It is important to recognize the causes of anger and how to channel this emotion.
Anger is an emotion we all experience in ourselves from time to time. Many words are translated as “anger” in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. The gist is that anger takes on one of two forms: a spontaneous outburst, much like a flame leaping from a match, and a slow burn.
Galatians 5 defines inappropriately handled anger as a work of the flesh that will prevent us from inheriting the Kingdom of God. Therefore, it is important to recognize the causes of anger and how to channel this emotion. In this article, we wish to consider how to respond to human anger in ourselves, using the Bible as a guide.
Not all anger is a work of the flesh. For instance, there are many instances of God’s anger in the Bible. Still, God is righteous, and His expressions of wrath are always a reaction to a moral wrong, despite individuals’ foreknowledge of God’s commandments.
Not all anger is a work of the flesh.
Similarly, the only recorded incident where Jesus was angry (Mark 3:5) was in connection with a moral wrong—the lack of mercy displayed by the Pharisees, who resented his healing on the Sabbath. In several other instances in Jesus’ life, we may infer he was angry. He overturned the money changers’ tables for turning the temple courtyard into a retail market and excoriated the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. Jesus did not sin when he was angry, nor did he sin by being angry.
Appropriate vs. Inappropriate Anger
Appropriate anger is a response to a moral wrong and characterizes all the instances of God’s and Jesus’ anger. On the other hand, inappropriate anger is a reaction to a misperception or a loss of something (such as personal pride) and is always selfish and damaging to others.
There are many Bible examples of inappropriately angry individuals. Names such as Ahab, Baalam, Asa, Cain, Jonah, Haman, Herod, Naaman, Potiphar, Uzziah, and the prodigal son’s older brother may come to mind. A brief synopsis of each follows:
we can easily become unduly angry
- Ahab became vexed and sullen when he did not get his way (1 Kgs 21:4).
- Baalam misperceived what his donkey was doing and thrice inflicted physical abuse on the hapless animal (Num 22:23-27).
- Cain’s jealous anger towards his brother Abel led to Abel’s murder (Gen 4:6-8).
- Jonah wanted God to exact vengeance on the repentant Ninevites and was inappropriately angry with God when God showed mercy instead (Jonah 3:10; 4:1-3).
- Haman wanted recognition and admiration following his promotion from Ahasuerus. Still, when Mordecai would not acknowledge Haman’s exalted position, Haman became furious (Est 3:5).
- Instead of being grateful that Elisha had told him how to be healed of his leprosy, Naaman became indignant because Elisha’s instructions did not align with his preferences. Had Potiphar made an effort to check with Joseph about the truth of the allegations made by his wife, Potiphar would not have been improperly angry with Joseph. Instead, Potiphar would likely have been acceptably angry at his wife.
- Asa, Uzziah, and Herod were all rebuked for wrongdoing and became disproportionately angry due to their wounded pride. Rather than be joyful that his brother had returned, the prodigal son seethed with jealous anger that he had never been feted.
These (and other) examples show how easily we can become unduly angry. Furthermore, they show that when individuals respond to their misguided anger, their actions are always sinful and never edify. It is never possible to act in a commendable way when we are unreasonably angry. The antidote is to not become inappropriately angry in the first place.
Avoiding snap judgments, as Jesus taught, “Judge not according to the appearance.” (John 7:24),1 and instead getting correct information about a situation is a way to avoid becoming inappropriately angry. To this end, James states, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (1:19 NIV).
If we are quick to listen, we have tried to get facts from all relevant parties. Otherwise, if we jump to conclusions based on incomplete information, Proverbs sets out the consequences: “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.” (18:13).
Wanting recognition and not receiving it is a sign of pride.
Avoiding regrettable anger caused by wounded pride may be as simple as acknowledging to ourselves and others when we make mistakes. Wanting recognition and not receiving it is a sign of pride. An antidote is to serve others, thereby taking the focus off us. Jealousy is even more potent than anger, regardless of whether anger is a slow burn or a spontaneous outburst.
Proverbs states, “Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous; but who is able to stand before envy?” (27:4). Jealousy is a criticism of God. If God chooses to bless someone and we are jealous of that individual, we are, in effect, telling God that He is wrong to bless someone. Who are we to judge the Almighty’s actions? We can avoid jealousy by comparing ourselves only to Christ, thereby learning contentment.
Jesus addresses improper anger when he declares:
Jesus may have been teaching that inappropriate anger is as worthy of punishment as the act of murder. The expression of anger with injurious language is even more worthy of punishment, and acting on inappropriate anger is even worse than having the feeling. Trying to tame the tongue, with its deadly poison (Jas 3:8), may be next to impossible in this situation. Ideally, we will recognize the status of our anger and immediately take corrective action.
When someone is angry, it is possible to act both inappropriately and appropriately. Moses exemplifies both responses to anger. On two occasions, he acted appropriately, but sandwiched between these occasions was an episode of inappropriate behavior.
In Leviticus, Moses became suitably angry with Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar when they disobeyed him and did not eat the sacrificial goat (10:16), an offering Moses had instructed them to eat (10:12-14). The Bible says the priest and his sons were supposed to eat the sin offering (Lev 6:26-29). Moses knew these three individuals had disobeyed his and God’s commandment. He also may have been concerned there would be further negative consequences from God, Moses’ anger having followed the death of Nadab and Abihu. Aaron responds to Moses by saying,
Once Moses heard Aaron’s response and realized Aaron was grieving and was not intentionally disobedient, he was appeased (10:20).
