Anger remains a puzzle for many Christians. We all wrestle with it in daily life but it still holds some mystery. Is it ever okay to be angry? The puzzle is that the Bible affirms God’s anger—and sometimes allows for it in believers—but then confronts it as evil in most cases.
Why? Is there an inconsistency in God? Or are there different types of anger? Or does the basis of anger make a difference?
Let’s start by noticing two broad categories of anger in the Bible. One is reactive—a response to evil. The other expresses evil. One carries the energy to oppose evil and correct wrong; the other produces the wrong that needs to be corrected. One builds up; the other tears down.
For instance, the “nations rage” against God in Psalm 2—an evil—while Jesus was properly angry when he knocked over the illicit trading tables in the Temple. Jesus was also righteous when he pronounced his angry “woe to you” charges against the spiritual leaders of his day.
Paul, then, was following Christ’s example when he counseled believers: “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).
Yet Paul added a corollary—“do not let the sun go down on your anger”—to guard against giving an “opportunity to the devil.” In other words, proper anger, once aroused, should help reform the wrong it confronts but if the anger is prolonged something is broken.
Paul’s corollary, by the way, is part of our puzzle about the seeming inconsistency of Bible responses to anger. Let’s ask a question, then: how does prolonged anger—going to bed and waking up angry—relate to Satan’s efforts? Does time somehow transform anger into a satanic device?
Let’s also draw on something Paul said about anger in Galatians 5. There “fits of anger” are included in a sin list tied to the “flesh.” Juxtaposed to this list is Paul’s summary of the fruit of the Spirit, a list that doesn’t include anger but does include love, joy, peace, and more. So we’re reminded that the Spirit is active in the one but not in the other.
In thinking of Paul’s call to resolve anger before bedtime, two things come to mind. First, we can be angry as long as our anger reflects God’s view of evil. He hates evil and the sins it breeds, and so should we. The Spirit’s active presence in a person’s heart uses Scriptures to guide believers in discriminating good and evil.
Second, in speaking of evil we need to get below the presenting features of sin and consider the source. What motives form the particular behaviors? For Paul the countless features of sinful behaviors narrow to one underlying evil: misdirected love. He, as elsewhere in the Bible, presumes that God made us to know and to love him—to taste and see that he is good.
Satan, against this, captured humanity in Eden by promising a greater “good”. What was this good? Absolute freedom. And with this false promise—false in the sense that we were created as heartfelt responders—he implanted an insatiable appetite for independence and, with that, a complete distaste for God.
With this heart-based context we soon notice the widespread language of spiritual promiscuity in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets, for instance, regularly portray God’s jealous anger: his spiritually amorous bride betrayed him so he both confronts and woos her. Jeremiah 16 and Hosea are particularly vivid examples of this theme.
So—as humans with our own spiritual carelessness—the greatest challenge we face may be looking back at us in the mirror each morning. A devotion to self-protection and self-advancement is pervasive when the Spirit isn’t active. And when we look at self rather than at God, anger is near at hand because we never get the treatment we think we deserve.
From the start Satan’s main ploy has been to distract our gaze from God and his goodness—as he did in tempting Eve in Eden by calling her to self-concerns. He continues to do this by blinding us to God’s loving purpose for creation—a love that promises intimate care for each of us.
Anger, then, is a litmus of our response to God’s love. If, for instance, we share his grief and anger because we share his heart of loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the face of evil, then anger will be spontaneous and proper. But if we’re angry because our own agenda or circumstances are upset, then another motivation is in play. Our own divinity has been ruffled.
But, again, why did Paul include the “not overnight” provision?
Here’s my best answer in light of what we’ve considered so far. God’s gracious care and greatness will ultimately overcome evil. So we aren’t to be distracted by evil. God himself wants to be our sole focus and source of confidence.
We are right, then, to warn the world that sin is present when we express spontaneous anger in a given moment. But after such moments the Spirit will quickly draw our gaze away from a given evil to the broader confidence that God, in his providence, is working everything for good to those who love him.
Joseph’s account in Genesis captures this. What his brothers did to Joseph in his early years was evil but, as Joseph reminded his worried brothers, “God meant [their actions] for good.” It also explains Paul’s call in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, and elsewhere, to “give thanks” in everything. So a short transition from anger—reflecting God’s heart—to thanksgiving in light of God’s rule, even over sin, is always the sequence of sound faith.
So anger may be fine for a moment—as long as it’s a proper anger—but it’s not something we embrace. We may be victims for a moment but, because of the cross, we are not truly victims. God knows how to manage evil. That alone allows for truly spiritual anger management.
In effect we’re told by Christ’s Spirit, “Go in peace.”