You can hate someone and love them simultaneously.
You can grieve a tragic loss yet find comfort and joy.
You can wish someone had died good rather than become who they are.
You can feel anger yet be at peace.
You can be open to reconciliation and done with the chaos of madness.
But should you?
Human emotion is complex. We are created in the image of a complex God and the emotions we feel – though corrupted by sin – are like his fingerprints on our hearts. In this damaged and dying world each of us experiences abuse, betrayal, abandonment, loss, or heartbreak. But having bad things happen to you doesn’t make you bad. It’s how we respond to evil and tragedy that defines who we are.
Unfortunately, because of the complexity of our emotions, and because we’re so often told that feelings like anger, depression, and anxiety are sinful or embarrassing, many of us try to smother our feelings. Instead of processing our pain by confronting our emotions and expressing ourselves, we bury everything deep down in a futile attempt to control what we’re afraid to understand. While we may choke down rivers of rage, we subconsciously know the river has only gone underground. It’s still there, just beneath the surface, ready to explode out of our makeshift confines as soon as we’re provoked. We live in denial.
Evil & The Aftershocks
Being in denial is like being in the eye of a hurricane. You’re surrounded by emotional chaos, torrential memories of past offenses, and rising floods of pain. But here in your denial, everything is deceptively still. You pretend to be happy, you maintain your composure claiming you’re OK, and glue together superficial relationships with lies and fake smiles.
At some point you must leave this place. You cannot maintain this level of control forever. As you begin to confide in others about your pain and experiences, you journey out of denial – out of the eye of the storm – and confront the first hellish wall of agony.
Outward you travel, past the storm wall, then into a brief reprieve. But if you’ve ever survived a real hurricane, you’ll be familiar with the spinning arms of the tempest. The twisting, violent, tentacles hit you again and again with varying degrees of violence. As each arm sweeps over you, trees are torn up by the roots, homes are leveled, rivers overflow their banks, and people die. Just so, as each arm of your trauma sweeps over you, lies are torn up by their roots, relationships are reduced to rubble, agony overflows from your heart, and people you once loved are revealed to be untrustworthy.
Just as a real storm, your spiritual storm will feature many different aspects. A real hurricane blends powerful winds, rain, hail, lightening, thunder, and flooding. Just so, your spiritual hurricane will blend winds of anxiety, beating doubt, torrents of sorrow, flashes of rage, crashes of heartbreak, and floods of depression. These rush over you in waves leaving you exhausted, out-of-control, and possibly more than a little discouraged that you can’t manage your emotions better.
Is Anger Sin?
Unfortunately, some would have us believe that feelings like depression, doubt, worry, and anger are always sinful or taboo. However, to pretend that we do not feel this tempest of emotions is about as practical as denying the existence of a literal weather phenomenon. So, what can we do? Is it sinful to feel pain? And if we do feel pain, how can we Biblically cope?
Ephesians 4:25-27 says, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”
- Put away falsehood. Don’t pretend to feel happy and whole when you’re not.
- Be honest with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Allow them to grieve with you and for you.
- Be angry and do not sin.
- Don’t set up camp and live permanently in pain, leaving yourself vulnerable to corruption.
Like any physical wound left open and untended, spiritual wounds can leave us vulnerable to infection by sin. Sin is like bacteria; you treat it when it grows but you also do your best to prevent its growth in the first place. It’s imperative that we clean our wounds with the antiseptic of truth, applying the medicine of grace, the balm of friendship, and the bandages of the Gospel to our souls.
But how do we reconcile “be angry and do not sin,” with verses such as James 1:19, which reads, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
We know that the Bible is the Word of God, and as such, it does not and cannot contradict itself. Any perceived contradiction therefor must be the result of our own fallen hearts and misunderstanding.
But James does not say, “do not be angry ever.” Rather, he says, “be slow to anger.” He also stipulates, “the anger of man,” meaning worldly anger motivated by worldly things. Just so, in Colossians 3 when Paul commands us to “put away” anger, he speaks of the holy anger of God, while listing sinful anger alongside other sins including malice, slander, obscenities, and lies. In this way, Paul does not condemn all forms of anger, but describes sinful anger. Indeed, if God Himself gets angry, anger in and of itself cannot be sinful. To claim otherwise is tantamount to asking God, “What have You done?” (Daniel 4:35).
Made in the Image of an Angry God
Genesis 6:5-8 reads, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”
Like God, we can feel regret, grief, and anger over the sin of other people. In fact, as beings created in the image of a holy God who is “angry with the wicked every day,” (Psalm 7:11) it is perfectly natural, good, and healthy for us to be angry when we see abuse, betrayal, or grievous wrongs committed. In fact, to feel apathetic, lackadaisical, or tolerant of evil is to be unlike God. Yes, God is Love, but if we put forgiveness so high on a pedestal that we neglect justice, fail to do what’s right, and abandon truth, compassion, and mercy, we have failed to be Christlike.
“And [Jesus] looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” Mark 3:5
Our emotions are corrupted by sin, but it’s not only emotions like anger, regret, and sorrow that are corrupted. Our love, joy, and desires are corrupted as well. Should we suppress those emotions because they are affected by sin? Certainly not! Just as love, happiness, and trust can be good, so anger, regret, and sadness can be Godly as well.
- God is angry at wicked people on a daily basis. (Malachi 1:4, Psalm 7, Mark 3:5, Revelation 14:10)
- God has regretted creating evil people and being patient with them. (Genesis 6, Exodus 33:5, 1 Samuel 15:11 & 35)
- Jesus wept, grieved, and tossed over tables. (John 11:35, Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 11:15)
We must learn to discern between Godly anger and sinful anger, as the Bible does.
