What, if anything, do anger and righteousness have to do with each other? Is there a state that may be referred to as “righteous anger” and, if so, what is it and how do we find it?

In my experience the world is an increasingly angry place, fuelled in no small measure by the way social media platforms distance people and are devoid of many of the factors that restrain the expression to anger. The tensions in the political arenas of the USA and South Africa provided further fuel for social anger. People on both wings of the political spectrum have been quick to give expression to their anger. American politics has become more fiercely oppositional than ever. Inflammatory statements have provoked raised levels of anger among those on the political right wing – many of them, sadly, professing Christians.

At the same time there has been plenty of answering anger from those on the left wing of the political spectrum, much of it focused around issues of racism, gender-based violence and other expressions of social injustice. Here again, some of these outspoken expressions of anger come from professing Christians. Sometimes the impression is created that the anger expressed by the right wing is always unrighteous and the anger of the exponents of left wing causes is always righteous, but this is a very unhelpful caricature.

The truth of the matter is that anger is always a dangerous emotion, especially when it is held in the heart and nursed, whatever cause it purports to serve. James1:20 categorically states, human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. From this it would appear that anger and righteousness stand in opposition to each other. It is certainly an important caution for us to heed. Equally in Ephesians 3 and Colossians 4, Paul explicitly counsels us to get rid of anger, rage, bitterness and malice.

We know, however, that there were occasions when Jesus exhibited what can only be understood as “righteous anger”. There is the incident in the synagogue on the Sabbath when Jesus encountered a man with a shrivelled hand. Jesus knew the custodians of Jewish orthodoxy were looking for grounds to accuse him. Mark tells us,

Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’
Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.
(Mark 3:3-5)
The most notable occasion is the anger Jesus displayed when he fashioned a whip and forcefully cleared out the merchants and money changers who had set up their operation right within the Temple, in the Court of the Gentiles.

What can we learn, then, about righteous anger? The obvious first lesson is that it is other-centred. Jesus was not angry on his own behalf, but was indignant on behalf of others – the suffering and the marginalized. Secondly, Jesus’ anger was a springboard to action, not an attitude he harboured and nursed within his heart. There is the world of difference between anger that moves us to action and anger that shapes our personality and character. Jesus, the holy Son of God lived in a world full of human evil, whether it was expressed personally or structurally, but he was not constantly angry, and he cannot be characterized as an angry person – on the contrary, he was a man of joy.

I think there is something in this that is very important for us to grasp in a world that is increasingly characterized and shaped by anger. When I make a nesting place for anger within my heart, even if it seems to be anger for some just cause, it begins to shape my character and becomes an atmosphere that colours my every interaction. Though it may seem to serve a cause beyond myself, it increasingly grows into “my anger” and begins to become about me as much as anything else. In other words, I personalise it. At that point, I would do well to heed James’ caution, human anger does not produce the righteousness of God.

Harbouring anger quickly turns my focus onto the rightness of my point of view, and it hooks into the inner working of the self. It then positions me in opposition to those who don’t share my viewpoint and who act in such a way as to cause offence to my system of belief. In this case the whole process serves a “righteousness” which is closer to self-righteousness than the righteousness of God. When I harbour this sort of anger it gives me permission to feel “justified” when my words and actions express that anger, even if they are critical and judgemental. In my experience, that is a false “justification”, and it is very different from the justification that God gives, which is always born of grace.

The practice of what might be termed the politics of anger, creates an oppositional environment which tends to close options, and hardens people in their “positions”. It quickly becomes a win-lose game and often simply ends with lose-lose. As I look at Jesus, even in his moments of expressing anger, he always aims at opening horizons for people and providing them with room to change. That is because anger was always a servant to grace. Jesus was clear about his mission, I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world (John 12:47).

There is so much that is wrong in our world and in our society. Human sin expresses itself personally and systemically. We feel the pain of all this, as, indeed, we must. Pain naturally stings our emotions and stirs anger within us. What will we do with this anger? Will we harbour and nurse it? Will we personalise it? Will we weaponise it? Or will we subordinate it to grace and then act on it in a way that brings God’s redemption into areas of social or personal infection? Will we steadfastly choose to honour people for their intrinsic worth and look to open options for transformation that yield win-win results? That, I think, is what righteous anger looks like.

Rob Taylor, 04/02/2021


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Taryn Galloway, 06/05/2015