Dear Reader,

When I say that anger is “morally conditioned,” I mean that every actual impulse/expression of anger is either good or bad or mixed, not that anger is automatically sinful. It’s a “whole person response,” tilted or colored one way or the other (or mixed). Here are the exemplars.

  • God’s anger is only good. He makes a just and justified response to true evils. At the same time, God is notably slow to anger and notably merciful (Exodus 34:6f); he does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103). But when God does express anger or warn of his anger, he expresses his goodness. “I will make my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord’” (Exodus 33:19). His character and name include his reckoning with evil.
  • The devil’s anger is only evil. It expresses his pride, lusts, frustration, cruelty, willfulness. He is always offended, always murderous.
  • The willful, petty, entitled, irritable, argumentative, vindictive anger so typical of daily life is only evil.
  • The anger of people toward genuine wrongs is usually mixed. Anger is a just and justified response to true evils, an expression of the image of God. The fact that we see a wrong as wrong is a good thing; the fact that we care enough to be troubled is a good thing. But human beings tend to return evil for evil, expressing the image of the evil one. For example, a person can get angry for good reasons, but express the anger in many wrong ways. The mix can be tipped significantly towards either end of the spectrum. Sometimes it is barely good, quickly returning evil for evil. Sometimes it is significantly good in patiently and firmly facing down evil (though who of us is immune to the infiltration of self-righteousness?).

Our culture often views anger as if it were not morally conditioned. “Anger itself is neutral. It just is, neither good or bad. The problem arises in how one expresses it.” The third sentence is true. The first two sentences are false.

But the first sentence gropes in the direction of a significant truth. The grain of truth that it misstates is that “In God’s image-bearers the capacity for anger is a creational given.” The potential is a given, registering the Maker’s mark.

The second sentence is wholly false. You’ve never met and never felt a neutral form of anger. Anger never just is; it always is either good or bad (or mixed).

The arousal of anger is either good or bad. It may arise for good reasons: e.g., someone I trusted betrayed trust, or someone threatens to harm a child. It may arise for bad reasons: e.g., I’m stuck in a traffic jam, or someone at work had the audacity to disagree with my brilliant ideas and plans.

The motives for anger are either good or bad. Desires, beliefs, expectations, values, intentions may be good. Jesus’ anger expresses faith working through love; our anger can move in his direction. Or our motives may be bad: wrong beliefs, idolatrous desires, self-pity/self-righteousness.

And, of course, as stated, the expression of anger is always either good or bad (or, again, that complication in things human, mixed). For example, anger expresses love when it energizes you to protect the helpless by opposing victimizers. And anger expresses hate when you get into petty arguments or when you bully others.

This point about anger is a subset of a much larger issue. Christian faith argues against the idea that any human response is “neutral.” That includes our anger, joys, fears, despair, happiness, guilt, jealousy, desires, intentions, hopes and so forth. A human being never operates as an abstraction. We are always tilted either towards God or away from him.

I hope this helps. Biblical truth is not revealed so that we can necessarily attain perfect analytic clarity in all situations, whether about ourselves or others. But you can live within the biblical understanding of anger. You can take your anger seriously – not stifling honest indignation, motivated to stand up to what is wrong. Anger, reoriented by God, will make you courageous, honest and persistent. You can be properly self-suspicious – our angers operate with perversely self-righteous instincts. Anger, reproved by God, will make you humble, honest and repentant. You can aim with all your heart for the image of Jesus: merciful, slow to anger, generous… while hating what is evil.