IS ANGER SINFUL?
by Bob Wheeler
In his book The Christian Counselor’s Manual, well know author Jay Adams stated that “Anger, in and of itself, is not sinful. We learn this from Paul’s careful distinction between being angry and sinning: ‘Be angry and sin not’ (Ephesians 4:26)” (p. 348). But is Adams right?
It is true, as Dr. Adams pointed out, that “God is angry with the wicked every day” (Ps. 7:11). There is clearly such a thing as “righteous indignation.” But Paul goes on, just a few verses later in Ephesians chapter 4, to say “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice” (v. 31; NKJV). So did Paul just contradict himself? Did he really intend to tell his readers in verse 26 to “be angry”?
What Paul is doing in verse 26 is quoting from Psalm 4, verse 4, which reads:
“Be angry and do not sin.
Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still. Selah.”
But the exhortation in Psalm 4 is directed towards David’s enemies; he is hardly encouraging them to be angry with himself. Thus the verse probably should be taken in the sense of “if you will be angry beware of sinning” (Delitzsch).
There obviously is such a thing as righteous indignation, the sense in which God is angry with sinners. But there is also a carnal, sinful anger, an anger that arises from our own fallen human nature with its sinful passions and desires. What precisely is the difference between the two?
God’s anger is perfectly just and holy. It arises from His love for righteousness and His thorough disgust with sin. And it is perfectly just: it is directed only against those who are genuinely culpable. Paul warns the wicked in another context that “. . .you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God, who ‘will render to each one according to his deeds’” (Rom. 2:5,6; Paul here is quoting Prov. 24:12).
Our anger, on the other hand, is usually a carnal passion that lashes out in blind fury against a perceived threat, whether real or imaginary. When God did not accept Cain’s offering, Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell” (Gen. 4:5). God confronts him about this, saying, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (vv. 6,7). Tragically, Cain did not heed the exhortation, and proceeded to murder his brother Abel.
But then what should be our response be when we have genuinely been wronged? “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas. 1:19,20). But does that mean that we should just let injustice go unpunished? “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:19-21).
To return to our passage in Ephesians, Paul tells his readers, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice” (4:31). But the object here is not just the absence of strife, but something positive as well. Paul goes on to say, “And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (v. 32). Instead of the carnal passion of anger, there ought to be a genuine, heartfelt sympathy for each other, and that should find expression in a willingness to forgive each other when wronged. What is called for is sympathy, not retaliation; forgiveness, not vengeance.
The question is, do we respond to conflict in a godly, Christ-like manner?