What is “righteous anger” and how do we know if we’re practicing it?

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” — Ephesians 4:26 (ESV)

23 Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. — 2 Timothy 2:23–25a (ESV)

It is not enough in our day to be outraged about something; we now also must be outraged about the outrage, or the lack thereof. Depending on your position and privilege, you can find something to be outraged about, and if you ever run out of something to be outraged about, there’s always the culture of outrage to be outraged about.

I was thinking recently about how one of Twitter’s most heated debates before the Trump era was over the color of a dress. I miss those days. Many times, as a writer and pastor, I wonder if there is a place for me online. I desire to be contemplative, gentle, and subversive, and the internet rarely has a category for such activity. I normally end up joining the madness, just another round circle spouting off his thoughts into a space where maybe three people will care.

Christians seem to be no different than those embroiled in the latest controversy. I’ve been criticized for not expressing my anger on social media about certain issues. It’s strange, but Christians want me to be mad. And if you’re not mad online, they assume you’re not mad at all. Which is strange, because there are plenty of things I am mad about, most of them I choose not to bring online — and that’s for the betterment of all people, myself included.

“Righteous anger” is a phrase that does not appear anywhere in Scripture, but is a catch all term serving to explain verses like Ephesians 4:26, Nehemiah 5:6, and Jesus’ own anger, which comes up a couple of times in the gospel accounts (Mark 3:1–5, Matthew 21:12–13). If Jesus got angry and was “without sin” as Scripture says, how can all anger be a sin?

We know it to be possible because of the obvious moral reasons that lay before us: how can you not get angry about genocide? How can you not get angry when someone betrays you? Or when someone abuses someone you love or mistreats your family? Should you not get angry at wrongdoing?

There must be a way to be angry but to stay clear from sin. The trick is to know the difference. The verse quoted above from Ephesians 4, however, may present our clearest case for the kind of anger that is “righteous”: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”

How do you know you are practicing your anger righteously and without sin? A couple of thoughts…

1. Righteous anger is short and slow.

When Paul says, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger,” he’s not being literal. He is using a metaphor in the same way we use “the fuse” as a image for anger. Our anger should not last all day and night. When anger is wound up and fueled, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes something all together different and more damaging: bitterness. Anger is the start of something that, if not nipped in the bud, will ruin your life. Righteous anger does not have a long life and often burns slowly on the inner places of our life.

2. Righteous anger works in concert with God’s concerns.

We cannot be righteously angry about self-concerns. Part of regeneration and becoming a Christian includes the transformation of desire. We start to care about the things that God cares about. This means we will be angry at injustice, mistreatment of children and the poor, and various sinful behaviors. We will find ourselves angry about the things God gets angry about. Our righteous anger is most always connected to the things God is concerned about in his Word. There is no such thing as righteous anger against your bank’s customer support. You’ll know your anger is righteous when it is found nearby the realms of God’s careful concern.

3. Righteous anger is aimed at sin.

Certainly related to the last point, but perhaps a bit more pointed, we see the righteous anger of those in Scripture directed toward peoples’ rebellion against God. Be careful here: righteous anger over “sin” does not mean righteous anger over moral misbehavior. Certainly this is sometimes included, but we must be careful not to become a church who targets particular moral misdeeds, making them the entire canon of what “sin” means. Sin is rebellion against God, and it is the direct object of the prophets’ rage. Jesus Christ was not mad at the Pharisees for moral misdeeds — they were exceptional moralists. His anger was directed at their rebellion against God in their hearts. He was angry that they elevated the “traditions of man” above “the word of God” and that they praised God with their lips, but their hearts were far from him. We must be angry not at moral misbehavior, but at the human heart’s constant propensity to move away from God. And this anger, when properly used, starts with a frustration within ourselves. Like Paul’s anger with his own interior battle in Romans 7, we are frustrated that “we do not do as we ought.”

4. Righteous anger is never indulged.

A pastor/mentor of mine used to critique the common American phrase, “I just need to get this off my chest,” which often is the beginning of an epic rant. He would always say to such a phrase: “No you don’t.” Anger rarely works better when indulged, and to quote Dallas Willard, “Everything done in anger can be done better without it.” When we “get something off our chest” or “let off some steam,” we need to make sure it’s truly getting released and let go, not indulged. The fire of anger should be quenched, not stoked. Righteous anger is a slow, low-grade burn that requires no such indulgences. It is wise.

The anger we often feel is the result of a wound. We believe we should have been treated better, acknowledged, or celebrated, and when we were not, the anger begins to rise. The wound is towards our ego — we believe we deserved better. We are obsessed with the person we see ourselves to be, and when that person is not handled to our expectations — by God or a person — the anger will begin. We think of ourselves as respectable, do when people do not respect us, we get angry. We believe other people should be loyal to us, but when they are not we get angry. It is difficult to convince a 21st century American that, give or take 200 years, no one will know anything about them — or care to. The person who thinks most highly of you most often is you.

The key to deleting anger from life is to catch some of this wisdom, which is what the Bible would call “humility.” Humble people have small, insignificant egos, and tend to have a good relationship with anger. Those of us who remain obsessed with ourselves — or the person we believe ourselves to be — will always find ourselves justifying our outbursts. God have mercy.

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books