People get angry. I get angry. You, no doubt, get angry as well.
In 2021, a year in which we weren’t driving very much due to COVID-19, the NRMA did a Courteous Driving Survey with 2,154 people. The survey found that 71 per cent of drivers in New South Wales and the ACT had experienced some form of road rage that year. Furthermore, among those surveyed, 84 per cent admitted to committing road rage in the same time period. Blasting the horn, making rude gestures and yelling abuse topped the list of the types of road rage they’d experienced or committed. Thankfully, no participant said they had been physically assaulted.
We get angry. Sometimes it’s over simple and somewhat trivial things; sometimes it’s over bigger things. Anger can be a momentary response that then disappears. Or it can be an ongoing emotion that consumes us.
As Christians, we may not get all shouty and rude about it, and we may hide our anger a bit better than the non-Christians around us. Often we’ll engage in a slow, internal seethe, or administer the silent treatment or a little passive aggression, or we’ll sit down with a friend and rant about the person who made us angry. But we still get angry.
All this leads me to ask do we have the right to get angry? If so, what do we have the right to be angry about? Furthermore, what are the consequences if we are?
A response and reaction
Before we go any further, let’s consider the question, “What is anger?” What do we mean when we say we’re angry? Most people suggest that anger is an emotion and that the emotion of anger emerges as a response to our understanding or experience of an event. An example: in my normal life, I would very rarely yell at someone. But if somebody cuts me off in traffic, I can explode—but only in the confines of a car when I’m on my own!
Here are some other common scenarios in which anger might bubble up in us:
“That person pressed my buttons. They drive my nuts.”
“That person did the wrong thing and that makes me so mad.”
“That person said something untrue or spiteful about me to other people, or mistreated me in the workplace, and I feel hurt and angry.”
“That person was abusive or violent or mean, and they ought to be punished. I’m angry about what they did and because of who they are to me.”
“I feel overlooked, sidelined, taken for granted, humiliated and abandoned, and I’m angry.”
I once heard the comedian Hannah Gadsby say, “People are never angry for fun. It comes from a place of pain.” But it strikes me that just as often, our anger bubbles up from a place of perceived pain—that is, from some inconvenience or sense of entitlement. My desires, needs and hopes get compromised by someone else and as a result, I’m very angry.
Our anger can also emerge from a place of fear, which, I guess, can be a place of pain. We fear losing control over a situation or over a person, so anger and coercion work together to regain control for us.
The point is the emotion of anger emerges as a response to my understanding or experience of an event. Furthermore, my anger may be expressed in a range of emotions: irritability, argumentativeness, bitterness, passivity, shouting or, in the extreme, violence.
In his book Good and Angry, David Powlison says that at its core, anger expresses “I am against that”.1 He goes on to say,
Anger expresses the energy of your reaction to something you find offensive and wish to eliminate … [It is] active displeasure toward something that’s important enough to care about.2
Anger is always about displeasure. It’s the way we react when something we think is important is not the way it’s supposed to be.
Furthermore, in their book Untangling Emotions, Alasdair Groves and Winston Smith identify anger as a “moral emotion” that passes judgement.3 They argue that at its best, anger is right to say that something is wrong. But then they argue that at its worst, anger is “unadulterated self-interest and issues an ultimatum” to the other person. In other words, it’s my way or the highway.4 They add, “Anger offers the intoxicating experience of playing God”.5 Vengeance is mine, not God’s. This is ugly anger and is quite arrogant.
You see, anger aligns to the values we hold. It reveals underlying beliefs—beliefs that are integral to my view and understanding of the world. At its best, this might look like being angry at the injustice of child slavery or at violence towards women. It might be expressed in ways that are good and constructive—like writing petitions, attending peaceful rallies or contacting a local member of parliament. At its worst, this might look like getting angry at being cut off in traffic, at someone pushing in in front of you, or at someone for turning up late. In these situations, our anger is more of an expression of our belief that we should not be inconvenienced or interrupted—which certainly aligns with what matters to us, because what matters to us is often … us.
So there are two sides and two possible extremes of anger. I think this is where our wrestling with anger begins: there’s the extreme of anger at injustice and how we express that helpfully, but there’s also the other extreme in which anger expresses what’s important to me, which is me.
Which leads me to return to one of my initial questions: do we have the right to get angry?
God’s anger, my anger
As I said, anger is a moral emotion: it makes a statement about what matters to someone. But having laid that foundation and raised those questions, let’s take a step back for a moment and take a look at anger in the context of the sweep of the Bible story from creation to new creation.
Ultimately, the Bible is pointing us to a final existence free of wrath, rage and anger—the people of God gathered around the throne of God, governed by peace. Yet we know that between the Fall in Genesis 3 and the return of Jesus, sin impacts all aspects of our lives together.
