Not All Anger Is Wrong, and Jesus Wasn’t Nice


Mark Twain wrote that anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything into which it is poured. Similarly, Anne Lamott has said that nursing a grudge is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. Both writers are getting at essentially the same thing. Anger, when released from its cage and allowed to run wild, backfires and devours the angry person’s soul.

A few times in my life, I have been hurt deeply by others. Have you? Whether betrayed, stolen from, lied to, gossiped about or bullied, sometimes it feels more natural to cling to anger, to wish ill upon the offending party, and to start fighting fire with fire. It is easy to excuse and exempt ourselves from the biblical command to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us. We replace grace with grudges. We tell ourselves that if we stay angry toward those who have harmed us, we can keep power over them. However, nursing a grudge accomplishes the opposite. Nursing a grudge invites those who have harmed us to keep power over us.

Frederick Buechner agrees:

Anger…To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a King. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

Like a poisonous berry, resentment goes down tasting sweet. But the sweetness is only momentary. It’s only a matter of time before it starts working against us. To survive, we must find a way to expel the poison, to get the toxic anger out of us.

All forms of anger are not equal, and not all forms of anger are wrong. According to the Bible, it is possible to be angry and loving…furious and full of grace…all at the same time.

Just as there are toxic forms of anger, there are also healthy ones. Rather than steal and diminish life like poison or a wildfire, healthy anger leads to life-giving outcomes. Compelled by love, healthy anger resembles the Spirit’s fruit of patience. It resists the impulse to strike back or seek revenge. It leaves justice to the courts and to natural consequence. It leaves both the discernment and execution of ultimate justice in God’s hands. And yet, where possible, healthy anger is also harnessed to destroy.

Whereas toxic anger destroys the good in order to promote evil, healthy anger seeks to destroy evil in order to promote and protect the good.

This is why the Bible doesn’t merely allow anger; it commands it.

Be angry, and sin not. (Psalm 4:4; Ephesians 4:26)

Many of us were told in childhood, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all!” Truth be told, most of us would rather be around a nice person than an angry person. Nice people are pleasant and unobtrusive. They rarely stir the pot, are easy to please, and are low-maintenance. But nice people aren’t always healthy people. Nice people, in their niceness, can sometimes work against the purposes of God.

Jesus wasn’t always nice.

Sometimes Jesus was the furthest thing from nice.

Once a pastor from Harlem said that the traditional “Sunday School Jesus” – the purely gentle Jesus meek and mild with no fire in his eyes – wouldn’t last more than two hours in his neighborhood.

Jesus is humble, gentle and kind. But Jesus is also a consuming fire who gets in our faces and sets us straight. Sometimes Jesus, not in spite of the fact that he loves us, but because he loves us, puts us in our place.

Jesus got angry.

Appalled by corrupt worship practices and attitudes, Jesus flipped tables over in the temple. The Son of God having a tantrum in church. Can you imagine? He called people names like hypocrites and whitewashed tombs and children of the devil – especially when they used religion to bully and abuse and control people. When Peter, one of his closest friends, tempted him to pursue comfort over faithfulness and power over self-sacrifice, Jesus got so worked up that he called Peter “Satan.” Peering into the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Jesus got madder than a rodeo bull. Death, the wages of sin and the last enemy of those who have been redeemed from sin, infuriated Jesus. When Jesus returns again to make all things new, he will bring his recompense with him, to repay Satan and bullies and perpetrators of injustice for their evil. (Matthew 21:12-13; Matthew 23:13-39; Matthew 16:23; John 11:17-44. Revelation 22:12)

In these and other instances, Jesus shows that it is very possible, even God-like, to get steaming mad. He shows that it is possible to lose our cool without losing our character. Sometimes anger, when released from a place of health and love, is a furious force that accomplishes constructive and life-giving outcomes.

When the Apostle Paul wrote, “Hate what is evil, cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9). he was advocating for the healthy, love-driven kind of anger. Hatred toward evil, according to Paul, is a by-product of love for the good. Because we love what is good, we naturally abhor things like abuse, theft, disease, depression and death. We hate injustice, poverty, dishonesty and spin. We hate seeing children neglected, spouses abandoned, the elderly and poor forgotten. And we hate these things, we get angry about them, because we feel protective of the excellent, pure, lovely and praiseworthy things that they threaten and contradict. It’s a holy kind of anger. It’s anger compelled by shalom, the wise and healthy person’s vision for the world as God intended it to be, for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. It the kind of anger that says, “I want more. I want better. I want health, life, goodness, protection, truth and beauty for the people, places and things that God loves…for every soul and square inch that God intends to redeem.”

