2020 has been a year for the ages which so many of us would like to delete from history. Among other heartbreaking characteristics, this stretch of the calendar in America has been driven, if not defined, by anger. So. Much. Anger. Deep, divisive, destructive anger has filled our land, our politics, and to an inexcusable extent, our churches. And when viewed through the lens of Scripture, it seems that so very little of it could be rightly seen as righteous indignation.
The headlines and happenings of these past many months have certainly provided ample reason for godly anger. But as we survey the battlefield that our churches have become, as we count up the casualties of broken trust and ruined relationships among people who commonly worship the Prince of Peace, we cannot possibly conclude that this has been a good year for the church’s witness to the world and for the overall spiritual health of the body of Christ. So how can we who love and serve the holy, gracious Lord of eternity better glorify him in the days ahead? First, and perhaps most pressingly, by getting a godly grip on our ungodly anger. This year we must resolve by God’s grace to distinguish between ungodly anger and godly anger, to put the former to death, and to feel and employ the latter only when necessary. Ephesians 4, in conjunction with other key Scriptures on the topic, lights a path along these lines toward the church’s peace.
Sin sows the seeds of human devastation, and as we’ve seen and felt this past year, sinful anger yields an especially bitter harvest. Sometimes it is right and righteous to be angry. Paul tells us to be angry – it’s an imperative! – and to not sin (4:26). This means that the anger which the Bible commends and even commands is a holy anger. It’s not self-seeking; it’s not self-righteous. This is an anger which is consistent with what Paul calls in Galatians 5, the “fruit of the Spirit”- the attitudes and affections that bloom like spring in the hearts of those led by the Spirit of God. The fruit is “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness …” and perhaps most counterintuitively when it comes to anger: "...self-control.” Though it might be nearly impossible for us to conceive of such an anger, the Holy Spirit teaches us how to recognize and weed out the sinful counterfeit which easily takes root in our souls. Here are some diagnostic questions to see if our anger is godly anger:
1. Does God share our anger?
Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:30 not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God. How do we know what grieves God? Look to his law (Exodus 20), especially as Jesus preaches it (Matthew 5-7). At times the Lord even announces his answers as if in response to that question. Proverbs 6:16ff: “There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: a prideful look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” These are things which grieve God’s holy heart, which caused Christ to cry (Psalm 119:136), things worth being upset about - especially when we find these tendencies in our own hearts. That leads to a second diagnostic question.
2.) How angry are we at our own sin?
I don’t mean a morbid, self-loathing anger; that’s not righteous anger. Scripture commands a faithful frustration at least equal to and preferably greater than our frustration at the sin of others. When we’re sinfully angry, we want to say a lot about other people’s sinfulness. When we’re righteously angry, we want to pray a lot about our own, including our ungodly anger. We must ask the Holy Spirit to free our anger from the sin which so easily entangles it. Psalm 139:23ff: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there is any grief-causing way within me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” If we're honest and self-aware as God's children, we know that we have more than enough personal sin to take up in repentance the time we'd otherwise spend brooding over and blasting the sins of others. And a true grief over our own sin will lead to a willingness to be rid of it.
3.) Are we willing to be confronted about our own sin?
David wrote Psalm 141 in a time when he was righteously angry, tremblingly upset at the evil deeds of others who were lying in wait for him with malicious intent. Yet David opens his plea to God with a view toward his own temptation to return evil for evil. “Set a guard, O Lord, over the door of my lips!” And later, “Let a righteous man rebuke me, it is a kindness … let me not refuse it.”
Are you and I capable of being confronted, of being corrected? And would the people who know us best agree with our answer? When confronted in our sin, or when, having removed the plank from our own eye, we need to mention the speck preventing someone else from seeing clearly, we have to ask:
4) Are we willing to seek and to grant forgiveness?
It’s easy for Satan to gain a sturdy foothold in a hard heart (Ephesians 4:26). But it's so hard for the Enemy to find solid ground in a heart softened by God’s saving grace. When we know how much we need forgiveness, and when we realize that in Christ, we actually have it, our hearts don’t harden; they melt away in praise and thanksgiving. Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Our easily addled hearts can be like an arid forest; a bit of heated provocation can light up and consume our world and burn those close to us. But when we focus our hearts on the Lord Jesus, on who he is and how much we need him, on what he’s done for us, on the fact that he’s risen from the dead and returning as Paul alludes to in Ephesians 4:30 - then by the Spirit’s grace our souls become more like a gentle stream rolling along beside the paths of righteousness. In such peaceful waters, sinful anger can’t easily spark.
5.) Lastly, have we taken our anger to the Lord in song?
It’s so tempting in our anger to turn to sin which just inflames it. Paul turns our attention not to the sins of the flesh, but the songs of the Spirit. In Ephesians 5: “Do not get drunk with wine … be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.”
By the Spirit’s design, the Psalms possess cleansing, cathartic power. Some of the Psalms are angry. They give vent to the holy heat of righteous anger without burning other people in the process. When we’re singing God’s words from our hearts, we’re not being hurtful with our hands, or sinful with our speech. Singing the Psalms is, by divine design, one very good, godly outlet for righteous indignation.
These are just some of the Scriptural means of identifying and putting to death our sinful anger. The Lord has blessed us not only with these means, but with the empowering presence of his Spirit to activate these means in our lives. And oh what a crucial time for Christ’s church to be active in the works of his grace! (Ephesians 2:8-10).
In the new year ahead, may we by our self-effacing love for one another prove to be our Lord’s disciples; may we engage in his love and with his word a watching world which has had so many reasons in 2020 to doubt that identity. May there be healing, restoration, and reconciliation within the body of Christ. Let’s pursue all of the above together, beloved brothers and sisters! As the calendar turns past a profoundly troubled year, may all of our emotions and actions in the year ahead serve and bring praise to the one who inhabits eternity.