Dr. Joe Raphael
Anger is one of those emotions that we’ve all felt at one point or another. It may have felt justified at the time, or we may feel we crossed a line. It’s a complex emotion that can arise within us suddenly or gradually swell over time until it is expressed. Anger can be good or bad – what matters is how we handle it and what stirs it up.Dealing with anger gets tricky when we look at it through the lens of the Bible. If you had a religious upbringing, that experience may have taught you to keep your emotions, especially anger, in check, and so you may tend toward suppressing your feelings of anger instead of expressing them because that’s what good people do.
For others, the expression of anger may have taken a turn that is rightly labeled as violent, and that may have become normalized in their experience. As we pointed out, anger isn’t good or bad, but what we do with it is what matters.
When it comes to anger, neither suppressing it nor expressing it in ways that are harmful to others is healthy. Squashing down and ignoring your feelings of anger or resorting to giving people the silent treatment when you’re angry with them is also problematic and harmful for you and the people with whom you’re in a relationship. Similarly, expressing that anger by hitting, shouting, cursing, or through passive-aggressive behavior, is not a healthy way to deal with it.
If a believer wants their life, which is comprised of their interior disposition, character, and actions, to be shaped in ways that please God, then the only place to turn for guidance is the Bible, which contains stories, pithy aphorisms, doctrine, and proverbs about life about this thorny issue of anger. Far from being simplistic about how we deal with anger, the Bible paints a complex narrative that reflects how messy life is while guiding us and providing the resources we need to navigate life.
Believers would do well to wrestle with what the Bible says about anger. Of course, in the 21st Century, many would question the wisdom of turning to a text that is thousands of years old and written in a radically different context to look for guidance. But to quote one part of the Bible, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Sure, we have made huge technological advancements, but the Bible is saying that what makes up human life remains the same and that doesn’t change. We still deal with issues of loss, heartbreak, betrayal, corruption, deception, joy, and the pursuit of happiness, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re doing these things using Instagram or papyrus. The humanity behind it all, the realities and complexities of human existence are still the same.
What the Bible says about anger
The Bible has many stories and parts that span genres, detailing vastly different situations, and so it’s difficult to say everything that the Bible says about any one subject. That includes the topic of anger, and thus the heading of this section. We’ll start in the Old Testament and move our way through as we see what the Bible says about anger.
It can ruin relationships.
From almost the beginning, human relationships have been threatened by unchecked anger. The two brothers Cain and Abel, whose names have become synonymous with sibling rivalry, show up early in the pages of the Bible.
The brothers offered sacrifices to God, but God was only pleased with Abel’s sacrifice. Instead of taking it as a learning opportunity, Cain became angry at his brother and plotted to kill him. God told Cain to set aside his anger and not let it lead him into sin. But Cain chose not to listen and killed his brother.
We learn at least three important things from this story. First, anger can provoke a response that’s vastly disproportionate to the slight. Abel wasn’t trying to outdo his brother – his focus was on God. But Cain took it personally, and rather than address his issues with God, he took out his frustration on his brother.
Second, we also learn that we must be careful of what we get angry about. God says to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
God wanted Cain to evaluate his anger to understand what was going on in his heart. We can get angry over many things, but one question should always be whether our anger is justified. You can find this account in Genesis 4.
It can undermine the work of years.
Moses was God’s servant whom he chose to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt into a new, promised land. When God’s people proved themselves unfaithful (which was often), Moses repeatedly proved faithful, steering God’s people in the way they should go.
Though they left Egypt and should have made it to the promised land in the proper time, because of their disobedience, God’s people wandered the desert for forty years, and so it would only be when Moses was an old man that he would get to the promised land.
However, on one of the many occasions that God’s people were disobedient, God commanded Moses to speak to a rock and provide water for the thirsty, grumbling people. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses in his anger toward the people struck the rock twice.
Though water gushed from the rock as God had promised, Moses had acted out of anger and disobeyed what the Lord said. Because of that, God told him that he would see but not enter the promised land. Leaders placed over God’s people are held to a high standard, and that act of angry disobedience on Moses’ part disqualified him from entering the promised land. You can undermine the work of years in one angry outburst. You can find this account in Numbers 20.
It interferes with effective communication and the life God desires.
Have you ever noticed that when you’re angry, it’s hard for you to listen to what other people are saying? Anger typically gets in the way of noticing emotional and non-verbal cues. One good communication skill is to delay judgment and avoid rushing to conclusions when you’re listening to someone – it allows you to notice nuance.
Besides preventing good listening, anger can make us say things we wouldn’t otherwise say or say those things we regret the moment we say them. Apart from merely being a hindrance to effective communication, anger can get in the way of the righteous life God desires for us. From the example of Cain, we know that anger can lead us into all sorts of situations, including murder, assault, and extramarital sexual encounters as a form of revenge.
There is such a thing as righteous anger, but we must be careful of our anger because as imperfect people we don’t always get angry at things that anger God, and we don’t always react in ways that aren’t sinful when we are (righteously) angry. James 1:19-20 reads, “My brothers and sisters, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry because human anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires”.
It is sometimes necessary.
When you read the Bible, you see that God gets angry. It comes up quite a lot in the Old Testament, but also in the New. Jesus gets angry at the Pharisees because, in their hardness of heart, they would rather see a person continue to suffer than relax rules of their own making that condemned Jesus for performing a miracle on the sabbath (see Mark 3: 1-6).
This happens again and again as Jesus confronts the moralism and unwillingness of the religious leaders to do what is patently good and right because they feared losing face before the people.
God’s anger is directed toward evil in all its manifestations, and God has a settled and measured commitment against wickedness of all stripes. God isn’t erratic about what angers him, nor is his response an emotionally driven outburst that’s unpredictable and random. As God describes himself, he is, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…” (Exodus 34:6-7). God in his wisdom knows when it is appropriate for his anger to result in judgment, something that we frequently struggle with.
Human anger is complex, and our responses to it even more so. The Bible challenges us to reflect upon our anger and find ways to express it that aren’t harmful to others. Being angry can be sinful or righteous but being slow to get angry is the way that believers are urged to follow God.
By giving us examples of what happens when anger gets out of control, we are taught how to deal with our anger. If you find that you struggle to keep your anger in check, or that relationships and goals you’ve worked for end up in ruins because of uncontrolled anger, it may be that anger has a hold on you and you should strongly consider anger management therapy as an option to help you gain self-control.
“Clouds”, Courtesy of Marek Szturc, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Standing on the Beach at Sunrise”, Courtesy of Mishal Ibrahim, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Ripples”, Courtesy of Ameen Fahmy, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Dock”, Courtesy of Brian Fegter, Unsplash.com, CC0 License