Anger has become so commonplace in our world that we have fallen prey to the idea that it is a normal, even useful, condition. We have slowly shaped its definition into something more palatable and acceptable, while ignoring its seductive and controlling capacities. Regrettably, like many other elements of the world, anger is considered a reasonable and ordinary human reaction within the Body of Christ. But how has something so physically and relationally toxic, been weaved into our daily standard?
The psychological notions of health and normalcy have hypnotized Christians. Many issues that were previously addressed within a biblical context now are infused with humanism based upon the experience and report of the world and its authorities. Regarding anger, many Christians have come to believe that:
- Anger is not sin.
- Anger is justifiable in response to someone or something we perceive to bewrong.
- Anger is generated through external frustrations, injuries, and injustice.
- Christians are capable of “righteous indignation.”
- Aggression is the same as assertiveness and demonstrates drive, motivation, and passion, and thereby is a necessary element of success.
- Anger is protective and necessary in the midst of today’s threatening world.
These themes are advanced all around us; in everyday conversations, counseling offices, and even church services. There is a pervasive orientation of permissiveness regarding anger that tends to undermine the messages of caution and boundary established in Scripture. Most negative emotions have been “normalized,” weakening the clear biblical framework to address and rid ourselves of feelings that are counter to the fruit of the Spirit. Let’s examine each of these beliefs individually, using sound theological and scriptural guidelines of illumination.
Is Anger Sinful?
Christians often define anger as an emotion that, alone, is not sinful. Many suggest that anger is only sinful when expressed in a manner that harms someone else. By reasonable deduction, one can assume then that anger that is not expressed behaviorally does no damage and has no affect that can be considered wrong or disobedient. Even Christians with good biblical knowledge incorrectly use Paul’s instruction to the Ephesians as evidence that emotion is fine as long as their action is not sinful:
“Be angry, and do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil” (Eph 4:26-27).
Out of context, this passage seems to convey what many claim; only destructive behavior gives opportunity to the devil. But sin is first and foremost a condition of the heart. If our heart is resentful, unforgiving, rebellious, and hard, we cannot help but be defiled in our walk.
“To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15).
Behavior is a manifestation of the heart; it is impossible to divide the two. When our hearts are encased with angry intent; our spirit, countenance, and actions will be influenced in a manner that will eventually, agree with the heart. That is perhaps why Paul went further, urging the Ephesians to:
“Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:31-32).
“Bitterness, wrath, and anger” are emotional terms that do not, by themselves, convey a certain, unacceptable conduct. Yet, the Word tells us to let such emotion be “put away.” Clearly this is a caution that the continuance of heart felt bitterness, wrath, and anger is contrary to the nature of Christ and the fruit of His Spirit. To indulge ourselves in such emotion, weakens our connection to Christ and the conveyance of His character in our lives.
Often, counselors and pastors can be guilty of defining what is an acceptable, justifiable, and useful expression of anger, while telling clients and parishioners that “feelings are normal” and only the behavior (defined as sinful), is problematic. Obviously there are numerous problems with this approach in that man’s idea of acceptable behavior is flawed so severely that we cannot discern what is “good” versus “bad” angry conduct.
Many who seek counseling have never lost their tempers, hit anyone, or used profanity. But the maintenance of the unresolved sin of anger is found in other expressions. Many are withdrawn and uncommunicative leaving loved ones in isolation. Others secretly harbor unforgiveness that is expressed in procrastination, avoidance, sarcasm, and passive-‐aggression. Some get heart disease, overeat, drink to excess, or siphon their emotion into excessive work, greed, pornography, or other venues of expression.
We must be careful not to ignore the end result of anger that lies untended in the heart, simply because it is not presently evident in behavior that is characteristically angry. Unrepented sin will always have its day of reckoning.
Cease from anger, and forsake wrath;
Do not fret—it only causes harm (Ps 37:8).
Anger is Justifiable
A second error counselors often make, is the attempt to define anger justifiable, in certain circumstances. We may hold the opinion that prolonged, harmful emotion is somehow less problematic if the person, according to our definition, has been wronged. Hence, we provide greater latitude for those who have experienced sexual or physical abuse; we give permission for the victim of infidelity to rage on about the injustice they have suffered; we relate too strongly with the client who is married to an unbeliever; and we sympathize with the teen who has an alcoholic parent.
