happened again. Something I’ve heard so often. A friend told me
another Christian had advised her that her angry feelings are
sinful. Hearing my friend had been counseled this way made me
feel, well . . . angry.
Now that I’ve made this confession, I
must hasten to say that I 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 many 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 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 that
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. Then
she 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 angry 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
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.
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 deeply in righteous indignation as
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 the person who is angry is being judged as
sinning, but that he is “liable to judgment.” Liable. 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 his
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
semantic 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 emotional response 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, or finding that an important file has been deleted on
our computer at work.
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
Still, accepting our anger is a
critical first step toward being able to share it in a
constructive 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 part of our motivation, on a
certain level at least. My desire to write an article or book is
fueled in part by discontent 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 frustrated that
certain needs (theirs or ours) are not being properly met. The
anger we experience in this case isn’t hostility or outrage, but
an energizing force that moves us to act constructively. It may
be more of an underlying drive, than an emotion on our “front
burner.” Still, it’s a significant factor in our motivation.
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).
me to a final point. If we can understand which situations cause
us personally to feel this energizing sort of anger, we will
gain a treasured insight into how God has fashioned our life.
When our annoyance over a problem that we or others are facing
is matched with the talent to remedy it, we have the potential
to take one of the most redemptive steps we can possibly take
with our life. We each will do well to look carefully at how God
may be inspiring us and guiding us through certain frustration
that we feel.*
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 that glorify Christ and reflect his best intentions for our