Godly anger is over the things that would make God angry too. When we know that good people have been wronged or innocent children abused, when we witness evil people refusing to repent or reveling in their sin, then we can be righteously angry and ardently desire justice. Like a mother angry that her child was allowed to be bullied at school, we can be angry in defense of the innocent and out of respect for God’s moral law.
Sinful anger is often self-centered and fueled by pride, selfishness, or a false sense of entitlement. When someone cuts us off on the road we may fly into a rage imagining they did it purposefully to irritate us. We may puff ourselves up thinking about how stupid they are compared to us and shouldn’t be allowed to drive. That is arrogance, malice, and entitlement talking. Blended with these, anger is evil.
When Cain murdered his brother Abel, it was because Cain felt entitled to God’s love and respect. When Abel’s offering was appreciated and Cain’s was not, he festered in resentment and jealousy (Genesis 4). By contrast, when Paul’s brothers and sisters in Christ found favor in God’s eyes, Paul rejoiced over them and thanked God for his siblings (Philippians 1:3-8).
When Moses came down from Sinai and saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, his righteous anger burned and he threw the tablets down, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 32:19). By contrast, in Numbers 20, Moses resents the Israelites for being “rebels” and takes credit for God’s mercy, bitterly boasting, “Must [Aaron and I] bring you water out of this rock?” Then, instead of speaking to the rock as God commanded, Moses struck the rock in anger. As punishment, Moses never entered the Promised Land.
In 1 Samuel 18:8 Saul becomes jealous and angry at David, thinking, “They have credited David with tens of thousands, but me with only thousands.” By contrast, in 1 Samuel 15:11, the Lord regrets making Saul king because Saul is evil. When the prophet Samuel learns this, the Bible says, “Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.”
When Cain, Moses, and Saul expressed sinful anger, their anger was motivated by pride, selfishness, and jealousy. By contrast, when Paul saw God blessing his brothers and sisters in Christ, he did not react in anger as Cain had, but rejoiced. When Moses expressed righteous anger, it was because the Israelites had committed idolatry even as God gave them the law. When Samuel felt righteous anger, he did not lash out in spite or violence, but cried out to God all night long.
Just as God “searches the heart” (Jeremiah 17:10, Romans 8:27) we must search our own hearts and analyze our motivations. Why are we angry? Do we have good reason to be angry? How can we wisely direct our anger? Can we leverage our passion to defend a victim from harm? Like Samuel, can we throw ourselves on God and cry tears of rage to the Lord? By searching our hearts and studying our motivations, we are being “slow to anger.”
Breaking the Cycle of Rage & Shame
In addition to avoiding sinful anger we must also avoid being too legalistic about our emotions. When anger leads to guilt and guilt leads to shame, shame leads to frustration and frustration to more anger. I apologize for sounding like Yoda but the guy wasn’t wrong. By failing to follow Samuel’s example and throw ourselves at the feet of God, we set ourselves up for failure. We become caught in yet another emotional hurricane with its ever-spinning arms crashing over us in an endless cycle of turmoil.
By contrast, what are the fruits of Godly anger, grief, and distress?
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.” 2 Corinthians 7:10-11a
Godly sorrow leaves no regret, but rather drives us to repentance and freedom in Christ. If, in our struggle against sin we heap guilt, disappointment, and shame on our heads, our efforts backfire causing us to grow more frustrated and thus more vulnerable to provocation and sinful anger.
My fitness trainer, Sanela, once told me regarding weight-loss, “Don’t focus so much on eating less. Rather, focus on eating more of the good stuff; lean protein, vegetables, and whole grains. Don’t deprive yourself. Feed your energy.”
This same concept can be applied to spiritual fitness. Instead of focusing on being angry less, focus on being patient more. Focus on humility, forgiveness, righteousness, morality, justice, selflessness, and how you can honor and serve others. When we do this – when we increase in the Fruits of the Spirit – we naturally decrease in our sinful urges and desires. We also avoid the temptation to be overly controlling of our emotions, which can lead to suppression or a works orientation. As we focus on Christ the things of this flesh fade into the background. As John says in 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
One of the greatest lessons of the Old Testament is that we as humans cannot keep God’s law on our own. We will never be good enough, self-controlled enough, wise enough, or holy enough to meet God’s righteous standard. That’s why the New Testament’s Covenant of Grace is so refreshing.
When we rely on our own efforts we set ourselves up for disappointment. We may come to feel like inadequate nomads wandering for 40 years in a spiritual wilderness. We may feel abandoned by God because we cannot be the people we know he wants us to be.
The Good News of the Gospel is that we no longer need to fear the wrath of our Holy Father because His Son lived a perfect life and made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.
Made in the Image of a Loving God
C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”
Just so, we do not censor our emotions because we fear the emotions of a holy God. Rather, we chase after the fruits of the Spirit because we love God and long to be more like our Daddy.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21
How do we overcome evil? With good! And who is good? Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. When we set our focus on Him – when we allow His Spirit to overwhelm our hearts with gratitude, humility, joy, and peace – He overcomes the evil corrupting our fallen hearts.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9
Will we still feel anger at times? Yes, for so does He. No matter how sanctified and Christlike we may become, by God’s grace, our anger will be roused against evil and motivated by a passion for what is right, good, and beautiful. This is not something we can achieve be sheer force of will, but by letting our guard down and welcoming the Spirit in to change us.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, we may temper our tempers by surrendering our hearts to the God of Truth. And the God of peace – and the peace of God – will be with you.