Anger is universal. It is not limited to human beings but is expressed by the devil and his demons and most supremely by God. It is not merely an emotion, nor is it merely an action. Anger is not entirely positive, nor is it entirely negative. What exactly is anger and how should we evaluate it? David Powlison has written a helpful article dealing with anger in the biblical context and how Christians can understand it with precision and clarity.
The article is structured around the following five points: 1) The Bible is about anger, 2) Anger is something you do, 3) Anger is natural, 4) Anger is learned, and 5) Anger is a moral matter. Points three and four seem contradictory but the thrust of the fourth point is such that it should read “Anger Expression is Learned.” Following the fifth point the article ends with seven tests one can use to evaluate anger.
When one hears the statement “the Bible is about anger” perhaps the popular sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” comes to mind. Or perhaps one would contradict stating that the Bible is about grace; or it is about Jesus. Powlison makes the case that grace cannot be understood without anger, and Jesus’ incarnation would not have occurred if not for anger. From the moment of the fall, God’s anger toward sin has been the backdrop of all the positive elements of Scripture. Would grace be grace if God was not angry? Why would the Son die on the cross if God wasn’t angry? What is the motivation toward holiness if sin doesn’t have a consequence? Satan’s very existence is defined by anger as is known as the destroyer, murderer, and the father of lies. If God—the Holy One—can express anger, and Satan—the destroyer—can express anger, what does that indicate? It clearly indicates that anger has both positive and negative elements. It can be entirely good and entirely evil, though not at the same time. God’s anger is productive while Satan’s anger is destructive. God’s anger at sin was expressed by paying the penalty for sin on the cross resulting in justification. God’s anger at sin is continually expressed by disarming sin’s control of the believer through sanctification. God’s anger at sin will be expressed by finally eradicating it in glorification. Therefore the gracious loving acts of God are at the same time expressions of anger toward sin.
Contrasting God’s productive anger is Satan’s destructive anger. Though we know that Satan’s pride caused his fall did not anger precede pride? Satan must have been angry over his lower-than-divine position in order to desire a higher one. His anger was again expressed by deceiving Eve into rejecting God’s command. In the New Testament his anger came full force in bringing Jesus to the cross working through the Jewish leaders as well as Judas. In the end Satan’s anger will be brought to full force through the Anti-Christ who will amass a world army to do battle with God’s people. Therefore all of Satan’s works are expressions of his anger toward God. With those two real extremes in mind we can now consider human anger and evaluate it in relationship to God and Satan’s anger.
Though the first explicit mention of anger is in Genesis 4 in the episode between Cain and Abel, Powlison considers the first expression of anger to be Adam’s attitude and actions after the fall. This is based on Adam’s blame shifting, sense of superiority (blaming God for giving him the woman), and his sense of innocence because these are aspects closely related to anger. The woman demonstrated the same attitude in blaming the serpent. In the next chapter anger is fueled by jealousy and results in the first recorded murder between Cain and Abel. These instances of anger resulted in a world full of violence (Gen. 6:11). Powlison goes through a number of passages demonstrating characteristics of anger. In short, anger can be easily aroused, mask itself in innocence, be vengeful, result in cursing and uncontrolled actions. Anger is equated with murder in that it can hurt helpless people, make unjust judgments, cause character defamation, bring physical harm, and inner hatred. Righteous anger be characterized by loving reproof and correction, confrontation, protection of the innocent, and motivation to do good. Powlison also discusses the motivations for anger, namely, desires and unbelief. He reminds us that the Old Testament is clear that the Israelites grumbled because their desires were not met and in many situations they did not believe God would take care of them (e.g. by defeating Pharaoh’s army and the inhabitants in the promised land). Cain’s anger stemmed from his desire for approval and the anger of Potiphar’s wife stemmed from her unmet desire for Joseph. Virtually all sinful anger stems from getting what you don’t want or not getting what you do want.
The consequences of anger are an increasing amount of anger and destruction. Proverbs 29:22 states, “An angry man stirs up strife.” That is to say that anger is not self-contained. It spreads to others around it. Even God gets angry when we’re angry, but His anger is a righteous anger at our sinful anger. The Bible is filled with people who were continually angry such as Saul, Jonah, Jezebel, Nabal, Pharisees, and even the disciples became angry on occasion. Righteous anger is rare, but we do have records of people exhibiting this behavior. Moses expressed righteous anger when the people were worshipping a false god while he was on the mountain. Samson exhibited righteous anger when he knew the enemies of Israel were celebrating. We have many records in the Psalms of David’s righteous anger at the prospering of his enemies and his desire for God to glorify himself in their destruction. Finally, hints of Paul’s anger toward false teachers can be found throughout his epistles.
With this foundation of anger understood, Powlison moves on to discuss observations about the expression of anger.
Though anger is an emotion it always acts out through words and/or actions. Powlison refers to this as “Anger is Something you DO.” Not only do we typically act out in anger but our bodies change physically. Muscle and nerve tension, swollen nostrils, body temperature rises, at extreme times adrenaline can surge the body. This explains the terms often used for anger such as hot-tempered, breathing fire, steamed, volcanic, etc. Anger also involves our minds as we make judgments, replay the offense mentally, and perhaps quickly plot revenge. Anger also always has an object on which it is focused. Anger typically occurs between people as in families, politics, religions, work, friendships, etc. but it can also occur toward a impersonal object such a Balaam’s donkey, a pet, a piece of furniture that gives a stubbed toe, etc. Most importantly anger occurs between people and God. No anger toward God is just, but it abounds on earth as people blame God for suffering and difficult times.
For those who believe in the doctrine of utter depravity it is no surprise that anger is natural, but at the same time how one expresses anger is learned. Parents who yell at their children reap yelling children. Parents who react physically without self-control have the same problems in their children.
The final point is that anger is a moral issue. This is easily seen by the fact that a person gets angry when they feel wronged. That is to say they have made a moral judgment about something and deemed it wrong as opposed to right, therefore they react in anger. Not only does anger evaluate right and wrong, but it is also evaluated by God and others. Is the anger righteous or sinful? God reacts to sinful anger with righteous anger, people typically react to sinful anger with sinful anger.
Though Powlison uses a significant amount of Scripture, there was also much support by observation. That is not entirely bad as anger is something we are all familiar with and see all around us. But Scripture provides many of the same supports we see around us (which makes sense since the Bible matches reality). It would have been nice to see more information coming from Psalms and Proverbs which are rich with this issue. Overall as Part 1 in a series it was a helpful start at the subject and ended with good evaluative questions to ask oneself on whether a moment of anger is righteous or sinful.