The Misnomer Righteous Anger

Who first coined the term “righteous anger”? It’s not in Scripture. In fact, the only Scripture that links the term anger and righteousness says, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Why do Christians so regularly call something righteous that God says never accomplishes righteousness? I am coming to absolutely despise the term “righteous anger.” I’m biased. I have baggage. I’ve watched “righteous anger” used as a justification for some very bad behavior by Christian leaders in particular, and I want to stand up and shout out from the mountaintop to stop it all. I want to exercise my own version of “righteous anger” against their “righteous anger.” Sin against sin. That’s the Christian way, isn’t it? The last time I wrote about this, I was angry. Oh the irony of it all.

Instead of writing angrily about anger once again, I’m going to lay down my personal sword and attempt to pick up God’s. If I can throw off my own baggage and look objectively at Scripture, I think I will be much better equipped to deal with my own anger as well as others.

The Bible does not use the phrase righteous anger. It never prescribes anger, and it never says an angry response was good. The only thing in Scripture that comes close is Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 4:26,

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,

So you can be angry and not sin. And the way to be angry and not sin is to DEAL WITH IT quickly, before the sun goes down. Note that this does not say you must deal with it and settle it with whomever you are mad. Otherwise, it’s an impossible standard because it would be utterly dependent on the cooperation of someone over whom you have no control. I used to think that if I was angry at bedtime with my husband, I HAD to talk it out with him before we turned the lights off. He did not hold the same opinion, and often was not nearly as mad with me as I was with him. And when he didn’t want to talk, that made me REALLY mad. He was forcing me to sin, or so I thought. It’s taken a while, but I’ve learned that I can well deal with my anger without my husband’s help. In fact, I really must. He and I can talk about the issue underlying my anger once I stop being angry, but it’s never once worked for us to talk about it while I am angry.

So far, we’ve read that the Word says that if you are angry, do not sin. Deal with your anger before much time passes. That passage in Ephesians ends with a discourse on forgiving others as God has forgiven us through Christ. But how do you get from point A (raging anger) to point B (forgiveness)? Thankfully, we do have an outlet for our anger. It is God Himself. And He has left us many examples in the Psalms of believers crying out to Him in their anger and frustration.

Psalms 73 gives us an example of a guy who is vexed at the wicked.

12 Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all the day long I have been stricken
and rebuked every morning.

16 But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I discerned their end.

The Psalmist is frustrated about legitimate sins. Why are these evil people prospering?! He takes his vexation to God Himself, and God meets him in it and transforms him.

Consider also Psalm 10.

v 1 Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

And Psalms 42.

v. 9 I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”

If God didn’t give me these psalms in His inspired word to instruct me, I would never have thought it OK to bring such raw hurt to Him in prayer. Yet, in His mercy, He invites me to pour out my raw emotions to Him. While much of my anger is caused by my own selfishness, some of my anger is legitimately caused by other’s sins that deeply wound myself or those I love. I must pour out my frustration, my disappointment, and my fears to someone. And God tells me that, in Christ, I can boldly and confidently pour it out to Him. THAT alone is my hope for transforming it from anger (which God says in James absolutely will NOT accomplish anything righteous) to some other emotion or resolve that God can use for His kingdom purposes.

The great justification for righteous anger is Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. We Christians love to go all angry-Jesus-on-the-temple. But here’s the problem with that. We don’t attempt to forgive other’s sins like Jesus did. We don’t attempt to turn water into wine or raise the dead back to life. There are a whole string of things Jesus said and did that we do not do ourselves because they were things that were evidence that JESUS WAS GOD. Jesus was Lord over the temple. You and I are not. We are infringing on things that are only His as God when we use His cleansing of the temple to justify acting out on our anger. Again, think through why you would not tell someone that you are forgiving their sins. What is the difference in telling someone that you forgive them of their sins and, say, washing their feet? Well, one Jesus did to show He was God, and the other He did to give us an example of servant leadership. That’s the same difference between cleansing the temple and turning the other cheek.

In summary, Scripture teaches that the only righteous anger is anger that is not exercised. The only outlet for righteous anger is God Himself. The only righteous actions that stem from anger are those that come out of the other side of the sieve of God Himself—vexation poured out to Him that He transforms into something else (resolve, burden, compassion) that He can then use for His kingdom.

