Turning to 1 Corinthians 13:5c (love is not irritable, love is not easily provoked), we should note that Paul cites an aspect of anger that implies the larger biblical picture of anger. We are going to discuss that larger picture by means of a group of words related to anger (being ready to be provoked, anger, wrath, etc.). As we do this some questions arise. How can we characterize the sin of anger? What is the opposite of anger that Christian love displays? At the bottom of it all is the question, What is the difference between proper and improper anger? These are some of the questions we want to try to answer today as we discuss Loving versus Unloving Anger. My outline has the form of two questions: 1) what is meant by unloving anger? And 2) what is meant by loving anger?
Per Ephesians 4:26 (be angry and sin not) we know that there is such a thing as being angry without sinning. Presumably, that is in the backdrop (by implication) in 1 Corinthians 13:5c, which is telling us to display loving rather than unloving anger. At present we want to know when we step out of bounds from loving to unloving anger.
Sinful anger refers to being upset when people wrong us; that is, it is being unduly or excessively upset when people wrong us. There are many evils in the world. When we see them directed at us and feel personally impacted, we are naturally provoked. When evil strikes us, then from the depths of our being we will oppose it earnestly and passionately. We will be outraged. But this outrage is wrong when it ignites too fast, lasts too long, harbors too much, and goes too far (this is like four boundary lines that box anger in).
1) It ignites too fast (cf. the translation, love is not irritable). We are talking here about the inner passions of a person's temperament. Undue anger is to be temperamental rather than even tempered. It is to be primed and ready to fire up like a small engine: with very little pressure, a pull, and a tug and the emotions are running, smoking, and vibrating at a noisy pace.
2) It lasts too long. We step out of bounds when the opposition we strongly feel is kept burning in our souls. If prolonged, proper anger will become improper anger. It is like any emotion or appetite that we have by God's creation (thirst, hunger, etc.). They are all good in themselves. Sin occurs when we leave the path of moderation in all things.
It may help to inquire as to when we cross the line. One way to put it is to say we cross the line when we sleep on it. To sleep on it is good advice for many things but not for anger. If you sleep on it you let it grow and take deeper root in your soul. That is the point of Ephesians 4:26b, do not let the sun go down on your anger. Being upset until you are fit to be tied may occur in the storm of affliction by the evils of others. But you must get this feeling of outrage in check; the boiling pot should cool as the day passes. The fire should not be allowed to blaze day after day. This seems to be one way for us to know that we have stepped out of the frying pan into the fire. We have moved from godly rage to sinful anger when our anger is prolonged (proper action prompted by anger should continue as in due process but not the anger; cf. how inflammatory language stirs up anger and how dissension, conflict, riot, and war are enflamed).
3) It harbors too much. That is, the sin of undue or improper anger occurs when a person harbors ill will or the desire for revenge (cf. the overlap with impatience). Emotions may be just as strong whether internalized or externalized; things are out of order when the passions are so stirred up that you can't concentrate on your normal occupation. This is being preoccupied in heart with malice, which is to desire harm to come to others because of the wrongs they have committed against us (or because of envy, or because they cross our selfish paths, or because they hinder self-exaltation). At least, that is how we perceive it; we are certain that they have wronged us (though we may misperceive due to envy, selfishness, or pride).
Sinful anger is lacking self-control regarding inner passions. The point here is similar to one of the fruits of the Spirit, self control (Gal. 5:23). Things are out of control when we hold grudges desiring revenge on the personal level (Lev. 19:18). This is God's territory and we are to keep out (Rom. 12:19). Thus, we are to bless and curse not (Rom. 12:14, never wish evil or harm).
4) It goes too far. Compare the eye for an eye passage in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-39). Why should we take this metaphorically instead of literally? The eye for eye phrases go with the turn the other cheek phrases. Turn the other cheek is not a call to suffer bodily harm in ascending degrees. It does not call us to submit to having the teeth knocked out of one side of the mouth after the other. It is not a call to become toothless by a lack of wise self-defense. The sixth commandment implies the appropriateness of protecting ourselves from bodily harm. Jesus is giving an as if parallel. In the spirit of this commandment be as far removed from taking revenge of any sort as is the case in this physical but metaphorical/as if example. This extreme example given for sake of illustration only shows how extreme we should be in the control of our anger and the spirit of retaliation. The point is do not vent your anger in any kind of revenge in thought, word, or deed.
