How to Distinguish between Righteous and Unrighteous Anger

How to Distinguish between Righteous and Unrighteous Anger

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There are times when it’s hard to tell if a person’s anger is righteous or not. Of course, there is the added issue of thinking the best of ourselves when it comes to our anger. Thus, the temptation to reclassify our angry moments is alluring. Righteous anger is the term we use to describe someone who is not sinning when angry; it is possible to be angry and sin not, but the question is, how do you know if your anger is righteous or unrighteous? What does righteous anger do that sinful anger cannot?

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Distinguish the Difference

Three of the more popular texts that validate righteous anger are Ephesians 4:26, James 1:20, and Matthew 21:12-14. Of course, the Psalms are full of passages where people express anger to God regarding the evil in our world. There are also the Proverbs, where we learn about sinful anger. I do not struggle with putting all of these verses together—or at least some of them—and placing them under the heading of righteous anger.

My concern is that some people are too quick to label their anger as righteous, while those on the receiving end of their anger are more hurt than helped by it. Righteous anger, for example, has elements that do not comprise sinful anger. Because of our collective tendency to esteem ourselves more than others, it is wise to have a solid, biblical footing for our beliefs and practices.

Let’s look at three of those elements in this chapter and spend some time comparing your most recent anger display with them. Think about the last time you were angry at someone. Before reading further, how would you classify it—righteous or unrighteous. Perhaps you can reflect on when you are confident your anger was righteous. How does it compare with the following analysis?

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Anger and Humility

Discerning our anger is essential, especially if we have been sinfully angry, which I’m calling unrighteous. We must identify any sin in our anger regardless of how we want to categorize it. (See my Anger Spectrum to learn more about some of the many manifestations of anger.) If we do not perceive sin in our anger, assuming it is present, we will not seek to repent, which is to put off that bad behavior.

The best starting point is a healthy dose of self-suspicion when discussing righteous anger. I refer you to that “high view of ourselves” problem that I mentioned earlier. If you are a Christian, you should have enough biblical common sense to know how quickly any of us can deceive ourselves. Unfortunately, if you are anything like me, you will not have all the clarity you need to perceive the traces of sin in your anger, primarily when you direct it toward others.

With a healthy dose of self-suspicion as our starting point, we want to ask our friends their perspectives, assuming they have observed our anger. If it’s a family member you’re asking, then everyone has an excellent leadership opportunity. Of course, if you are truly righteous in your anger, you are humble enough to ask others how they experience you. If you can’t ask the questions, you probably have your answer about your anger.

  • Do you have a healthy dose of self-suspicion about how you observe yourself?
  • Do you regularly ask others how they experience your communication? If not, why not?

Anger and Redemption

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them (Matthew 21:12-14).

The most popular passage used when talking about righteous anger is when Jesus turned the tables over in the temple. This passage is essential for any discussion on anger, but it is even more so when trying to discern the differences between righteous and unrighteous communication. This portion of Scripture is narrative; it is telling a story. The point of the passage is not about anger, though there are some things we can learn about the anger of Jesus, one of which is the redemptive nature of His anger.

Though He physically harmed a few tables, He did not physically harm any humans. The point of His anger was not to be verbally abusive toward anyone but restorative in the lives of those who would listen to Him. This outcome aligns with what Paul taught about our communication style in Ephesians; our communication must aim to build up another person.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29).

There were some people in the temple that day who were sabotaging the purposes of the temple. Jesus wanted them to know how they had defiled the temple, and He would not stand for it. His desire was not to hurt anyone but to draw attention to the unrighteous error they were making. He wanted to redeem their religion, not harm humans. Perhaps reflecting on these questions will aid you in examining your anger responses.

  • Is your anger restorative in that you are drawing attention to unrighteous errors?
  • Is the primary motive for your anger about not defiling God’s fame, or is your anger more about what you are not getting (James 4:1-3)?

Anger and Community

Another interesting observation about the anger of Jesus is that the folks who needed His restorative care were not afraid of Him. Though He hated the sinfulness He observed in the temple that day, those who needed and wanted His restorative care came to Him, seeking His tenderness and touch. You see it when Matthew talked about the blind and lame seeking out the Savior.

And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them (Matthew 21:14).

Righteous anger does not scare people away from the righteously angry person because they perceive the person’s ability to help them. Jesus was able to be angry and caring at the same time. He had power over His power. Anger is power, and so is the Spirit’s power over our lives; one power will rule and the other will submit. Our anger won’t be sinful when divine power overrides and superintends our human power. Unrighteous anger is a different beast because its unleashing comes from rogue destructive human motives and deceptions.

The anger of Jesus was Spirit-led and Spirit-managed. Spirit-controlled anger allowed Him to focus His fury on the sinfulness at hand. Unlike a raging river out of its banks, His anger did not negatively affect those who needed more than His righteous indignation. If our anger is righteous, it should not be a stumbling block to those within earshot to find help, even from the one expressing anger. Righteousness begets righteousness, not unrighteousness. Remember James 1:20?

  • Do righteous purposes control your anger, or does it jump the banks and hurt those who need your care? (I’m speaking of our patterns or habits of anger, not necessarily an episode. How does your anger characterize you?)
  • Does your anger inhibit people from engaging you for redemptive purposes?

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Call to Action

The key to this chapter is humility. If we are humble people, we will share these ideas with those within our sphere of influence to examine any needed growth areas. If you’re not willing to share these things with a friend, then you may have your answer about your anger.

As you work through the questions in this chapter with a friend, please add these, too.

  1. Do you ask others their opinion of your anger? If not, why not?
  2. Are you the only person you allow to judge your anger?
  3. Does your anger have redemptive (or restorative) purposes? Describe a time when it did and did not.
  4. Does the Spirit of God control your anger? How do you know? How did your friend respond to this question?
  5. When you are angry, do you sense the Spirit of God managing the force of your anger? Describe a moment like this and the outcome.

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