Be angry and sin not… (Ephesians 4:26)
Mark 3:5 records that Jesus was angry at the unbelief of the people: “And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” How is this possible?
Here is an area that we struggle in. Some people, in the name of Christianity, believe that all we can do is to be victims, to be abused by the world and let the world abuse us.
Can anger ever be good? Man’s anger isn’t: “The wrath of man works not the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). What anger that originates from our fallen natures is always wrong and leads to the escalation of harm to others. Anger, in so far as it includes resentment, vengeance, revenge, retaliation, a desire to hurt others, that type of anger is unholy. We are warned:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21 ESV)
But there is another type of anger, one based on God’s justice. This good anger is what we must have in order to “overcome evil with good.” Anger that is engendered by the Word and Spirit of God, is good. This is the anger that without hatred and retaliation stands against evil and says No to injustice and mistreatment. This is what the apostle is advising – be angry for the right reasons and in the right way and do not let this righteous anger lead you into personal vendettas or vengeance. In English we are more likely to call it “righteous indignation” (“gerechte Entrüstung” in German, or “indignacion justa” in Spanish, or “indignation fondée” in French).
We live, as men have always lived, in very confusing times. The world takes up causes and screams against injustices in human anger, lashing out vindictively and unmercifully. They are not so much interested in justice being done as the “bad people” being punished. In gross ignorance and anger, they lash out without thought or “cool reflection” of all the intricacies of the problem. In man’s anger they condemn others and almost always we are guaranteed an escalation of injustice and violence. Bishop Joseph Butler wrote:
Malice or resentment towards any man hath plainly a tendency to beget the same passion in him who is the object of it, and this again increases it in the other. It is of the very nature of this vice to propagate itself, not only by way of example, which it does in common with other vices, but in peculiar way of its own; for resentment itself, as well as what is done in consequence of it, is the object of resentment. Hence it comes to pass, that the first offence, even when so slight as presently to be dropped and forgotten, becomes the occasion of entering into a long intercourse of ill offices.*
Godly anger, on the other hand, condemns the sin, but offers the hand of grace even to the sinner. True godly anger is not just indignant because of what the “sinner” has done to an “innocent” (if such designations can truly be used with distinction), but what the “sinner” has done to himself, to his own heart, in making himself an agent of pain and injustice to others.
When I was a missionary on the island of Mindanao, Philippines, I saw a poor young mother personify this godly anger on a street corner holding onto her purse while her drunken husband tried to wrestle it away from her. He was known as an addict to gambling and alcohol, and he wanted to take the last bit of money they had so he could gamble and drink it away. The young wife’s jaw was set and she was determined not to let her children’s food and shelter and education be taken from them. She held on to her purse and no amount of tugging on her husband’s part got it out of her grasp.
n her eyes was also the sternness of disappointment in her husband for not being the man he should be, but there was no hint of retaliation. Broken-heartedness, pain, and disappointment were all there, etched in her young eyes that were ageing all too quickly. But there was also courageous anger and a defence against injustice. Eventually her husband walked away in shame, and I hoped that he would become a better man one day.
This was the same anger as was in the heart of the prodigal’s father, who was angry at what the world had done to his son, angry with his son for allowing it to be done to him, angry at him also for what he had done to himself and others, but welcoming of his return. The anger at the world in that father’s heart never spilled over to sinful vengeance and every day he hoped his son would return.
So the Spirit inspired the apostle to command us to be angry for the right reasons and in the right way, but do not let this godly anger bleed over into sinful vengefulness. This is the serious work of all Christians – to stand against injustices, to stand firm, to stand offering grace to all, and to stand without vehemence or human anger.
*To any serious study of this subject, I recommend the writings of Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), in particular his two sermons “On Resentment” found in Fifteen Sermons. This quotation is from http://anglicanhistory.org/butler/rolls/
Another note: Cannot we see the extreme of vindictiveness in the ill-advised retaliatory policies toward Germany after the First World War by France and Britain? It was the vindictiveness and the resentment it engendered that gave rise to the Second World War. How much better it is when nations seek justice and forgive the past and seek to move toward a better future together.