In the Old Testament, God is “slow to anger” (Exod 34:6), and often when his anger is expressed, it needs to be aroused or awakened. James urges to be like him in our anger: “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (Jas 1:19). Why? Because “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas 1:20). Whereas God’s anger is a response to sin and injustice, ours is often not: as we’ve already seen, we can become angry over petty and insignificant things.
Of course, this side of the cross, there may be times when our anger is justified. However, we should not strive to cling so tightly to our anger. In Ephesians 4, Paul seems to acknowledge that there’s a time for anger, but then says, “Be angry and do not sin” and “do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26). He then goes on to tell the Ephesians in 4:29-32 to get rid of all anger. So in your anger, do not sin, but at the same time, get rid of all your anger.
That said, if the New Testament seeks to direct us away from expressing anger, how do we understand the concept of “righteous” anger? Often people will explain or justify their anger by claiming it is righteous.
But what is righteous anger? Tim Challies defines it as follows: “Righteous anger reacts against actual sin, not a violation of my desires or preferences”.6 It’s an anger that focuses on God and his kingdom and transgressions against God’s holiness. It’s a concern for God’s name: when that is violated, then God and his people are angry.
However, when we are angry at behaviour and attitudes that profane God’s holiness, how do we express that anger? Do we go into fits of rage? Do we experience a time of grief? Do we sign a petition? Do we vent online? Do we turn to prayer? Do we march in the streets? Do we do all of that? How is our righteous anger expressed? In addition, is it triggered only by particular things and not by others? God’s name is violated and his goodness perverted on a daily basis. So why do we exercise some form of righteous anger over one issue, but not another?
I’m not saying we are incapable of experiencing righteous anger, and certainly concern for God’s holiness should be at the forefront of every Christian’s mind. But we need to be careful about jumping too quickly to these kinds of exceptions. The New Testament commands to rid ourselves of all rage and leave certain things to God’s judgement are the greater emphasis in the Bible for the life of the believer.
Anger is a moral emotion that, in us created beings, does not produce the righteousness of God. The New Testament urges us to put away anger and wrath, and instead imitate God by walking in love. However, if we find ourselves angry, we should be slow to anger the way he is, we should avoid sin and we should interrogate the source of our anger to see whether it stems from self-interest.
Before I finish, I have two final thoughts on the subject of anger.
Anger in the heart
Firstly, anger is a matter of the heart. Much of our anger results from daily irritations that often arise through our interactions with others—whether it be other drivers on the road or the people we live with. Someone once raised with me the question of whether those who live alone may not have as many opportunities for anger because there’s no one at home to annoy them. I found that a very interesting comment and considered it for quite a while: how does physical proximity to others increase or decrease the opportunities for anger? Perhaps those momentary spurts of anger are reduced. But rather than proximity to people, simply being in relationship with other people provides the soil for anger to grow. Furthermore, regardless if I have fewer opportunities to express anger or enact it externally, the thing that Jesus is concerned about is how I’m dealing with it internally as a matter of the heart.
Anger with God
Secondly, can we ever be angry with God? This is an important issue for both our hearts and the hearts of others. When we, or those around us, are in deep distress due to personal circumstances, or because we are experiencing the fallout of another’s sinful behaviour, it is not unusual for us to express to God our displeasure or even anger with him at what is taking place. For example, Jonah expressed anger with God, but not as a positive response to his situation.
I argued earlier that anger aligns to the values we hold. It reveals underlying beliefs—beliefs that are integral to my view and understanding of the world. If I am angry with God for something I’m experiencing (for example, illness or difficulty) or not experiencing (for example, I didn’t get the job I wanted), my anger is really an expression of the belief that somehow God owes it to me to relieve my circumstances or give me what I want. This is different to lament, the wretched cry of the grieving and suffering.
While we might suffer and go through trials in this lifetime, they have not come because God needs to punish us for some undefined behaviour, or because he’s capricious and has decided it’s my turn to draw the suffering lottery. No, suffering and trials come because we are, indeed, living in a fallen world. Don’t get me wrong: your pain and suffering may be immense and may continue for a long time. But rather than responding in anger, these difficulties ought to cause us to cry out to God for his help and, ultimately, for the return of his Son.
Anger is a complex and difficult emotion to untangle and rein in. It reveals our hearts—reveals that sense of entitlement we have that insists life goes our way. But it can also reveal our love for the vulnerable, the weak and the mistreated, and it can indeed give expression to God’s heart. Ultimately, however, the Scriptures urge us as recipients of God’s grace and forgiveness to put aside anger and, instead, bear with one another in love. We must heed James’ words: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas 1:19–20).
Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 David Powlison, Good and Angry: Redeeming anger, irritation, complaining, and bitterness (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2016), 39.
2 Ibid. Emphasis in the original.
3 J Alasdair Groves and Winston T Smith, Untangling Emotions (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), chapter 14: “Engaging Anger”.
6 Tim Challies, “3 Marks of Righteous Anger”, 9 December 2013, https://www.challies.com/christian-living/3-marks-of-righteous-anger/