Where do anger and fighting among people originate? What causes strife? James answers these questions in James 4:1, and his answer is swift and simple, but not exactly what we like to hear. The Bible clearly declares that the problem lies within us, not without. James makes us understand that anger originates in our corrupted human nature and is the outward manifestation of inward self-motivated desires. “But,” you might object, “what about righteous anger? And isn’t anger just an emotion? Surely being angry can’t be wrong or selfish when someone has just wronged you or treated you with cruelty! Wouldn’t expressions of anger be justified in such cases?”
Anger can be described as both an emotion and an expression of displeasure. Yes, there is such a thing as righteous anger; and yes, anger can be an appropriate emotion. In the vast majority of cases, however, expressed anger is incited by real or imagined personal injury accompanied by a desire for vengeance and retaliation, which is clearly sinful. Because expressions of anger come so naturally to us as frail human beings, we don’t readily like to admit that we could actually be sinning. In fact, even mature Christians may not be willing to evaluate their angry reactions in light of God’s Word or use biblical criteria to determine whether they are expressing righteous or unrighteous (sinful) anger.
Most of the time, we naturally want to excuse, justify, or redefine what God wants His children to face and conquer by His power and grace. Honest self-evaluation requires an enormous amount of courage, humility, and God-given grace. It is not for the fainthearted or shortsighted! Self-evaluation requires spiritual ears to hear and spiritual eyes to see in order to gladly humble ourselves before God with a willingness to reject our own reasoning and submit ourselves to God’s standards. According to James 4:6, we will discover God’s enabling grace and mercy to conquer sinful anger only when we humble ourselves to God. On the other hand, when we want our own way and stubbornly cling to our pride and self-sufficiency, we discover we cannot obtain God’s overcoming power. Because God resists (is opposed to) the proud, no amount of pleading elicits God’s help until our heart is humbled and dependent on Christ alone.
Righteous and Unrighteous Anger
The Bible clarifies the difference between righteous and sinful anger, and the contrast between these two angers is important to understand. The Bible distinguishes righteous anger as anger on behalf of others. Righteous anger is anger that imitates God’s anger, which is always controlled and with purpose. Righteous anger is not accompanied by hatred, malice, or resentment; it is not selfish, but expresses appropriate hatred of sin and injustice or stems out of genuine care and concern. The purpose of righteous anger is to correct or curtail destructive behavior, never to break relationships. God’s anger is directed at injustice or willful disobedience. Likewise, righteous anger is always expressed on behalf of another who is oppressed, abused, or betrayed.
Man’s anger, in contrast, is usually uncontrolled and without patience; it is characterized by hatred, malice, resentment, and selfishness. Sometimes man’s anger is used as an expression of indignation. This sinful anger destroys individuals, is often an expression of revenge, and is intended to hurt others. Man’s anger is an expression directed toward those who hurt or violate us. Sinful anger is always a reaction to offenses against oneself. Throughout the centuries, man’s sinful anger has left a trail of destruction more devastating than drugs or any natural disaster. Nothing has destroyed more relationships and families, caused more children to rebel, or discouraged more Christians than anger. Nothing has destroyed churches, governments, nations, organizations, or partnerships quite like anger. Anger is deadly. Jesus connected anger with hatred and murder. Anger does kill and destroy.
Righteous anger is directed toward the same things, in the same way, and for the same motives as God’s anger. Even when anger is a righteous response, it is to be controlled and kept in its proper place, lest it destroy others and us by turning into bitterness. We are never allowed freedom to take vengeance on anyone out of righteous anger, but are to trust God to be God and to execute proper vengeance in His time. We are permitted to use the righteous and just means God has provided for us to use in dealing with offenders and offenses, not our own human methods. These God-given means may include the use of law enforcement, the court system, church discipline, godly confrontation and appeal, etc. Apart from these, we are commanded to entrust our case to Him who has both the power and right to execute justice. Even in all these actions, we are never to be driven by hateful anger or delight in seeing our enemy suffer.
