June 1, 1999
 Is Anger a Sin?
It Depends on How We
Handle It; Sometimes It's Beneficial
    
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A friend recently told me that another Christian had advised her that angry feelings are sinful. Hearing she had been counseled this way made me feel, well, angry.

Now that I've confessed my sins, I must hasten to say that I really don't think I was sinning merely by feeling angry at that moment, although the potential for saying or doing something unkind was certainly there.

The assumption that the feeling of anger is sinful is so deeply embedded in Christian thinking that many never question it. It's the instinctive belief of most Christians who haven't looked carefully at biblical teaching on anger. I don't deny that some are able to hold this belief without serious danger occurring to their well-being. And it restrains some from acting out their anger in hurtful ways.

For many, the effect is far less fortunate. Not a few Christians go through life feeling guilty for each experience of angry feelings.

Take the case of Christine. Several in her office tease her about being a Christian. Two of her coworkers are particularly insensitive, and crack jokes which Christine finds offensive. Since Christine believes that a Christian shouldn't experience angry feelings--let alone express them--she bites her tongue and tries to act pleasant whenever her office mates make fun of her. Although she prays for charitable feelings toward them, she still feels resentful. She then gets angry at herself for feeling bitter.

This vicious emotional cycle exhausts Christine and intensifies the anger she feels toward her associates. On several occasions she has erupted angrily at them. These outbursts have deepened her self-disdain, and left her fellow employees even more skeptical about her faith.

Ironically, Christine's assumption that feeling anger is off limits for a Spirit-filled Christian is a major part of the problem. Her constant self-judgment makes it difficult for her to face her feelings honestly and control them. If Christine regarded anger as normal and acceptable, she would be able to own her feelings better, and to express them appropriately to her coworkers before she lost control.

Missing the Point

The belief that we sin by feeling angry is usually derived from Jesus' familiar statement in the Sermon on the Mount:

"You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire." (Mt 5:21-22 RSV)

On the surface Jesus does seem to say that the emotion of anger is sinful in itself--as condemnable as a murderous act that might spring from it. In the same spirit he seems to indict the feeling of lust as tantamount to the sin of adultery several verses later (vv. 27-28).

When we look beyond the Sermon on the Mount, however, we find other New Testament passages which show that negative emotions can occur without sin being present. Thus Paul declares, "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger" (Eph 4:26 RSV). Paul clearly indicates that we can feel angry without sinning. How can this be?

The usual Christian response is that we experience two types of anger: "righteous indignation" and "sinful anger." One is directed at a noble cause, the other at a selfish one; one is admirable, the other deplorable.

Scripture, though, never makes this distinction, which ignores the nature of human motivation. Pride and hurt feelings can run as deep in righteous indignation as they do in any other type of anger. Anger is the same emotion, whether evoked by a righteous concern or a dishonorable one. I frankly wish we would throw the term righteous indignation out of our Christian vocabulary; far too much self-righteousness is encouraged by it.

But how, then, does Paul's counsel to be angry but not sin reconcile with Jesus' teaching on anger in the Sermon on the Mount? Here it's important to note what Jesus says and what he doesn't. He doesn't say that one who is angry is being judged as sinful but that this person is liable to judgement. He or she is at a highly vulnerable point--a hair's breadth, perhaps, from doing something rash. But this is different from saying that this person is sinning simply by feeling angry. This point is well-captured by Vernon Grounds in Emotional Problems and the Gospel:

"Does our Lord mean that a mere feeling of anger is no different from the actual crime of murder? He can scarcely mean . . . that. No, He is reminding us, rather, of what can happen if an angry feeling is allowed to fester in our minds. . . . He is also counseling us to be on guard against the illusion that as His disciples, we no longer have those drives and impulses that can break out into violence."*

Jesus' point, then, isn't that anger is a sinful emotion but a dangerous one. When we examine the New Testament thoroughly on the point, in fact, we never find it condemning any emotion as sinful in itself. It's always the action which proceeds from an emotion that is judged sinful. Again, "Be angry but do not sin."

In this same spirit James speaks of sin occurring when lust has "conceived" (Jas 1:15). And when Jesus declares in the Sermon on the Mount that a man who "looks" upon a woman lustfully commits adultery, he isn't referring to the mere feeling of sexual desire but to an intentional look. This is clear in the Greek, where the emphasis is upon the action of looking; sin occurs when I choose to nurture the feeling of lust, not merely through the emotion itself.

Accepting the Feeling

The point is more than an academic or semantical one. If we believe that the feeling of anger is sinful, we'll be inclined to judge ourselves unfairly whenever we feel angry. We'll assume that God is displeased with us, and we may find it harder to approach him for help. We'll be likely to repress the feeling of anger, with all the psychological backlash that can result, and we'll be sitting ducks for the sort of emotional cycle that Christine experiences.

If we can accept our feelings of anger as normal, human and not condemned by God, then we'll find it easier to own these emotions, work through them and move beyond them. Here Scripture gives us not only a doctrinal basis for accepting our feelings but extensive examples as well. Many of the most impressive personalities in Scripture are shown displaying angry feelings without incurring God's displeasure. Consider how often David expresses anger in the midst of his most exalted statements of praise in the Psalms.

Or consider the encounter Jesus himself had with the fig tree (Mk 11:12-14, 11:20-21). Mark tells us that Jesus, being hungry, was annoyed because a certain fig tree had no fruit, even though there was a perfectly good reason for its barrenness--it wasn't the season of figs! Yet Jesus cursed the fig tree. Though many look for a higher spiritual meaning in this incident, the fact remains that Jesus went through a very real human experience of anger in this case. We should take encouragement from this passage, for it gives us a basis for accepting the feelings of irritation we experience in aggravating incidents of daily life, such as getting stuck in traffic.

I don't mean that merely accepting our feelings of anger guarantees that we'll end up expressing them sensitively. We face a significant further challenge in learning to share our negative feelings in a way that is considerate to other people--that strengthens our bond with them rather than destroys it. Learning to give "I" messages rather than "you" messages, and to carefully think though the effect of what we say on others before we speak, can make an enormous difference.

Still, accepting our anger is a critical first step toward being able to share it in a sensitive manner. When we feel guilty for being angry, we're more inclined to ignore our anger and let it fester. Outbursts are much more likely, which embarrass those around us and ourselves. Anger controls us before we have the chance to control it through a sensitive response.

Constructive Motivation from Anger

There is also a positive, even essential, side to anger. I doubt that we ever accomplish anything fruitful when anger isn't at least part of our motivation. My desire to write an article or book is fueled in part by anger over how I believe an issue has been mistreated and the unfortunate effect misconceptions have had on others. If you or I do anything to help someone else, or to improve our own life, it's because we're angry that certain needs (theirs or ours) are not being properly met. The anger we experience in this case isn't hostility but an energizing force which moves us to act constructively. I would like to hear more emphasis in Christian teaching upon this positive role of anger in motivating us (but without terming it righteous indignation).

Anger is not a sinful emotion but a human one. Dangerous? Yes, in the same way that energy itself is dangerous. But like any energy source, it can be channeled in a positive or harmful direction. Much of the key to dealing effectively with anger is learning to harness it and direct in ways which glorify Christ and reflect his best intentions for our life.
   

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