P & R Publishing
Anger is a universal problem, prevalent in every culture, experienced by every generation. No one is isolated from its presence or immune from its poison. It permeates each person and spoils our most intimate relationships. Anger is a given part of our fallen human fabric.
Sadly, this is true even in our Christian homes and churches. The believer in Christ is not exempt from anger. His words and gestures betray it. He wrestles with its remnants within, realizing the task assigned by 1 Peter 2:11, “to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul,” and heeding the call of Ephesians 4:31, to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” He battles it daily.
Jack became a Christian at age seventeen and met Jill when he was twenty-four. In their eleven years of marriage, God has blessed them with steady employment, a comfortable home, and two healthy children. In many ways, they are living the American middle-class dream. They are active members of their local church and serve Christ each week as Sunday-school teachers.
Yet beneath this veneer of success lurks long-standing relational dynamics of anger. A high achiever and hard worker, Jack drives himself and his family to perform up to his standards. And when he doesn’t get the results he wants—Jill’s affection, his supervisor’s approval, his daughter’s obedience—Jack explodes.
Jill, too, has an anger problem, though she rarely erupts. Inside she resents Jack for the demands he places on her and their daughters. At times she even feels betrayed by God. Why did you let me marry him? she murmurs to God. I never knew it would turn out like this. She resonates with that frustrated wife who once quipped, “When I married I was looking for a great deal, but instead found it to be an ordeal, and now I want a new deal.”
Do you see the dynamic? Can you relate to it? Jill reacts to Jack’s blowups by withdrawing; Jack reacts to her withdrawing by blowing up. They feed each other’s anger, and, to extend the metaphor, they willingly digest it and reply in kind. Both attack and defend. Both retreat and wallow. Both feel justified. Meanwhile, their relational gulf widens, their children inhale their secondhand smoke, and God is dishonored. We’ll return to Jack and Jill in a later chapter.
Anger is easier to describe than to define. We can’t always dissect it, but we know it when we see it in others or feel it rising in our own veins. Our friend’s protestation, “Angry? No, I’m not angry,” rarely fools us, any more than our denials cover our angry expressions. You and I, and Jack and Jill, are more angry than we care to admit.
So what is anger? While the Bible presents no formal definition, it repeatedly pictures angry people. It uses a wide variety of terms that flavor our understanding. Scripture graphically describes the many forms of anger, warns us against sinful anger, and prescribes wise ways to uproot it.
A WORKING DEFINITION OF “ANGER”
Let’s start with a working definition of “anger,” a definition that brings together the biblical data into user-friendly categories.
OUR ANGER IS OUR WHOLE-PERSONED ACTIVE RESPONSE OF NEGATIVE MORAL JUDGMENT AGAINST PERCEIVED EVIL.
This definition imbeds several key ideas.
1. Our anger is an active response. It is an action, an activity. Anger is something we do, not something we have. It is not a thing, a fluid, or a force. The Bible pictures people who do anger, not have anger.
2. Our anger is a whole-personed active response. It involves our entire being and engages our whole person. We must resist various compartmentalized distinctions that emerge from pop psychology rather than from Scripture. Much popular literature labels anger as simply an “emotion.”1 Meanwhile, cognitive theorists stress belief systems, and behaviorists focus on angry reactions.
God’s Word, of course, recognizes and addresses anger’s many emotional, cognitive, volitional, and behavioral aspects. Anger in Scripture conveys emotion, spanning the spectrum from red-hot rage to icy-blue rejection. But it always involves beliefs and motives, perceptions and desires. And the Bible describes it in behavioral terms that are rich and graphic.
Yet the Bible does not slice the pie into neat analytic categories. Anger is more than mere emotion, volition, cognition, or behavior. Scripture resists simplistic schemes. Anger is complex. It comprises the whole person and encompasses our whole package of beliefs, feelings, actions, and desires.
3. Our anger is a response against something. It does not arise in a vacuum or appear spontaneously. Anger reacts against some provocation. Such a provocation, of course, must not be viewed as a causation (“He made me angry.” “I was angry because my car broke down.”). As we’ll see in chapter 3, anger’s causal core lies in our active hearts. But our active hearts are always responding to the people and events in daily life.
4. Our anger, in essence, involves a negative moral judgment that we make. It arises from our judicial sense and functions under the larger dynamic of judgmentalism. In this sense, we may call anger a “moral emotion.”2 Anger protests, “What you did was wrong!” It pronounces, “That action is unjust!” It pleads, “This must stop!” Anger objects to wrongs committed.
We call it a “negative” moral judgment not because it is always sinful but because it opposes the perceived evil. Our anger postures us against what we determine to be evil. It casts negative mental votes against unjust actions. It determines that all offenders must change, be punished, or be removed. It issues mental death-penalty verdicts against the guilty. No wonder Jesus taught that anger is the moral equivalent of murder: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matt. 5:21–22). The apostle John repeats this truth: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him” (1 John 3:15).
