(On the subject of righteous anger.)
How is a Christian supposed to respond to injustice in the world? In the presence of sinful society and oppressed peoples, how is the Christian supposed to handle himself? Shall we unleash the tongue as did Elijah and John the Baptizer, suffer the scourge as did Christ and Paul, wield the sword as did Joshua and David? Of prophets and priests and kings, by what manner shall we act? When is the appropriate time to overturn tables and fashion a whip of cords?
In this write-up on the matter, I do not [expressly] seek to push a single point of view, but rather to provide more of a systematic study on the subject of anger as it is found in the biblical text.
I. Anger in the Bible
There are 8 words in the Old Testament and 6 words in the New Testament translated as anger; I find it fitting to briefly address each of these before moving on:
Aph. This word occurs about 270 times, most often in the form of divine anger, God’s judgment against Israel’s oppressors as well as pagan peoples. It is most closely associated with “wrath,” or “to breathe or snort with anger.”
Hemah. This is nearly synonymous with aph, but more closely means “to be hot” (i.e., fury as opposed to wrath). It occurs about 120 times. Like aph, more often than not, it refers to divine anger.
Qasaph. This word is used 32 times, 22 of which refers to God’s divine anger against Israel, and the other 10 of which refer to human anger. It has a similar meaning to aph and hemah.
Harah. This most closely indicates the process of “burning,” and is used fairly evenly to describe both human and divine anger (approx. 70 times total). However, the noun which comes from it, haron, refers exclusively to divine anger.
Ka’as. This occurs about 50 times and means “provoking to anger.” Most (44) of these times, it refers to Israel provoking God to anger, and pretty much every time is a result of idolatry.
Ragaz. This word means to evoke mental turmoil or agitation of various kinds, but a few times it is translated as anger. Not used very frequently.
Regaz. This is an Aramid word that only occurs once (Dan. 3:13), translated as “rage.”
Za’am. This is found in about 20 places, but only twice does it refer to human anger (Jer. 15:17; Hos. 7:16). All other times, it refers to God’s anger or “indignation.”
Orge. This occurs 40 times and means “anger” or “wrath” throughout. It refers to the wrath of God to be poured out on wicked humankind at the end of the age (the death of Christ removes such wrath), but also to Jesus’ anger at his skeptical audience (i.e, Mk. 3:5). On a few occasions, it refers to human anger.
Orgizo. This is found 8 times – “to be angry” – most often in the context of human nature (Matt. 5:22; 18:34; 22:7; Lk. 14:21; 15:28; Rev. 11:18). Eph. 4:26 commands one to be angry without sinning, and Rev. 12:17 revers to the dragon’s wrath.
Parorgizo. This occurs only twice (Rom. 10:19; Eph. 6:4) and means “to anger.”
Cholao. This occurs only in Jn. 7:23 and refers to the Pharisee’s anger at Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.
Orgilos. Found only in Tit. 1:7, referring to the vice of being “prone to anger” or “quick-tempered.”
Thymos. Occurs 18 times, meaning “wrath” or “anger” throughout. Thirteen of these refer to divine anger, while 5 refer to human anger, depicted as a vice to be shunned.
II. Precautions Against Anger
Throughout the majority occurrences of anger throughout Scripture, it is coming as a result of God upon humanity as a result of their idolatry. However, on the occasions when anger does occur on the human end of things, rarely is it viewed in a positive manner. Rather a good amount of advice is given throughout Scripture, warning people against anger:
Proverbs 15:18: “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
2 Corinthians 12:20: “For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.”
Galatians 5:19-23: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
Ephesians 4:31: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”
Colossians 3:8: “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.”
James 1:19-20: “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.”
Titus 1:7-8: “For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.”
III. Examples of Righteous Anger
Psalm 139:19-24: “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
Nehemiah 5:6-7: “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, ‘You are exacting interest, each from his brother.’”
Mark 3:1-5: “Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come here.’ And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”
Ephesians 4:25-27: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”
Matthew 21:12-13: “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a den of robbers.’” (cf. Mk. 11:15-19; Lk. 19:45-48)
John 2:13-17: “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”
When we examine the Scriptures in order to determine the Christian’s relationship to anger, we come away with the understanding that it is something we are to be wary of, alert and cautious. In all evidences of righteous anger, we see that the anger is either predominantly directed towards sin itself (and not the people causing the sin) or else the person is calling out to God in his anger and asking the Lord to deliver him from sinful man. The man who expresses righteous anger does not experience such anger impulsively, but it is something that he checks first (i.e., with Nehemiah above) and chooses the wisest way to go about the job (i.e., Jesus forming a whip was not an impulsive decision).
Perhaps the best way to understand righteous anger is to look upon Christ as He hung from the cross, perhaps the most justifiable moment in all of human history for a man to be angry. This is, after all, the only perfectly righteous man (God in the flesh) being brutally and unjustly murdered after a series of unfair trials and inflicted oppressions.
Christ “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not” (Isa. 53:3). Jesus knew rejection; He knew was it was like to be considered less than a man; He knew what it was like to have your own turn against you. “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him” (Jn. 1:10-11). Yet He did not respond as most would say that the oppressed man should respond; rather, “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isa. 53:7). And when He did open His mouth, it was to say this: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).
The only times in which Jesus showed anger was when His Father’s name was being profaned or He was being tempted into sin. Yet when such occasions happened, He responded not with violence or impulsive tantrums, but with righteous anger and Scripturally-driven retorts. I am not here preaching pacifism, but I am asserting that it would be wise of us to make Christ the goal after which we strive. I think Tim Challies puts it wisely when he says,
“Does God allow his people to express anger? Yes, he does. But only under these circumstances: You are reacting against actual sin, you are more concerned with the offense against God than the offense against yourself, and you are expressing your anger in ways consistent with Christian character.”
These are wise words of advice regarding the anger we feel. Before we impulsively give into our emotions (and this applies not just to anger, but really to all emotions), we should ask ourselves these three questions:
Is my anger directed towards sin?
Am I more concerned with the offense against God than the offense against myself?
Am I expressing my anger in a manner consistent with Christian character?
If the answer to any of these questions in “No,” then perhaps the best solution is to simply “Turn the other cheek” (Mt. 5:39). Grace is, after all, the thing that separates us apart from the rest of the world. While others might complain about being enslaved or imprisoned or unfairly tried or accused or victimized, perhaps as the Christian, we can “rejoice insofar as [we] share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Pe. 4:13), not praying for suffering, but by no means complaining when it arrives. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Co. 4:7).
Perhaps, as Paul, rather than simply getting angry all the time, we will learn that the times we are bound in chains are best overcome by joyful singing (Ac. 16:16-40).
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”