In her book, Hope Has Its Reasons, Rebecca Pippert says:

Love detests what destroys the beloved. Real love stands against the deception, the lie, the sin that destroys…The more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor…Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference.

Sometimes anger can be the highest compliment. This is true, especially when the anger directed toward us comes from someone who loves us, and who and aims to make us into the best, most life-giving versions of ourselves.

Toxic anger, on the other hand, works against shalom. Instead of promoting life as healthy anger does, toxic anger destroys and diminishes life. It is not restorative; it is retaliatory and punitive, vengeful and aggressive, unrestrained and uncontained.

Toxic anger doesn’t leave things better. It makes things worse.

Anger can be compared to fire. Fire, like anger, has a lot of redeeming uses. It protects and warms us in the colder months, creates lovely ambience with a fireplace or a candle, and cooks destructive bacteria out of our food. But if we don’t keep fire inside boundaries, if we let it out and let it run wild, then it has the potential to destroy an entire kitchen, or a house, or a field, or an entire forest, or human life. Let fire rage and it will steal, kill and destroy whatever and whomever lies in its path.

So then, how do we contain and keep anger inside healthy boundaries? How do we use it to leave things better and not make things worse? What can we do to keep it from spreading like wild fire? It starts with the little things. It starts with how we handle the things that trigger us the easiest. It starts with our pet peeves.

One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful with much (Luke 16:10).

Patti and our daughters have the misfortune of living with a husband and father (me) who gets easily irritated by chewing noises. For as long as I can remember, the sound of others chewing and crunching has set me off inside like fingernails on a chalkboard. I recently discovered that this quirk of mine is an actual medical condition called misophonia, which means “the hatred of sound.” Sometimes my irritation with chewing has been so problematic that family members have removed themselves from my presence so they could eat in peace.

Much to my delight, someone recently sent me a link to an article about misophonia, which stated that this condition is a sign of intelligence. I forwarded the link to Patti. She was not impressed. Actually, she expressed frustration because of how this little “pet peeve” of mine had put the members of my family in the awkward position of walking on eggshells during meals. Patti areminded me that my misophonia is also a form of hypocrisy because I eat popcorn and chew gum and sip coffee more loudly than just about anyone.

Another thing I have discovered about my misophonia – my little pet peeve – is that it is God’s gift to me for the formation of my character. Misophonia presses me to make thousands of mini-decisions to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and, instead of blowing a gasket, yield to the Spirit’s fruit of patience when my ears don’t like what they hear. The cumulative effect of nurturing patience with the smaller irritants, which must also be accompanied by the fruit of kindness and self-control, enlarges my capacity for patience when a bigger irritant or even a true injustice comes my way.

Because one who is faithful with little is also faithful with much.

Just as strong biceps and a healthy heart are cultivated by daily workout habits, love’s virtues are cultivated through daily faithfulness in the small things. We will tell truth under pressure only when we have resisted the daily habit of exaggerating and telling white lies. We will give in proportion to biblical teaching on a big salary only when we have nurtured a habit of giving the same proportion on a smaller salary. And when it comes to anger, we will become patient and full of grace in the big offenses as we have first nurtured the daily patience and grace with the smaller irritants. If not contained, these “little” pet peeves will make our loved ones want to eat their food in another room. If we don’t nurture patience in the little things, we can forget ever being able to forgive when the bigger hurts and injuries and betrayals come. And they will come.

Some may ask, “What about justice and betrayal? When deep hurts and betrayals happen to us, are we just supposed to roll over like a doormat and let people step all over us?” How do we keep anger healthy in these desperate struggles?

Did Jesus consider these questions when he said that we should forgive our enemies? Were these things on his radar when he said to bless and pray for those who persecute us and say all kinds of false things about us? Did he account for offenses against us that feel like the ripping of flesh, that feel like an assault to the soul, that feel like being crucified?