There is, however, another sense in which our anger is moral. We do it before God’s face, coram Deo, in the sight of him who gazes into the very depths of our being.3 His eyes pierce and penetrate our inward beliefs and motives. And the God who sees most assuredly judges every aspect of our anger activity (Prov. 5:21; 15:3; 16:2; Jer. 17:9–10; Heb. 4:12–13).
5. Our anger involves a judgment against perceived evil. Our moral judgment arises from our personal perception. In anger we perceive some action, object, situation, or person to be evil or unjust. Jack and Jill see things in each other that they dislike and oppose.
Our perceptions, of course, may be accurate or inaccurate. We may assess the other person’s actions in correct or incorrect ways. To further complicate things, our responses to our perceptions may then be godly or ungodly. In any event, our anger arises from our value system. It expresses our beliefs and motives. When a tyrant murders an innocent citizen, we perceive that act to be unjust and we react with anger. When the state executes a ruthless serial killer whose evil is beyond a reasonable doubt, we react with approval.
One theologian summarizes the biblical evidence for anger as judgmentalism: “Human anger is usually directed against other men. The reason for human anger can be that someone has been treated unjustly . . . , that one sees how other men are exploited . . . , or that one’s fellow men manifest disobedience or unbelief in God.”4
One benefit of our working definition is that it allows us to cut through some common smokescreens we might offer. “I’m not angry,” we lamely protest. “I’m just frustrated (or bothered or upset).” But what the two different words might connote becomes irrelevant when we see that they both are reactions to some perceived unfairness or injustice. We may quibble about nuanced distinctions between such words as “anger” and “frustration,” but the bottom line is that I am reacting to what you wrongly did to me.
Our working definition of “anger” lines up with the descriptions of several wise thinkers. The Puritan pastor Richard Baxter described anger as “the rising up in the heart in passionate displacency against an apprehended evil, which would cross or hinder us of some desired good.”5 Notice several key components in Baxter’s definition. Anger comes from within, from “the heart.” It includes a negative emotional response, a “passionate displacency.” Anger opposes evil as we perceive it, “an apprehended evil.” And we regard that person or situation as evil because it interferes with what we want. It “would cross or hinder us of some desired good.” Anger comes when circumstances or people thwart our lusts.
Another contemporary pastor offers a comparable definition: anger is “a hot displeasure of the heart or soul which is experienced in response to something you perceive to be wrong, and which calls for just retribution or repayment.”6 Again, anger includes the emotional experience of “hot displeasure.” It arises from a fundamental perception of something as wrong. And it invites a volitional desire to repay.
BIBLICAL CATEGORIES OF ANGER
How does our definition fit the various forms of anger in Scripture? We can classify anger biblically into three categories: divine anger, human righteous anger, and human sinful anger.
Let’s begin with divine anger, a subject that surprises many novice Bible readers. Statistically the vast majority of biblical references to anger are about God. One prominent Bible scholar observes that twenty different Hebrew words alone refer to God’s indignation against evil.7 All fourteen occurrences of the most frequent Hebrew verb (anaph) and 181 of the 229 occurrences of the related noun (aph) refer to God’s anger. When we add the rest of the Old and New Testament vocabulary, we discover several hundred references to God’s anger in the Bible. In one sense, God is both the most loving and the most angry person on our planet.
What does God’s anger look like? Here our definition serves us well. God’s anger is a whole-personed response involving his mind, will, affections, and actions. For example, the Hebrew terms mentioned above are sometimes translated as “nose,” “nostrils,” and “face” in reference to God’s wrathful responses. These biblical anthropomorphisms—descriptions of God cast in human forms—add color and heat to our understanding of God’s anger. Consider these texts that tie anger to emotion:
By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up. The surging waters stood firm like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea. (Ex. 15:8)
At the breath of God they are destroyed; at the blast of his anger they perish. (Job 4:9)
The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry. Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. . . . The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils. (Ps. 18:7–8, 15)
Anger in Scripture—God’s or ours—regularly radiates emotion. Anger is “hot”; it often “burns.”
Against what, or whom, does God get angry? Using our definition, God’s anger is his whole-personed active response of negative moral judgment against perceived evil. Simply put, God is angry with sinners and their sin. He maintains righteous wrath against all forms of wickedness. God’s anger is his perfect, pure, settled opposition to evil. It is his holy abhorrence to everything that violates his character or misses his will. Surely one stands in awe of such graphic depictions as these:
When I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me. (Deut. 32:41)
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath. . . . (Ps. 2:4–5)
God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day. (Ps. 7:11)
Nor does the New Testament present a kinder, gentler God: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him. (John 3:36)
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. . . . (Rom. 1:18; cf. 2:5–9, 16)
Furthermore, God’s anger flows from his justice. It arises from God’s negative moral judgment against perceived evil, and unlike us, he always perceives evil with utter accuracy.
