What Makes Anger Righteous?
Anger is not a sin; it is a God-given, God-experienced emotion. Sin enters when our response to the felt emotion goes against showing respect and dignity to image bearers, such as ourselves.
God experiences anger when Israel continues to return to idol worship and disobedience to their covenant (i.e., God’s boundaries he set up for the Israelite people to protect their relationship with Him and themselves). There are consequences to pushing against God’s boundaries such as distance from Him (i.e. Genesis 3:23-24). Many times in the Old Testament, we see God distance himself from the Israelites when they do not keep the covenant. However, He does not ever cease to offer an alternative response that would lead to restoration of the relationship.
In Matthew 21, we see Jesus express anger when he sees people buying and selling animals for sacrifices and drives them out and turns over tables (Matthew 21:12-14). Jesus’ anger moved him to act against the misuse of the temple. The buying and selling in the temple took advantage of the sacrificial system God had put in place to maintain a relationship with the Israelites. However, in verse 14, we still find Jesus redeeming the temple to its proper purpose by healing the sick. The Lord never sins in his anger; His anger remains righteous because it is always seeking to protect His people and His kingdom from outside threats or injustices.
Anger is one of the most common felt emotions to any given situation that pushes against our own personal boundaries. Some people may feel threatened or attacked, powerless, or a lack of justice is being done. God has given us the emotion of anger to evoke a sense that something is not right. God does not intend for us to sit and dwell in our anger and grow bitter; He designed anger as a tool to elicit righteous and just action.
When we have trouble deciphering whether our actions we take when angry are righteous, we must take a look at Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, your God?” If our response lacks justice, kindness, or humility, it is safe to say our anger response is not righteous or merciful?
Our Brains on Anger
Our God-created bodies tell us that something is not right starting in our brain. A situation occurs and our brain activates to interpret information we are gathering. In situations that alert the emotional response of anger, we see the amygdala in our limbic system light up. Anger activates our amygdala in our brain to produce adrenaline that prepares us to fight, flee, or freeze from a dangerous situation. This response has been given to us to protect us from danger and keep us alive.
However, sometimes we can be triggered to respond to a threat in non-threatening situations. This happens because our hypothalamus, where long-term memories are stored, is located near the amygdala. When a situation occurs, the hypothalamus classifies it as relating to previous experiences. The hypothalamus then tells our amygdala, “Hey, remember [that] time that was bad; this is like that time, so it’s time to [fight, flight or freeze].” If we can begin to recognize the physical response happening, we can quickly respond to situations that lead to those feelings of anger with our thinking brain that tells us things like, “You are no longer powerless, you can speak up for yourself and have your set boundaries respected if you set them.”
Therefore, it is important to take time to get to a place where our body is calm and we are able to talk about our feelings without allowing our brain to take over. When we feel our body taking over (e.g., heart beating faster, blood rushing to head/hands, etc), instead of reacting, we can pause and count to 10 before speaking. This allows us time to think before we react, adding deep breathes can also help slow down our heart rate and other automatic physical responses. As Daniel Tiger says, “When you feel so mad that you wanna ROAR, take a deep breath and count to 4. One-Two-Three-Four.”
Sometimes it’s a better option to take some time, think, pray, and meditate on God’s word to decide how we would like to respond to our angry feelings. Prayer has been a huge part of my personal timeout when I feel overwhelmed with anger. After getting calm, it is important to take ownership of our feelings and how we would like for it to be different in the future.
When we experience anger, before we react to our emotional response, we need to take time to think about what it is that has elicited this response. Is there an actual threat on myself or a loved one? Am I being personally attacked? Have I set a boundary up for myself and it has not been honored? Is the boundary I have set up a fair expectation for others to hold? Is there something happening that is unjust or unfair? If our answer is yes to any of these questions, we must assess what we have control over in those situations and make the necessary changes. We have little to no control of others and how they respond or react, but we do have control over how we respond to threat, personal attacks, pressed boundaries, unmet expectations, and various injustices.