“Be ye angry, and sin not” (Ephesians 4:26).

Clarence E. Macartney, for many years the distinguished minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, writes that “anger is one of the most common sins, yet one of the most dangerous and injurious to the peace and well-being of man. More than any other sins, it blasts the flower of friendship, turns men out of Eden, destroys peace and concord in the home, incites to crime and violence, and turns love and affection into hatred” (Facing Life and Getting the Best of It, p. 47). He goes on to cite illustrations from the Bible of the havoc brought on by anger, making mention of Cain, Balaam, Moses, Naaman, and the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son.

No one—certainly no Christian—will deny that Dr. Macartney is entirely right in what he says about the devastating effects of human anger, which the Church has rightly regarded as one of the seven deadly sins. But there is another side to it. There is such a thing as righteous and even Christian anger. All profound moralists have agreed with the dictum of Thomas Fuller, that “anger is one of the sinews of the soul; he who wants it hath a maimed mind.”

The clinching illustration and proof of this are to be found in Jesus Christ himself. The gospel records make it perfectly plain that he could on occasion feel blazing anger and, feeling it, could and did give emphatic expression to it. For example, in Mark, chapter 3, the story is told of his healing on the Sabbath a man with a withered hand. When some protested that it was altogether improper to heal a man on the Sabbath, Jesus was indignant at their stubbornly perverted sense of values. The Scripture says that he “looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts.” In Matthew 23, the account is given of Jesus’ blasting the scribes and Pharisees, whom he describes as “hypocrites” for the revolting contrast between their high religious profession and their low irreligious practices. And in John 2 it is recorded that Jesus cleansed the Temple of its money-changers, insisting that his Father’s house must not be made a house of merchandise.

The Apostle Paul too was capable of righteous indignation. He says quite frankly that when Peter came to Antioch, he (Paul) withstood him to the face, “because he was to be blamed” (Gal. 2:11). Peter had wobbled, wavered, and trimmed over what to Paul—and to all subsequent vital Christianity—was a crucial issue, namely, the view that the Jewish law was in no sense to be considered binding upon Gentile converts to Christianity, since Jesus Christ alone was fully sufficient for man’s salvation. Paul was deeply angry with Peter for betraying this fundamental principle, and he had the courage to tell him so.

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Yet Paul also exhorts his Ephesian fellow Christians to “be angry and sin not.” Just what does this mean? What constitutes righteous Christian anger? In other words, how is it possible to be both good and mad?

The first characteristic of righteous anger is that it is properly motivated; that is, it is inspired and animated by unselfish considerations. Far too often our anger is rooted in selfishness, however we may try to hide this under noble motives. It is, at bottom, little more than personal resentment born of some private injury or slight. It is personal pique, caused by something that damages us in pocket, or prestige, or self-esteem.

Remember how Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, says of Antonio in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

I hate him for he is a Christian;

But more for that in low simplicity

He lends out money gratis, and brings down

The rate of usance here with us in Venice.

If I can catch him once upon the hip,

I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.

He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,

Even there where merchants most do congregate,

On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,

Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe

If I forgive him!

That is the usual character of our anger: It is motivated by basically selfish considerations.

But righteous anger, the kind that is not sinful, is not animated by personal motives at all. Jesus Christ never spoke one angry word when he was personally mistreated—not even at Calvary, when he was unjustly put to an excruciating death as a common criminal. His indignation was aroused only over wrong done to others, particularly the weak and helpless. For example, in Luke 17 he says that “it were better for [a man] that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”

A fundamental mark of righteous and Christian anger is that it boils over, not at wrong done to self, but at wrong done to others. The incident that inspired the career of the great English philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury took place when he was about fourteen. One day he was startled to hear a great shouting and yelling in a side street and the singing of a bacchanalian song. Presently the noisy party neared the comer, and to his horror he saw four or five drunken men carrying a roughly made coffin containing the body of one of their fellows. Staggering as they turned the corner, they let their burden fall and then broke out into foul language. The horrified young boy stood spellbound as the bizarre funeral procession passed. Then he exclaimed, “Good heavens! Can this be permitted, simply because the man was poor and friendless?” Before the sound of the drunken songs had died away in the distance, he had determined that, with the help of God, he would from that time on devote his life to pleading the cause of the poor and friendless (Life of Shaftesbury, by Edwin Hodder, I, 47).

