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What would be defined as "righteous anger"?

Ephesians 4:26 (ESV) says:

26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,

So, is all anger justifiable if you don't sin? Or are there other verses that address this subject? When is anger justified?

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6 Answers 6

I'm going to stir up the pot a bit here, and I look forward to any feedback. In my own studies on the subject, my paradigms have been rocked. I'm going to try to boil down pages of notes to brief thoughts to convey the conclusions, for an attempt at brevity. They are not what I expected, and I could not find a way around them.

First, "righteous anger" or what some people like to term "righteous indignation" is a human construct. You won't find it in the Bible. As alluded to by one responder, James sums up what the Bible seems to be teaching when he writes, "the anger of Man does no work the righteousness of God" (Js. 1:19-21). I will explain further...

Second, In Ephesians 4:26 ("Be ye angry and sin not" - KJV, "In your anger do not sin" - NIV) we are not being told to be angry; rather, the inevitability of our anger is simply being acknowledged, and we are being told not to sin in that state. It's a little like not closing your eyes when you sneeze (my analogy, not God's), in that it's possible, but pretty unlikely. Again, hang with me as I'm getting to why ...

Third, whenever there is a list in the Bible there are several ways to determine priority. Often, the first item in the list is the most important. If an item is repeated, it stresses priority, especially if it's the only item repeated; and if the item is reinforced elsewhere in scripture it also lends itself to being considered priority. When all three are true, it's definitely important. Enter 1 Cor. 13:4-8. In Paul's description on agapē he lists the telltale qualities of this all-important virtue - The greatest commandment. The very first item (KJV - "Suffereth long" or NASB ' "Is patient") literally means, "takes a long time to get angry." Imagine that, the very first element to distinguish agapē is anger; so that, when I am angry, I have the opportunity to show agapē. Conversely, when I am seeking to demonstrate agapē I will be tempted to be angry. This is also the only description in 1 Cor. 13 Paul chooses to reinforce, as he states in v.5 (KJV) "is not easily provoked" or (NIV) "is not easily angered." The Greek here literally means that it would absolutely never move toward sharpness, using two idioms common today. One "don't go there" and the other "don't get sharp with me". In other words, to say love takes a long time to get angry is not permission so long as it takes you a while, Paul seems to be eliminating that possibility by adding that it doesn't even go in the direction of getting "sharp." And we all know what he means. That's the look we give the other driver, the tone in our voice, despite our words. We know "sharp."

As I studied I Cor. 13 I could not avoid the apparent conclusion that Paul was saying we should never get angry. If you're like me, there is an internal rebellion to this thought. Ironically, everyone I talk to about it gets angry. Go figure. So I looked up every Old and New Testament reference to being angry. Surely there's directives (as one person commented) that tell us to be angry, and how to do it right, aren't there? Here's what I found: Nowhere are we instructed to be angry. The instances of anger in man are either instances of sin/shame/failure, matter-of-fact recording of history, or direct commandments not to get angry. These commandments on the virtues of not getting angry did not seem to apply to God, as He is recorded as being angry and is portrayed as justified when He does.

Fourth, with all that unresolved, I decided to do some research on anger from the psychological perspective. There is no small amount that can be said here; but, I'll just refer to a couple of articles. Ryan Martin, PhD, anger researcher and Chairman of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin published an article in Psychology Today titled, "Why We Get Mad." He says there is always an event that triggers the anger; yet, since everyone reacts differently to the trigger, it can't be entirely true that the trigger is the reason. He introduces two variables including tolerance level for frustration and the pre-anger state of the individual(s) involved. A third element would be how the individual appraises the situation, which could be influenced by both values and perspective. I'd be happy to illustrate; but, for brevity I'll leave it at that for now.

PBS summarizes nicely the findings of the Anger Research Consortium of the American Psychological Association on their findings of what anger is. Their work distinguishes anger by three components. First is the emotional experience (the rush of adrenaline, tensing up, blood pressure, etc). Second is the cognitive experience, or how we think when we are angry (sensing that something is unfair, unexpected or wrong). The third is the behavioral experience (verbal or non-verbal), or how we express our anger. Interestingly, they go on to explain that anger is normal, everyone experiences it, and that it can be healthy.

