If you haven’t noticed, America is angry. A critical mass of citizens are clamoring in pain and hurling accusations and jeering at their opponents, and holding grudges and threatening one another. Professing Christians in our country are apparently angry, too. The news is rife with election year stories about angry evangelicals who are determined to set America back on track.
A lot of people like to justify their anger by calling it “righteous.” They’ll point to Jesus’ flipping tables in the Temple. Though it’s no surprise at all, no one in the media—much less those of us involved in serious dialogue about Christ—are talking very much about this exemplary, righteous anger Jesus shows us in the Bible. We might use the phrase, but we often have little idea about what it actually means.
Until I read the Bible twice solely for the purpose of searching for what it says about godly human anger, I never even noticed that the Scriptures record Jesus’ being angry at least 15 times in the Gospel narratives. I was raised to believe that all human anger is sinful. What I learned firsthand though conducting research for my doctoral dissertation is that the Holy Spirit of God commands us (II Timothy 3:16-17) as believers to put on the “new self” and “be angry” with a different kind of anger (Ephesians 4:24-26).
Anger does have a place in the Christian’s “new” life.
Not the nasty kind of anger that gets smeared around when protesters write hate mail. Not the political kind of anger that produces angry Christians who demonize those on the other side of the isle. Not the ugly kind of anger that causes church splits. But a radically different anger that’s beautiful and loving because it ushers in the healing grace of God.
Over 25 years ago, I began to study Jesus’ anger. One of the several things that struck me most in my observations was this: Every time Jesus was angry, He was the only person who seemed to be bothered. No one else but Jesus railed against the Pharisees’ hypocrisy (Matthew 23). Likewise, no one else but Jesus overturned the tables when the sellers and moneychangers turned God’s house of prayer into a “den of robbers” (John 2:16; Jeremiah 7:11). It was Jesus, no one else, who looked at around “with anger” when the Pharisees so heartlessly cared nothing whatsoever for a man with a “withered hand” who was there in the synagogue with them (Mark 3:1-5). Furthermore, only Jesus raged at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:33, 38). Before I did my research, I had no idea that Jesus “snorted like a horse” as he raised Lazarus from the dead. I was also unaware that Jesus expressed anger when He rebuked the apostle Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).
Most of us believe that Jesus was humble (Matthew 11:29), yet we have never paused to realize that humble Jesus showed what it looks like to be angry in a way that pleases God. Granted, the book of James says that “the anger of man” does not achieve the righteousness of God (James 1:20), but the very same passage instructs us to be “slow to anger” (James 1:19). Obviously, being slow to anger suggests that there is an anger we should have. God never tells us to be slow to commit adultery or be slow to enjoy our favorite sins. But we are, as already mentioned, commanded to “be angry,” after we put on the “new self.” (Ephesians 4:24, 26).
When Jesus “reproached” the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum (Matthew 11:20), he did not burden them with a legalist list of dos and don’ts. Instead of loading those people up, he attempted to unload them. Here is what he said to these three cities:
Come to Me, all who are weary-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light. (Matthew 11:28-30, NASB)
Jesus’ yoke is easy because it is a yoke of grace. It is not a yoke of earning God’s favor. The yoke of true repentance has nothing to do with proving ourselves to God. Instead, it has everything to do with surrendering ourselves to God and being vulnerable enough to let God make us new.
The surprise of Jesus’ anger is that it frees us. It delivers us from evil. It enables us to let go of “the sin which so easily entangles us” (Hebrews 12:1). Jesus’ anger—godly anger—compels to hate our own sin. “Abhor what is evil,” is a New Testament commandment that too often is ignored and disobeyed (Romans 12:9).
How many of us Christ followers are helping each other hate our own sin? How many of us are bold enough to obey the commandment in Hebrews to “stimulate” each other to good deeds (Hebrews 10:24)?
Godly anger is spiritual energy that motivates believers to trust the Lord. It’s holy discontent that makes us feel dissatisfied with our chronic patterns of stuckness and laziness and complacency and self-righteousness and pride and lewdness and indulgence and pretension and image management and people-pleasing cowardice and fear. Godly anger heals us by reaching down into our deep and uprooting our motivations that are selfish and self-centered and ungodly.
Eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards said that human nature is “very lazy” unless it is “moved” by holy emotions such as anger. Holy emotions help us “move out” and not stay stuck.
In our increasingly angry culture, it’s time for a critical mass of Christ followers to start imitating Jesus in His anger. Granted, it is risky for us to attempt to do this. But it is riskier to stand by passively and lazily watch our sin multiply collectively like cancer. The Body of Christ in America is not to be spiritually cancer-ridden. We are to be salt. Jesus said that we are salt (Matthew 5:13). Salt preserves. Salt heals. Salt brings out the flavor of God’s delicious savory love. But when we, the salt, become tasteless, we lose our healing power and make things worse.
Given the tragic history of the Church’s sins of anger, it’s understandable why so many are reluctant to believe that everyone needs a dose of Jesus’ anger. But Jesus’ anger is godly, and godly anger is good.
We have to remember that Jesus’ godly anger was never aimed at a prostitute or a tax collector or a political candidate. He targeted His anger at religious phonies who took God’s name in vain by using it to hide their wicked deeds. Jesus’ anger also burned against His very closest followers who willfully hardened their hearts instead of humbling themselves and taking Him at His word (Mark 16:14).
Jesus’ anger is healing, not because it wags judgmental fingers at unbelievers, but because it re-salts the Church so that we can salt the earth.
[This article was originally posted in 2016.]
Sarah Sumner is the president of Right On Mission, which you can find at rightonmission.org and the author of Angry Like Jesus: Using His Example To Spark Your Moral Courage (Fortress Press, 2015).