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The biographer of Frederick W. Robertson, one of the greatest preachers of the nineteenth century, says this about him:

The indignation with which he heard of a base act was so intense that it rendered him sleepless. His wrath was terrible, and it did not evaporate in words. But it was Christ-like indignation. With those who were weak, crushed with remorse, fallen, his compassion, long-suffering and tenderness were as beautiful as they were unfailing. But falsehood, hypocrisy, the sin of the strong against the weak, stirred him to the very depths of his being [Life and Letters of Frederick W. Robertson, by Stopford A. Brooke, p. 106].

An almost contemporary American illustration is to be found in the well-known story of Abraham Lincoln who, on seeing the slave market at New Orleans for the first time, reportedly said: “Let’s get out of this, boys. If I ever get any chance to hit this thing, I’ll hit it hard.”

The second characteristic of righteous Christian anger is that it is properly focused and directed. That is to say, if it is really righteous and not sinful, it is directed not against persons, wrong though they be, but against wrong deeds, things, institutions, and situations. The commandment of Jesus Christ is clear and plain, that we who call ourselves Christians should love all persons, even the most sinful and unlovely. What we have to be angry against is not the wrong-doer but his wrong, not the sinner but his sin.

If we are morally in earnest, we sincerely lament and even hate our own wrong-doing, for which we make confession to God and crave his divine forgiveness. But this does not prevent us from loving ourselves, sinners though we are. C. S. Lewis puts the matter this way:

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For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did these things. Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them.… But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves; being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again [Mere Christianity, pp. 92, 93].

The third characteristic of righteous Christian anger is that it is properly implemented—that is, followed up by every possible kind of positive and constructive action to end the wrong that occasioned the anger.

A bit of verse quoted by Hubert Simpson in Put Forth by the Moon says it well:

We do not see the vital point,

That ’tis the eighth most deadly sin,

To wail, “The world is out of joint,”

And not attempt to put it in.

It is not enough to register indignation against admitted evils. The Christian must do everything he can to channel that indignation into appropriate remedial action.

For after all, real Christian anger is always the reverse side of Christian love. We as Christians should hate wrong deeply because we love the right so deeply. Our Christian love impels us to believe, as Jesus did, that every human life is infinitely precious in the sight of God; and therefore we are in duty bound, not merely to protest against whatever evils prevent human beings from reaching their full God-intended stature, but to do all in our power to end such evils.

For instance, it was characteristic of Jesus’ righteous indignation that he not only was angry at flagrant wrongs but also went about doing good, healing the sick of all sorts of diseases and offering that fullness of life which comes from entering the Kingdom of God and living as his redeemed children. Paul did not merely protest against Peter’s wavering and hedging on that crucial issue of the non-applicability of the Jewish law to Gentile converts; he also preached and practiced a Christianity in which Jesus Christ was all in all, and in which his sacrifice on Calvary was the all-sufficient remedy for human sin and acceptance of his finished work the one essential condition of eternal life.

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Shaftesbury, angry at the exploitation of the poor, the young, and the underprivileged, advocated concrete measures in Parliament for ending that exploitation and worked incessantly and sacrificially until appropriate legislation was passed to humanize conditions in mines, factories, and workshops throughout Britain. Not only did Abraham Lincoln register his vow to hit slavery hard; when he had the opportunity, in 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It is always characteristic of righteous anger that it not only protests but also proposes, that it not only raises its voice to object but also raises its hand to remedy.

The immediate relevance of this is illustrated by a passage from The Temptation to Be Good, by A. Powell Davies:

That is one of the truly serious things that has happened to the multitude of so-called ordinary people. They have forgotten how to be indignant. This is not because they are overflowing with human kindness, but because they are morally soft and compliant. When they see evil and injustice, they are pained but not revolted. They mutter and mumble, they never cry out. They commit the sin of not being angry.
Yet their anger is the one thing above all others that would make them count. If they cannot lead crusades, or initiate reforms, they can at least create the conditions in which crusades can be effectual and reforms successful. The wrath of the multitude could bring back decency and integrity into public life; it could frighten the corrupt demagogue into silence and blast the rumor-monger into oblivion. It could give honest leaders a chance to win [p. 119].

George Matheson, the Scottish hymn-writer and preacher, once said this: “There are times when I do well to be angry, but I have mistaken the times.” It is our Christian duty to be angry at the right times, in the right way, and against the right things, that right may triumph and wrong be put to flight.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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