Anger is simpler to define than to identify. Expressions of anger range from the overt, in-your-face brand of open hostility to the cool indifference of a silent stare.
At times, anger can feel like an inner fire. We see red and feel hot and sweaty. Our stomach churns, our blood pressure rises, and our breathing rate increases. Our body responds to this internal turmoil with a flushed appearance. We perspire, and our jaw tightens.
Yet anger can also be experienced as compliance on the outside while resentment and hostility simmer just beneath the surface. The silent withdrawal and lack of involvement of a spouse is often an indication that one is angrily punishing the other for not doing things his or her way. Even the withholding of sex in a marriage becomes a weapon of anger instead of the expression of shared love.
The Bible has much to say about the dangers, roots, and taming of anger. With vivid imagery, the Scriptures describe the flaring nostrils of a person who displays anger (genesis 39:19; exodus 4:14). Another speaks of anger as an emotion burning furiously hot (exodus 22:24; 32:10–12). Anger is also depicted as a fiery outburst that consumes everything in its path (ezekiel 22:21–22, 31).
Several passages in the Bible urge us to get rid of any kind of bitterness, rage, or anger (ephesians 4:31; colossians 3:8). Yet the Bible does not always paint a negative picture of anger. The vast majority of biblical references to words like anger, rage, wrath, and fury refer to the anger of God. These sections, which speak of God’s anger with his enemies or with his own people, far outnumber those that tell us to avoid anger. What the Bible shows us is that anger is neither right nor wrong until there is a motive. Anger can be productive and loving, just as it can be destructive and selfish. We need discernment in order to see our anger from God’s point of view.
Selfish Anger. In most cases, the anger that moves a person to do harm to himself or others is selfish. It is the kind of anger that destroys rather than builds up. It is more like a wrecking ball than a hammer.
The first explicit mention of anger in the Bible shows its potential to kill. Genesis 4 tells us the story of Cain and Abel. Both men brought sacrifices to God that reflected their individual occupations. But only Abel brought a sacrifice that pleased the Lord.
“Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (v. 5). Here the Hebrew word for anger means “burning fury.” God approached Cain and tried to help him deal with his seething rage. The Lord made it clear that he desired to accept Cain, but he had to come on God’s terms, not his own (vv. 6–7). God then gave Cain a compelling warning: “If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (v. 7).
Cain had to make a choice. His pride was wounded. He was hurt and angry that God would not accept the fruit of his labor the way God accepted the fruit of Abel’s work. Yet God gave him an opportunity to deal with his emotions. The older brother could have repented and offered the sacrifice God had asked for. The Lord in turn would have accepted him. But Cain stubbornly refused to place himself in the protective care of God. Instead, he determined to take matters into his own hands.
Knowing that he was powerless to lash out directly at God—the true object of his anger—Cain pounced on the one with whom God was pleased: his brother Abel. Cain brutally murdered his brother. His heart became so hardened that when God came to him and inquired where his brother was, Cain snidely remarked, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (v. 9). God told him, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground,” and he put a curse on Cain, condemning him to be “a restless wanderer on the earth” (vv. 10–12).
The last time we see Cain he is still determined to live his life in an angry war against God. Instead of accepting God’s curse on him and being a wanderer, he again defies God and builds a city (v. 17). Cain is a prime example of a man angrily protecting and providing for himself rather than humbling himself and accepting God’s direction and correction (1 peter 5:6).
Cain paid dearly for his self-protective strategy. Because he trusted his own feelings more than God, his name has become synonymous with the murderous potential of selfish anger. Cain’s error reminds us that anger rooted in self-centered efforts to care for ourselves never works. Such anger seeks to destroy, not build. This is the kind of dangerous emotion James had in mind when he said, “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (james 1:20). Such anger is far different from the godly anger that is good, constructive, and loving.
Productive Anger. The Bible provides clear prohibitions against destructive anger. This has caused many to believe the Bible teaches that all anger is sinful. Let’s look at one well-known passage. We misinterpret Ephesians 4:26 to say, “Don’t be angry, because it’s sin. Don’t let the sun go down while you’re still angry.” But a careful look at Ephesians 4:26–27 does not support the assumption that anger in and of itself is sinful. The apostle Paul says, “In your anger do not sin.” But he doesn’t stop there. This command is qualified by three prohibitions that follow.
Be Angry. God knows that anger is an important and necessary emotion for a healthy person living in a fallen world. The preceding verse sets up the context of truth-telling in relationships. “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor” (v. 25). Being honest about our anger is something to be embraced. The command is this: Be angry about how your sin harms you and others, and how others’ sin harms them and you.
Paul realized the potential for devastating harm that can come from unbridled rage. That is his reason for giving three qualifying prohibitions that follow this call to be angry.
The command is not to avoid anger, but to avoid sinful anger. If we don’t keep our antagonistic emotions on a tight leash, they will cease to be useful in restraining sin and instead will begin to multiply it.
“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (v. 26) commands us to deal with our anger as soon as we are aware of it. Don’t stuff it inside and brood over it. It will only fester. Take it out of the dark and expose it to the light. Let the truth burn away your selfish rage before it grows and deepens and hardens.
“Do not give the devil a foothold” (v. 27) reflects a progression in Paul’s series of commands. Satan knows how to exploit selfish anger. Once he has us nursing and justifying our selfish anger, he knows we are not far from hatred, vengeance, a refusal to forgive, and violence.
Anger toward those who possess more than we do rationalizes stealing (v. 28). Anger stirred up by a bad conscience enables us to deny the truth, twist it, and say all kinds of unloving things about others (v. 29). Our anger can grieve the Holy Spirit (v. 30), and if we resist his gentle prodding our anger can degenerate into the sin of bitterness (v. 31). Bitterness depletes our passion for life. It displaces faith and love. Once faith and love are gone, we spiral downward into cynicism and vindictive living.
A fine line separates loving anger and selfish anger. Complete avoidance of anger is another way of giving Satan an edge. Many people avoid anger at all costs because they have experienced the volatile emotion of anger in themselves and in others. According to Ephesians 4:26, that is not an option God gives us.
We play into the devil’s hands when we fail to love enough to be angry. Anger and love are not mutually exclusive. Righteous anger in a compassionate person can lead to the well-being of others.