Fifth, and here's where it all comes together. Throughout the Bible we know we are told to control our behavior, and held accountable for our actions. I'll assume there's no question there. The Bible also tells us to control our thoughts. One clear example is Philippians 4:8 where we are told, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things." There are many other examples. We are not told controlling our thoughts is easy, we are told we can and are responsible to do so, and it is to our benefit. Now consider the third element of anger. Is God telling us to control our emotions, or that our emotions are wrong? And the answer is, no. That's exactly what Paul is referring to in Ephesians 4:26. That's why I rebel internally to the thought that anger is wrong. It's just plain human to feel anger; and, as the good doctors point out, it's even healthy. But how I process and act on my feelings is important for me to control.

Finally, Erin Brockovich. You just had to to there, didn't you? OK, I'll run with it. It works just fine. There is only one example I found in scripture of a person getting angry and not being seen as wrong, and that is Paul in Acts 17 as he looked on Athens, the city filled with idols. He "got moved toward being edgy"; but, it's noted in the imperfect tense. In other words, he had felt this way; but, he did something constructive about it. He managed his emotions and brought them the gospel, not unlike our unlikely "St. Brockovich." This is not to say anger is justified. It is to say our feelings are what they are. It's what we do with them that define our character.

I'd like to end by addressing the issue of Jesus in the temple, because this is one of the most common things people bring up when I discuss this, and with great passion. "If he did it, I can do it. I should do it, because I'm to be like Jesus," is the general logic.
- Jesus taught against anger (Matt. 5:21-22); - In working for the health of the early church, nearly every epistle from Paul warns against the "deeds of the flesh," listing anger along with sexual sins, drunkenness, and various forms of division (Gal. 5:16-24); - Solomon repeatedly showed anger to be reserved for the foolish, and avoiding anger to be a characteristic of those who are understanding and wise; - Other than Jesus, the people you find in the Bible expressing anger include Cain, Pharaoh, Haman, the crowds who persecuted Jesus and the apostles, the Great Harlot of Babylon and Satan, to name a few); - Only God is portrayed as being angry and being justified; - Remember who Jesus claimed to be.

And here is one of the great paradox's, as much as we are to strive to be like Jesus, there are some ways in which we are NOT to be like Him. We are not to receive adoration, we are NOT to accept prayer, we are NOT to claim to be God.

Given the great battle we struggle with is pride (Psalm 19:12-13), could it be that allowing ourselves to take out our anger on others is just too much of a draw toward our own arrogance? With necessity being the mother of invention, if we just removed the "anger" (or "attitude") from our dealing with others, is it more likely the solutions we will be left with would be more along the lines of agapē; and, therefore, more effective for His kingdom?

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A good example of righteous anger often referred to is when Jesus overturned the tables in the Jerusalem temple (see Matt 21 / Mark 11 / Luke 19) - although if you're feeling pedantic the word anger isn't explicitly mentioned. We know that Jesus led a sinless life so there was no sin in his actions. Some key points that may be extrapolated for anger in general:

  • He didn't let his anger last, and didn't direct it at anyone unfairly; his very next action was to heal others
  • he justified his actions clearly and concisely, even quoting scripture. He remained rational in his anger and did not lose control
  • Jesus was famously ridiculed throughout his life and did not take the bait, but in this instance the offence was not against him personally yet it caused a much stronger reaction. Righteous anger is usually when we are angry on someone else's behalf or defending the defenceless as opposed to taking personal offence at something. (that's not to say the latter is unrighteous though!)
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I'd also add the fact that God himself is described as being "slow to anger, but abounding in mercy." If you are slow to anger, you still get angry! At the risk of self-promotion, I want to link to y own sermon here:… – Affable Geek Dec 8 '11 at 15:27

I wholeheartedly disagree with Jeff's statement:

Basically they are saying that you aren't going to do anything good when you are angry. One can be angry but one's actions will tend towards sin in these situations.

Unfortunately I don't have the references on me now, but I clearly remember from a particular bible study that being angry is good if you use your anger for good.

Think of say, Erin Brockovich, who used her anger to help a community.

