I once knew a man who firmly believed the following syllogism [step by step logical formula]:
- The Bible says the thoughts of the righteous are right: (Proverbs 12:5)
- I have been made righteous in Christ, and so I am therefore righteous.
- Therefore, all of my thoughts are right—and I am justified in doing whatever I decide to, no matter who counsels me otherwise.
Of course his “interpretation” of this verse was a classic case of taking Scripture out of context and the end to which his foolishness led him was sad indeed. Yet while I hope that few readers of this blog would hold to come to such an unfortunate conclusion about the perpetual correctness of their decisions, there is another syllogism, quite similar to the first, that is far more common and only slightly less dangerous. I have used it to justify myself on more than one occasion—and if you have lived long as a believer, it is possible that you have as well.
- There is such a thing as “righteous anger,” and righteous anger is always directed against what is unrighteous. (After all, Jesus Himself was angry with the swindlers in the temple!)
- What is making me angry right now is unrighteous.
- Therefore my anger against who or what is provoking me is justified righteous anger.
Though you may never have broken it down in quite this way, the temptation to assume the righteousness of anger directed against unrighteousness is a common one. Such an conclusion is anything but safe. An unrighteous provocation never, by itself, justifies the anger of the response, no matter how tempting it may be to think so. A true child of God can make foolish decisions, and a truly unrighteous provocation can give rise to anger that remains unrighteous.
Just as there is no way to automatically guarantee that all of your ideas will be good ones, there is no simplistic formula that can always and immediately tell you whether your anger in a given situation is righteous or not. We are too good at justifying ourselves for that! Nevertheless, there is a simple principle, taught in the book of James, that provides a valuable safeguard that, if used carefully, would prevent any number of cases of mistakenly identified anger.
James 1:19–20 says, Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. In other words, swift anger is never righteous anger. It is possible to be slow to anger that yet remains unrighteous but is impossible to be swift to righteous anger. Righteous anger is always slow in coming.
When some person or situation provokes us, it can be easy to justify the degree of our anger, whether expressed or suppressed, by the severity of the provocation. Yet anger that is truly righteous, anger that reflects the character of God, can only arise after careful reflection upon that character. It is never the result of our own emotional response to provocation—which is why James so categorically states, the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Anger is not “righteous” simply because it is the result of careful reflection—but anger that comes swiftly is certainly not righteous.