Christians often make two mistakes when they think of anger. Some Christians say Christ forbids all anger because it’s murderous. But other Christians claim that every kind of anger about sin and error is righteous. Neither perspective, however, is biblical. The Bible is very precise when it comes to anger.
1. The Bible forbids sinful anger.
According to the Lord Jesus Christ, sinful anger is a violation of the 6th commandment, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Expounding on the original Old Testament meaning of the 6th commandment, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).
Sinful anger involves murdering others in our hearts, using our words to murder their reputations, to belittle them, insult them, call them names, and to make them feel as though they are less than divine images. 1 John 3:15 says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer: and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
The root of sinful anger is idolatry. It may be that someone wants a good thing too much (concupiscence), which is idolatry. For example, someone may want justice. But he wants justice so badly, that he boils over in the unrestrained passion of sinful anger and lashes out hatefully at those who have committed sins or crimes. Or it may be that someone is jealous of another as Joseph’s brothers were jealous of his relationship to his father, and it led to murderous words and acts. It could also be that someone is envious of the possessions or positions of another person, which can lead to rivalry, bitterness, and hatred.
2. The Bible commands loving anger.
While sinful anger is a violation of the 6th commandment, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13), loving anger is a positive command. In fact, you can only keep the 6th commandment, if you are lovingly angry against evil. Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin.” Notice that this is an imperative. You must “be angry,” but you must not sin. So, what does Paul mean?
What does it mean not to sin? 1 John 3:4 says, “Sin is lawlessness,” which is why the catechism says, “Sin is any transgression of the law of God.” But what’s at the root of God’s law? It’s love. Romans 13:10 says, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” So when Paul says, “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26), he means “Be angry and love.” “Be angry and don’t break any of God’s good commandments.”
So, what does loving anger look like? What does anger look like, if it is not murderous but promotes life? Scripture gives us a wonderful description of the character of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, “Love is patient, and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Loving anger has all of those qualities. If your anger doesn’t have those characteristics, it is not loving anger.
So, what does it mean to be angry in a loving way? Obviously this is not the kind of anger we tend to think about when we use the word anger. But a definition of loving anger is as follows: Loving anger is a resolute determination to oppose evil with a forceful commitment to love God and others and to promote what is good and right. “Anger” is an emotion, which, like all emotions, can be either sinful or loving. It’s a policy of opposition to something. The means by which you oppose evil determines whether your anger is murderous or loving.
Nonetheless, even with loving anger, we need to be careful. Loving anger should be limited and brief. Paul says, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). You shouldn’t go to bed with loving anger in your heart.
Furthermore, while loving anger is sometimes absolutely necessary, it does not ultimately produce righteousness. It can help to slow the progress of evil. But anger doesn’t produce righteousness. James says, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness God requires” (James 1:19).
3. Loving anger is only possible in Christ, under the grace of the gospel.
The Lord Jesus Christ was never sinfully angry. He never murdered anyone, but He was a murder victim (Acts 2:23). He fulfilled the law’s command “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13), and He paid the penalty for murderers so they can be reconciled to a holy God, and turned into people who promote life and love others with their words and actions.
The Lord Jesus mercifully loved people who hated Him (Romans 5:1-8). He never reviled (verbally abused) others (1 Peter 2:23). He never once quarreled with anyone (Matthew 12:19). He was humble and gentle in heart (Matthew 11:29).
But the Lord Jesus was lovingly angry, when he cleansed the temple (John 2:13-17). In cleansing the temple, however, He never physically harmed anyone. He never insulted, ridiculed, or belittled anyone. He was even careful to protect other people’s property, while He turned over the tables of the money-changers. He had great compassion, even while He forcefully opposed and loved the enemies of God and sought to defend and protect those they were oppressing. He didn’t lie about them. He didn’t try to make them look worse than they were. He was extremely cautious, even while He zealously and lovingly and angrily opposed them.
In Christ, beloved, your sins of anger are completely forgiven. He freely gives you eternal life, which means you have no reason to be angry. You have nothing to be jealous about, nothing to covet, nothing to want too much because you have Jesus and in Him you have everything. You are seated at the right hand of God with Him; so, what do you have to be murderously angry about? Nothing! He has loved you so much, given His life for you, so how could you do anything other than love Him and love others in His good name?