19 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: 20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. 21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. — KJV
19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. — NIV
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. — ESV
Greek Transliteration of James 1:20 with [Strong #] and brief definitions:
orge  violent passion: desire, ire, anger, wrath, vengeance, indignation gar  verily, therefore, yet, no doubt, as, because that aner  male individual dakaiosune  equity, righteousness, justification theos  God ou  absolute negative (adverb) ergazomai  toil, labor, work, do
1.20.0 Introduction to James 1:20
Verse 20 expounds on the subject of anger and explains why anger isn’t a very helpful emotional response. James does not say anger necessarily produces sin, but he does say anger does not yield the kind of righteousness God wants from us. In later verses James goes on to talk about righteousness and if you try to look for a way to make anger a vehicle for achieving that kind of righteousness you will find it challenging at best. Questions for verse 20 dwell on the subjects of anger and righteousness and how they relate, both to us and to God.
You may notice there's a big discrepancy between the NIV and the ESV in the use of the term require vs desire in this verse. I want to call your attention to the Greek. While I'm no expert on Greek, it seems to me neither of these versions is accurate. The Greek word behind the phrase in each translation is ergazomai. It literally means work. Between the three translations given, for this verse KJV is by far the closest to the Greek.
1.20.1 How does anger of man differ from anger of God?
Rev 4:8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” God is holy and man is not (Ro 3:10).
Mt 5:22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother [1. some manuscripts insert ‘without cause’] will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. One man may become angry with another, but God is always in perfect agreement with himself (James 1:17).
Jonah 4:1-2 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly,  and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. [Note 1: The literal Hebrew says ‘it was exceedingly evil to Jonah’.] Jonah’s anger is contrasted against God’s anger in this passage. Jonah was so quick to anger that he ran from God’s command to show mercy. Jonah in his piousness found God’s plan of redemption for the vile and filthy people contemptible. Jonah knew, however, that God was indeed slow to anger and full of love. God isn’t generally going to agree with us. Rather we must agree with him if we are to partake in the Lord’s victory – even we all our logic and all our force of emotion war against what God says to us.
Jn 7:23-24 If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man's whole body well? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment. As John points out, man’s anger is based on the same thing as everything else a man responds to – the visible exterior of people and situations. God has the omniscience to see and know what lies beyond the reach of our perceptions. He is in a position to execute his anger and still remain holy and righteous while we, through our ignorance, can make no such claims.
1.20.2 What makes us angry?
Gen 4:5-6 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?” There are probably many reasons, but pride is one of the biggest, if not the very biggest. There are definitely many reasons for pride. Cain believed in his own pride that his offering was just as good as Able’s, but he didn’t grasp what God wanted. His pride lead to jealousy when God accepted his brother’s offering. God explained the problem to Cain, but he didn’t want to hear the truth. Everyone wants love. When his offering was rejected he felt personally rejected. It was a lie, of course, how often do we fall into the same trap today? We feel worthy and when our flaws are made known to us we take it as a personal assault and completely miss the point. God tells us our flaws to help us, chastening us to create purity, not punishing imperfection. Humility accepts the teaching, pride accepts punishment.
Hosea 7:10 The pride of Israel testifies to his face; yet they do not return to the Lord their God, nor seek him, for all this. Pride is the attitude of self-importance. Any time we feel we are more important than God, we are wrong. Pride is the reason Satan was thrown down from Heaven. Pride is the reason Cain killed his brother and was forced into exile.
Gen 37:11, 28 11 And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind. 28 Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt. Most people have at least heard of the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. The reason, given in Gen 37:11 us jealousy. The act was one of wrath, indignation and retribution. Why else would there be jealousy, however, unless the brothers had more pride in themselves than humility toward God?
Jer 13:16 Give glory to the Lord your God before he brings darkness, before your feet stumble on the twilight mountains, and while you look for light he turns it into gloom and makes it deep darkness. The ability to feel a sense of pride, which is to say the underlying capacity for the attitude we call pride, is a gift from God. The problem is when that feeling is directed toward ourselves. The attitude then takes on the title pride. The same basic attitude, when directed outward toward God is called giving glory. The principle is the same – an attitude of superiority. The difference is whether it is directed inward (pride in self and coveting praise, self superiority) or outward (giving glory to and recognizing superiority of God, self humility).
Any number of emotions can be attributed to an attitude if not an act of anger. The words for anger or wrath appear literally hundreds of times through the bible. The subject itself could be one of extensive study. Without drawing this out further than reasonably necessary I submit that in general, the sense of relative worth, whether in the form of pride in one’s self or in defense of another who one deems to be of worth, is the most common and most powerful motivator of anger and wrath.
1.20.3 What makes God angry?
Deut 9:13-14 Furthermore, the Lord said to me, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stubborn people. Let me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.’ All of Deut 9 from verse 13 to the end provides great examples of God’s anger. From this section we learn some things which make God angry, what he might do, and how a man who truly loves God can make a difference in the outcome of God’s anger. Deut 9 includes the infamous story of the golden calf. This is a story of idolatry (see also Rev 14:10) and rebellion. Verses 22 to 24 go on to provide a second example and it clearly states God became angry because of rebellion. The calf idol was explained as an example and these later verses state outright it was the rebellion making God so angry. It is one thing to make a mistake, even to argue with God, but wholly another when you take matters into your own hands in direct defiance of God.
