A brief theology of anger

angryOne of the better messages that arrives in my in-box each week is Friday Night Theology from Evangelical Alliance. It’s a brief reflection, from an evangelical perspective, on some current issue, and I usually find it very helpful because it is an attempt to relate biblical truth and theology to our contemporary situation.

This weekend’s offering is a reflection on anger. It caught my attention because moderators and pastors, a bit like rugby or football referees, are sometimes the recipients of angry comments. I don’t need to elaborate on the range of issues that ignite the anger of my correspondents. The important question is: Is their anger justified? How should I respond? What positive outcome can there be to their anger? Does the fact that they have over-stated their grievance, or expressed themselves badly, negate their main point?

I also have to admit that recently I, too, have been feeling angry a bit more often than usual. The question is: Is my anger appropriate or not? This article suggests that the key difference between good anger and bad anger is what our anger leads to. If it has a positive outcome, then it’s OK to get angry. But if it is purely selfish, and people are crushed or hurt by my anger, then it’s sinful. That’s a good point which is worth making, and one which I need to listen to.

Is Gordon Brown a bully? That is a question that has received a great deal of media attention this week. Is he in the habit of grabbing staff by the collar, shoving them out of way or throwing things across the room? Does he shout, lose his temper and generally intimidate the staff at Number 10 – resulting in several employees phoning bullying help-lines?

It is unlikely that the truth behind these accusations will be easy to ascertain. This FNT article does not intend to explore the allegations to understand what’s true or false. Instead of considering whether or not Gordon Brown needs to book himself into an anger management course, this article introduces what the Bible has to say about anger.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:22,22a) Challenging words! However, later in the book of Matthew (21:12,13) we read of Jesus, overturning the moneychangers tables in the temple – now if that’s not a display of anger I don’t know what is!!

So what are we to make of this? Was Jesus guilty of hypocrisy, saying one thing yet doing another? That would seem unlikely! Instead, it is common for commentators to use these two passages to distinguish between two types of anger – bad anger and good anger. It’s also a distinction that many anger management courses make.

Bad anger is anger that is unreasonable, hateful and often selfish in its origin. Its outcomes can be abusive, violent and usually uncontrolled. It’s the anger of road rage, someone in front of us makes a mistake, no one expects us to be happy about it, but surely it’s unreasonable to get so worked up about it and wrong to think hateful thoughts and shout unkind words. After all, what good does it do anyone? I suspect it was bad anger that Jesus was comparing to murder.

Good anger is the anger that Jesus displayed the day he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. It wasn’t selfish, he was angry because what they were doing was wrong. The motivation behind good anger is pure. It’s not unreasonable, selfish or hateful. However, it’s not simply motivation that is important, it’s also how the emotion of anger is outworked. I would suggest that Jesus’ actions were appropriate, controlled and achieved a positive outcome. Surely it’s OK to be angry when we discover that MPs have been abusing the expenses system. However, that doesn’t mean a hateful and abusive, even violent, response is appropriate – that wouldn’t lead to a positive outcome. When we learn that countless children are dying each day because they are living in abject poverty, anger would certainly seem to be an appropriate emotion. But, what does that anger motivate us to do?

The Bible doesn’t just talk about our anger; it reveals a God who gets angry. Many people seem to have a picture of God that resembles the behaviour that Gordon Brown is being accused of, a God who lashes out when he gets annoyed. That’s not the picture the Bible paints. God’s anger is not unreasonable and random, it’s reasonable and specific – God anger is directed at sin (Romans 2:5-8). We may struggle to understand the ins and outs of the outworking of God’s anger, but we have to trust him, acknowledging his perfection and goodness, accepting that his actions are more appropriate than we can imagine and are leading towards a positive outcome. The Bible certainly reveals a God who is able to control his anger (Psalm 103:8,9). We’d be in trouble if he couldn’t!

Phil Green, Public Theology Research Assistant