Anger is universally recognized as an extremely dangerous emotion.  Two thousand years ago the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger lamented, “No plague has cost the human race so dear” (“On Anger,” 1.2).  The Jewish psychiatrist Solomon Schimmel wrote, “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is the most pervasive, injurious to self and others, and responsible for unhappiness and psychopathological behavior. … As a psychotherapist I spend more time helping clients deal with their anger than with any other emotions.”[1]

The New Testament Greek words for anger are variously translated as rage, fury, anger, and wrath.  All express strongly negative emotions, including Pharaoh’s wrath (Hebrews 11:27) and the Devil’s (Revelation 12:12).  However, not all usages are negative.  For example, the same word is used to designate God’s wrath or his judgment against sin.  Clearly, then, anger is not always wrong.  This fact highlights the importance of a clear definition of anger.

Anger can be defined as a strong reaction in opposition to a perceived injustice.  In examining this definition, we need to pay attention to three key elements: the intellectual, the emotional, and the volitional.

The first element is the intellectual and concerns itself with proper definitions and concepts.  Since anger is a reaction to a perceived injustice, we should first ask what justice is.  The question of justice is primarily one of the motive or reason for the anger.  Therefore, the key point that needs to be determined is whether the angered person’s concept of justice is correct.  An incorrect view of justice results in sinful anger.  A correct understanding of justice leads to what is often called righteous anger.  In order to distinguish between sinful and righteous anger, we shall define “justice” as giving to each his due.

Sinful anger can then be a consequence of not understanding justice properly.  The perpetrator does not understand what is due to others, but especially to oneself.  The angry person who is sinning has a false sense of entitlement.  “I deserve this and am going to get it.”  More pathetically, anger is expressed in self-pity.  “Why does so and so have this, and I don’t?  It’s not fair.” “Why did this happen to me?  I don’t deserve it.  It’s not fair.” Sinful anger is so deceptive because it appeals to fairness or justice. Since we think that our anger is just, we feel good about ourselves and our actions.  Because we believe that our anger is just, we may even believe that we are better people for feeling angry. Even more dangerously, because we believe that those who have provoked our anger are unjust, we tend to demonize the offending party.

Righteous anger is possible when we understand justice correctly.  Not only is it possible, it is a positive good to react negatively to an actual injustice.  Since these reactions tend to fall into the emotional and volitional side of things, we’ll take them up now as we talk about these two other elements in understanding anger.

Both vainglory, which is an excessive desire for the recognition and approval of others, and envy, the pain or sorrow we feel because of another’s good, relate to the emotions.  Both easily spill over into sinful anger because of their skewered view of justice.  The vainglorious person wants more than his due praise.  The envious person does not want another person to have their due.  Envy’s emotion of resentment is a slow-burning anger, which, as was seen in the story of Cain and Abel, is so powerful that it can lead to violence.

However, the strength of anger’s emotion is such that even if it is a righteous response to injustice, it can become sinful.  Evagrius of Pontus describes anger graphically. “Anger is the sharpest passion. It is said to be a boiling up and movement of indignation (thumos) against a wrongdoer or a presumed wrongdoer: it causes the soul to be savage all day long, but especially in prayers it seizes the mind (nous), reflecting back the face of the distressing person” (Logismoi, 5).  Clearly, once anger is roused, it is very difficult to control.  Since even righteous anger is such a strong emotion, we need to ask ourselves three key questions to determine whether it has become sinful anger.

  1. Are we reacting to what is truly an injustice?
  2. Is the degree of anger proportionate to the injustice? For example, how angry should we become if another driver cuts us off?
  3. In particular, does the anger overcome love for God and the offending person, group, or institution, resulting in hatred?

 

The volitional element of anger addresses two main issues with regard to our will. First, there is the decision to control the level of emotion.  Second, there is the decision to act upon the emotion. Here are four additional key questions to ask ourselves concerning whether our anger is righteous.

  1. Is our action against the offending party proportionate to the offense? Justice is to give someone their due.  It is unjust to punish or treat someone more severely than what their unjust act deserves.
  2. Are your actions chosen to help the person stop acting unjustly or are you seeking only revenge and to hurt the other person?
  3. In order to answer question number two, we can ask two further questions of ourselves to see whether we are just being vengeful. First, have you been fantasizing over the demise of the offending person? Second, does the thought of the offending person suffering give you pleasure?  If the answer to either of these questions is affirmative, then your anger is sinful and not righteous.