I recently heard someone say that a god who is love and only love, a god who accepts everyone and doesn’t judge anyone, is the kind of god that only privileged and sheltered people can believe in. Once you or a loved one has been abused, betrayed, slandered, gossiped about, stolen from, or assaulted, you begin to realize how much you need – how much the whole world needs – a God who ultimately will not let people get away with hurting other people. You begin to realize how much the world needs a God who attacks evil in order to defend and protect the good, who puts his foot down with bullies and removes them from the playground, who comforts the victims and gives the perpetrators of injustice their due.

Those who know that God will set every wrong right can truly forgive as God in Christ has forgiven them. Only those who know this will have the ability to pursue justice but to also entrust justice – especially the punitive, retributive payback justice – into the hands of the One who judges justly and who alone has the power to make everything right again. It is only those who know God not only as their Father but also as their Defender, who will be angry but not sin in their anger (Ephesians 4:26). It is only those who know this who will be able to lose their cool – like Jesus’ outburst in the temple, hating what is evil but clinging to what is good – without losing their character.

And there’s one more thing God gives us to help us with patience. There’s one more thing he gives us so we will have an inner resource to bear injury without having a meltdown. What is it?

It’s the gift of non-retaliation.

God, who had every right to retaliate against us, to turn the tables upside-down on us and put us in our place once and for all…chose not to.

God demonstrates his own love for us in this; while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…and Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (Romans 5:8; Luke 23:24).

Jesus gave his life for us, he prayed that we would be forgiven…and he did so not when we were at our best, but when we were at our worst. Not when we were lovely, but when we were unlovely. Not when we were compassionate and kind, but when we were mean and belligerent and cruel. Not when we had good character, but when we had bad character. While we were still sinners – denying, insulting, ignoring, abusing and crucifying him – that is when Christ died for us.

Could there be any better reason to treasure love’s first virtue, the virtue of patience?

Be angry, and sin not.

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5 responses to “Not All Anger Is Wrong, and Jesus Wasn’t Nice”

  1. Jenna Robeson says:

    Scott, you once answered one of my emails saying that you have a holy anger towards Alzheimer’s disease. I have anger as well, but it feels unhealthy at times. It is not as intense as it once was due to the fact that I am no longer personally in the midst of it. My mother, aunt, and grandmother have already died from this horrible affliction. The anger is still there, however, and it morphs into fear at times. I am deeply concerned that I will suffer from this disease because of genetic propensity. Please give me your thoughts on how a person like me can turn this into a healthy anger in which Jesus would approve.
    This disease and what it does to families is one of the worst life situations I have ever had to walk through. To me, it ranks among death and divorce as the most heart breaking. To have your earthly possessions taken is one thing, but to have your intellect and memories stolen through disease is detestable. This doesn’t monopolize my thoughts, however, it does enter my mind when I think of life experiences I am angry about. I think of Alzheimer’s as I read your thoughts on this and listen to friends and acquaintances who are currently struggling with loved ones who have this disease. I know a woman in my Bible Study group who is struggling with anger due to her father’s Alzheimer’s. I told her to not feel guilt because of her anger, after all, she is only human. I had no follow up on that, other than to say I had anger and guilt as well when I was going through it with my own mother.
    Please share your thoughts with me on this particular difficult life experience. I know you are walking through this painful process right now with your own mother. Praying for you and your family because… it is a long good bye.

    • scottsauls says:

      Hi Jenna, I’m with you! There is really no other word for this disease except the one that you use here — “detestable.” Lean into that. God gives us emotions like anger and sadness as a release valve, to help us respond to a world that, at least for now, is not how it’s meant to be. Hang in there!

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  3. Joy Butler says:

    I’m still confused about when I can speak up against abuse/control. I was taught to always be kind/nice no matter what. When do I ever have the right to speak against mistreatment? If I attempt to I always feel shame and guilt for doing so. I’m going through counseling to find who I am as I lost my identity, thoughts and beliefs to a controlling, abusive family dynamic. I’m 45 but still like a child as I have never developed without complete dependence on my parents and sisters, and now, my ex-husband (divorced July 2018 after 24 years of marriage).

    • scottsauls says:

      High, Joy. I’m very sorry to hear about the abuse in your life. Highly recommend Wounded Heart by Dan Allender.

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