For example, Numbers 25:11 hails Phinehas as the one who “turned [God’s] anger away” from Israel by his bold act of spearing an immoral couple. God’s righteous wrath had abided on his people because of their sin. God’s anger reflects his accurate perception of evil, his holy hatred of it, and his determination to eradicate it; or, here, to accept atonement for it (cf. Rom. 3:21–26).
Second, Scripture speaks of righteous human anger. Here we can include Jesus’ anger, although as the God-Man he bridges both categories. We see this, for example, in Psalm 2:12’s description of the messianic Son: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” We see the connection here between anger and divine judgment. The Messiah’s fury arises against wicked rebels and brings them punishment.
Righteous human anger imitates God’s anger. It is our negative response to the evil that we accurately perceive as being evil. In Exodus 32:19–20, Moses reproduced the same burning anger against the Israelites that God had revealed against them earlier (32:9–10) and would reveal against them later in the same chapter (32:33–35). We will explore our Lord Jesus’ anger and some additional exhibitions of righteous human anger in our next chapter.
A third category of anger—the focus of this book—is sinful human anger. As a biblical survey would suggest, nearly all human anger is sinful.8 Passages such as James 1:13–15 and 3:13–4:12 unpack the subtleties of our evil, deceitful desires. An honest assessment of our life and ministry verifies how rarely human anger is righteous.
Do you remember our definition? Anger is our wholepersoned active response of negative moral judgment against perceived evil. This approach helps us pinpoint the specific ways in which our anger might be sinful.
For example, in some cases our perceptions are wrong. We are blind to what is truly sinful. Deceitful lies or self-centered lusts rule us. Perhaps ignorance or impulsiveness twists our perspectives. Our judgments are askew. We impugn other people’s motives. In other cases, our responses are ungodly. They violate God’s will in their form, their degree, or their timing. We will examine these insights in chapter 3 and subsequent chapters.
TOURING THE BIBLE’S PICTURE GALLERY
Let’s walk down the hallway of our Bible and peek into some angry rooms to see how the Bible’s characters demonstrate our definition. We’ll see how the common thread of judgmentalism drives every case.
In the first recorded case of anger, Cain was mad at God because he assumed that God was unjust (Gen. 4:5). He wanted God to accept his sacrifice on his terms, and he believed God should do so. Anger always starts in the heart, with evil desires and wrong beliefs—lusts and lies.
The Old Testament patriarchs provide plenty of examples. Esau’s anger with deceitful Jacob in Genesis 27 follows the pattern we have already seen. Having discovered his brother’s double treachery of stealing his birthright and now his blessing, Esau held a grudge and plotted his murder. Rightly did Rebekah describe him as furious and angry.
Sometimes anger ignites pointed words. Jealous of Leah’s fruitfulness, Rachel pleaded desperately with Jacob for children in Genesis 30:1–2. Jacob responded angrily to her nagging with a sharp rebuke: “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”
More often in Scripture, anger brings violent outbursts or punitive actions, as in Potiphar’s anger against Joseph in Genesis 39. Having perceived—albeit inaccurately—Joseph’s wrongdoing, he erupted with hot anger and proceeded to imprison him. Ironically, in Genesis 44, Judah implored this same Joseph—whose identity was yet unknown to Judah—not to be angry with him and his brothers. Judah rightly feared this now-exalted Joseph’s power to imprison, enslave, or kill them for their apparently unlawful conduct.
Or consider Moses. Provoked by the people’s rapid, idolatrous declension, “his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands” (Ex. 32:19). Similar language marks Jacob (Gen. 30:2; 31:36), Balaam (Num. 22:27), Balak (Num. 24:10), Saul (1 Sam. 18:8; 20:30), David (2 Sam. 6:8; 12:5), Jonah (Jonah 4:1), and others. In each case, the angry person perceives someone as wrong and reacts with various negative feelings and behavior.
In 2 Chronicles 25:5–13 King Amaziah of Judah unwisely hired one hundred thousand Israelite soldiers, and then at God’s directive dismissed them before they saw military action. The troops responded with great rage to this perceived mistreatment—an inaccurate perception because it was God who was behind their dismissal. Like a pink-slipped employee “going postal” or taking revenge on the boss’s kids, they raided many Judean towns and killed three thousand occupants. Similarly, Elihu reacted in anger against Job for his apparent selfjustification and against Job’s friends for condemning but not refuting Job (Job 32:1–5). Elihu in turn addressed them all with passionate reproofs.