In Numbers, Moses’ appropriate anger is again on display. The Israelites wrongly accused Moses of bringing them into the wilderness to die, as there was no water (20:4), and then heard them complain that the crops in Egypt were nowhere to be found in the wilderness. God told Moses to speak to the rock for the rock to bring forth water.
Instead, Moses’ frustration with the unreasonable Israelites boiled over, and he smote the rock. Because of his inability to channel his appropriate anger, he was disobedient to God and the resulting punishment was being banned from entering the promised land (20:12). Moses was rightly angered by the false accusations directed at him. However, he acted wrongly.
We can all think of more measured, patient ways to deal with that situation, but in the heat of the moment, it is easy to let the flesh take over, just like Moses.
Later in Numbers, Moses was appropriately angry with the warriors of the Israelite army who returned from battle with the Midianites but had not killed the women or children (31:14-16). Although they had not been instructed to kill them, Moses reminded the warriors of the incident in Peor involving sexual immorality with the Moabite women (Numbers 25). Moses seemed to be thinking a repeat performance of sexual immorality could occur, again inviting the (righteous) anger of the LORD (25:3).
Moses gave further instructions to the warriors to now kill all the Midianite captives, except the young female virgins. And to then undergo a purification process for themselves and the surviving captives. These are the precautions Moses took to prevent a recurrence of the situation in Numbers 25. He viewed the actions of his warriors as inviting sin but then took corrective action.
Other than Moses, there are few Bible examples of individuals who were angry and acted appropriately. Jonathan was aptly angry when his father Saul disgraced him by hurling a spear at him. Still, he did not act amiss, such as insulting his father or hurling the spear back at Saul in retaliation (1 Sam 20:34). Jonathan did get up from the table and leave the room to remove himself from the situation and cool off.
Elisha was appropriately angry with King Joash since he only struck the ground three times with arrows (2 Kgs 13:19). Had Joash struck the ground five or six times, he would have wiped out the Syrian army. Elisha did not berate Joash or otherwise act inappropriately because at that time, he was very ill and may have been too weak to do anything other than express frustration reasonably. (2 Kgs 13:14).
Unresolved Appropriate Anger With a Brother or Sister
It is important to resolve appropriate anger because forgiveness cannot occur until the anger is resolved. In his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul sets out a sequence: resolve appropriate anger, and then you will be able to forgive (4:31-32). Have you ever had a time in your life when you were rightly angry with another brother or sister for a moral wrong they committed? Perhaps you followed Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15 to talk privately with that person. Perhaps that person refused to talk to you. If you then approached the Arranging Board for assistance (v. 16-17), but they were dismissive, your appropriate anger would not be resolved, despite your efforts to follow the approach set out by Jesus. What is someone to do in this kind of situation?
Put away anger before forgiveness can occur.
The example of Jesus may be helpful. During Jesus’ trial, he could have been appropriately angry with his captors. His trial was illegal and procedurally unfair many times over. Anyone in Jesus’ situation would have been naturally angry. Except Jesus. What was his response? “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).
How could Jesus forgive his captors? The answer is, he must have put away his anger before he could forgive. Paul outlined this sequence in Ephesians 4:31-32: Put away anger before forgiveness can occur. I suggest that when Jesus said, “for they know not what they do,” he was resolving any inappropriate anger he may have felt. A paraphrase of Jesus’ words in Luke 23:34 may be, “Father, forgive them; for they are making mistakes.”
If we are ever appropriately angry with someone, it is because they have made a mistake. Acknowledging that others make mistakes, as Jesus acknowledged, is an antidote to appropriate anger. We can relate to mistakes in others because we have all made mistakes. Jesus did not sin, yet could still relate to missteps in others.
To address the question of unresolved appropriate anger, Peter also directs us to the example of Jesus: “Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.” (1 Pet 2:23). What did Jesus do? He committed himself to God to judge righteously. He turned his situation over to God. That may be what we must do. God is the righteous judge. If the wisdom or justice of God dictates that punishment is deserved, God will do that according to His timing. Vengeance belongs to God, not to us.
In the context of human anger, Paul commanded the Ephesian brethren not to sin when angry (Eph 4:26). This commandment is sensible if it refers to appropriate anger regarding another’s moral wrong. Dealing with proper anger is a difficult test of one’s character. To acknowledge someone is making a mistake will go a long way toward resolving the anger. Suppose we cannot converse with someone about their mistake or effect resolution in an ecclesial situation. In that case, we will have to turn the situation over to God in prayer and trust He will judge the situation on His terms.
Love attracts, and anger repels. No one wants to feel angry, and no one wants to be in the company of an angry person. Learning to avoid inappropriate anger is challenging. Learning to channel appropriate anger is also challenging. The Bible supplies many examples of both types of anger.
The example of Jesus should inspire us. He resolved any anger he may have felt at his trial by acknowledging his detractors had made mistakes. Turning his situation over to God to judge righteously, settled the situation for him. It should also do the same for us.
Mountain Grove Ecclesia, ON
- All Scriptural citations are taken from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.