When is anger righteous, moral and appropriate?
You’re watching television and hear about a baby killed by a drunk driver. What do you feel? Grief and indignation. After being cut off for the fifth time on your way to work you cannot take it anymore. Your feelings? Temper and fury.
Your brother takes a year before he tells you that he had an affair with someone you know. Your feelings? Violation and distress. After you expressed your concerns a month ago, your teenage son comes home late for the third Friday night in a row. Your feelings? Exasperation and frustration.
While we understand these normal human experiences of anger, Christians need to ask the question—when is anger righteous, moral and appropriate? Four Greek words will help us form an answer.
The Greek word for indignation (aganaktesis) communicates a sense of irritation, grief and annoyance at what someone else has done— particularly if it is unjust. Jesus felt this way when the disciples rebuked the people who were bringing children to have him touch them. “When Jesus saw this, he was indignant” (Mark 10:14).
The lack of care demonstrated by the disciples caused Jesus to be indignant for good reason. It wasn’t a petty issue that bothered him, but something that violated the clear teaching of the gospel that children and other marginalized groups should be treated with respect and offered hospitality.
Aganaktesis in response to the death of a baby at the hand of a drunk driver is appropriate and righteous.
Words like temper and rage describe thumos anger, an emotion that exhibits no control or self-discipline but lashes out at the other person in a completely inappropriate way. Like the striking of a match, this anger flares up with a boiling, turbulent commotion before it simmers down.
Many of us have experienced this emotion, the cruel, demeaning attitude that lacks love and respect. In every case we are told that we are to “get rid of all…rage/thumos” (Ephesians 4:31), and to recognize an unbridled temper and uncontrolled rage are never condoned. Never.
So while it is frustrating to be cut off five times on one trip, road rage is never appropriate or righteous.
There are times when we become distressed because of a deep and certain sense that we have been violated. This isorge anger. Jesus felt this way sometimes, such as when interacting with the misguided religious people: “He looked around at them in anger/orge” (Mark 3:5).
But there are times when this appropriate anger can be expressed in sinful ways, where we experience vengeance and personal animosity toward the other person. Paul’s reminders in Ephesians 4:31—Get rid of all anger/orge—as well as his caution in Ephesians 4:26—In your anger/orge do not sin—show us that to experience violation and distress with a brother is not inherently sinful but it could move this way if I am not mindful of the need for righteous expression.
While thumos has an all-encompassing body rage, parorgismos is more about irritation and exasperation. Something happens repetitively, creating a slow, smoldering irritation that is not a full-blown rage but is challenging nonetheless.
Interestingly, the Apostle Paul indicates that the exasperation of children is often the responsibility of the parents (Ephesians 6:4). But earlier in the same book Paul says, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry/parorgismos, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27).
The passage is not suggesting that you should never go to bed angry, but that if irritation and exasperation are cultivated over time then you can expect that this will be an invitation to the devil to do his work. So being irritated with your son may be an appropriate and righteous response to ongoing rebellious behaviour, but if it is nurtured over time you can expect that a door is wide open for the influence of the evil one.
While the experience of anger is human, a careful reading of the biblical text allows us to not just revel in the normalcy of anger but to experience the clear invitation to live righteously.