is outbursts of anger (thumos) (Galatians 5:20). And perhaps most troubling is Jesus’ admonition, But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment (Matthew 5: 22).
Those who analyze the psychological dimension of anger conclude that anger is a natural emotion. It is often a response to a sense of injustice done to self or others, or a response to a personal threat, real or perceived. In some ways, I believe it reflects the character of a just God who is angry at all injustice. We are made in His image.
While anger is not necessarily wrong, if mismanaged it is among the most destructive of emotions, resulting in words and actions which rupture relationships and may bring us into a deadly state of ‘stewing in our own juices.’ This kind of mismanaged anger is a destructive parasite which eats its host alive.
Once kindled, the emotion of anger also has the tendency to distort our true perceptions, thus rooting our actions in false assumptions. Our angry acts often become unjust actions themselves, feeding a self-destructive cycle of misdirected anger.
For the reasons stated above, many Christians believe anger is always wrong. To return to our theme, “Is it ever right to be angry?” it is clear that Jesus was angry at times, And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart (Mark 3:5); And making a whip of chords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables (John 2:15).
Okay, God can be angry. Jesus in perfect righteousness expresses God’s anger in his human personality. But what about regular folks?
In the scripture cited at the beginning, Israel is threatened with a great evil. If gouging out the eyes of an entire population is not evil, what is? In our passage, Saul is the newly anointed king of Israel. He hears of this threat to his people. Saul’s reaction to this threat and his leadership in the crisis is actually the high point of his kingship.
And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled. He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of messengers, saying, ‘Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen.’ Then the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they came out as one man.
I Samuel 11:6-7
Like the judges before him, the Spirit of the Lord falls upon Saul. The direct result is that his anger is greatly kindled at this hideous injustice. He then leads the people in a great victory against Nahash and the Ammonites. The Hebrew words here for the kindling of Saul’s anger are harah ’apo. They are used of God’s anger at injustice and sin throughout the Old Testament.
In the movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe little Lucy is kidnapped by a centaur-like creature. His designs toward her clearly are evil. While they are sitting drinking tea by the fire he sees a vision of Aslan whose ferocious roar stops him in his tracks and leads to Lucy’s release. Righteous anger stopped evil in its tracks.
Many of us have looked on sadly at the recent sexual abuse scandal in a prominent college football program. It seems the greatest outrage is directed toward those who did not address the problem, those who did not get angry enough to roar like a lion.
What are the implications for us?
First, we must examine our own angry responses. It is normal for personal or social injustice to kindle a response in us. Yet, we must understand our perceptions are often distorted, and our actions to remedy the situation may be misguided or destructive. Sometimes we simply act out of a misguided fear for our own well-being or our ‘image.’ Because of our natural human desire to be respected, many men respond to threats to self-image angrily. “Don’t make me look bad.” Sadly, I remember as an adolescent berating a teammate after I struck out in a baseball game. I needed a scapegoat. His sin? Cheering me on too loudly so that I lost my concentration.
Anger expressed to protect our image is one of the most destructive and the surest to backfire. How many of us express anger at a spouse or a child because they made us look bad? We do so not realizing our anger simply makes us look small.
Second, we must learn that there are many ways of dealing honestly and constructively with the sense of offense which generates anger. Jesus prescribes honest, direct, timely, and peaceful confrontation with a view to obtaining repentance and extending forgiveness – expressing loving honesty as opposed to blowing up or seething in resentment.
Third, we must examine what it is that God requires of us. There is a ‘time for war and a time for peace’ (Ecclesiastes 3:8). Nearly every meaningful movement for social justice is rooted in a sense of righteous indignation. As the Battle Hymn states “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” or as FDR led the nation in prayer on D-Day, “With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies.” More likely, though, we do well to remember another admonition of scripture — let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
Trevin Wax captures a great truth about God’s wrath in a recent Christianity Today article Rejoicing in the Wrath.
When we do away with the notion of God as judge, we are left with a one-dimensional God – a sappy, sanitized deity whom we can easily manage. He nods and winks at our behavior, much like a kind elderly man who is not seriously invested in our lives. But the evil of our world is much too serious for us to view God as a pandering papa.
The Bible’s picture of God is much more satisfying. He is angry because he is love. He looks at the world and sees the trafficking of innocent children, the destructive use of drugs, the genocidal atrocities in Africa, the terrorist attacks that keep people in perpetual fear, and he – out of love for the creation that reflects him as Creator – is rightfully and gloriously angry.
The god who is truly scary is not the wrathful God of the Bible, but the god who closes his eyes to the evil of this world, shrugs his shoulders, and ignores in the name of ‘love.’ What kind of love is this? God the Judge has promised to completely
wipe out the evil of the world. And yet, he loves us. In his grace, he is the righteous judge and the gracious redeemer. His judgment against evil is poured out upon his only Son on the cross. Justice and mercy are not at war with one another. They meet at the cross. And we can find both judgment and mercy as good news once we recognize our guilt in light of God’s holiness, and then bask in forgiveness in light of God’s grace.
(Trevin Wax, Rejoicing in the Wrath, Christianity Today, July-August 2012).
The truth is, we are all guilty of offending God’s perfect righteousness. We are all justly subject to his righteous anger. If we truly understand our dilemma, we recognize our desperate need for mercy. God’s righteous anger and his infinite mercy meet perfectly in the cross of Christ.