1 Ki 11:6-8 So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods. This is another example of direct defiance and idolatry against God. Solomon knew right from wrong and deliberately chose to do wrong. Following verses provide gory details of God’s wrath against Solomon for his intentional erring. God’s retribution might not be sudden, but it is certain.
Ex 22:22-24 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. If you want to make God mad, another sure method is to abuse the weak and helpless. See also Mk 9:42.
1.20.4 What happens when God gets angry?
Gen 6:6-7 And the Lord was sorry 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.” I find this passage fascinating. God comes as close to admitting error here as can be found in scripture. If you are at all familiar with the first few chapters of Genesis you know the context of this verse is the lead up to the great flood of Noah. Man’s rejection of God hurt His feelings. In His anger God wiped out man from the earth except one family.
1 Sam 15:28 And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.” God doesn’t have to wipe you out. Instead he may very well cast you, your family and your nation into deep suffrage. In this case it was King Saul who made God mad and he had to pay a personal price and live with the consequences.
Mal 4:1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” This old testament prophesy reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds (aka tares) from Mt 13:24-30 and 36-43. I’m also reminded of how those who follow the beast are thrown into the lake of burning fire in Rev 19:20. Though I admittedly remain unclear as to the mechanics of these prophesies, it is crystal clear opposing God angers Him and the consequences involve both this life and eternity.
1.20.5 What happens when God relents from anger?
Gen 6:6-8 And the Lord was sorry 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. In the previous question we used this passage to see what God does when get is angry. The very next verse is included here to demonstrate God’s prevision for the time when his anger would relent. God chose a man to survive the flood. This man Noah would later be greatly blessed and when God’s anger subsided he would receive a new covenant from God to preserve mankind and animals on earth for as long as it exists.
Jer 3:11-14 And the Lord said to me, “Faithless Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah. Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, “‘Return, faithless Israel, declares the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the Lord; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the Lord. Return, O faithless children, declares the Lord; for I am your master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. This passage provides another example of God’s prevision to relent his anger. God provides an offer with a promise. The promise essentially is to forego anger in exchange for the return to faith. He promises to not be angry forever. He promises ultimately to bring the faithful to Zion.
1.20.6 Is God’s anger righteous?
2 Chr 12:6 Then the princes of Israel and the king humbled themselves and said, “The Lord is righteous.” When the Lord saw that they humbled themselves, the word of the Lord came to Shemaiah: “They have humbled themselves. I will not destroy them, but I will grant them some deliverance, and my wrath shall not be poured out on Jerusalem by the hand of Shishak. God is righteous therefore his anger is righteous. God stays the hand of wrath when the disobedient turn from their sin and obey. If you read this particular passage in context you will see that God disciplines Jerusalem to train them in righteousness.
1.20.7 Can we have righteous anger?
Jn 16:7, 13 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. Before answering the question, first it is important to remember that obedient born again believers of Christ enjoy the continuous presence of the Holy Spirit who helps and guides us. We know God can be angered and remains righteous, so it stands to reason if we abide with the Holy Spirit and become angry we too can remain righteous even in our anger.
Ro 8:9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. God’s anger is righteous, therefore if follows that if God – which is to say the Spirit of Christ – is in you, you may have righteous anger when the anger is driven by the Holy Spirit.
Eph 4:26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger Paul specifically instructs us to be angry without sinning. What is righteousness but behavior devoid of sin?
1.20.8 Why wouldn’t we produce righteousness from our anger?
Ro 5:12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— Apart from God we cannot be righteous. Righteousness is behavior obedient to God’s will. If we separate ourselves from God we are in rebellion and therefore unrighteous in all we do including whatever we produce as a result of our anger. We all suffer a sin nature in our flesh. In our anger we are often at our weakest with regard to clear thinking and our focus on God’s will. It is very easy to hastily act based on our own will rather than God’s when we are angry.
1.20.9 What is righteousness?
The Greek word dakaiosune appears 92 times in the New Testament and in every case (in KJV) it is translated as righteousness. According to the Strong’s Concordance this word is defined as follow:
1. in a broad sense: state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God
a. the doctrine concerning the way in which man may attain a state approved of God
b. integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking, feeling, and acting
2. in a narrower sense, justice or the virtue which gives each his due
As a part of speech this word is classified as a noun. It isn’t tangible per se, but it is a quality with tangible attributes in the form of how one lives and the impact it has. This is why I think of righteousness as a behavior. Because it is by definition acceptable to God, it must be devoid of sin and hence my simplified definition of righteousness: behavior devoid of sin.
1.20.10 Why does God require righteousness?
1 Pe 1:16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” God is holy. He promises to make us holy. One cannot be holy unless one is righteous.
Is 33:15 He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, Righteousness hates evil and refuses to look upon it.
Ro 8:6-8 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. God is Spirit, but man is flesh. Being “born again” means our Spirit is born into the family of God. The Spirit looks forward to the hope of eternal life in spite of the flaws of the flesh. As Paul writes here, those whose mind is in the flesh cannot please God.
2 Cor 3:9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. In this passage the reference to “the ministry of condemnation” appears to refer to the law of Moses. As glorious as that law was, the “ministry of righteousness” is vastly better.