Jesus speaks against hitting those in the forehead with a two by four who have hit us on the cheek with the clenched fist. Do absolutely nothing, He says. This is total non-resistance on a personal level (the Rabbinical tradition had blurred the distinction between the civil and the personal levels). You are to stay as far away from retaliation as possible. This is not intended literally because self-defense is legitimate and may include striking someone. Jesus is speaking of the abuse of personal vendetta taking that was cloaked in the use made of the OT law of an eye for an eye. Jesus is teaching us about control in the fullest and most loving sense: control your anger in thought, word, and deed!
For short, it emulates God and it opposes evil.
Again, the key passage for this fact is Ephesians 4:26, be angry and sin not. It seems that there is validity in saying love is angry or that love is properly angry. Some anger is proper (good, righteous, and just). It does not offend God. Rather than offending God, proper or righteous anger emulates God. He is the standard of good conduct and the entire Bible reveals Him as the God of justice and anger who forcefully displays just anger. In parables, Jesus pictured God as a king who severely punished those toward whom He was angered and enraged (Matt. 18:34; 22:7; Lk. 14:21). And I am sure that you remember the anger of our Lord using a whip and turning over tables in the temple court. So we must speak about two things at the same time in this connection.
1) On one hand, we must say that God is love. He loves the just and the unjust alike. This is called His common love because it is common to all, whether believer or unbeliever. His love to unbelievers is shown to them in the rain and the sunshine. He stretches out His hands to sinners like He did to disobedient Israel inviting them to fellowship (Rom. 10:21; cf. Ps. 19:1-6; Acts 14:17).
2) On the other hand, we must say that God is angry at the wicked every day (Ps. 7:11, as a righteous judge). What an awful and fearful truth this is (Ps. 76:7, Who can stand before you when you are angry?). Fallen sinners store up wrath for themselves for the day of God's wrath when there will be wrath and anger issuing in trouble and distress for every human being that does evil (Rom. 2:5-9).
Here we have a very difficult doctrine of Holy Scripture, the doctrine of eternal punishment. It is simply numbing. It is something we want to suppress or block out of our minds. The God of love is also a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29) and it is a fearful thing to fall into His hands (Heb. 10:30) for all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb. 4:13). For most Christians (for me for sure), this is a difficult teaching that gets more and more difficult as thought progresses from people in general to people we know to people we love. It is almost unbearable. There is such a thing as Godly anger and it is truly a frightening truth. It is a hard truth that can only be fully embraced at the feet of Christ.
Before leaving this thought, we should comment on the way of salvation or protection from the wrath of God. In Romans 2, there is a contrast between those who do evil and those who do good (vs. 9 and 10). What does it mean to be people who do good? Clearly, doing good does not mean that we are saved by our good deeds for that is emphatically not the case (Rom. 3:20; 4:1-6). Doing good has a context of repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ as risen Lord (v. 5, cf. the opposite of being unrepentant). Righteousness from God comes through Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22). Those who believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus is the risen Lord shall be saved (Rom. 10:9-10). To know that the Lord is not angry with us but savingly loves us is a wonder of wonders. We offend God every day but every offense is covered by the sacrifice of Christ (Rom. 3:24-25a) if we are among those who trust in Him.
So is there such a thing as loving anger? Yes. Christian love and righteous anger go together. This may be a difficult fact but it is a fact nonetheless. Therefore, if we image God as we should, then at times we will display loving anger that emulates God.
Edwards has some interesting comments in this regard. He says that anger is earnest and more or less violent opposition against evil, real or supposed (Charity 187). It is not anger to earnestly/forcefully oppose some things like suffering. We can think of suffering as natural evil and it is surely proper to oppose it. This forceful opposition of heart and soul is usually not called anger. It is directed against natural evil. Righteous anger is directed against moral evil not natural evil. Loving or righteous anger is not just disliking something or having the rational judgment in your mind that it is wrong. It refers to the fact of being moved and stirred up in your spirit about the wrong you perceive. It is to have strong feelings about it (cf. moral outrage). It is a passion of the soul or inner man of the heart that affects our emotions in various ways.