It's also saying that being an angry is not an excuse to sin. If you're angry, you still have to strive to not sin. Hitting your wife because you're angry is not an excuse.

Ephesians 4 can also be about marriage. And in this case, never letting the sun go down on an argument is all about not going to bed angry with your husband/wife.

Going to bed angry means that issues don't get resolved (I should know, I went to bed right after having an argument with my wife last night, and I woke up this morning feeling terrible after a bad nights sleep). Unresolved issues and a failure to communicate are at the core to a failed marriage, and it seems that nothing much in that regards has changed over the last 2000 years.

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I agree with what you say, but would you say that anger on behalf of someone else is always/sometimes/mostly good? You gave the example of Erin Brokovich, so I was just wondering. From my understanding, anger on behalf of someone is usually good. E.g. Jesus in the temple. – daviesgeek Aug 29 '11 at 0:55
@davie - I was going to mention Jesus in the temple, but I ran out of time. Anger itself is neither good nor evil, it's just a state of being. It's what you do with that anger that matters. – Mark Henderson Aug 29 '11 at 1:44
Can you add that to your answer? It would be helpful. And I agree (I think) with your statement about anger. – daviesgeek Aug 29 '11 at 5:01
How do you reconcile your view with James 1:20? The fact that you justify your point of view with two anecdotes - as opposed to scripture or commentary - is very interesting. Before you say anything, I will be the first to admit that I didn't provide and scholarly justification for my exposition either. This is why I stopped answering questions on this site and choose to engage more in the comments. – Jeff Jul 14 at 16:49

To quote St. John Cassian,

Our incensive power [our capacity for the emotion of anger] can be used in a way that is according to nature only when turned against our own impassioned or self-indulgent thoughts. This is what the Prophet [Psalmist] teaches us when he says: 'Be angry, and do not sin'---that is, be angry with your own passions and with your malicious thoughts and do not sin by carrying out their suggestions.

This is in his chapter on the vice of anger in his work On the eight vices. He continues,

What follows clearly confirms this interpretation: 'As you lie in bed, repent of what you say in your heart'---that is, when malicious thoughts enter your heart, expel them with anger, and then turn to compunction and repentance as if your soul were resting in a bed of stillness.

With regards to anger towards others or even inanimate objects (e.g. road rage may combine these two), again, St. John writes

we should remove the root of anger, its spark, so to speak, in whatever way we can, and not keep even a single pretext for anger in our hearts. Otherwise we will be stirred to anger initially for what appears to be a good reason and then find that our incensive power is totally out of control.

So righteous anger towards malicious thoughts is just. Other uses of the incensive power are dangerous at best, and usually end up being destructive.

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This is consistent with other verses like James 1:20.

because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

Basically they are saying that you aren't going to do anything good when you are angry. One can be angry but one's actions will tend towards sin in these situations.

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So you do not think Jesus was angry in John 2? – Nathaniel Jul 7 at 21:40
It is irrelevant what I think about Jesus' emotional state in John 2. The verse I quoted is unambiguous. It is noteworthy that none of the gospel accounts say that Jesus is angry. Even if he was angry (which is admittedly not an unreasonable assumption), that does not nullify James' admonition again human anger. – Jeff Jul 14 at 16:41

There is more info on the verse you gave us. The whole verse is this:

26 “In your anger do not sin”[a]: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,

Basically, it means that it is ok to be angry at times, but don't let it last longer then a day.

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I added the rest of the verse. Sorry about that. So is all anger that doesn't cause you to sin, okay? – daviesgeek Aug 27 '11 at 22:35
@davies Well... no. But here is the thing: us being holy or not, we do get angry at times. It is part of our emotion. sometimes we can't help it. What I am saying is that its is ok to get angry once in a while, just don't sin by it. – Phonics The Hedgehog Aug 27 '11 at 22:41
I agree with you; just clarifying exactly what you said. Your answer was a bit broad. – daviesgeek Aug 27 '11 at 22:42
I don't want to, but you are free to edit my answer. – Phonics The Hedgehog Aug 27 '11 at 22:43
it is not exactly to not let the anger last longer than a day. It is meaning that we should be fast to let our anger go quickly. – mauris Aug 28 '11 at 4:05

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