By Wayne Kiehne
Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do? If you’re anything like me, then there’s nothing that boils you up with anger more than someone hurting your pride and image with a public false accusation. In fact, if you’re anything like me, then even a completely true accusation might get under your skin. Not all that much has changed since the era of kings and nobles and knights, it seems. Honor is still currency. We must defend our honor.
This is how anger often goes with us humans. I feel slighted, I feel neglected, I feel mistreated, and I feel dishonored. That referee called a terrible foul on me (meanwhile I’ve conveniently ignored all the calls that did go in my favor). That stupid guy on the road cut me off (even though I did the same thing to someone else this morning). Some of my friends went out and didn’t invite me (though just last week, I hosted a get-together myself, conveniently leaving out the people I don’t particularly like). Those are the circumstances that tend to accompany our anger. The focus of our anger is ourselves.
In a culture that appears to be reaching its boiling point for anger and hate, many Christians seem insistent on perusing the Scriptures to justify their own “sanctified” version of that anger. We tend to look at the few recorded instances of Jesus getting clearly angry and use that as an excuse for our own anger, rather than looking at all the times Jesus didn’t get angry when we certainly would have.
Jesus’ life was full of opportunities for an angry blow-up. If someone took the time to write a book about how I might have responded to many of his circumstances, there would have been a lot more table-flipping. Despite being a walking target for unwarranted accusations, Jesus was always “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 145:8). I can’t be on Twitter for more than five minutes without becoming enraged at the stupidity of some people, and yet the infinitely wise Jesus was endlessly longsuffering with the dimwitted disciples. The Son of God was constantly surrounded by thankless, rude, and self-righteous people. And yet, the amount of times Scripture speaks of Jesus getting truly angry during his ministry on earth is few and far between.
Unfortunately, instead of looking for excuses to love, many spend their time and energy coming up with excuses to be angry. How crazy is that, when you really think about it? What kind of person actually looks for a reason to be mad? People who are no fun to be around, that’s who.
More importantly, though, these are also the kind of people who fail to demonstrate the fruit of the gospel. The fruit of the Spirit pits itself firmly against an attitude of anger. Nearly every single one of these fruits, if used, will make it incredibly difficult to be angry: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). The fruit of the Spirit is actually a stumbling block to anger!
It is my contention that it is much healthier and more biblical to address life through a lens that looks to love. Rather than getting mad about something and then following that up with Bible passages that excuse our anger, we should set out to pursue a life of love, doing our best to stay as far away from anger as possible. That is the much safer route to take. It is how we fulfill God’s call to be people who are slow to anger (Jas. 1:19–20, Ecc. 7:9).
And yet, you may be thinking, we still have instances of Jesus getting angry. What are we to do with those? I would suggest that, as far as our actions are concerned, nothing should change. We do not need to go out looking for things to be righteously angry about because when we go out looking for opportunities to love God and love others, we will inevitably be led to a righteous sort of anger. “What is righteous anger?” is the wrong question to ask. We should be asking, “What is biblical love?”
This is the backwards thinking that sets us on the wrong course. Righteous anger is not the starting point. If we start by looking for how we can have righteous anger, we will inevitably end up with a sinful kind of anger. It is only when one starts with love that they can then end up with the kind of anger that is acceptable in God’s eyes. Proper love results in proper anger, but a desire for proper anger first will only result in a distorted love.
When we look at the character of Jesus, it was always his love that prompted his anger, not the other way around. When Jesus barged into the temple with a whip and flipped over the tables of the money-changers, it was love that motivated him. He gives us this explanation for his actions, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers” (Mt. 21:13). These people had dishonored God by taking something that was holy and replacing it with something that was evil. Jesus, in this instance, loved his Father too much to let his temple be desecrated and loved people too much to watch them be robbed.
It was God’s glory and the people’s welfare that were at stake. Out of his love for both, anger was manifested.
In the story of the man with the withered hand, we are told that two groups of people ended up angry in the situation. Jesus, after asking whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, stared at a silent crowd. In the silence, Scripture tells us that Jesus “looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mk. 3:5). He is grieved because he stares at a group of lost sheep—a people who have hardened their hearts towards God’s gospel, God’s law, and God’s people. And it is this very hardness of heart that leads to the second group of people who get angry: the Pharisees. After the man is healed, Luke 6:11 tells us that the Pharisees “were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.”
Too often, we take stock of the world and pick out the things about which we want to be angry. We are hard-hearted creatures. We want to be mad because it makes us feel important and feeds into our self-righteousness. We tend to feel fury like the Pharisees.
But true godly anger doesn’t come from a heart that is hard. It comes from a heart that is grieved. That is the heart of Jesus.