Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)
Anger is one of the required “stages of grief,” so you are told. And if you have not gone through these predictable stages then you have not processed your grief. This teaching is so prevalent in our society that almost everyone accepts it without question. In order for you to process the grief associated with your loss, you must vent your anger, and the people around you are just going to have to deal with it. And if you don’t experience anger then its proof you are in “denial.” But is this an accurate, scriptural way to think?
To admit that something is common is not the same as saying it is essential. Yes, it may be common to experience anger alongside, or mixed within, your grief. But it is not essential for you to do so. Nor should you be led to believe that you have not properly “worked through your grief” if you did not get angry.
In two previous posts (here and here), we thought about the blend of grief and anger in times of loss. Jesus experienced this mixture, yet did not sin. Therefore, we acknowledged that it’s possible for a Christian to be angry and not sin. However, due to the problem of indwelling sin, righteous anger is extremely rare and should be short-lived. Anger quickly and easily becomes sinful, even in times of loss.
Today, to be a faithful counselor, it is necessary to issue further warning.
- Anger becomes sinful when it is directed at God. The reason for this conclusion is this: At its core, anger is a judgment of something as being wrong. The instant we feel the pain of loss, we form a judgment about it. That judgment and its emotional response form the components of anger. Perhaps someone has told you, “If you are ticked off at God then tell Him so. He’s a big boy. He can handle it.” But is this sound advice? If anger is essentially a judgment our heart makes concerning the rightness or wrongness of what has happened, then anger at God is never acceptable. God’s judgment is always accurate, while ours is not. This does not mean; however, that we may not cry out to God in honest laments of deep pain (many of the Psalms are examples, such as Psalm 12, 13, 86). But there is a difference between complaining to God and complaining about God. Bob Kellemen explains it well: “Biblical complaint complains to God about the fallen world. Ungodly complaint complains about God and accuses him of lacking goodness, holiness, and wisdom.” Complaining to God is an act of faith. Complaining about God is an act of unbelief, which is always sin.
- Anger becomes sinful when the center of your attention becomes your personal loss, exclusively, rather than those who are alive and remain, whom you are called to serve. Loss becomes an idol when anger turns inward, resulting in crippling sorrow which shuts out other people. If this occurs then you know you have moved from grief to self-pity, and are esteeming yourself above others. This demonstrates a lack of humility (Philippians 2:3-5).
- Anger becomes sinful when your reaction to this passionate emotion violates the law of love. If your grief produces an abiding, low-grade anger which manifests itself in irritability, stewing, or harshness toward others then it is sinful. Whether it shows itself in hurtful words, or giving others the silent treatment, anger is murder (Matthew 5:21-22). In stark contrast, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).
James is correct, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Are you angry at God? Others? Is there sinful anger that you need to confess to God?