The father, who is upset with his child, even outraged at the child's bad conduct, displays loving anger. He feels deeply and has strong opposition to the wrongs but he has a good will toward his child desiring the child's best interests, good, and welfare. Proper anger is opposed to evil in an earnest way.
A positive implication surfaces at this point. We learn that love is a deeply felt passion for good. Ultimately, what we seek most passionately is Christ (the ultimate opposite of self-seeking, 1 Cor. 13:5b) and because of Him we seek the good of others and the point here is that we thus seek goodness in others. We pray that it will be displayed in their lives. We pray for God's will to be done on earth as in heaven (cf. the Lord's prayer, Matt. 6:10). Christ requires an attitude of good will in the heart for He told us to wish well and pray for the blessing of all even our enemies (Matt. 5:44). To be filled with good will is a way of describing a passion that opposes evil and promotes good in the lives of others. Ultimately, this is sought in the spread of the gospel near and far.
By practicing kindness, we seek Christ by going about doing good. In loving anger, we seek Christ by going about promoting good conduct in others and doing so in earnest. This is the implication of opposing evil. It is loving anger with its best foot forward (the other foot opposes evil).
We may not be accustomed to this language of loving anger. We may prefer the terminology of righteous anger. But at the least, we must agree that righteous anger is part of what is meant by Christian love! Loving anger emulates God and opposes evil.
Application: some principles that help us curb anger
1) A soft response turns away wrath (Prov. 15:1). An angry response means we go from the frying pan into the fire by making matters worse. But it is encouraging in the direction of the control of anger to know that its control points the way to peace and calm. Love seeks this good for others; it seeks to curb the anger of others promoting their good conduct.
2) Sinful anger does not work the righteousness of God. It does just the reverse promoting unrighteousness. So be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath (James 1:19; knowing why, v. 20). To be irritable is to be ready to be upset at the drop of a hat. When you catch yourself in an irritable mood and ready to explode, mark it down, you have strayed from the excellent way into by-path meadow as described by Bunyan in his Pilgrim's Progress. There is only trouble ahead, the trouble of giant despair and doubting castle with its dungeon, nasty and stinking.
We are cautioned against being quick-tempered, easily provoked, and easily upset. We should not boil and overflow immediately. The distemper that is set in motion easily is difficult to stop and it inevitably causes more problems than what initiated the anger in the first place: A quick-tempered man does foolish things, and a crafty man is hated (Prov. 14:17). Associated with anger is a quarrelsome spirit and it is better to live in a desert than to be around this kind of person: by irritability and quarrelsomeness you make others feel uncomfortable around you. It is better to live in a desert than with an ill-tempered wife or husband (Prov. 21:19). The folly of anger leads to many other sins (Prov. 29:22).
It is dangerous ground to walk on. For example, consider the case of the racquet-throwing tantrum. A few years ago, playing tennis with my son Adam and losing the match I reached a breaking point of inner frustration and in the heat of the moment I threw my racquet at the net. But it hit the very top of the net and sailed all the way to the back fence landing a few feet from Adam. That was a very awkward moment. He just starred at me, perhaps in shock. I felt a biting pain of conscience along with embarrassment. But more than that I cringe to think of what could have happened. What if I had hit Adam and harmed him in some way, what would I have felt then? Is it worthwhile to let the strong feelings of anger have their way when they only promise shame to myself and harm, even serious harm, to others? The embarrassment was bad enough but things could have been much worse.
Anger stinks. When I left Troy the other night and merged into traffic, I got a strong whiff of a nearby skunk. If you are moving in the wrong direction, the smell will get stronger and stronger until you can't stand it any more. I thought about anger by comparison. Anger stinks like that, the more that we move in its direction; the more pungent will be its smell. It is a suffocating stench. Don't go there. It does not work any good to your neighbor and it will only crowd out the fresh air of a healthy/godly life.
You will look foolish and bring embarrassment to those around you if not to yourself as well. The angry person acts unreasonably. Sinful anger has an I, me, myself, and mine cause. The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him (Lk. 15:28). Here we see the unreasonableness of anger. What does the older brother refuse but good food and good company?
