We’re getting angrier, about a lot of things. It’s the dominant emotion in western societies on a daily basis. That hothouse of anger–social media–is even more ablaze with rage (according to a new study). Frustration and moral outrage explode against a great deal we cannot control or even influence. It’s an emotional contagion where seeing people express anger drives others to display it too. And our own irritability works in the same way. Every outburst legitimises the next. How much of this is righteous anger? And how can we resist sinful anger? We need to know.
One of the clearest verses of the Bible dealing with anger is actually a command telling us to be angry. But the full command is “Be…angry and sin not” (Ephesians 4:26). It goes on to forbid letting “the sun go down on your wrath”. It gives us counsel about keeping righteous anger and killing sinful anger. Later in the same chapter (verse 31) we learn about the different types of sinful anger that people choose to express. James Fergusson has especially helpful reflections on these verses in the following updated extract.
1. How to Identify Sinful Anger
Sinful anger or unjust desire of revenge is, when anger is kindled rashly (Proverbs 14:17) for no cause, (Matthew 5:22) or for a very light one (1 Corinthians 13:5). Or it is when it exceeds just bounds (Genesis 49:7).
There are different types of anger. They are brought together in verse 31 which lists bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil-speaking and malice.
This is the lowest degree of sinful anger. It includes all secret, hidden displeasure and alienation of affection. It has more of discontent and grudge, than of revenge in it (Psalm 37:1).
This is fierce, impetuous rage, and passionate commotion of the heart and affections due to a felt sense of a perceived or real injury. It prevents and obstructs the use of reason, which being soon up, is as soon allayed, 1 Sam. 25:21, 22. with 32.
(c) Angry Shouting
Clamour means boisterous words, loud menaces, and other inordinate speech. These are the black smoke by which the fire of anger and wrath which has been kindled within first manifests itself (Acts 15:39).
(d) Evil Speaking
Evil speaking (or blasphemy as the word means) is a further fruit of wrath and anger. This is disgraceful and insulting speech by which someone who is incensed seeks to stain the reputation of the person who has done them (real or perceived) wrong (1 Samuel 20:30).
Malice is rooted anger and continuing wrath. It makes the person consumed by it daily intent on all opportunities for revenge. They are completely implacable until they get their vindictive inclination satisfied (Romans 1:31)
Bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, evil-speaking and malice grieve the Holy Spirit of God (Ephesians 4:30). They greatly darken the work of grace in the heart by which He seals believers. There are no sins more opposed to the fruit of the Spirit (mentioned in Galatians 5:22). Where such sins are given way to, grace must be in decay. Thus, the apostle immediately adds to the command not to grieve the Spirit “let all bitterness, wrath and anger be put away”. This implies that otherwise they would grieve the Spirit.
Sin is so subtle and we are so weak and unskilled in resisting it that when it gets in, one sin makes way for a further. Thus, it goes from bad to worse. The wisest course therefore is to oppose it in good time, lest it gathers strength by our indulging it. The apostle outlines various degrees of sinful anger. The first makes way for the next and the next is always worse and a step nearer to the worst height.
2. How to Have Righteous Anger
Anger is a natural affection, planted in our first parents at the first creation. Indeed it was also found in Christ Himself, who was without sin (Mark 3:5). It is not in itself a sin therefore, nor always sinful. As it is in its own nature it is indifferent. It becomes good or evil, according to its reasons, causes, objects and purposes. Sometimes and in some situations being angry is a necessary duty for a Christian to be angry e.g. when anger flows from zeal to God’s glory (John 2:15 with v17) and love to our brother (Proverbs 13:24).
It is righteous when it is arises from just and weighty causes. Chief of these is God’s dishonour, whether by our own sins (2 Corinthians 7:11) or the sins of others (Exodus 32:19). It is incensed not so much against the person of our brother as against his sin. It is therefore against sin in ourselves, as much as in others (Matthew 7:5). This is clear when it does not hinder other duties of love which we owe to the person with whom we are angry (Exodus 32:19 with 32). It is also clear when it does not impair our access to God in prayer (1 Timothy 2:8). We must not go beyond the bounds of our calling, nor should we give way to private revenge in pursuing our anger (Luke 9:54-55). When the reasons, purposes and behaviour are right, anger is praiseworthy and commendable. The apostle commands anger in the right circumstances.
3. How to Restrain Sinful Anger
It is easy to pass from moderation to excess in our natural affections of joy, fear, grief, desire. This goes from what is lawful and in some cases necessary, to what is sinful (Psalm 2:11). When anger is given way to it is most difficult to keep within and not exceed bounds and not to exceed. This happens by transgressing one or other of the limitations of righteous anger mentioned before. He cautions not to sin when we are angry.
4. How to Watch Against Sinful Anger
It is possible (even in the child of God) for lawful anger to degenerate into sinful wrath. The mind is embittered and accordingly rages against the person who has done the wrong. But the child of God must not have an implacable spirit which cannot be exhausted by length of time. If their anger at any time should exceed bounds and turn to wrath or bitterness of spirit, he exhorts them to suppress it speedily. They must suppress it even before the sun goes down, not cherishing that evil or indulging themselves in it for the space of one night. The apostle supposes they may have anger but they must not maintain it long. “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath”.
It is not enough for Christians to refrain from the venting of their passions in their inordinate expressions and actions; but they must also, and in order to their refraining from those, set about the rectifying of their inward affections and most secret distempers of their spirit: otherwise, if the flame of anger and wrath doth burn within, it will most readily send up a black smoke of clamour and evil speaking, to the offence of others: for, Paul forbiddeth not only clamour and evil-speaking, but also all bitternesse, wrath and anger.
5. How to Deal With Sinful Anger
The child of God is not to be discouraged and give up resisting sin. Nor are they to run away when sin prevails. But, having received a new supply of strength from Christ (2 Corinthians 12:8) by exercising faith in prayer, they must attack sin afresh with renewed courage. In doing this they may recover what was previously lost. Paul instructs that if their anger should at any time be excessive they should set themselves against it without delay and not let the sun go down on their wrath.
It is not sufficient to suppress and weaken our sinful corruptions. We ought to aim at, and rest satisfied with nothing less than totally subduing them. We should remove them by pulling them up by the very roots. He says “Let all bitterness etc….be put away”. The word put away means: “Let it be lifted up, and so destroyed”.
Sins of the tongue and outward actions are to be put away and put to death as well as sins of the heart. They are in some ways more dangerous (Matthew 18:7 because more dangerous to others. They always flow from a defiled heart (Matthew 15:19) and make it worse than it was.
In a time of moral outrage we need to be clear about true righteous anger and how and when it should be expressed. The people of God also have an opportunity in an angry age to show the grace of Christ. Watching against and dealing with sinful anger marks out believers as different, especially when we do not join the bandwagon of vitriol. It’s extremely hard to deal with sinful anger, it just seems to come from nowhere. But the more that we seek grace through prayer take steps against it the less we will be defeated by it. The Holy Spirit who is grieved with all forms of sinful anger has been given to help us put it to death.