Anger: Righteous Indignation or Wrath?

Anger is a tough subject to tackle because it touches on so many things.  It is a common motivator in our lives for both good and ill.  It can make you say things you would never say to a loved one or make you stand up to a bully at school or at work.  There are a many good reasons to be angry as well as bad ones.  Anger itself is not inherently bad but there is a balancing act to it.  On the one side, being assertive is biblical and Christians are supposed to rebuke wrongdoing and sin among brothers and sisters in Christ.  Jesus whipped the moneychangers out of the Temple for usury (John 2:15).  However, the Bible makes it clear that anger should be used sparingly and warns us against wrath.  The Scriptures repeatedly tell us to be slow in anger.  Proverbs 14:29 states that “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.”  James 1:19-20 asserts that “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”  Notice that these Scriptures say to be “slow” in anger.  It does not say that anger is unwarranted or bad, but anger must be kept in check.

We must distinguish the two forms of anger: righteous indignation and wrath.  Righteous indignation is the anger moves us to resolve an issue or correct someone out of love.  For example, Paul rebuked Peter for showing partiality with the Jews at Antioch.  Peter ate with the Gentles until some Jews came, and then he only ate with the Jews.  Peter “fear[ed] the circumcision party” and did not want the other Jews to see him eating with the Gentles.  Paul reprimanded Peter of his hypocrisy in front of everyone, saying that he “walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:11-14).  Scripture outlines how to handle a sinning brother.  If a brother sins against you, go to him in private.  If he does not repent, get a third party to intervene and if he still does not repent then take before the church to be rebuked.  (Matthew 18:15-17).  Righteous indignation rebukes sin in the moment but it does not linger or fester.  Rebuking is not meant to destroy a person’s esteem but correct and point them to God’s glory.  It teaches others to enforce the God’s principles, but it does not judge others like God.  Anger, in this state, is a tool for the moment and must be replaced with forgiveness as quickly as possible.   

In contrast, Wrath is an uncontrollable anger devoid of love and compassion.  It does not reprimand out of kindly regard, but eviscerates all goodwill.  Wrath takes control over the mind and arrests the heart into submission.  It spreads like a wildfire consuming all the love and goodness it can get.  As fire destroys without regard to life or property, so does wrath.  Wrath makes itself an idol sitting on the heart’s throne like a god casting judgement and finding everything wanting.  Wrath sows discord among friendships, destroys familial bonds, and separates the church fellowship through its vindictiveness and malice.  The more we give power to wrath, the more it consumes us bringing us to despair. 

Ephesians 4:26-31 sums all of the argument up nicely: 

 “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. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” 

Jesus should be on the throne of our hearts, and we should listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance.  When we do this, our anger does not become wrath but a tool rarely to be used.  The key difference between wrath and righteous anger is whether or not it’s motivation is love.  Without love, anger is wrath and as Psalm 37:8 proclaims, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.”  

“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” Colossians 3:8

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”  James 1:19-20.

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