We are all screwy about anger, but as with all issues I think Christians can be uniquely screwy. Many are taught by well meaning churches and parents that anger is bad and God does not like anger, but the Bible does not really say that. So let’s take a quick surface look at what the Bible really says about anger. I’m continuing to draw on the work of Neil Clark Warren with this material.
Leading Biblical figures (kings, prophets, etc.) are frequently described as angry. The wisdom literature such as Psalms and Proverbs further includes anger themes repeatedly. The Bible recognizes anger as a biological “given,” that anger has a distinct physical quality (i.e. Moses’ anger “waxed hot” when he found the Israelites forming the golden calf as an idol), and is present for everyone.
God is reported as being angry several hundred times in the Old Testament, and, frankly, if we are created in God’s image we might expect to feel anger, too. Jesus was regularly angry in relation to those who opposed his message, and got angry with his disciples for their ignorance and selfishness.
The Bible is overwhelmingly negative about any anger expression that involves aggression and takes pains to warn readers about anger’s likely consequences. It views anger as dangerous not in and of itself – likely the source of those well meaning admonitions against feeling angry at all — because it recognizes the link between anger and aggression. (In my previous post we looked at four anger mis-management styles, all of which are aggressive towards others or toward self).
Here is an example in which Jesus’ anger is recorded as an indicator of the injustice of the Pharisees and part of his motivation to heal:
Mark 3:1-5: Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal them on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand in front of everyone’. Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath; to do good or to do evil, to save life, or to kill?’ But they remained silent. He looked at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was completely restored…
In a second example, Jesus’ admonition recognizes that unexpressed anger creates resentment; which creates walls between people… and that this is somehow related to our ability to be rightly intimate with God:
Matthew 5:22-24: But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment… So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer the gift.
Jesus’ admonition recognizes that unexpressed anger creates resentment; which creates walls between people… and that this is somehow related to our ability to be rightly intimate with God.
In my next post well take a look at Jesus’ anger when he turned over the tables in the temple, a full-on action sequence that demands more than a cursory mention.
In my opinion, the Bible’s most psychologically savvy verse on anger is this:
Ephesians 4:25-27: So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.
Here, the Apostle Paul links the expression of anger to truth in community. He assumes that it is possible to express anger without being sinful. He implies that failing to express anger in a timely manner makes room for the devil, or what I would call the negative consequences of mismanaging anger through aggression.
We all live in communities. If we are married, we live in an intimate community of two. We have workplace communities, and family communities, and school communities, and church communities.
Following Neil Clark Warren, I believe anger is the heart of the passion of God. We worship a very human God who, throughout the Old Testament record, persists in relationship with humanity despite our ongoing rejection of him. His anger, we can imagine, was born in the hurt of our continual covenant breaking. He expressed it ultimately when he came in human flesh by sending his only Son to become sin and death for us so that we could be restored to him.
Bottom Line: “If you could be angry the way God was angry, Jesus was angry, or the prophets were angry, that would be permissible. If your underlying hurt, frustration, and fear is in response to the violation of essential values, and if you can express your anger constructively –even generate a radical plan to change the course of things – this would be permissible. This is in fact what God did Himself” (Warren, 1990, p.115).
This narrative reading of scripture also underscores the link between anger expression and love. God’s love is perfect. His expression of anger is inextricably linked with his expression of love. As humans, our love is not perfect. Therefore we must approach our anger expression with great humility.
Further, if we can internalize God’s love and acceptance for us, we can get relief from our desperate attempts to prove our adequacy and worth to ourselves, others, and to God himself. So God’s new covenant of unconditional and total love for His children offers complete reconciliation to help us from getting angry for the wrong reasons.