It may be one of the most difficult imperatives in all of the Bible: "Be angry and do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26). This verse assures us there are times we ought to be angry, but with one all-important caveat: we must not sin in our anger. Any honest person will need to acknowledge the sheer difficulty in doing this. Anger comes easily; righteous anger does not.
In his book Uprooting Anger, Robert Jones offers help. He gives three distinguishing marks of righteous anger.
The first mark of righteous anger is that it reacts against actual sin. It arises from an accurate perception of what is actually evil. The Shorter Catechism helpfully summarizes sin as any "want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God." This is what ought to arouse our anger.
This means that for anger to be righteous, it cannot arise in response to a violation of my preferences. It cannot arise because I have been inconvenienced or I feel that my rights and freedoms have been trampled upon. Righteous anger reacts against what is really sin.
I love it when Aileen greets me when I get home from work. It makes me feel good because it makes me feel loved. But here's the thing: Running to the front door to greet me isn't always the first thing on her list of priorities. She gets busy with life, and often when I get home there is no welcoming committee with signs and balloons and a brass band. It's right in this moment that I can find myself getting angry. I don't blow up and yell and scream and throw my computer bag across the room. Instead, I sulk. I get angry, but try to pretty it up by letting it be that brooding anger instead of that explosive anger. When Aileen does see me and does come to give me that hug, I tighten up or move away. Now I don't want anything to do with her.
Has she sinned? Did she sin against God? Of course not. She hasn't sinned, she just hasn't accounted for one of my petty preferences. In that moment, I am making a moral judgment as if I am God, as if I am the one who makes the rules that govern this world. Aileen has not conformed to the law of Tim, and this is the source of my displeasure. I've elevated myself to God's place so that against me, me only, has she sinned, and done what is evil in my sight.
Righteous anger reacts against actual sin, not a violation of my desires or preferences.
When we turn to the Bible to find accounts of righteous anger, we see that this kind of anger focuses on God and his kingdom, his rights, and his concerns, not on me, my kingdom, my rights, and my concerns. It is the violation of God's name or God's fame that motivates anger, not my name and my fame.
Think of David's great confession of sin following his adultery and murder. David prayed to God, "Against you, you only have I sinned." He saw that his sin against Bathsheba, against Uriah, and against the whole nation, was first a sin against God. As he came to see the reality of what he had done, he understood that even before this was an offense against people, it was an offense against God.
When I witness someone sinning, I tend to see their sin as being against me. When my children or wife or friends sin against me, I rarely raise my eyes high enough to see their offense as being first against God. Instead, I react to the ways they have offended me or the ways they have violated my rights or interfered with my plans. I hate that they have done this, and respond with anger—with unrighteous and ungodly anger.
Righteous anger is motivated by Godward and biblically-informed concerns. Before it sees how someone has offended me, it sees how he has offended God. My child has not embarrassed me with his display of rudeness, he has violated God's command to honor father and mother. Jones says it well: Righteous anger throbs with kingdom concerns.
Finally, righteous anger is accompanied by other godly qualities and expresses itself in godly ways. True anger properly diagnoses what is actual sin, it focuses not on personal offense as much as Godward offense, and then it expresses itself in ways consistent with Christian character.
Anger is too often opposed to self-control. When we are angry we lose control of words, of tone, of facial expressions, and even of fists. But righteous anger expresses itself in a controlled way. It does not rant and rage, it does not swear and curse, it does not mock and sulk, it does not sink to self-pity and despair, it does not blow off people and storm away from them. Righteous anger is a controlled anger that moves toward good and specific ends. "Godly strains of mourning, comfort, joy, praise, and action balance it."
Do you want to see this kind of anger in action? Consider Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath day (Mark 3:1-6). He entered a synagogue and spotted a man there with a withered hand. The people watched to see if Jesus would dare heal him on this day of rest. Jesus called the man to him and then asked the crowd a simple question: "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?" They were silent because they knew the answer.
Then Mark tells us, "he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart." Jesus was angry at them, not because they were angry at him, but because they were hindering his work and were not showing compassion to a man who was loved by God. Jesus saw their offense as being against God and his anger was mixed with grief. His anger was righteous anger because it was motivated by godly concerns and it expressed itself in godly ways.
Does God allow his people to express anger? Yes, he does. But only under these circumstances: You are reacting against actual sin, you are more concerned with the offense against God than the offense against yourself, and you are expressing your anger in ways consistent with Christian character. And as we can all testify, this kind of righteous anger is difficult and rare.