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
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
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
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
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.