From the Archives: Read this article from 2015.
Last year was the “Year of Outrage,” according to Slate.com. To prove their point, they provided a handy interactive online calendar. You can pick a day, any day, from 2014, click on it, and find out what everyone was outraged about during that particular 24-hour period. Every single day, a new outrage, a new offense, a new anger, over something that someone, somewhere, had done or said.
Forget the NFL: Being offended is our national sport. It’s what we do. We’re good at it.
On one level, it’s a rare uniting of left and right. Whether we’re liberal or conservative, we’re convinced our anger is justified. It’s righteous. We’re entitled to it. It’s good to be angry, even!
Here’s the problem: We’re dead wrong.
We’re convinced our anger is justified. It’s righteous. We’re entitled to it. It’s good to be angry, even! Here’s the problem: We’re dead wrong.
Anger is universal; it’s an absolutely natural reaction to perceived threat. So the idea that we are to rid ourselves of it as soon as possible is radical indeed. Otherworldly, even. In order to give up our right to anger, we have to crush our own egos. It feels self-diminishing. It’s almost as if God is asking us to deny ourselves entirely.
Wait, it’s not “almost” like that at all. It’s exactly like that.
But honestly, since when has following Jesus been anything short of radical? And what if—what if !—Christians were the least offendable people on the planet?
I bet you’re thinking, But doesn’t God get angry? Doesn’t He have “righteous anger”?
Oh yes, He does. But you know what? He can be trusted with it. We can’t. He’s sinless. We’re not. He’s the Creator; we’re not. He’s the ultimate Judge, and we aren’t. There are certain things that are His province alone because of His perfection.
Biblically, one simply can’t make an argument for clinging to anger. Yes, we get angry—that will happen—but we’re told to drop it and drop it now. Invariably, Christians I’ve talked with object to this line of thinking on the basis of Ephesians 4:26, a particular scripture that many have committed to memory: “When you are angry, do not sin, and be sure to stop being angry before the end of the day” (NCV).
“See?” they tell me, “We’re supposed to be angry!” In fact, Eugene Peterson, in The Message, goes further: “Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge.”
“You do well to be angry,” he writes. As I say, people have this memorized. Interestingly, they forget something Paul writes in the exact same passage: “Do not be bitter or angry or mad” (Eph. 4:31 NCV).
Let’s be honest: We want to be angry, so we cling to a passage that clearly says yes, it happens. However, we simply cannot take it to mean anger is always a good thing.
The Bible isn’t inconsistent on this. It never describes human anger in glowing terms, unless by “glowing” you can count passages where it’s called “blazing fury.” It uses plenty of other words to describe human anger—it’s “unquenchable.” It “destroys,” “boils,” “tears,” “pierces,” “tramples,” “engulfs,” “slaughters,” and “blasts.” It’s described using images of hailstones, cloud-bursts, and smoldering fire.
Of course, there’s plenty of wisdom literature about human anger, too. As in Ecclesiastes, where Solomon writes that “anger resides in the lap of fools” (Eccl. 7:9 NIV).
Who lets anger live in their laps? Fools.
So yeah, other than that, it’s all pretty positive.
The Heart to Forgive
We get angry because we are human. We feel threats. Most of them aren’t even real, but we feel them nonetheless, because we are silly little beings who can borrow trouble from tomorrow. (Think about it: Your cat isn’t worried about whether or not he’ll be fed next year.) But the Bible tells us that we’re not entitled to anger. We’re told to forgive. Period.
We’re told this for myriad reasons:
We’re no better morally than anyone else.
This is a feature of Jesus’ teaching that still rankles people. He leveled the moral playing field and told us that none of us are “good” in and of ourselves. Do I think my anger is “righteous” because someone else sinned? I’m just as guilty.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
We can think we’re entitled to withhold forgiveness toward other people, but we don’t know enough to do this. God is the Judge. Not you, not I. This is why Paul, in what is surely one of the most ignored passages of the Bible, writes that he can’t judge anyone else’s motives. Instead, he has to leave it to God. In fact, he can’t even judge himself. He doesn’t even know his own heart (see 1 Corinthians 4).
Remarkably, Jesus forgave those who were in the process of executing Him. “Father, forgive them,” He said, “for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Had we been there, watching the scene of an innocent man being mocked and killed, any of us would have thought we had every reason to be angry. And yet, there He is: “They don’t know . . .”
The human heart is deceitful. It always tells us we’re right. We see things our way.
