Sin sows the seeds of human devastation, and sinful anger yields an especially bitter harvest. Sometimes it is right and righteous to be angry. In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us to be angry – it’s an imperative! – and to not sin. 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 counterintuitive when it comes to anger - "self-control.”
Though it might be nearly impossible for us to imagine experiencing completely righteous indignation, the Holy Spirit teaches us how to recognize and reject its sinful counterfeit. Here are some diagnostic questions to help us discern the true nature of our 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, especially as Jesus preaches it (Matthew 5-7). At times the Lord even announces his answers as if in response to that question: What grieves God’s heart? 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 our Lord to weep (Psalm 119:136) – things worth being angry about. Especially when we find these tendencies in our own hearts. That leads to a second diagnostic question.
2.) How quickly do we arrive at anger?
James tells us to be slow to anger (1:19-22). He tells us that it’s not our anger that should come equipped with hair-trigger, but our willingness to listen (James 1:19). A favorite mantra in our household based on this verse is, “pause, pray, and if necessary, walk away.” If in the midst of that walk we're tempted to take our anger out online, we could add, “...and put down the phone" or "...keep away from the keyboard!"
Paul makes anger a matter of clockwork as well. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Note well that Paul is not saying that when you see the sun going down, you need to get all that anger out quickly. In the Hebrew calendar and culture, sundown was the end of the day, the time by which all business was to be completed. While James tell us not to get to anger quickly, Paul tells us that once we arrive there, we must not loiter. To deal with anger in a godly way, is to deal with it in a timely way.
Proverbs 12:16 warns us, "A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult." Note well again! To overlook an insult is not to look at it over and over – to put them on repeat in our minds, maybe even slowing them down to examine them from every possible angle. Let our mind’s “replay” mode be reserved for the words of our Lord, not those of the people who provoke us. (See also Matthew 5 where our Lord teaches a patient, non-retaliatory posture of heart.)
Though beyond the scope of this entry, it's important to say that some offenses cannot be overlooked. If it cannot be overlooked in love, it must be confronted in love. And here, we must exercise discernment and make every provision for protection for the victims of the sinful offense, including ourselves if we fit that category. Paul's sundown counsel is not a command to rush reconciliation. The latter often requires far more than a day, and sadly in fallen world, is sometimes not achievable in this life.
3.) How angry are we at our own sin?
I don’t mean a morbid, self-loathing anger; nor do I mean the ironic, verbose declamations that sometimes come from those seeking to honor the doctrine of “total depravity.” Neither of these is truly righteous indignation. I mean a faithful frustration at least equal to and preferably greater than our frustration at the sin of others.
If we’re truly offended by sin, truly upset that the Lord’s honor is being impugned, we need to put ourselves first in line for the loving interrogation of our Lord’s law. 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!” And then we cling to the life-giving, restorative grace of our risen Savior.
Our face lifted up by our Lord, our hearts restored, we can look with love even upon our enemies – we can seek their good, and pray fervently for it. In that frame of mind, we’re less likely to rant and rave about other people’s sin. If and when we have to speak, we’ll do so with vision cleared from hypocrisy, and with measured words meant to restore the other, not to signal our own (alleged) virtue (Luke 18:11).
When we’re sinfully angry, we want to say a lot - to other people, ranting to anyone within earshot or online. When we’re righteously angry, we want to pray a lot – often secretly (Matthew 6:6), and sometimes without words! (Romans 8:26). Calmed through prayer, we can better discern what the Lord would have us do – or not do – regarding what originally unsettled us.
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 if they felt safe enough to speak honestly, would the people who truly know us agree?
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 is so hard for Satan to find solid ground in a heart softened by God’s 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 provoked hearts can be like an arid forest, where a bit of flame can light up and consume our world in wildfire. But when we focus our hearts on the Lord Jesus, who he is and how much we need him, what he’s done for us, the fact that he’s risen from the dead and returning - then by the Spirit’s grace our souls become more like a peaceful stream beside the paths of righteousness, where sinful anger can’t easily spark.
5.) Have we sung about it?
As our souls navigate a complex of emotions every day, Paul turns our attention away from outlets which only inflame and indulge our sinful tendencies. He points agitated hearts to the healthy, holy catharsis of music made by the Lord himself. “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” (Ephesians 5:18-19).
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 violent 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. And oh, what a crucial time for Christ’s church to be active in the peace-making works of his grace! (Matthew 5:9; Ephesians 2:8-10)