Article by Ray Ortlund
Pastor, Nashville, Tennessee
The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:20)
Our world, including our Christian circles, gives us opportunities galore for anger. It’s not as though provocations lie on only one side of the theological, political, or cultural divides. Bob Dylan was right: “Everything is broken.” No wonder, then, that a whole lot can light the fuse of our anger.
Our nation is angry these days — more than I’ve ever seen before. I remember 1968, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, and the riots in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Our nation was writhing in anguish and rage. 2020 seems worse, for multiple reasons too obvious to mention.
We have our personal reasons for anger too. I don’t mean just fighting traffic or settling an argument between the kids. I mean horrible experiences, with permanently life-altering repercussions. And we never “just get over it.” Who of us skates through this life without being betrayed, shamed, lied about — for starters? Some days it can be hard to get out of bed and face the day. A low-grade fever of churning anger can leave us exhausted.
But what if we never got angry? What would that say about us? What if we could see Jesus trivialized, the gospel denied, people oppressed, women degraded, children abused, lies popularized, injustice strengthened, and so forth — what if we looked at all that and felt nothing? How dead would we be inside?
But unlike our Lord, when we get angry, we can corrupt it. We can complicate our anger with selfishness, wounded pride, impatience, lust for revenge, plus a lot more — and without even realizing it. But surely we can all agree on this: our anger can be good, and it can be bad, and it can even mingle good and bad together. So, we must weigh our anger carefully (and continue to weigh it throughout our lives).
As I try to navigate the crosscurrents of my own anger, a number of verses have helped guide me.
Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. (Psalm 4:4)
I don’t think David is commanding us to get riled up. (Do we need to be told?) He is allowing anger for good reasons and dignifying legitimate anger. But he is also calling us to examine ourselves. The wise are self-aware enough to filter out the bad feelings mixed into their anger before they let it out. But “a fool gives full vent to his spirit” (Proverbs 29:11).
See how Psalm 4:4 calls us to restraint? The “be angry” at the beginning is matched by “be silent” at the end, with “do not sin” and “ponder” in between. It’s a total package. The right kind of anger is not hotheaded, not impulsive, not screaming rage, but careful and thoughtful. Wise anger is calmly deliberate. Derek Kidner makes it practical: “Sleep on it before you act” (Psalms 1–72, 73). Or before you tweet.
What Makes Anger Christian
Then, in the New Testament, the apostle Paul quotes Psalm 4:4, offering further guidance:
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26–27)
Surprisingly, only a few verses later, he also writes, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you” (Ephesians 4:31). So, there are two different kinds of anger: the anger that is truly Christian and helps others, and the anger that just fumes and rages and points the finger and scolds. Christian indignation feels grief when it encounters anything that denies Christ or degrades people. This Christian anger is set apart from selfish fury in at least three ways.
First, “Be angry and do not sin.” Christian anger does not indulge in sin to make its point and get what it wants. So, let’s be honest with ourselves. When we’re upset, what’s really going on inside? Are we filled with the blessed power of the Holy Spirit, or are we driven by the negative energy of self-assertion? And if we don’t even want to face these diagnostics, the answer is obvious. That’s when we need to stop whatever we’re doing, humble ourselves before the Lord, calm down, and not sin.
William Edgar, in his amazing essay “Justification and Violence,” helps us see how our moral fervor can morph into our own grotesque ritual atonement, a counterfeit Calvary, where we make someone else pay, with their blood, for our own self-hatred and shame. Elizabeth O’Connor explains, “What we repress in ourselves, we will project onto the neighbor and try to destroy there.” That kind of anger is sinful — very sinful, and very common.
But Christian anger doesn’t create victims. It gathers allies, for God’s glory. It reasons with others, giving them an opportunity to respond well. In Ephesians 4:32, Paul writes, “Be kind to one another.” That word kind says more than “Be nice to one another.” The word Paul uses here is the same word our Lord uses when he says, “My yoke is easy” (Matthew 11:30). To be kind, therefore, is to make a situation as easy as it can be for others. Kindness asks, “As I state my case, how can I make a positive response as easy as possible?” Foolish anger doesn’t think that way. It doesn’t even attempt to bring healing. Foolish anger just explodes. Christian anger, on the other hand, cares enough to stop and think, rather than add a sinful response to an already sinful situation.
Second, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Selfish anger thinks, “Let them stew in their misery for a while! Serves them right.” Selfish anger relishes the offender’s ongoing sufferings. But Christian anger doesn’t hold out, doesn’t nurse a grudge, doesn’t let a relational wound fester over time.
When we’re open to Jesus, a new sensitivity enters our hearts. For example, if this week we remember that a brother or sister has something against us, and we see Sunday coming, then we know what to do: “First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” in worship at church (Matthew 5:24). Jesus said, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser” (Matthew 5:25). I wonder if this is the command we most often disobey.
We can let the sun go down on our anger day after day, week after week, year after year. We risk losing any opportunity for reconciliation, and we risk settling into our own hypocrisy before God. But Christian anger is eager to restore peace.
Lastly, “give no opportunity to the devil.” Christian anger knows the devil’s strategies and is determined to obey the Lord at any cost rather than serve the devil. But oblivious anger stomps on the devil’s land mines: lies, spin, slander, false accusations, lust for controversy, tribal superiority, church splits, and even outright violence. The devil loves hanging out with angry people. I suppose, for him, it’s funny how they keep falling for his same old tricks.
This is why I don’t trust my anger. And I don’t trust yours. If you come recruiting me for your cause, and your appeal is, “Look how wrong they are! We’ve got to do something!” — well, they might be wrong. They might be worse than you think. But I keep remembering the words of Paul Rees from years ago: “The early Christians did not say in dismay, ‘Look what the world has come to!’ They said in delight, ‘Look Who has come to the world!’”
That is what I intend to keep saying, by his grace, for his glory. And I don’t think anyone’s anger, including my own, deserves to complicate that glorious gospel.
I wonder what you think.Ray Ortlund (@rayortlund) is president of Renewal Ministries and a council member of The Gospel Coalition. He founded Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and now serves from Immanuel as Pastor to Pastors.