Being Rightly Angry

Photo Courtesy of Marc Szeglat

By Chris Hansen

Published September 1st 2020

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring out the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

-James 1:19-21  NIV

            People are angry. All around the world, people are filling the streets and filling their social media feeds with expressions of this hot and fiery emotion. Americans are angry. We’ve long grown impatient of dealing with the Coronavirus, and where at one-point new data and constructive policies and testimonies of tragedy brought people together, now they are used as knives to stab each other in the back. Police brutality has reopened old and recent wounds that were never healed quite right, and the Black Lives Matters movement leaves people on all sides of the issue enraged. Just a few days ago, Jacob Blake was shot at point blank by police seven times Kenosha, WI, appearing to be unarmed and of no threat. Three of his children were sitting in the car while the shooting took place. The result has been a renewed movement of protesting and rioting. This hits very close to home. Many are unemployed, the economy is unpredictable, and international diplomacy continues to throw curveballs to our understandings of the world.

            The church is angry. Some states are unfairly denying the church’s right to gather when they give permission to casinos and restaurants to open. Social Justice and Racial Reconciliation is a hot cultural and theological debate, filled with ugly rhetoric. How much longer will the church remain complicit towards issues of race? With all the attention that racial justice has received, we remain frustrated with the continual lack of attention given to justice for the unborn and those subject to human trafficking. How much longer will the wider culture remain complicit towards the mass killing of the unborn? With all of these things weighing on us, we fight about whether or not we should wear our masks or not. 

            People are angry, and all of these weigh on top of the everyday struggles from everyday lives. To you students, all of the debates surrounding schools reopening affects you the most. I was a college senior last year — I get it— I missed my graduation and didn’t get to spend those last months with my friends. Maybe a family member or someone you know has died from COVID. Maybe you’re having relationship troubles or tensions run high between you and your parents. Maybe there is sin in your life that you have a hard time breaking and the uncertainty of recent days has made it all the more difficult to fight it. People are angry. I get angry, and I suspect that maybe you all get angry. I bring all of these things (that many of us are well aware of) to the table to make it very clear — there is good reason for anger in our world and no room for indifference. 

            The question then quickly becomes this: As followers and lovers of Jesus, how do we be rightly angry? God certainly isn’t telling us here in James that it is wrong to be angry. He is simply saying that man’s anger is wrong. [1] God would be rather hypocritical if he told us it was wrong to be angry. God gets angry! He was angry with humans in the days of Noah, sending the great flood. He was angry with Pharaoh when he delivered the Children of Israel. He was angry with Israel when he sent them into exile. [2] Our God is perfectly good and holy, and if he is able to have anger in perfection, then we have a goal to strive for. If we really pause on what these verses are saying, I think that the Lord will show us that there are ways that we can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, let our anger reflect his righteous anger, and not the ugliness of sinful humans. 

            How do we do this? James offers us three preliminary disciplines to perform that will hold us accountable to having holy, righteous anger. These three disciplines are being “quick to listen,” “slow to speak,” and being filled with the Word of God. Let’s parse these out and see why they hold us accountable to being angry rightly. 

            First, being quick to listen. Listening requires sincerity. It causes you to pause. Whatever trajectory your mind, words, or body were going, now they must stop, open up, and receive. Listening is more than just hearing. Mere hearing can ‘go in one ear and out the other.’ In the verses just after our passage, James talks about how ridiculous it is to hear the Word of God, but not to do what it says. When you truly listen to God, you will do something in response. Listening requires reception. Like consuming food, your body feeds on the nutrients and discards whatever is waste, listening is a sincere posture of give-and-take dialogue. By nature, listening opposes our contemporary tendency towards polarized dialogue, especially online. 

            But listening is more than just a posture of sincerity. While it receives in sincerity, at the same time it gives an affirmation of dignity. When you pause, soften your heart to listen to someone, and honestly receive them, you communicate to them that you acknowledge that they too bear the image and likeness of God. The first step of turning someone into a villain is to strip them of their humanity. But true listening, no matter how evil or vile the person is, keeps us from the sin of denying someone their humanity. [3] 

            Our listening should reflect God’s listening. The Psalms are filled with praise, thanksgiving, and relief that God hears our prayers. He listens to our cries. It is in our knowing that God is willing to listen to us, even if we are wrong, or angry, or doubtful, or insecure — whatever it may be — that we find sweet relief in his presence. God’s listening both proves the openness of the Father’s heart toward his people, and is God’s affirmation that we are his creatures, made in his likeness. As we listen to one another in sincerity, as God listens to us, we will affirm the dignity and humanity of others and keep ourselves from falling into unrighteous anger.