3) Sinful anger merits eternal punishment. You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca, 'is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt. 5:21-22).
What is the point of the parallels between crime and punishment? We have murder/judgment, anger/judgment followed by Raca/Sanhedrin, and fool/hell. A couple of things can be noted. 1) In the parallel of murder/judgment and anger/judgment, there is a movement from the outward act of murder to the inward attitude of anger. By this Jesus indicts the Jewish tradition for its failure to address the matters of the heart. 2) The parallel of saying Raca and coming into judgment before the Sanhedrin is saying fool and coming into eternal judgment. By this Jesus indicts the Jewish tradition for minimizing the judgment merited by anger in all its manifestations from hateful words to murderous acts.
We know this about sins in general and can apply it by logical inference to any sin in particular. But this text states the point unmistakably when it tells us that this sin merits the fire of hell. This is a most powerful incentive for the Christian heart with respect to sinful anger.
When I let anger run out of control, even when it is at first justified, I am indulging a deep inner passion that is wrong no matter what the wrongs that occasion it. The wrong I am doing merits eternal punishment. I earn that punishment by this sin. And none other than the Lord Jesus Himself tells me that. He warns us in the clearest of terms that the punishment of hell hangs over sinful anger. It is particularly the case that sinful anger arouses the righteous anger of the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth.
So, though I have forgiveness by the work of Christ who endured the wrath of God in my place, it is still the case that when I am sinfully angry, hold grudges, and desire to take revenge, I merit eternal punishment. The sin of anger is surely a hot potato in the hands of a Christian. We should remember this fact, sense the danger, and cast this hot potato quickly aside. Perhaps a way to state this is to say that the sin of anger arouses the anger of God in a profound way. If it were not for the shield of Christ we would be ground to powder by the millstone of God's wrath that grinds slowly but exceedingly fine.
In a very trying time of our life back in Pennsylvania, my wife and I had the added circumstance of getting stuck in the snow in our driveway. We dug the snow and pushed the car until we were both fit to be tied. She looked at me seeing the smoke coming out of my ears and said, Go ahead say what you feel, 'the damn snow.' This is like calling the lawn mower that is always difficult to start, the stupid mower. Of course, we say that mowers are not stupid but people are. And snow is not damned but people are. And that is why this anger language is so wrong. A little bother with some snow in no way, shape, or form compares with the reality of the unending punishment of sinners. The fact of judgment is one that we ought to face soberly, with respect, awe, and fear. Then use that awareness to pounce on and box in our anger.
4) Sinful anger involves direct opposition to the Lord. I have been angry with people and circumstances. No doubt this has been true of you as well. Sometimes evils, wrongs, and injustices initially justify this anger. But I tend to harbor anger, malice, and ill will in my heart. It goes beyond proper limits. It is a battle to hold anger within bounds. It always wants to push the envelope just a little more here and a little more there. This is a rocky road with many pitfalls. I need help. Surely we all need help.
One thing that helps in a powerful way is to recognize God's sovereign providential rule in my life. When I do this I must acknowledge that my continued (sinful) anger is all the worse because it is not just against people and circumstances; it is ultimately against my Father in heaven.
A triangle may help us visualize this great truth of Scripture. If you picture a triangle with one point at the top and two points on the bottom, then the points refer to God above and to the relation each person has with others under the rule of God. What this shows is that every relationship we have with others (every exchange, every action good or bad) is inseparably a relationship with God. We will all stand before Him and must give account to Him for how we have related to others. No interchange between people (good or evil) is outside of the controlling hand of the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth.
When I recognize God's providential rule over all my relationships then I know that to persist in anger, to harbor grudges, and to wish for revenge is to dispute with my sovereign Lord. It is opposing His will, His Fatherly care, His wisdom, His justice, and His love (just to begin the list of violations here). What arrogance! What shortsightedness! What rebellion is this in my heart against my Savior! How contrary to Christian, Christ-centered, love! This line of reflection and meditation before the Lord is a supreme help that prompts me to restrain anger in my heart, even when it is justified by the evil others do to me.