Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
As a perpetually sleep-deprived, perennially hormonal mother of seven, I have come to realize the great importance of a solid theology of anger. When I first started on this journey about a decade ago, I didn’t have a very good grasp of biblical anger at all: I knew the Bible said not to let the sun go down on it (Ephesians 4:26), and to be “slow” to it (James 1:19), but I couldn’t reconcile “be angry [and do not sin]” with “refrain from anger” (Psalm 37:8). It was too easy in the heat of the moment to find false refuge in “anger is okay so long as you don’t do any sins while you’re angry,” which was my very limited (and errant) understanding of Ephesians 4:26.
The first little glimmers of better understanding for me came from the writing of Richard Baxter, whose definition of anger was immediately helpful:
Anger is the rising up of the heart in passionate displacency against an apprehended evil, which would cross or hinder us of some desired good.
Anger is that powerful feeling that arises in us when we think some wrong has been done that prevents or makes it harder for us to do something we wish to do.
I have found this a very useful way to think of anger because it acknowledges that my feelings are in response to someone else’s wrongdoing—or at least what I perceive as someone’s wrongdoing. I know I used to think “sinful” anger was unjustified anger… but in the heat of the moment, nobody is going around thinking, “ah, yes, I am angry, but for no reason!” I always think I’m right to be angry! So when I start to feel those emotions welling up in me, and I go through my little checklist in my head to evaluate them—am I feeling a strong emotion? Yes. Is it because someone else did something wrong? Yes. Hmm, this is probably anger, then: what do I do next?
And so, Baxter’s definition gets me in a very good frame of mind to seek out and find the righteous reaction at that point, because it acknowledges that the other person is wrong, or may be wrong, and yet puts the focus back on my behavior—because the Bible has a lot to say about what we do with anger, and the Bible never says “unless the other person is wrong, then go into ballistic attack mode and fire at will!”
So I’m angry, and I’m admitting it to myself… what do I do now?
The Right Kind of Anger
I read an article by John Piper on anger a few weeks ago (it’s very good, go read it), and he said this one little sentence that resonated with me profoundly:
I was much more optimistic about a righteous place for anger when I was thirty than I am now.
Yes!!! Speaking for myself, my anger is hardly ever righteous. It’s almost always self-centered, emotional frustration that something isn’t going the way I think it should, and often fury that I am the one who is going to have to “deal with” the consequences. I get mad when people screw up my life, one way or another. If they run me off the road, fail to communicate something I need to know, run late, misbehave, insult me, insult my children… if I sat here and made a list of all the reasons I’ve gotten angry in the past year, I guarantee 99.9% of them are going to be things that made my life less pleasant. Sinful anger. This is what I am about. Nevertheless, the other half of Baxter’s definition above is about righteous anger, and I want to mention it, because even while I am failing, it is good to be reminded of for what I ought to be aiming:
[Anger] is given us by God for good, to stir us up to a vigorous resistance of those things, which, within us or without us do oppose his glory or our salvation, or our own or our neighbour’s real good.
So, anger, when it isn’t perverted by sin, is our “vigorous resistance” to things which oppose God’s glory, our salvation, or ours or our neighbor’s “real” (I think a more thoughtful word in 2017 might be “eternal”) good.
It is not, in short, about “me me me.” It isn’t about my being inconvenienced or offended or persecuted. It’s about God’s glory and His plan for our good. This is the kind of anger we see from the Psalmist towards his enemies (Psalm 7:6). This is the kind of anger that can find solace in God’s judgment and sovereignty, that can be patient:
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. (Psalm 37:7-9)
The Wrong Kind of Anger
Then we get to the wrong kind of anger, about which Baxter has far more to say—things that I have found immensely convicting. He lists off nine kinds of sinful anger:
- Anger “against God or any good.”
Genesis 18:25 reminds us, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” We have no lawful reason to be angry with God. He is never wrong and never in discord with His own will, His glory, our salvation, our neighbor’s good, or… any reason why we may be angry at Him. Let us not be like Jonah, that God should ask, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4)
- Anger that “disturbeth reason, and hindereth our judging of things aright.” And,
- Anger “greater in measure than the cause alloweth.”
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back,” Proverbs 29:11 reminds us, and Scripture is overflowing with commands to self-control (Proverbs 25:28, 1 Corinthians 9:26, many others). Proverbs 16:32 says that “he who rules his spirit [is better than] he who takes a city.” One of the most likely venues of sinful anger for me is that it upsets my self-control. It clouds my thinking. It even can make my physically unwell. The Bible’s warnings to us about ruling our spirit—our emotions—are not to be taken lightly! When my reaction to a wrong is so emotionally strong, I am not likely to carefully evaluate either the wrongdoing or my own reaction to it.
- Anger that “casteth us into any unseemly carriage, or causeth or disposeth to any sinful words or actions.”
Similarly, anger that carries us into sin is in stark contradition to Ephesians 4:26. Righteous anger does not tempt us to react by returning evil for evil (1 Peter 3:9). I love the example of Christ in 1 Peter 2:23: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” This is the key: rather than retaliating, the righteous reaction is to trust God and His judgment. Romans 12:19 reminds us, “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Ephesians 4:27 reminds us, in the very context of anger, to “give no opportunity to the devil.”
- Anger that “is mistaken, and without just cause.”
This is a huge part of why anger that clouds our judgment is wrong—because our judgment might indeed be wrong! There are few worse feelings in the world than regret for having come to a hasty judgment and then being found to have been unfair. This is a huge part of being “slow” to anger. Proverbs 18:13 tells us, “if one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
- Anger that makes us unfit “for our duty to God or man.”
Our duty is love, and 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is a tall order: anger that makes us impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, selfish, irritable, or resentful is wrong. Anger that makes us happy over wrongdoing is wrong. Anger that makes us unloving is wrong.
- Anger that “tendeth to the abatement of love and brotherly kindness, and the hindering of any good which we should do for others.”
My husband likes to remind me that “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20) and Proverbs 15:18 says that being slow to anger “quiets contention.” It’s very rare that a person getting angry at another person is going to do any good, no matter how hard the angry person tries to “not sin” in their anger.
- Anger which “stayeth too long, and ceaseth not when its lawful work is done.”
Proverbs 19:11 says “it is [one’s] glory to overlook an offense,” and that’s a good duration of anger—a fleeting offense that we can immediately overlook!
- Anger that “is selfish and carnal… [for] your pride, or profit, or sports, or any other fleshly will.”
Anger is listed off in Galatians 5:19-21 as a “work of the flesh,” not the “fruit of the Spirit,” and I think that’s exactly what Baxter has in mind here. Much of our anger doesn’t even pretend to be godly; it’s just selfishness, pure and simple.
Why to Forsake Anger
I want to close with one more Baxter quote that as a mother, I find terrifying:
And it is much the worse in that it suffereth not a man to sin alone, but stirreth up others to do the like. Wrath kindleth wrath, as fire kindleth fire. It is two to one but when you are angry you will make others angry, or discontented, or troubled by your words or deeds. And you have not the power of moderating them in it, when you have done. You know not what sin it may draw them to. It is the devil’s bellows to kindle men’s corruptions; and sets hearts, and families, and kingdoms in a flame.
When we get angry, our anger often spreads. As mothers, it spreads to our children. We snip at them (as anger “casteth us into an unseemly carriage”) and they get frustrated and start snipping at each other. James 3 warns us, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” How we deal with our anger is no idle question, no casual issue. When we speak, it spreads. Anger can be a wildfire that ravages our entire home. We have to beat our bodies into submission and learn how to deal with it properly… another subject where Baxter offers some excellent advice!