Before getting into the topic, I would like
to share with you my view of anger. I think anger is neither good nor bad. It is an emotion and emotions are not good or bad. Emotions begin to take on ethical concerns when tied to motives and actions. In this sense, then, I believe that anger itself is neither righteous nor unrighteous. Thus, the term “righteous anger” is neither self-contradictory, nor even paradoxical. But it may not be a useful term.
“Righteous Anger” seems to have come out of the cultural belief that anger is in itself… bad. Some prefer the term “righteous indignation. Of course, to some extent indignation can be seen as a different emotion, or perhaps a more nuanced emotion. Often indignation suggests anger that is motivated by injustice. Thus Aristotle saw it as a healthy state— between envy and spite— a golden mean. Therefore, righteous indignation is anger motivated by the injustice at the success of the undeserving. (Are there, however, people who deserve to be successful and people who don’t?)
In Christian circles, I think indignation is usually just a euphemism. A person who is clearly angry may choose to defend himself by saying… “I am NOT angry… I have righteous indignation.” That has the double problem to me as it seems to be both emotionally dishonest, and suggesting false virtue.
For Christians, it is big concern since the Bible describes God as angy at times. The dominant emotion of God in the New Testament is Love, the dominant emotion used to describe Jesus in the Gospels is compassion, and the dominant emotion ascribed to God in the Old Testament is mercy. The latter two, compassion and mercy, could perhaps be better said to be emotions tied to motivation and action. Nevertheless, anger or wrath are certainly described as emotions of God.
Some would argue that God doesn’t have emotions. Emotions are neurochemical responses that we have as biochemical lifeforms. God is spirit not flesh so emotions are not really part of His nature. From this view, God could be seen as not having emotions as we do (impassibility), and the emotional descriptions of God are simply attempts to make God make more sense to us (anthropomorphisms). I would argue oppositely. I would argue that God does have emotions, and created us with a biochemical analog of this characteristic of God.
That being said, I do think that sometimes the anger of God is used in the Bible to help explain something about God to us, rather than explain His actual emotional state. A good example of this is in the theological concept of Propitiation. The concept is drawn from a term in the Bible meaning to assuage or satisfy the wrath of God. As it is used by some theologians, it says that God is full of anger because of our sins, and the only thing that can fully satisfy or remove that anger is the blood (death) of Jesus. I personally, think the language is more metaphoric than literal. My main reason for believing this is that Jesus was able to walk around for over three decades on earth without appearing to be full of rage about people’s sinful behavior. Many Christians like to use the expression, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” In the case of Christ, it seems more like “Love the Sinner, Inspire the Good.” The term “propitiation” seems more like a metaphor for salvation, much like “justification,” “redemption,” and “adoption.”
Additionally, in some places in the Bible, hate or anger appear to be emotion-laden terms that actually refer to a much less emotional activity. When it says that for God, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated,” this seems to be less about emotion, and more about choice. After all, God actually chose to bless both brothers. However, the salvific history of God runs through Jacob.
Other places, it is not that simple. Jesus showed a wide range of emotions that have the spontaneity of the emotions we are familiar with. In Christian theology this should not be surprising since we see Jesus as fully human. However, such genuine emotions does not seem to be out of touch with the description of God’s quality. Thus, Jesus as fully God is not inconsistent with his emotions.
I like the quote of B.B. Warfield in this regard,
“Our Lord’s emotions fulfilled themselves, as ours do, in physical reactions. He who hungered (Matt. 4:2), thirsted (John 19:20), was weary (John 4:6), who knew both physical pain and pleasure, expressed also in bodily affections the emotions that stirred His soul… Not only do we read that He wept (John 11:35) and wailed (Luke 19:41), sighed (Mark 7:34), and groaned (Mark 8:12), but we read also of His angry glare (Mark 3:5), His annoyed speech (Mark 10:14), His chiding words (e.g. Mark 3:12), the outbreaking ebullition of rage (e.g. John 11:33 and 38), of the agitation of His bearing when under strong feelings (John 11:35), the open exaltation of His joy (Luke 10:21), the unrest of His movements in the face of anticipated evils (Matt. 27:37), the loud cry which was wrung from Him in His moment of desolation (Matt. 27:46).”
When I was young, I was told that anger was okay, ONLY if it was directed in support of the holiness of God. Jesus expressed anger at the sellers at the temple because it lowered God’s glory by turning a place of worship into a den of thieves. But is this the only time that anger is good?
Years ago, I was driving in Baguio City, when I saw a small girl walking on the sidewalk. She was carrying her books close to her, was hunched over, and appeared to be crying or on the verge of crying. Right behind her were two boys slightly larger than her. They were saying things that appeared to be derisive (although I could not hear them) and were tossing small pebbles at her. I also noticed that others who were around were ignoring her situation. I felt angry. I stopped my car in the busy traffic got out of my car and yelled at the boys to stop what they were doing immediately. Was that unrighteous anger. I don’t know. Perhaps it was. It certainly wasn’t directed towards defending God. But I would argue that God has called on us to focus more attention on defending the weak, the innocent, the disempowered, and the marginalized, than on defending Him. God can defend Himself quite well if the need arises. I think this type of anger is quite appropriate.
Since anger is built into our limbic system to trigger quickly, even though it is a “secondary emotion,” almost before we can identify the trigger, it seems as if God designed us to be angry… at times. Overcoming anger is not always a virtue.
That being said, in missions one must also realize that in many cultures, anger is seen as almost always wrong. It is also true that many people have used “righteous anger” as a justification for unspeakable evil at times.
So where are we? My post has been pretty convoluted. However, it seems like the answer is that we should throw out the phrase “righteous anger.” Anger is anger. It can be triggered by appropriate things as well as inappropriate. It can motivate one to good actions or evil actions. It can be healthy to express anger in some environments and unhealthy to express that same anger in another context. In the end, I just don’t see it as a useful term. The guidance of St. Paul in Ephesians 4 seems appropriate:
Be angry, but do not sin.