I just watched a replay of a college basketball game. I’m an alumnus of the University of Illinois and a big fan. A ref made a ridiculous call against us, and it was inexcusably, obviously wrong. Except Michigan State fans didn’t see it that way. And here’s the thing: We Illinois fans and Michigan State fans could all be hooked up to lie detector machines, and we’d all pass. We genuinely believe we’re right. The same play, same camera angles, same rules—and yet, we just happen to see things our way.
There’s a Proverb that says, “The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17 NKJV). Well, in any possible dispute, guess whose “cause” I always hear first and understand most thoroughly? That’s right—mine. It’s foolish to think we’re not biased in favor of ourselves. So let’s acknowledge it and be humble.
None of this, of course, is a call to pretend that evil doesn’t exist. We know it does. We’re not pretending the world isn’t broken, that humans aren’t fallen, and that there is no such thing as sin. We know otherwise—even those of us who don’t want to admit it. No, by surrendering our right to anger, we’re not ignoring sin. We’re recognizing our own sin.
We have reason to be humble. Jesus tells us a story of a man who is forgiven for a huge debt and then turns around and refuses to forgive a smaller one
(Matt. 18:23-35). The meaning is clear, and it has been offending people for centuries: We are that man. God has forgiven us for much, and when we think we’re justified in harboring anger toward others, we’re delusional. Perhaps we’ve forgotten who we are and confused ourselves with Him.
We are to be like Christ, but we are not God. God gets angry. Jesus gets angry. But we are the unmerciful servant in Jesus’ story—not the forgiving king.
It’s worth noting, too, that the king revokes the forgiveness that had been extended to the unmerciful servant. Does that offend my theology? Maybe. But I’d rather shape my theology to fit the truth than retrofit what Jesus says to match what I already thought. This is called humility.
Many of us who have offered elaborate defenses of our anger probably aren’t familiar enough with James 1:20: “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (ESV). That isn’t subtle. But shouldn’t we get angry about injustice? Are we supposed to just sit on the sidelines and do nothing?
Great question. But there’s a difference between anger and action.
I believe we’re called to act to counter injustice. Anger doesn’t enhance judgment. Anger doesn’t help anyone. Action does. Self-sacrifice does. Wisdom does. Anger, too often, is a substitute for action. How many people, when they vent on Twitter, actually sacrifice something in real life to make a difference? “Taking a stand” often just makes us feel better. It is its own reward. We get to look concerned, boost our status, appear righteous for whatever cause, and walk away—all without sacrifice.
I’m thankful for people in our justice system who act not out of anger, but out of wisdom. I don’t want police acting out of anger, or our military, or judges, or anyone. Sometimes action, even deadly force, is necessary to defend the innocent. But even in acting justly, there’s a heavy heart required. But it is a heart that acknowledges and laments our brokenness, not a heart of anger.
Anyone can be angry. Cowards can be angry. Heroes pray, protect, give, and sacrifice because they love.
Take Out The Trash
There’s something else I should tell you, and it’s the best part: Forfeiting anger will make your life better. Much better. God knows how we should live. He wants us to thrive, so it should be no surprise when He tells us to give something up—something we think we want—because it would be incredibly freeing when we finally do it.
It happens all the time. I tell the story of our boy, Justice, when he was a toddler. He was hyper-focused on garbage. We didn’t understand it. He just was. He loved garbage trucks, dumpsters, the dump, all that stuff. He always wanted to get his hands on the bag under our sink.
One day, he dragged it out, slung it over his shoulder, and pulled it into the living room like a little Santa Claus. And it struck me right then that if I offered him a thousand-dollar bill in exchange for the sack, he’d say no way. He wouldn’t see any value in the piece of paper. He had his garbage, the love of his little life.
Kids are silly, huh? Problem is, we’re like this, too.
We’re hurting, many of us, over things that have happened in the past at the hands of evil people. We feel entitled to our anger. It’s understandable. It’s human. And yet, here is our Father saying, “Hand it over. Trust Me. . .”
A life of humility is a beautiful thing. It’s a life devoid of pretense. It’s a life spent with a lighter heart.
It so happens that God promises to set things right. He’s the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. He’s telling us to wait on Him. He’s got the big picture; we don’t. And He’s promising to take our garbage and give us something beautiful in return.
That beautiful thing is a life of humility. It’s a life devoid of pretense. It’s a life spent with a lighter heart. We can admit we don’t know what we don’t know. We can quit trying to take the spiritual temperature of others. Instead of being mastered by anger, we can forgive—not because our offenders did something to deserve our sacrifice, but because God did.
In the end, forgiveness is where few dare to go. It seems too costly. It’s excruciating to surrender our anger when it feels so justified. But we’re given something breathtaking when we put it away, something Jesus promised those who follow Him. And it’s something we’re all yearning for, deep down: rest.
Illustrations by Jeff Gregory