There’s a widespread idea that anger is unsuitable for followers of Jesus Christ. That’s plausible: Anger is dangerous. It can twist our motivations and cloud our decision-making. Worse, it can lead us to harm others. In the public arena, unbridled anger can fuel gross injustice.
But in fact, Christian tradition endorses anger. Scripture teaches us that anger is a natural and necessary emotion. It’s not a sin to be angry. It’s what you do with your anger that counts.
It matters what you’re angry about.
All anger has an object. We get angry about something or at someone. The sense of being angry but not being able to identify the object of our anger leaves us feeling like we’re missing something.
It’s crucial to ask what the object of our anger is. Most anger responds to a sense that someone has been wronged. The key question is whether that’s actually the case. Some situations call for indignation, while others do not. We must be able to discern when our feelings don’t line up with a real problem, when our grievance is illusory.
Even when we rightly identify a ground for grievance, we might be angry at the wrong person in response. In the world of constant political rhetoric, there are plenty of attempts to take the accurate sense that something is not right — say, that wages are stagnant despite a growing economy — and direct that anger toward people who are not significantly to blame.
Faithful guarding of our anger requires willingness to withhold that sort of easy blaming, to sit in the uncomfortable position of being angry at a situation without a good sense of who or what is responsible for it and how it could be changed.
Our anger must not drown out our commitment to justice.
Even when we are rightfully angry, our grievance must not overwhelm our respect for others. The philosopher Stephen Darwall distinguishes two types of respect: (1) appraisal respect, or respect for the value of someone’s character or achievements, and (2) recognition respect, or respect for the worth someone has simply because she has a certain status, like being president or just being a human. God’s universal love for human beings gives them a worth that demands the second type of respect, no matter what. Denying that respect is unjust.
Much of the anger in today’s political discourse corrodes respect for people’s worth. It overreaches, beyond the level that is justifiable. This anger can give rise to hatred, the attitude that wishes evil for another, plain and simple. And hatred is always wrong.
Anger should be a waystation, not a destination.
Anger is an efficient motivator. It spurs us to action, which can be a good thing. But dwelling in our anger inhibits our work to build a flourishing future together. As the third-century philosopher and theologian Lactantius put it in “On God’s Anger,” “The anger of mortals ought to be mortal, for if it is lasting, enmity is strengthened to lasting destruction.”
The longer anger is nurtured, the more likely it becomes to settle into slow-burning resentment, causing more and more conflict rather than powering us toward solutions. This, and not some less-than-sound marriage advice, is what’s meant in the oft-quoted verse from Ephesians, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
When working rightly, anger transitions into problem-solving. It aims at its own overcoming. That’s why something like Campaign Zero, organized by leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, is so important. Instead of settling into a comfortable anger, it makes concrete policy proposals that aim to redress the injustice that sparked the anger that generated Black Lives Matter.
Without the anger, it’s unlikely those policy proposals would gain any traction or even be made at all. But without the commitment to move through anger, it’s likely that conflict would only grow.
The ultimate judgment is not ours, but God’s.
Ultimately, we are all among the judged. We are the ones who have done wrong and provoked anger — God’s anger.
The thing is, that’s good news in a Christian account of things. Unlike our anger, God’s wrath is holy. It is directed only against the distortions of God’s good creation. And what’s more, we are also all under God’s mercy, which put an end to retribution in the cross of Christ. And it is that good news that should fundamentally shape any anger that arises in our public engagement.
In a political atmosphere charged with rage, Christians are not called to resist the normal impulse to feel angry at so many provocations around us.
But Christians are called to examine the objects of our anger critically and honestly. Christians are called to refrain from unjustly seeking vengeance on the ones we blame for our ills. Christians are called not to dwell in anger, but to move through it toward constructive action. Christians are called to respect even those with whom we are angry.
If we heed these calls, we will lift up our anger to a higher purpose — and we will remain ready and willing to lay our anger down.
Ryan McAnnally-Linz, a research scholar at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, is the co-author with Miroslav Volf of “Public Faith in Action: How to Think Critically, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity.”