It may be one of the most difficult imperatives in all of the Bible: “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). This verse assures us there are times we ought to be angry, but with one all-important caveat: we must not sin in our anger. Any honest person will need to acknowledge the sheer difficulty in doing this. Anger comes easily; righteous anger does not.
In his book Uprooting Anger, Robert Jones offers help. He gives three distinguishing marks of righteous anger.
The first mark of righteous anger is that it reacts against actual sin. It arises from an accurate perception of what is actually evil. The Shorter Catechism helpfully summarizes sin as any “want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” This is what ought to arouse our anger.
This means that for anger to be righteous, it cannot arise in response to a violation of my preferences. It cannot arise because I have been inconvenienced or I feel that my rights and freedoms have been trampled upon. Righteous anger reacts against what is really sin.
I love it when Aileen greets me when I get home from work. It makes me feel good because it makes me feel loved. But here’s the thing: Running to the front door to greet me isn’t always the first thing on her list of priorities. She gets busy with life, and often when I get home there is no welcoming committee with signs and balloons and a brass band. It’s right in this moment that I can find myself getting angry. I don’t blow up and yell and scream and throw my computer bag across the room. Instead, I sulk. I get angry, but try to pretty it up by letting it be that brooding anger instead of that explosive anger. When Aileen does see me and does come to give me that hug, I tighten up or move away. Now I don’t want anything to do with her.
Has she sinned? Did she sin against God? Of course not. She hasn’t sinned, she just hasn’t accounted for one of my petty preferences. In that moment, I am making a moral judgment as if I am God, as if I am the one who makes the rules that govern this world. Aileen has not conformed to the law of Tim, and this is the source of my displeasure. I’ve elevated myself to God’s place so that against me, me only, has she sinned, and done what is evil in my sight.