Sinful anger is a failure to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We only want them to suffer, but “love is patient and kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4).  Sinful anger seeks to take matters into its own hands.  It is a failure to believe that God is the friend of the oppressed and to hope that he will act of their behalf.  Sinful anger does not believe that vengeance belongs to the Lord and that he will repay (Romans 12:19).

One final note.  It is good to ask ourselves the aforementioned questions, but we are very poor at self-examination, especially when anger is roused.  If you feel that your anger is righteous, talk to a friend or wise counsellor—one whom you know will tell you the truth even if it hurts—and ask them to evaluate the justice of your anger.

In our next post, we’ll look at sloth, a very deadly and misunderstood sin.

[1] Solomon Schimmel, The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Oxford University Press,1997), p. 83.

28 Responses to “Anger”

  • Drew Sullivan:

    I usually don’t connect with anger are other sins like envy or vainglory, is anger connected to the other sins often as well? When reading this I thought about when Jesus was angry with the money changers in the temple and how hard it is to keep ones anger just, not hating the person you are angry at, but instead hating their sinful action. Then, how far must ones anger go to be unjust? For example someone comes into a room and is angry because someone else is messing with their clothes or toys etc. Just Anger would be only up to the point that it is due for that action. But doesn’t Jesus also command us to forgive others and show grace? I guess what I am getting at is when is it right to show grace and when is it right to show anger?

    • These are difficult issues, Drew. I don’t think that grace can be shown until the unjust act is repented of. However, confronting the offending party or getting a third party to intervene is an important step and is, in a way, an act of grace because you are giving the person the chance to repent. We just need to be careful of our motivation, as Galatians 6:1 warns us.

  • Melissa Gossard:

    This blog entry makes me think deeply about the extreme differences that anger can be used for; good and evil. In general, I feel anger is more often viewed from a sinful place rather than a place of justice for good and right. What an interesting space to explore: righteous anger that aligns us with loving God and our neighbor. What would our relationships look like if each time we became angry we reflected on these questions?

    The part about finding pleasure in suffering as a sin… If someone is horrifically abused, their anger could easily be seen as a righteous anger towards their perpetrator. If they find pleasure in the person being punished does this mean there is sin in their anger? Can there be space for maybe satisfaction/peace that the person has been rightfully punished for a crime/sin without it being vengeful anger? The believer is called to love their enemies so wishing for suffering beyond what is due punishment certainly goes against God. I find question 3, “In particular, does the anger overcome love for God and the offending person, group, or institution, resulting in hatred?” to be most powerful in response to the example previously stated. Difficult process.

    Processing anger in the field of counseling is one of the most common (next to anxiety) emotions to work through. Distorted thinking within the emotion of anger can cause so much harm. These reflective questions are GOOD and something to hold on to well past this course. (In my opinion) 🙂 As always Dr. Isley (AKA Dr. Wisely), well done.

    • Thanks, Melissa. These comments are very helpful and I appreciate your experience in dealing with this and look forward to your help in the class on this. When I mentioned thinking of someone suffering, I was thinking not of the offender being justly punished but of a kind cruel, even sadistic fantasizing, but it is easy for me who has led such a sheltered life to be quick to give advice in this matter.

  • Jude Borchers:

    The fist aspect of this post that I found interesting was the idea that anger is caused by someone’s perception of what happens around them. The difference between justified and sinful anger is the perception of justice. The reason that it’s hard to know if my anger is justified is because it’s hard for me to be objective when looking at it. But that’s not the only part of anger that’s hard to judge. Even if there’s sufficient cause to be angry, I have to judge if the extent of the anger is okay, which is even more difficult. I just don’t see any way that I can consistently see if my anger is justified in a given situation.

    • This is an important issue, Jude. There are biblical standards that help us see when something is unjust. These can guide us about the acts of others. With regard to our attitude and actions, I would say that as you pray and seek wise counsel, God will direct you.

  • Kylie Cleverdon:

    This is definitely very tough to overcome, as well as all the other seven deadly sins, because you have to evaluate yourself and find out where your anger stems from. By doing this, you can find out if your anger is sinful or righteous. My question is though, is it ok to allow ourselves to unleash our anger in the privacy of our own homes or in a private setting? And if so, is this considered sinful anger? Because I know that it’s not healthy to bottle up our emotions.