21 Responses to The Misnomer Righteous Anger

  1. Saralyn February 20, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    I'm starting to refer to your blog as “Whacks from Wendy.” Thanks, again, for this good one, right upside the head! But, of course, not in anger! :~)

  2. Stacey February 20, 2011 at 11:50 pm #

    Loved this! I have always cringed when someone said their anger was righteous, but at the same time wanting to describe my anger the same way. 😉 Truly, thanks for this post!!

  3. Wendy February 21, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    Saralyn and Stacey, thanks for the encouragement. 🙂

  4. Donna February 21, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    Man, I'm gonna have to think about this one. I kinda like my righteously indignant excuse! Great post!

  5. Anonymous February 21, 2011 at 10:15 pm #

    I think anger and rebuke can be confused sometimes and we should try to discern…
    Prov 9: 8b rebuke the wise and they will love you.
    Prov 28: 23 Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favor rather than one who has a flattering tongue.
    Luke 17:3 So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.
    2 Tim 4: 2b correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction

  6. Wendy February 21, 2011 at 10:56 pm #

    I think the person who confuses anger and rebuke is the person trying to rebuke while they are angry. Put to rest your anger. And once you are no longer angry, then you can rebuke. But anything you say before that point isn't Biblical rebuke. It's sin.

  7. Wenatchee the Hatchet February 22, 2011 at 1:31 am #

    What about Nehemiah 5? One of the challenges in biblical interpretation is that the biblical books have human authors and if we take the fallenness of humanity seriously then even the Word of the Lord is mediated through sinners whose sins we must be aware of. It may be that we must consider either that Nehemiah's anger was justified (which is how it tends to get presented in the few discussions of Nehemiah I've been privy to). Conversely, how Nehemiah handled his anger and denounced other people could be considered a substantial character flaw (as at least some of the rabbinical tradition has held). I agree with the basic premise that what most Christians consider “righteous anger” is not righteous at all, BUT I think that some exegetical and contextual work on anger expressed by biblical authors is necessary to fully flesh out this perspective.

    This could touch upon a broader issue I've mulled over in the last week about how even biblical authors reveal character flaws in the very pages of scripture that we should not necessarily 1) emulate or 2) consider to be divinely sanctioned merely because the author has written books of the Bible. On the other hand, we don't need to go so far as to dismiss the value of passages of scripture because of flaws we impute to the author/editor. We can't dismiss proverbial statements about men and women or marriage just because of Solomon's history because Proverbs is clearly a compilation of wisdom collected from other sources and because if we disallowed the weight of a passage of scripture because of an author's sin nothing would ever have been canonized.

  8. Natalie St.Martin February 22, 2011 at 2:21 am #

    Hi Wendy,

    This post makes me think. I wonder if using the phrase “righteous anger” is a way for us as humans who tend to be sinfully angry to grasp that God has an anger unlike ours, an anger without sin, a righteous anger, if you will. Then, from that understanding of God's emotions, we see more clearly our own emotions: when they are sinful and wayward and when they are after God's heart. The right response to injustice and evil is anger (God is angry at such things) and grief (God is grieved) but we need to learn from the Holy Spirit what these look like and what they lead us to do. There are times when knowing that my sin angered someone helped me to see it as sin and to turn to God for grace.

  9. Anonymous February 22, 2011 at 3:30 am #

    I was thinking too about times when Jesus probably came across 'angry' as with the Pharisees and even with His disciples.

  10. Wendy February 22, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

    Natalie, I'm curious about your comment, “the right response to injustice and evil is anger.” Where do you see that in Scripture? I would say it is the natural reaction, but not necessarily the righteous reaction. Grief, mourning, anguish, and burden, yes. Anger? I'm not so sure.

    In general, this boils down to basic bible interpretation. The old adage, “The Bible is the best commentary on itself,” applies here. God describes all kinds of things in His Word (cutting off philistine foreskins, cutting up a concubine's dead body and distributing it, etc.) that we are not to do ourselves. The same goes with Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a great guy who also went crazy angry on the people. The Bible does not say in Nehemiah that this was a righteous reaction. But it does say in James that no righteousness can come about by anger and gives an entirely different set of instructions for how to handle your opponent in 2 Tim. When the Bible PRESCRIBES treating your opponent with gentleness (strength under control) and warns against acting in anger, then you can surmise that the anger and heavy handed response of Nehemiah was not something we are to emulate.

    Finally, there are a whole host of things that God does that we do not do. And God's anger at sin is particularly interesting — because He FULFILLED His anger at the cross. The cross was the ultimate righteous anger. And Jesus was correct when He said, “It is finished.” God's anger is finished. It is fulfilled. Perhaps that is why our anger can never be acted out righteously. Because then we are acting like the cross didn't fully accomplish anything.

