Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry and do not sin.” While some might interpret this as a concession, I believe there are times when we should be angry. God is angry at sin and injustice. If his people are thinking like him, we will love what he loves and hate what he hates. This is righteous anger and is seen all throughout the Bible in people like Paul (Gal. 1:6-10; 3:1-6), Moses (Ex. 16), Phinehas (Num. 25), and Jesus (Mk. 3:4-6).
However, for many of us anger is rarely a righteous thing. Instead it is destructive to relationships as we get angry at the wrong people, or for the wrong reasons, or we respond too harshly. We are called to be slow to anger (Jas. 1:19). So how can we know if our anger is just or unjust?
John Downame (1571-1652) in his book The Cure for Unjust Anger helps us define what just anger looks like. I find this definition incredibly helpful. “Anger is just and righteous when it is occasioned by a just cause, is expressed in a godly manner, is fixed on the proper object, endures for the appropriate time, and is directed toward holy ends.”
Note the five marks of just anger:
It is occasioned by a just cause.
Righteous anger arises as a response to something truly unjust or sinful. If you are angry merely because you are annoyed or your pride is wounded, your anger isn’t warranted. However, one is justly angry if God is dishonored, if his name is profaned, his commands broken, his word forgotten. It was zeal for God’s honor that drove Jesus to drive out the moneychangers from the temple (Jn 2:12-24). Likewise, it is just to be angry when God is dishonored. You may also be justly angry when you or another person or group of people are treated unjustly. The proper response to injustice is just anger.
It is expressed in a godly manner.
However, many people burning with rage inside only need a reason to self-justify venting all their anger without bounds. A just reason does not free you to act unjustly. If your child disobeys you or if your neighbor slanders you, then you have just cause for anger, but you are not free to unleash wrath upon them. Godly anger must be expressed in a godly manner. You must not forget love. Some people are so caught up in the justness of their cause that they forget the law of love. They seem glad to have any opportunity to rage out. Rather you must be humble, moderate, abstaining from malice or abuse, or spiteful actions. You must not sin in your anger. You must show dignity and respect to the one with whom you are angry.
It is fixed on the proper object.
Your anger must not be fixed on the person but on their vice. Do you hate your child or do you hate the sin that is twisting their heart to be rebellious against God and you? Do you love your neighbor (Mk. 12:31)? Then you should hate their vice and sin, but not the person (Rom. 12:9). God is the ultimate judge and he will judge both sin and sinner. He has not called us to judge sinners, but to love people and hate what is evil. Since we know that God is the judge of all man, we don’t have to judge anyone. And if we struggle to be righteously angry, we can count on God to be righteously angry for us (Rom. 12:9-21).
It endures for the appropriate time.
This is a hard one. Anger must be short. If anger is to remain just, it must not endure long enough to become malice, hatred, or bitterness. Keep short accounts. As soon as the offended party shows signs of repentance, you must relinquish your anger. As God forgives you, so you must forgive others (Col. 3:13).
It is directed toward holy ends.
What is the end goal of anger? What is the point? Is it for your own revenge? Just anger must be directed toward the glory of God. Just anger seeks to right wrongs, to demonstrate God’s righteousness. When we discern and respond to injustice according to God’s standard and for his cause, we give him glory. We also are just in our anger when we seek the good of the offender. We desire him or her to recognize their error, repent, and amend their ways. We want to see injustices corrected for the good of society. Just anger is meant to achieve a godly end. Otherwise, it is unjust.
Anger is just and righteous when it is occasioned by a just cause, is expressed in a godly manner, is fixed on the proper object, endures for the appropriate time, and is directed toward holy ends.
Does this describe your anger?