    • This is a very interesting question, Kylie. Instead of unleashing our anger at home–shouting to yourself, throwing things, etc.–maybe you should express your anger to God in prayer and he can help you overcome it. What do you think?

  • Chandler M Vincent:

    I think my main observation would be that I have never really thought of Anger as being a good thing. I always heard the phrase “The wrath of God”, but I suppose I just thought that God’s wrath was just because he is God, and only his wrath could be just. I can clearly see the connection between pride and anger, being that you feel over somebody because they did something unjust so you feel compelled to “put them in their place” even if it was not your job to do so. I always think of anger or wrath as a bad thing, and I see now when I get mad at an injustice it is “rightful anger” but I suppose I just never thought of it as anger… Hmmm, something to think about.
    Thank you so much for the blog, it was very thought provoking and very helpful in correcting some error in my thinking towards anger.

  • Tess Ewing:

    Dr. Isley, I really enjoyed this blog post because I appreciated the expansion of how anger could be righteous or not, and how you talked about how big a part justice was behind anger. I found a little more clarification in the last two or so paragraphs on my question, but I am still kind of wondering if in the moment of someone being angry if they are able to tell if them being angry is justifiable? I have heard before that it is okay to be angry, it’s just when we act on anger in the wrong way that it becomes a sin. Would that be a justifiable-okay act?

    • Thanks, Tess. Your question points to the problem with anger. It is such a strong emotion that it clouds our judgment. If at all possible, it is better to back off, count to 10 as they say, but I realize that there are times, probably not as often as we imagine, when we must act. The other factor is that we are more likely to be wrong when the person has acted against us rather than against somebody. If the former, we need to be even more cautious.

  • Kassidy Napier:

    (I appreciate how you apply each sin to the other! It’s very helpful!) When a friend experiences a sinful anger after an injustice, we might say to them “The Lord is in control. He will avenge those who need avenged. He will carry out justice.” If they experience a righteous behavior, are they permitted to act on it? God still is the ultimate lawmaker and judge. If we carry out what we deem as justice, does that “get in the way” of God’s justice? (assuming human and divine justice is different)

    • Thank you, Kassidy. I’m glad that you find it helpful. Your question about action is very important. I would say that it depends upon your relationship and especially position. For example, some unjust behavior is personal and needs to be dealt with on a personal level or with the help of a friend or two. Some injustice must be dealt with by the authorities–government, police, the courts.

  • Halle Pavlik:

    In history, my class has been discussing the connections that are made through an essay. I am starting to see this throughout all of the seven deadly sins that we have been discussing. Throughout every sin, I am starting to see how they connect to each other. Mr.Brian has used the simily of our essays should be like a thread sewn throughout our essay, I am really starting to see this throughout all the sins. On another note, I also have never thought about a fit of righteous anger but this essay really opened my eyes up to the idea of not all anger being bad. I was going through a situation where i was angry at someone but this essay really helped me know what to do.

    • I am glad that you are seeing connections–in history class and between the various sins! I’m even more glad that this post on anger helped you in a real-life situation. By the way, I don’t think you want to say a “fit” of anger because it implies the lack of control of our emotions that can lead to even righteous anger becoming sinful.

  • Lauren Drum:

    This was a very good post (as always) so thank you Dr. Isley! I was reminded how anger is not always a bad thing or “the emotion you should use less” but instead, can be used in good ways and is shown by everybody, even God. I however was slightly confused about a few sentences you said. “Righteous anger is possible when we understand justice correctly. Not only is it possible, it is a positive good to react negatively to an actual injustice.” Could you possibly give me an example of that? It just didn’t click with me. Otherwise, this was a very well constructed post and I liked how you put the questions we should ask ourselves in there. Thank you!

  • Sophie Cather:

    This article clearly made connections between sin and, as the others have stated, it was helpful to see what consciously and subconsciously happens in the moments preceding anger. It is perhaps important to recognize that anger is not the first emotion that one feels. Rather an injustice, as you mentioned, caused it to develop into anger. Failure to achieve a position on a team will naturally produce sadness. The sadness then may lead to anger or pride. That being said, it might be helpful in the moment to think about what feeling caused the anger in order to distinguish whether it is just.
    I also found a connection with your point that, “anger is expressed as self-pity.” In society, I have observed people playing the “victims” in order to gain attention or privileges. I see how this is pathetic as it is an act of hypocrisy (externally you act as if you have been abused, while internally you think that you are superior to that which caused the injustice). I know I am not exempt from wallowing in pity and disgust, so this point impacted me as well.