    Instead, I am grieved and burdened about sin. I seek to end it with whatever righteous means I have. But anger will not help me accomplish righteousness. It's just a fact from Scripture.

  11. Anonymous February 22, 2011 at 6:15 pm #

    Yes, amen, continually,soberly mindful of the wrath that remains for those who reject the Son…

    John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.

    Col 3: 5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.

    Eph 5:5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them.

    Rom 13:4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

    Rom 4:14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath.

    Rom 2:8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.

    Rom 2:4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”

    1 Thess 2 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

  12. Wendy February 22, 2011 at 10:06 pm #

    Thanks, Anon. That was a needed addition. I wasn't clear on that point.

  13. Wenatchee the Hatchet February 24, 2011 at 8:20 pm #

    Wendy, I was thinking about this entry and thought I'd point something out for further exploration. The synoptics mention the cleansing of the temple but they DON'T mention that Jesus was actually angry when he did this. We tend to assume the Lord was angry but how do we know? It may be popular to suppose Jesus was angry because of the prophetic rebuke he had toward the moneychangers but the biblical texts may not back up the notion that Jesus was in a rage.

    By contrast, John 11:38 DOES tell us Jesus was quaking with rage at at least one moment. Tim Keller's sermon “The Furious Love of Jesus” reflects on this passage with some significance I think can apply here. Christians may be tempted to cite the temple cleansing act of Jesus as justifying anger but may find Jesus wasn't acting in anger at all. But it is easier for them to rationalize destroying something in anger as godly than to see that the place where in scripture Jesus is described as furious is where He raises Lazarus from the dead. The wrath of man destroys but the wrath of Christ doesn't just judge the world or Pharisees, it also raises the dead and heals the withered hand.

  14. Wenatchee the Hatchet February 25, 2011 at 1:45 am #

    I may have missed this getting mentioned earlier but there's always Ecclesiastes 7:9

    Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.

  15. Wendy February 25, 2011 at 2:08 am #

    You didn't miss it. I'm sure I've read that verse at some point, but I'd totally forgotten it. Thanks for adding!

  16. Anonymous February 26, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    In conclusion, rereading Eph 4, 26a says in your anger do not sin, so the Lord tells us there is an anger that is not sin (apparently related to putting off falsehood and speaking truthfully to your neighbor ?(25) and yet even that anger we should (26b-27) not let the sun go down on lest we give the devil a foothold…
    making it all very clear,as some have mentioned here and in the most recent post, that we must rely on the Spirit, the only one able to lead us into all truth.

  17. Anonymous March 2, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    Thanks so much for these stimulating posts on anger. I can so relate to the 0% with others, 100% with kids that you mention in another post. I think it's important to remember that James says the anger OF MAN does not produce the righteousness of God. Our anger is so often tied up with our own sinful motives and lack of self control that it really looks different to God's anger which is characterised by patience and is slow-acting and desires the redemption of the person that has sinned. It almost needs a different name, it is so different. I read a couple of great articles about anger in the Journal of Biblical Counseling that were really helpful in sorting through some of these ideas. It is normal to be angry in response to sin. But our expression of that anger is always sinful if we haven't dealt with our own hearts. May our kind God continue to give us grace to grow and to model asking for his help to live as he would have us live. Jo C

  18. OneBigHappy March 9, 2011 at 6:35 pm #

    That was a superb post.

  19. Sanguine Cole January 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    I think many will think of Jesus cleaning the temple but if you read the passage, he made “a scouge of cords” john 2:15 and i heard that would have taken awhile, his emotions were not controlling him. Its like you said in response to a comment, you have to let go of your anger in order to rebuke someone. I think thats why its mentiond that he made that so we would see it wasnt him just rushing in all angry but it was a thought out response to what was happening

  20. Anonymous September 24, 2012 at 12:55 am #

    Thank you, for I understand what way I need to rebuke and not to anger. I have emotions that are not controlled. This post will helps me to know what to pray for and watching the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. There is nothing right about anger. Thank you for your time.

  21. john crews May 14, 2013 at 2:43 am #


    I stumbled across this blog in my own quest to understand so-called “righteous anger.” This is the first writing on the subject that makes sense to me. The only acceptable examples of anger acted out I see in the Bible are on the part of God.

    Humans just don't handle anger well. And, there are too many people writing about “righteous anger” — trying to justify the unjustifiable.