Tracing another frequent Hebrew term (hemah) through the book of Esther is especially instructive, since judging— sometimes righteous, sometimes unrighteous—underlies each occurrence. King Xerxes raged when his independent queen, Vashti, ignored his summons to attend the feast (Est. 1:12; 2:1). He regarded her actions as a personal insult. Next, his evil official Haman “burned” against Mordecai the Jew and plotted his destruction (3:5; 5:9). Finally, with classic irony, Haman the judge becomes judged himself. The king rages against Haman and executes him on the same gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai (7:7, 10). Haman’s life is a tragic testimony to the truth that violent men “lie in wait for their own blood; they waylay only themselves!” (Prov. 1:18).
Stemming from a Semitic root for a storm or violent rain, another Hebrew term (za’aph) often carries the idea of rage or aroused anger. With pathetic irony, the wisdom writer observed that “a man’s own folly ruins his life, yet his heart rages against the LORD” (Prov. 19:3), while 2 Chronicles describes the sinful wrath of Asa (2 Chron. 16:10) and Uzziah (26:19), and the righteous wrath of God (28:9). Each of these angry individuals responded to perceived evil or unfairness.
Besides these Hebrew terms, the book of Daniel uses a pair of Aramaic terms for “anger” that both convey judgmentalism. King Nebuchadnezzar is angry with his so-called wise men for their inability to interpret his dream (Dan. 2:12). He later reacts with fury against the three Hebrew young men who refuse to worship the idolatrous image he raised (3:13, 19).
What do we find in all these Old Testament texts? Angry people respond with their whole being—their thoughts, emotions, affections, words, actions, etc.—to people they perceive to be wrong or harmful to their own interests. Those reactions are frequently hot reactions. Often—always with God and sometimes with humans—that perception and the accompanying response are just and warranted. In other cases—never with God and usually with humans—they are not. The resulting anger is sinful.
We find the same realities in the New Testament. The three word groups for “anger” largely reflect divine anger or human sinful anger, with little allowance for righteous anger.9 While many appear as commands or prohibitions (e.g., Gal. 5:20; Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8; 1 Tim. 2:8; James 1:19–20), a number of narrative passages picture angry people.
Driven to eliminate all competition, King Herod became enraged in his pursuit of the baby born to be a king (Matt. 2:16). Synagogue worshipers turned against Jesus angrily and tried to kill him after he had reminded them that God’s grace extends to Gentiles and not just Jews (Luke 4:28), while a synagogue ruler became indignant with Jesus when Jesus violated his sense of religious propriety by healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13:14). Jewish leaders responded similarly when they saw Jesus healing people and heard children shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matt. 21:15). Christ’s disciples expressed anger at James and John’s request for special seating status in his kingdom (Matt. 20:24; Mark 10:41).
The gospels and Acts provide further examples of real life people reacting with anger based on their negative moral judgments against perceived evil.
To complete our general understanding of anger, let’s assess some popular efforts to classify anger into three distinct categories based on the three New Testament word groups for “anger.” Some Christian psychologists, in their attempt to “integrate” the Bible with their particular psychological approach, posit a tripartite scheme of rage, resentment, and indignation, based particularly on the supposed distinctions between the Greek words.10 Helping people understand their type or form of anger is part of these psychologists’ treatment plan.
How shall we evaluate this threefold categorization? While many careful New Testament scholars admit that “a slight shift of emphasis” can sometimes be seen between these word groups,11 they conclude that there is “no material difference between them”12 and that they are largely synonymous, even appearing in the same passages without distinction (Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8). Whatever occasional nuanced differences may exist between these word groups, there is little justification for this kind of neat classification structure. The Bible resists such reductionism. The width of the spectrum of human anger— yours and mine—defies simple categories.
All of the Bible’s anger words, however, in the Old and New Testament accounts, do clearly show us real people who form negative moral judgments in the face of the evil they see and who respond to that perceived wrongness in whole-personed ways—in their desires, thoughts, emotions, words, actions, and goals.
Whether our moral judgments and resulting reactions are right or wrong, godly or evil, and how to tell the difference, will be the subject of our next chapter.
For Further Reflection and Life Application
1. Look up in a concordance the places where the words “anger” (and “angry,” “angered”), “wrath,” and “rage” appear in the Bible. Read through them and notice how many references pertain to God’s anger. And notice the range of people and range of behavior associated with anger in the Bible.
2. Reflect on Richard Baxter’s description of anger on page 17 above. Where in your life do you see his words defining you? Pay particular attention to those times when something or someone “would cross or hinder [you] of some desired good.”
3. Jot down a typical anger episode in your life. Note the situation in which your anger arose, any provoking or triggering factors, what you wanted but were not getting (or didn’t want but were getting), and what your anger actually looked like.