    • Thanks, Sophie. You are right that anger may not always be our first emotion. Your example of not being picked for a team is a good one. One is saddened or disappointed, but then as what happened is dwelt upon, one easily becomes angry. I know what you mean about self-pity because we feel like we’re the victim, but we’re not. Thus the anger we feel is not justified because no injustice was done.

      • Taryn Durbin:

        I liked how you compared each sin to the other because it helped me to connect anger with the other sins we have already discussed. I have never really thought about anger being in two different categories: sinful and righteous anger. I liked how this article clarified that sinful anger is when we do not understand justice properly, whereas righteous anger is when we understand justice correctly. It has never really occurred to me before that anger can be turned into sin. My question is when is it right to show anger and what is an example of when it is ok to be angry?

        • Thank you, Taryn. I’m glad that you found the post helpful. To be angry at an injustice is a characteristic of God and is therefore a virtue for humans. However, anger is very dangerous because it is so volatile. Our action against an injustice may need to wait, if possible, until the emotion of anger has subsided. I’ll give a personal and recent extreme example. I was watching the news and was horrified and angered when I saw a young Kurdish boy with his skin burned because chemical weapons were being used in the battle. The only thing that I could do was to pray to God that he would stop the war and protect the innocent.

  • Jaley Barkley:

    I had never thought about anger being a righteous act. When ever I think of anger, it is always used in a bad situation. I liked how you connected vainglory and envy together with anger because it helped me connections between the seven deadly sins. Anger is such a strong sin that can overtake any human being if their heart in is the wrong place. I do have a question about righteous and sinful anger though. If a person try’s to show righteous anger but doesn’t understand in that situation that they are using sinful anger, but their heart is in the right place, is that still considered sinful anger?

    • Thank you for the good question, Jaley. I would say that if someone is using sinful anger, then their heart is not in the right place. When we feel anger, we need to allow God to examine our heart and what we are thinking. As I wrote in the post, even if our anger is righteous, it may not be our place to act directly upon it. Sometimes that is the role of the police or other authorities. At other times, it may be that we need to have a third party intervene for us.

  • Skylar Ball:

    I thought this post was very good, and described anger very well. But I was wondering after reading this blog, would you then consider anger the strongest emotion of the the sins? Also if it is a righteous anger but then you were to react physically, like harming someone, would the anger become unjust?

    • Good questions, Skylar. Thanks. Anger is a very powerful emotion, maybe the strongest. Let’s discuss that tomorrow and especially see what insights Mrs. Gossard has on that, but I’m inclined to agree with you. With regard to the second question, much depends upon what you mean by harm. At times it is necessary to intervene and it may very well not be pleasant for the offending party, but ultimately it is not to harm them. It may sound odd, but punishing a thief for his crime is actually good for him and gives him the opportunity to repent.

  • Hadley Taggart:

    Thank you Dr. Isley. Two things from this passage really sparked my interest. The first of these being how/what does it look like to love someone and be angry at them? Now that I ask it, it seems obvious, but in the heat of the moment what does it look like? How are we to control our emotions? The second subject that seized my attention was that of the volition of the sin of anger. This struck me because, when I am angry, I feel some of the starkest contrast in my mind. Half of me is engulfed by this emotion that seems to lock me in place. I am angry and I don’t want to leave because it would hurt my pride or I’m comfortable here, etc. (yikes) But I also hear the logic in my head deeming this emotion unnecessary and/or sinful. I try to make excuses saying that I’m not in control because it’s an emotion but that claim is false.

    • Wow! These are very good questions, Hadley, and I appreciate your insight into your own inner life. At times it is easier to become angry with those we love. Two reasons come to mind. First, we are on intimate terms; so, there is greater opportunity for conflict. Second, and more importantly, I think, is that we so want the best for the ones that we love that we become frustrated when they are not doing what is best for them. As a parent, I know that. I suppose that we could add a third, which is when love becomes the wrong kind of jealousy that we try to possess the person and become angry when they don’t go along with us. The issue of the will is important. We can have reason, as you explain, but sometimes the emotions become so strong that we follow them rather than reason. As you quite insightfully say as well, we like to cling to our anger. There is pride, as you mention, but specifically, at least for me, I like to cling to my anger because I feel that I am justified and it makes me feel, without a doubt falsely, that I am a righteous person because I am angry at what I perceive to be an injustice.

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