            What about being slow to speak? Why should we be slow to speak? In the mix of everyday life, it can be hard to remember that words have power. Later on, in James 3, God tells us that the “tongue is a fire,” (Jas. 3:6 NIV) capable of great destruction when used for evil. What makes words so powerful? Such a difficult tool to wield? A sufficient answer for this question would require much more than we’ll cover tonight. For now, we’ll go back to the very beginning. At the dawn of all creation, God creates with his Word. He says, “let there be” and creation springs into motion. Sun and moon, earth and water, birds and fish — all find their being in God’s creative speaking. Humans are uniquely the only creatures who speak, it’s part of our bearing the image and likeness of God. We speak, and there is a creative function to our speaking when used for good and a destructive function when used for evil. [4]

            While animals and plants aren’t springing to life when we speak, consider the creative or destructive power of your words. Moments where things cross the threshold from thoughts to words. Once they come out of your mouth, you cannot take them back, they cannot be unsaid. Maybe it’s the make or break moment of telling your feelings to someone you’re crushing on. Maybe it’s turning positive thoughts about a person into encouraging words that could have a lasting, constructive effect on your friendship. Or turning negative thoughts about someone into insults that could destroy a friendship. Perhaps it’s making a promise that binds you and your integrity to another person. Imagine the unique freedom and accountability experienced when sins are confessed out loud to another person. Recall that the prayers of Christians are powerful and effective, reaching to the ears of God. The examples go on. Words have power because they either create or destroy and they cannot be taken back.

            James has presented two of our three preliminary disciplines that hold our anger accountable. We must be quick to listen — to listen sincerely, with openness and a soft-heart, knowing that we affirm the dignity and humanity of whoever we are listening to, even if they are our enemy. We must be slow to speak, because our words have creative and destructive power that cannot be undone. We must use our words with wisdom. These two disciplines hold our anger accountable to being righteous anger and not sinful anger. Let’s consider two ways in which these are different for a moment.

            Anger is always a secondary emotion. There is always a root; an underlying cause to our anger. Some form of suffering precedes anger, making anger a reaction to emotional pain. [5] This is the first area where we will see that God’s righteous anger is different from humanity’s sinful anger. Let’s look at the root of God’s anger first. Let’s jump way back to Exodus. 

So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

-Exodus 34:4-7 NIV

            Here we see the same phrase as James. God is slow to anger. God is compassionate, gracious, abounding in love and faithfulness. He is forgiving and merciful. But these things do not keep the Lord from acting justly and punishing sin. What is striking about this passage is that it comes just two chapters after the children of Israel created and worshipped a golden calf, an idol, that they created for themselves just days after God delivered them from the oppression of the Egyptians. Two chapters before God says that he is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” God says to Moses “now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.” [6] God gets really angry! But God’s anger is always rooted in his perfect love, in his passion for justice, in his advocacy for the weak and the oppressed. God’s anger and wrath are the white-hot, burning and purifying expressions of his love. Righteous anger is always rooted in love.

            Contrast this with humanity’s sinful anger. What are the reasons you and I get angry? Sometimes it may be love and an admirable desire for justice, but too often our anger is rooted in something far different: fear, hard-heartedness, pride, envy, defensiveness. Our anger is often directed inward. It is self-seeking and more often promotes injustice in the name of true justice. This leads us to the second way that God’s righteous anger and our sinful anger differ, and that is the end goal and purpose of anger.

            Anger is a bridging emotion; it is a means to an end. As its roots must be rooted in love, so its direction, its end goal must be aimed towards embrace. [7] Humanity’s sinful anger, when rooted in fear and pride, is at best punitive. It seeks a form of justice that demands an eye for an eye. Equal restitution must be given. At its worst, sinful anger is vengeful and seeks an overcompensation of punishment. The payback is worse than what was experienced. Both of these goals are performed in the name of justice, but these forms are actually injustice. True, good, and beautiful justice is the end goal of God’s righteous anger. Because God’s anger is rooted in his loving heart for his creation, true justice is ultimately a love story, aimed at reconciliation and reunion. An upright and fair distribution of punishment is ultimately not the goal of God’s anger. In the end, God satisfies his anger by pouring out his wrath on his own Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross. Because God’s anger is rooted in his love, and because his justice is aimed at reconciliation, he will suffer for the very people who wronged him. Where man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires, God’s loving anger does bring about the restoration he desires because it aims at a justice that is ultimately a love story. 

            So that brings us to the final discipline that will hold us accountable to having Godly, righteous anger. James tells us to “humbly accept the Word planted in you, which can save you.” This Word, is the Word made flesh, it’s Jesus Christ! We humbly accept Jesus and rid ourselves of evil and moral filth by letting his Word transform us. Let God’s Word be what forms your life, what makes meaning of the world around you and pray that, after being quick to listen and slow to speak, that God may let us be angry as he is angry. Let us pray that our anger may be rooted in the love of God, and that our anger may be directed towards the grand love story that is God’s justice.



            [1] See Eph. 4:26-27 NIV; "In your anger do not sin; do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold."  

            [2] Gen. 6; Ex. 3; Jer. 8

            [3] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace : A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1996), 127-128. 

            [4] See Gen. 1

            [5] Gerald W. Peterman, Andrew J. Schmutzer, Between Pain and Grace : A Biblical Theology of Suffering (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016), 132-133.

            [6] Ex. 32:10

            [7] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 127-128.

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