Is It Forbidden for Christians to Be Angry?

James 1:19b-20


From Faith, Love & Hope: An Exposition of the Epistle of James, AMG Publishers, 1997.

"Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God" (James 1:19b-20).

Now we come to a very practical and most difficult problem. We are all human beings with many weaknesses. All around us there are so many people and things which sometimes vex us that it seems almost impossible not to lose our tempers and be angry. Who can honestly say he never gets angry?

Here are some questions for us to consider: Is it right or wrong to be angry? Does God ever become angry? If He does, why should we not? If we should not, is it possible for the Christian to live through life and never be angry?

The Apostle James gives some very fine practical prescriptions in his epistle; and, once we understand what the Word of God actually expects of us, we shall be much happier. In verse 19 James gives us a piece of advice with three parts to it. He says: "Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath."

There are two Greek words which are indicative of the turbulent spirit. They are thumósand orgē. The first one is indicative of more of the turbulent commotion, the agitation of the feelings, while the second one is more of an abiding and settled habit of mind with the purpose of revenge. It is this latter word which is used in the original Greek text under study. Now to make matters a little clearer let me paraphrase this verse for you: "Let every man be swift in hearing, slow in speaking, for only thus will you be able to avert as much as possible that state of mind which seeks to find revenge."

Please observe that James does not say that we are to show no anger or wrath at all. He does not say, "Do not be wrathful, do not be angry," but rather, "Be slow in getting angry." His statement leads us to the following conclusions.

1) That anger or wrath, orgē as the original Greek has it, is unavoidable and possibly necessary; otherwise it would be totally prohibited. James says "slow in anger" and also "slow in speaking." As we are supposed to speak, so we are supposed to get angry.

2) That anger is of different kinds. The anger referred to in verse 19 apparently is permissible, while the one mentioned in the next breath, at the beginning of verse 20, is not recommended. Here is what it says: "For the wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God." This leads us to believe that there is a wrath which does work the righteousness of God. This may be termed the wrath of God, or the righteous indignation of God, which, however, man also may possess.

This is the logical deduction which we make as we look at these two verses. Now let us proceed with the examination of anger. This word which has to do with the world of the spirit has its beginning in the natural world. In one of its verbal forms, orgdō, when it refers to the soil, it means "to be well watered and ready to bear a crop, to swell, to teem with moisture." In its metaphorical and general sense it is "to swell with lust." James has already spoken of the lust of the flesh and how detrimental it is to the poise of the spirit. It is this lustful anger and wrath which is forbidden. It is this wrath which is designated in verse 20 as man's wrath. It is a wicked wrath in which the believer should have no share. Let me give you a few illustrations of this kind of wrath.

An unbeliever listening to the Word of truth usually is very uncomfortable, especially if he resists the call of the Gospel to salvation. That discomfort may very easily turn to real anger. There is an easy way of making an unbeliever, a persistent unbeliever, angry, and that is to continue to speak to him the Word of truth. That is an example of man's wrath.

But why limit our illustration to the unbeliever? There are many born-again Christians who have often left the house of God really angry. They may even turn to their fellow Christians and say, "That preacher made me terribly mad today. I am not going to come to hear him again." But all that the faithful preacher did was preach the Word of truth. If it made him angry, that anger is a wicked anger, declares the Word of God.

Such wrath, man's wrath, James says, does not work the righteousness of God. What does that really mean? Here the word "worketh" has the meaning of "produces." The result of the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

What is the righteousness of God? The word in Greek is dikaiosúnē, which means "justice." The word presents God as a great Judge whose work is to render justice-punishment where punishment is due and reward where reward is due. Now the expression as a whole, "the righteousness of God," may be taken in two ways. The first meaning would be to take righteousness as an attribute of the character of God. In other words, it is part of the makeup of God to condemn sin and reward obedience. Many times, motivated by our natural impulses, we become angry; we speak and act angrily. James warns us to know that in our anger we can never render justice in any situation as God would have rendered it.

Man's anger is contrary to the character of God. James spoke about the re-creation of man through the Word of truth, through Jesus Christ. When this occurs, then the nature and character of God are formed in man. Among the many attributes of God is this righteousness of God. In order for that divine character to be fully formed in us, however, we must not have any of our own anger.

Now just a few words about this righteous indignation or the anger which is permissible. This anger does not spring from the Adamic nature in man, but from the divine nature which has begun its existence in man at the moment he has received the Lord Jesus Christ into his heart. The Apostle Paul goes so far as to command us to be thus righteously indignant and angry when he says, "Be ye angry, and sin not" (Eph. 4:26).

Such anger also is a characteristic of God. Both the Old and New Testaments are full of expressions which speak of the anger or wrath of God, which wrath may be defined generally as an energy of the divine nature called forth by the presence of daring or presumptuous transgression, and expressing the reaction of the divine holiness against it in the punishment or destruction of the transgressor. Hear John the Baptist as he speaks to the Pharisees and Sadducees: "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Matt. 3:7). And Jesus said: "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him" (John 3:36). Many more verses could be enumerated to show that God does become angry. His anger invariably is prompted by the sin which His holiness cannot tolerate. Surely as we watch the sin all around us we cannot possibly stand and ignore it. It is our duty to condemn it, and to do it with righteous indignation.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between the wrath of God and ours. Perfection and holiness at their highest have a greater right to condemn sin than we who possess little of these divine qualities. God can be angry and not sin, but for us redeemed sinners, who are still capable of sin, sometimes the thread of separation between righteous indignation and sin is very thin indeed.

A church was in need of a pastor. A candidate came who preached on hell. The next Sunday another candidate came whose sermon was also on hell, and his fundamental teaching was the same as that of the first one. When the members of the church were called upon to vote, they voted for the second candidate. When they were asked why, the answer was, "The first one spoke as if he were glad that people were going to hell, while the second seemed sorry for it." Though you and I ought to reflect the wrath of God in our daily lives, our righteous wrath and indignation ought to be clothed in love, for it is only by the grace of God that we ourselves do not incur His wrath.

Who is to make the distinction as to when our anger is righteous and works the righteousness of God and when it does not? Herein lies the difficulty. The answer lies with the conscience of the individual. What happens when both a husband and wife think they have a righteous anger? An aged man went to his physician for an examination. The physician expressed astonishment at his robust vigor in spite of his advanced years. The man explained that he had been compelled to live an "out-of-doors life." He then went on to say that, when he and his wife were married, they made a compact that, when he lost his temper, she was to keep silent; and when she lost her temper, he was to go outdoors! I think this is still better advice: "Enter your closet and seek the Lord in prayer. Look at His face and His countenance will change yours."

Be careful, lest the feeling of anger, although legitimate, should last too long. Remember that, in spite of your redemption, you are just a human being capable of sin. "Anger resteth," says the author of Ecclesiastes, "in the bosom of fools." It arises in the bosom of all men, but it remains unduly long only in the bosom of fools.

Spiros Zodhiates (1922-2009) served as president of AMG International for over 40 years, was the founding editor of Pulpit Helps Magazine (Disciple's predecessor), and authored dozens of exegetical books.

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