You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13)
Well, that’s easy enough. After all, it’s one thing to be angry, annoyed, or irritated by someone, but it would have to be a really depraved person who would actually murder another human being. You and I, in all of our sinfulness, just wouldn’t dream of doing that, would we? This commandment is a simple one for most Christians to keep.
You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Matthew 5:21-22)
Well, that’s still in extreme cases. It’s not as if my frustration and shouting at the person who cut me off in traffic counts. That’s righteous anger, because it could have caused an accident. It’s the same scenario with that friend at church who gossiped about me. I’m angry at her because she sinned against me, and that is a righteous reason. I mean, Jesus got angry.
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart. (Matthew 18:21-34)
Apologies for the lengthy Scripture quotation, but it is vital that we see this truth. As Christians—meaning, as ones who have been forgiven—we are called to forgive. We will come back to this point later.
Now, did Jesus get angry? Yes, He did, and there is such a thing as righteous anger. Since Jesus is our ultimate example, let us examine one such display of His zeal:
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME.” (John 2:13-17)
What incited Jesus here? Zeal for His Father’s house and for His Father’s prescriptions for worship. Our Lord was appalled at the distortion of worship that was on display before His eyes. Indignation at the propagation of false worship and false teaching can indeed be righteous. Irritation at that bad driver cannot be righteous.
Yet, even outrage at a defilement of the things of God is not a license for violence or unreasonable behavior. Consider the following about Jesus’ actions in the temple:
Yet Jesus was neither cruel to the animals (those who object to His mild use of force on them have never herded animals), nor overly harsh with the men. Apparently the uproar He created was contained enough not to alert the Roman garrison stationed in Fort Antonia, which overlooked the temple grounds. Watching Romans may have found some satisfaction in this assault on the temple system and its leaders, who gave them so much grief.
MacArthur goes on,
At the same time, the intensity of His righteous indignation was unmistakable. Christ would not tolerate any mockery of the spirit of true worship. His indignant words to those who were selling the doves, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business,” applied to all who were polluting the temple and corrupting its intended purpose. Jesus’ reference to God as His Father was a reminder both of His deity and His messiahship; He was the loyal Son purging His Father’s house of its impure worship (an action that prefigures what He will again do at His second coming [Mal. 3:1–3; cf. Zech. 14:20–21]).
So while we may try to justify some of our angry behavior as righteous, the situations in which we can legitimately do so are fairly limited. It behooves us, then, to examine what the Bible actually says about anger.
He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who is quick-tempered exalts folly. (Proverbs 14:29).
An angry man stirs up strife, and a hot-tempered man abounds in transgression. (Proverbs 29:22)
We see that the man who is characterized by an angry disposition is one who “exalts folly” and “abounds in transgression.” Are these things we desire to be said about us? One would certainly hope not!
Consider that it is the fool who says in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1). Fools disdain and deny God. Who else hates God? The father of lies and sinful anger, Satan himself.
Never is a person more like Satan than when he hates. Never is a person more like Satan than when he is angry, angry to the point that he wishes to kill.
Not all anger leads to killing, because we are restrained. We are restrained by the consequences. But you know as well as I do, that if there was not the threat of arrest and trial and incarceration and the death penalty, if people were actually free to do whatever they wanted to do without repercussions, mankind would have slaughtered himself long ago. Never is a person more like Satan than when he is angry, when he hates, and when his desire is to eliminate a life.
May we never be likened to our greatest foe!
Further, the book of Proverbs offers a warning about even associating with angry individuals:
Do not associate with a man given to anger; or go with a hot-tempered man, or you will learn his ways and find a snare for yourself. (Proverbs 22:24-25)
Bad company does indeed corrupt good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33). We therefore must be mindful of the company we keep, lest we begin to be conformed to their angry ways.
Admonitions against anger are not merely found in the Old Testament, and they are not merely found as small nuggets of proverb-esque advice.
But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)
Anger, wrath, malice—these appear alongside some other “acceptable” sins that we have already examined in this series. And, just as those “acceptable” sins are not acceptable or respectable, so too is anger a disposition from which we must flee.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul offers additional exhortation regarding this.
Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity. (Ephesians 4:26-27)
Quoting Psalm 4:4, Paul reminds that, though we may find ourselves experiencing anger, we ought to seek reconciliation before the day is over. Surely this alludes to Christ’s earlier teaching, that we should forgive our neighbor “seventy times seven” when we are wronged. To allow anger to fester, or to even take root in the first place, is to give the devil a foothold. He will not hesitate to capitalize on our weakness and to tempt us to be drawn further into the black hole of sin.
As Paul noted in Colossians 3:8, above, anger is a characteristic of our old self. It is a temperament that accompanied the old, fallen nature that has been crucified with Christ. In many places throughout Scripture, we are exhorted to, as new creations in Christ, “put off” the old self, and we see here that anger ought to be included as part of that disrobing.
When we have put off our old man, we put on the robes of Christ’s righteousness. Anger, though it will no doubt rear its sinful head at some point on this side of glory, no longer defines us. Instead, we are to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger,” as James commands (James 1:19).
Slow to anger. What a beautiful thing to which we may aspire! It is especially lovely when we consider that God, our Creator and King, is slow to anger.
We see Him described this way throughout Scripture.
But You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, Slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth. (Psalm 86:15)
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. (Psalm 103:8)
The LORD is gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. (Psalm 145:8)
These are only a few examples. Similar language is found in Exodus, Numbers, Nehemiah, and the Minor Prophets. Note that, in every instance in which God is described as “slow to anger” He is also described as “abounding in lovingkindness.” What a contrast! Further, what an important observation for us as believers to strive to model.
If the God of the universe is slow to anger toward those who have broken His holy law; if He is patient, not wishing for any to perish, but desiring for men to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), how much more must we be slow to grow angry toward our fellow sinners?
Just as a man is no more like Satan than when he is hateful and angry, a man is no more like God than when he is forgiving.
No act is more divine than forgiveness. That is what marks God. If God was not a forgiving God, none of us would know God. Never are we more like Him than when we forgive.
I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember your sins. (Isaiah 43:25)
Truly it is a display of the greatest, most ultimate love that, even while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8; cf. 1 John 4:10). This means that there is forgiveness for the angry, whether our anger burns against the passing stranger who treated us poorly in traffic, or against a fellow believer. Anger is not an acceptable sin, but there is grace for the sinner, and there is the promise to the believer that the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit will bring us to greater Christlikeness.
May we pray that the Spirit would conform our minds, hearts, and attitudes to that of Christ. May we pray that we would loathe our anger alone. May we pray that we would, in moments of frustration with others, remember that Christ was patient with us, that He is slow to anger, and that He is a loving and forgiving Savior. May we pray that our desire above all else would be to imitate Him.
1. John MacArthur, MacArthur Study Bible, notes on John 2.
3. John MacArthur, Forgiveness in the Age of Rage, accessed 30 September 2017.