Today we’ll be talking about the difference between righteous anger and unrighteous anger. Understanding the difference is an important part of knowing how to be a light of the world (this post is part of a series on being a light).
Before we get started, check out Matthew 5:21-26.
One of the most challenging things about the Sermon on the Mount is the way Jesus dives into the heart of the law. One of the 10 Commandments is, “You shall not murder.” Since Jesus was talking to a crowd of people that had few murderers, most of them probably assumed they were pretty good people. But in these verses, Jesus shows us that our standards are not good enough.
Verse 22 says, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
If you want to be a light in the world, if you want to live as Christ did, then it’s not enough to simply not kill people. Embracing anger and insulting others is also an effective way to spread darkness. For those who are in Christ, however, we’re called to live differently.
Righteous Anger vs Unrighteous Anger
Anger is a tricky topic in the Bible and one we need to tackle before moving forward. On the one hand, Jesus tells us we’re liable to judgment if we get angry with others. On the other, we see Jesus get angry in the Bible. As Jesus did not sin, we must logically conclude that there is unrighteous anger and righteous anger (see Ephesians 4:26).
So what makes some anger righteous and other types of anger unrighteous? In my mind, there are two factors:
- What is the cause of your anger?
- How do you act because of your anger?
What is the Cause of your Anger?
In Matthew 21, we see Jesus get angry. He arrives at the temple to discover it filled with extortionists who are taking advantage of the poor and the sojourners. Jesus loses his cool, flipping tables and chasing away the people who were robbing others. The cause of his anger was twofold: they were abusing his Father’s house and they were making others suffer.
From this part of the story, we can say that the cause of righteous anger is sin, the mistreatment of others, and/or an attack on the Kingdom of God. It should make us angry when kids are bullied or employees are fired for acting with integrity or when people do evil things in the name of God.
Unrighteous anger typically occurs when our anger is caused by an attack to our own pride. If someone tries to hurt or insult us, then we respond by trying to hurt or insult them. The truth of the Gospel, however, frees us from this nasty cycle. If your identity and purpose in life come from God, it won’t bother you nearly as much when others insult you. You don’t have to fight back because you know God loves you for who you are, and His opinion alone is the one that matters.
How do you act because of your anger?
Jesus’s response was surprising and aggressive, but necessary. If he didn’t kick these people out, they would continue to take advantage of the poor and the people coming to worship. If Jesus allowed them to continue their robbery, it would not have been loving towards those who they were being abused and it would have discouraged people from worship.
Righteous anger seeks restoration, but unrighteous anger seeks destruction. Jesus wanted to restore God’s temple to its original purpose – to be a house of prayer, not robbery. He may have been aggressive, but it was done to help others and protect His father’s house. Unrighteous anger, however, seeks to destroy or hurt another person, just to make them suffer. Again, it’s the cyclical idea that “you hurt me, so now I’m going to hurt you.”
This type of anger, then, is what Jesus warned against in Matthew 5. While you may not want to kill someone, you might want and even try to hurt them, and that is still sin.
Living as a Light
If you want to live as a light, then approaching anger differently from the world is a great place to start. When you respond with grace in situations where people expect rage, they take notice. Here are 4 ways you can live as a light:
- Be the first to apologize – This is basically what Jesus is talking about in vs 24-25. Seek reconciliation with people! One of the simplest (and most effective) ways to be different is to be the first to apologize in a conflict. Most people will apologize after the other person apologizes, but since Christ has already given you forgiveness, nothing should hold you back from asking for it and giving it. The alternative, of course, is to hold a grudge and let the anger fester, which pretty much always leads to sin.
- Check the cause of your anger – Ask yourself, am I getting angry on the behalf of others? Or am I getting angry because of my own pride? Is this about God’s Kingdom? Or my personal Kingdom?
- Encourage and help others – This one should be obvious, because it’s basically the opposite of unrighteous anger. Instead of looking to destroy others, look to build them up, encourage, and help them. This includes your enemies, who Jesus later calls us to love.
- Remember you don’t need to fight for your rights – Since Jesus already died for you and paid the ransom for your salvation, you don’t need to go into battle with others to make sure you get your share. You’ve already been given everything you could possibly need in Christ. Rest in that knowledge, and you’re less likely to lose your cool when someone infringes on your rights.
- Seek Restoration – If you get angry, make sure your response leads to putting broken things back together. Help the poor, defend the defenseless, and seek restoration for all.
Sound easy? Of course not. It’s not supposed to be, which is why living without unrighteous anger and rejecting the need to insult people will make you a light in the world. Because it’s so difficult, our only choice is to seek out Christ. By thinking of him and listening to His word, he changes our hearts and helps us with our anger.
The world needs more love and less anger, but you can only really grow in this if you embrace the love you have in Christ.