But while their reaction is “understandable” from a human perspective, the continuance of the emotional residue as “justified” serves no spiritual or relational benefit. In fact, it serves to cripple the heart and grieve the Spirit (Eph 4:30) and does nothing to connect the individual to the source of godly sustenance (Jn 15:5).
By advancing the idea such feelings are “normal” and worthy of expression, we place the client in the position of seeking remedy through people, circumstances, and events rather than through Christ. By focusing on catharsis, we suggest that WE have a process (that is all too psychologically based) that offers freedom and healing from past injuries. In short, we help the client hold on to the very sin that is dividing them from the comforting grace of Christ and His lone capacity to provide a permanent solution to his/her pain.
According to Scripture, anger, unforgiveness, and wrath are sinful states, grounded in the “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19-‐21). Thus, we have no business aiding and abetting their maintenance. Such a process is no different than encouraging a person to continue his/her use of pornography while we help them psychologically cope with, and resolve, the past sexual abuse that has manifested in this “reasonable” response.
Whenever we support the continuance of sin while providing a process of “treatment,” we have compromised our approach. A human process is no substitute for Christ; and Christ can only be found when one is repentant and responsible, taking his/her sin before Him.
Aggression versus Assertiveness
Aggression is not the same as assertiveness. Scripture defines assertive communication as truthful (Eph. 5:9), loving (Eph 4:15), humble (Jas 4:10), and restorative (Matt 5:23). But the Bible give a very different description of anger and aggression as sin (Prov 29:22), murderous (1 Jn 3:15), foolish (Ecc 7:9), selfish (Jas 4:1-‐3), and a foothold for Satan himself (Eph 4:26-‐27).
Nowhere does Scripture advocate the use of aggressive, angry communication and behavior for the purpose of self-‐gain or self-‐satisfaction. Aggression is reserved for
the just and righteous hand of God, at His appointed time and place. God permitted aggression in war (Deut 20:1-‐3), against His Son (Is 53:10), and against His saints (Jn 15:8) providentially to advance His perfect will. Man is not grated the insight, discernment, or latitude to make such a choice because we are defiled with self-‐ interest and the craving for relief through expression of emotion or the exacting of revenge. Our motives cannot be pure enough to justify a purposeful advance against another.
The Lord’s anger, discipline, and judgments are perfectly applied by a holy God. “Vengeance is Mine,” says the Lord (Rom 12:19). It is only within His domain.
When we justify our aggressive movements we are claiming rights to something God has not granted.
Even Jesus Expressed Anger
This is an argument often used to justify the presence and expression of anger. Christians reference the “cleansing of the temple” when Jesus chased out the money changers (Mk 11:15-‐17). The primary trouble with this argument rests in the reality that Jesus is God. He is the only one capable of righteous indignation, perfect judgment, and sovereign authority. His anger is pure and purposeful.
Man must never equate human emotion with God’s. We are not entitled to the same scope of feeling and action expressed by our Creator. To claim such authority elevates our status while demeaning Christ. Instead, we must embrace the order of godly submission, humble adherence to His instruction, and reverence for His will. There is no parallel existence with God. Rather, He is sovereign and we are to obey. Human anger falls beyond His standard and does not advance our sanctification. Remember the words of James:
“So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (Jas 1:19-21).
All emotion is not sin…but all sin involves emotion. Human feelings are best understood as an alarm system, alerting and directing our responses to various situations. But like any alarm system, it should produce action and resolution. When one harbors emotion, especially anger, it becomes rooted and has a toxic affect on his/her heart and conduct. The writer of Hebrews warns:
“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled…” (Heb 12:14).
Make no mistake; this “root of bitterness” will undermine one’s health, relationships, and productivity. But the core of this demise will rest in the undermining of one’s relationship and connectedness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Toxic emotion generates a preoccupation with self and a chronic desire for earthly relief. It distracts us from the Lord, divides us from His care, and leaves us vulnerable to temptation.
When your alarm sounds (emotionally), it may be for good reason. Tend to the issue under the power of Christ, and put away the toxins before they come to define and defile the heart.