Righteous Anger (Or Not)?
First her grief erupted with great vehemence. It had governed her completely the whole morning. Now her anger was apparent from her entire posture. Her face depicted her furious anger. She radiated only rage. They were not used to that of her.
Karl asked, “What’s going on with Mom? What’s happened to her?”
“Brace yourself,” said Rose, his sister. “She discovered that Dad has someone else. She’s been lied to and completely deceived. She’s furious, deeply hurt, wounded in her love.”
The Other Side
Suppose for a moment that the mother had reacted indifferently. Suppose that she had said, in a resigned and acquiescent tone: “It doesn’t matter to me; he’ll have to sort it out himself.” That would certainly not have been evidence of love. But because she is so angry, she displays her love. She demonstrates her indignant love. Her anger shows how true her love is (or was). The closer you are to someone, the greater your anger when that person offends or disappoints you.
It is good that we are now paying attention to the restoration of relationships; that it is possible in grace to take back a person who has committed adultery (even though the wound will always continue to hurt). How often has God not taken back his unfaithful people? But we can also be too quick to express words of forgiveness. Let’s not deny the one who’s been hurt the right to utter profound indignation.
A person is entitled to express righteous anger. I mean the profound indignation that hates evil and proceeds from a wounded love. In Ephesians 4:26, Paul says: “In your anger do not sin.” Thus it is clear that you can become angry and not sin. Not all anger is wrong and anger does not per se have to be repressed. For repressing anger can lead to an implosion (a collapsing inward, caused by an excessive external force), instead of an explosion. That causes much harm to the person, who has already been suffering.
The Bible gives plenty of examples of righteous anger. Think, for example of Moses, who was greatly angered when he descended the mountain and saw the people dancing before the image of a calf (Exod 32:19, 22). And think of David, whose anger burned when Nathan told him the story of the rich man who robbed a poor man of his lamb (2 Sam 12:5).
But not all anger is righteous by any means. How do you determine whether it is? By looking for the motives and ascertaining what the anger stems from. For example, Jonah was very angry that God did not destroy the city of Nineveh. So God asked him: “Have you any right to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). His anger did not arise out of love for the city, but because he was displeased that God gave opportunity for repentance (Jonah 4:1-4). The Lord Jesus mentioned a similar anger in the conclusion of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Those who were hired early in the day were angry with the landowner, because he paid those who worked only one hour the same as those who’d worked in the vineyard all day. Were they perhaps angry because he was generous (Matt 20:15)?
Much anger derives from improper motives, such as selfishness and jealousy. And so, justified criticism can make another person livid because the criticism hit the mark. In that case the anger does not proceed from wounded love, but from injured pride.
The Bible warns in various ways against excessive anger. The writer of Proverbs speaks of a hot-tempered man and one who is easily angered (Prov 22:24). It also speaks of uncontrolled outbursts of anger and says: “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control” (Prov 29:11). People who are angry will often reel off all kinds of things that ought not to be spoken. It will not pass muster, because they have lost control of themselves. People lose all perspective, let themselves go completely, and pour out their unbridled anger on others. Solomon observed that too and said: “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming” (Prov 27:4).
In consultation with her therapist, a woman invited her parents to a discussion about her childhood. It is true that she did not have an easy childhood, but what her parents heard in that one hour was an outpouring of the anger that she had bottled up during all those years. Poor parents, who left the session bewildered after that violent attack and unable to comprehend such powerless anger, an anger that exceeded all proportions.
To be patient, or long-suffering, means that you do not became angry right away. Instead, you exercise patience with another person. It is striking that the Bible hardly speaks of this special characteristic in relation to people, but does so especially of God. Not for naught does Bible therefore call patience a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22).
To be patient means that you hold back and do not respond quickly in your relationships with others. It means that you are tolerant toward people who are irritating, or who exasperate you. You are tolerant even if your annoyance is legitimate and thus even when you are justifiably angry and righteously indignant. If you can then still bring yourself to tolerate the other person as long as possible, that is patience.
The expression, “to practice patience”, is surely not accidental. For a person may be short-tempered and practicing patience can be much harder for one person than for another. It can also depend on your mood. You may be able to put up with more from a person in one moment than in another. In any case, patience requires practice. For putting up with another’s malice goes against the grain for all of us. By nature we can’t accept very much at all from another person. And so a person is quickly apt to say: I won’t accept that; I’m not going to take that from you.
But why should you put up with so much? Out of love. Love is patient (1 Cor 13). Love focuses on the long term. Love can endure much. Love can tolerate a lot. That can mean sacrifices. You must renounce yourself. But is that permissible? Think only of how much patience others must exercise toward you.
The apostle Paul is a splendid example of being moulded. He was a hot-tempered man. Having got the bit between his teeth, he persecuted Christians like someone possessed. And then Christ opened his eyes. Do you think that Paul suddenly became a totally different person? Christ does not engage in character transplantation. Instead, in his love he slowly but surely wears off the sharp edges of a person’s character. In one of his last letters, Paul wrote: “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Tim 1:16). So Paul tells us that Christ has been patient with him during his whole life. But there was more involved than having patience with just one characteristic. It concerned Paul’s entire attitude. First Paul persecuted Christians like a madman and later there was the thorn in his flesh to keep Paul from becoming conceited, so that the grace of Christ could shine in his life.
The extraordinary thing about Christian patience is that it never loses sight of Christ’s patience toward me. His love has borne me in grace. Do you want to practice patience toward others? Excellent! So long as you always begin with remembering how much patience he has for you!
Be Prepared to Forgive
The Lord has taught us that his wrath does not continue forever and that he turns from his fierce anger. He does not hold on to his righteous anger. He is prepared to forgive. Indeed, he longs to forgive. He follows the path of reconciliation with people, so that everything is made right, through the work of his Son. He directs us to follow Christ and to follow the path of forgiveness and reconciliation in his strength and never in our own strength. What wonderful things have followed upon forgiveness! The healing operation of forgiveness can change people completely. In the eyes of people the way of forgiveness often seems impossible, one that you cannot traverse, or only barely. Forgiveness does not happen automatically. It will cost you, if only in that you have to give up your own sense of right. The description of forgiveness in Lord’s Day 51 of the Heidelberg Catechism is beautiful, because it links the prayer for forgiveness from God to our forgiveness of each other. The forgiveness of each other begins when we are fully determined to forgive the other person.
When you hang on to your own anger, you run the danger that the resentment will consume you. First you are resentful, but later the resentment owns you. To nourish resentment has a destructive effect. There are always situations that people are unable to resolve. But you may never treat that as an excuse to avoid taking the first step toward reconciliation, although others can make it impossible for you to forgive because they have blocked you from doing so. In that case you can only place your anger in God’s hands. Vengeance is his! He is able infallibly to distinguish between good and evil and justice is in his hands. Christ prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Sometimes the only thing we can do is to imitate him and repeat that prayer.
This article was translated by Albert H. Oosterhoff.