On the Emotion of Anger


Some folks struggle with anger management more than others, although perhaps said others have different areas of weakness (like lust or pride, for example). If you are someone who struggles with your temper, what do you need to know about the emotion of anger from a biblical perspective? This page goes over this some.


Q: How to deal with anger management issues?

[Details omitted].

Thoughts concerning the emotion of anger

Here’s a brief write-up and some links concerning anger and self-control. Much of the content comes from Ichthys.com, whose author is my correspondent in all the emails I forwarded to you before.

Anger and emotions generally

See this link. Anger is an emotion, but it is also a sin if we let it dominate our mind, and doubly so if we lash out at anyone else when we are out of control. In this way, it similar to lust: one may be tempted to lust (see a beautiful woman and appreciate God’s handiwork) without necessarily sinning, but giving into it without resistance is always a mistake. So too may we as humans be irritated by something (someone cuts us off on the interstate, a coworker insults us without cause, etc.) – and therefore be “tempted to anger” – without actually “getting angry” (= losing control). The line between “simple irritation” (acknowledging someone else’s selfish/offensive action and its negative impact on you) and “full-blown anger” (impassioned thought/word/deed motivated by feeling rather than reason, especially that which stems from us feeling “wronged”) can be fuzzy, and it is best to err on the side of restraint. That is to say, rather than simmering over perhaps valid sources of irritation, it is best to acknowledge their existence, pray to God for peace (forgiving any people in question, as necessary), and then simply move on with life.

I don’t find any scriptural support for “righteous anger.” See here for discussion of Ephesians 4:26, which is commonly misinterpreted to support some form of this. In my opinion, scripture is 110% clear on this: “Know this, my beloved brothers: 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). There is no qualification there.

So what of Jesus cleansing the temple then? The word used in the Greek in the John 2 account is this one, translating a Hebrew word from Psalm 69, which is getting quoted. Both of these are typically translated in this context as “zeal” (or perhaps “ardor”), which is a bit less specific (and negative) than anger. Jesus was, of course, without sin. So this passage supports the idea that there is a form of passion that can be present without sin. (And in fact, such passion is probably godly, not just amoral – we should love justice and hate evil, after all). I prefer to term this “righteous indignation” rather than anger (which is a sin, as above), because the two things really are different. Being impassioned about severe breaches of justice (oppression of the poor and helpless, child sex trafficking, etc.) is definitely godly. But it is not anger, per se, and there is no indication that people so impassioned lose control of themselves – their feeling is simply a motivator, albeit a decidedly strong one.

This, by the way, is the best way to take descriptions of God being angry. Attributing anger to God is what is called anthropopathism – essentially, describing things that are not human in terms of human feelings to make them more understandable. See the link for a more technical explanation of the concept. The gist is that God is not human, and it is wrong for us to project an out-of-control rage on God just because we cannot envision any human being in such a state without sin. God is much bigger and wiser than any of us (in fact, infinitely so), and He does not get surprised since he is Omniscient and Omnipotent and outside of spacetime. Even in the flood, when God wiped out most life on earth (see Genesis 6ff.), it is clear that God was acting in Justice. He didn’t lose his temper and destroy the world; rather, he justly obliterated evildoers and wicked men who wanted no part in him. The same logic will apply when Christ returns victorious (see Revelation 19): Christ will slaughter what will amount to probably billions of people (the armies and allies of antichrist), not because of rage, but because of Justice. They chose the beast over God. Thus God’s judgement of them is not only “not bad,” but is in fact a great positive thing, a merciful deliverance for the believers still alive in the world at that time. Put simply, there cannot be true Justice without the sword.

All this to say, while it can be a bit disconcerting/frightening to read about metaphors like “the winepress of God’s wrath,” we are not in any way to think that 1) God is a big vengeful meanie out to slaughter mankind (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4 – God wants all to be saved, and in fact has done all that is necessary for all to be saved by sending His one and only Son to suffer and be judged in our place), or 2) that as humans we can ever “get angry” without sinning. God’s wrath is described as it is in scripture to show us how serious God’s intolerance is for injustice, not to give a technical description of God’s emotions (God is not human so does not have emotions in exactly the same sense we do), or to give us a license for giving in to our own emotions unchecked.

Anger as a manifestation of pride

Much of the time, human anger stems out of an inflated sense of our own importance. Put differently, the more humble one is, the less upset one gets at the slights of others. Whenever we get it through our heads that we are owed deference, respect, etc. etc., we are setting ourselves up to get angry. We ought not do such, for we are in fact nothing but servants in the house of the Lord.

Maybe people really are being selfish, arrogant, or simply mean-spirited. As mentioned above, this can certainly lead to irritation, which is not in and of itself sinful. Giving into irritation on the other hand (i.e., getting angry such that one loses control) is most definitely a sin. And from my own observation and experience, one of the main triggers for full-blown anger is someone feeling like they are not being listened to or respected to the degree that they think proper. And this is fundamentally a pride problem, since as humans, all we have comes from the Lord, and is not of ourselves.

Taking sin seriously

Hopefully the above is helpful in terms of understanding exactly what anger is, and how it functions. Now, overcoming anger as a sin is not much different than overcoming other sins. The main point is you have to take it seriously, to “the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:4). We will not overcome sin on our own works, but only through the Spirit. However, we do have to submit to the Spirit. You may disagree based on our previous discussions of free will, but I think it is vitally important for us to understand that any serious sin in our lives is not God’s fault but ours. Until we man up and start fighting, making excuses about serious sin on our part is little more than rationalizing our own rejection of God’s Will in our lives.

Now, one has to be careful to not become legalistic about all this. King David committed adultery while the King of Israel and had Bathsheba’s husband intentionally killed to cover it up. Yet he was still God’s anointed, and one of the greatest believers that ever lived. So I can’t sit here and tell you that your sin is worse than my sin (etc.) because all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) – sometimes spectacularly.

However, it should be clear that some sins are more damaging to one’s spirituality, more damaging to others, and more damaging to Christian witness in general. Flying off the handle and cussing people out is a different sort of beast than resenting someone in your heart while maintaining icy civility in conversation. Both are sinful, but it shouldn’t take a lot of exegetical gymnastics to realize why the former is more serious – especially for someone who wants to eventually end up in a teaching or leadership role. And when such a thing happens more than once – and not under circumstances of especially great duress, i.e., without pressure that would cause other “normal people” to similarly snap – then one needs to reflexively take a step back and see it for the big problem that it is. It is not minor. It is not a personality thing. It is sin. Sin that needs to be acknowledged as such and dealt with.