The emotion of anger is not sinful; the motivations and expressions of our angry emotions are sinful. For example, one might “rejoice” when his enemy falls in some way. The emotion of joy isn’t sinful—it is the reason behind the emotion that God condemns in Proverbs 24:17. In Ephesians 4:26, Paul tells us, “Be ye angry, and sin not; let not the sun go down upon your wrath; neither give place to the devil.” Paul is acknowledging the emotion of anger as a part of our human experience. Even so, he admonishes us not to express the emotion of anger in sinful ways (no matter how terribly we have been wronged) and not to leave anger unresolved. He tells us in Romans 12:18, “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.” To the extent that we are able, we must strive for peace and actively pursue reconciliation with others. When we ignore this admonishment and fail to resolve problems and seek peace on God’s terms, we give Satan a foothold into our lives and pave the way for destruction.
Desires of the Heart
The Bible clearly teaches that all sinful anger originates in our corrupted human nature and is the outward manifestation of inward, self-motivated desires. Adverse circumstances and people may cause the anger of the heart to surface, but people and circumstances do not cause the anger in the heart. We like to say, “Such and such or so and so MADE me angry,” as if someone or something held a gun to our heads and forced us to react in anger. While circumstances may indeed provoke strong emotion in us, our individual interpretation of circumstances and our own sinful desires and choices ultimately incite sinful anger. The Bible tells us that anger arises out of our lust (selfish desires) that war in our members (within us) (James 4:1). When our hearts are filled with “I want,” “I need,” and “I deserve”—sinful anger is lurking at the door.
We will react in anger when our desires become something we believe we are entitled to and those desires are in some way withheld from us. The desire itself is not necessarily wrong—our desires may actually be quite noble and good. The problem is the place of importance that we give to our desire and whether we are willing to sin in order to get it. A desire that has become a requirement for our happiness or a demand of any kind completely leaves God out of the equation. The place of importance we give to our desires fails to take into consideration the fact that God has sovereignly ordained us to live in an imperfect world and expects us to learn to respond to it by submitting to God’s ways and will. Anger is essentially an expression of our heart that says, “I don’t like what has just happened, and I am extremely unhappy about it.” Our feelings and our wants become the prime issue at the moment we express sinful anger—our thoughts are far from being focused on God’s work in the matter, what He wants to accomplish, or how He wants us to respond to disappointment, injustice, sinful behavior of others, or adversities common to life. Instead, lightning quick thoughts along the lines of “he should” or “he shouldn’t” or “how dare he” invariably take center stage in our minds and immediately precede expressions of sinful anger.
James describes the futile attempts of angry people to get what they want in James 4:2. “Ye lust, and have not; ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain; ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” Angry people want life on their own terms, without inconveniences, disappointments, or suffering of any kind. They passionately want their own way, and they will attempt to circumvent God, or sin, in order to get their way. They are not willing to see God in every situation of life, nor are they willing to wait patiently for Him to work on their behalf. Even if they pray for whatever it is they desire, they have only their own desires in mind. They are like Martha who came to Jesus asking Him to make Mary get up and help. Angry people do not want what Jesus wants, and they have no intention of giving up their desires for His. They want Him to side with them and cater to their selfish demands. When Jesus isn’t manipulated or bullied into giving them what they ask for, they are all the more agitated or discouraged.
Angry behavior as we have described reveals a prideful desire to govern one’s own life. At its roots, anger is a desire to exalt and worship self and is a refusal to yield to the authority and Lordship of Christ. This is why James goes on to address angry people as spiritual adulterers who think and behave in the same way the world does. To become angry at what God allows or disallows is to accuse and reject God Himself. Anger is the epitome of pride because it puts self in God’s place and gives to one’s self the prerogatives and rights that only God can have. The angry and prideful heart depends on itself to decide what is good and bad, what should or shouldn’t happen, or how others are to behave or not behave.
The Way Up Is Down
The reasoning of a sinful human heart propels the heart to reject what God may want and embrace and instead embrace what it wants. This is why biblical accounts of incidents involving anger are invariably connected in some way to pride. The two are inseparable twins. Pride ignores God and focuses instead on one’s perceived purity and rights. Humility, in contrast, bows to God’s sovereignty and sees God as holy and pure, and sees self as frail and undeserving of the least of God’s favor. Humility does not clench a fist around its rights, making God pry loose one finger at a time. Rather, a humble spirit willingly opens its hand to God with childlike trust. Humility recognizes God’s wisdom and power in contrast with our human ignorance and weakness, His perfection and authority with our imperfection and lowliness, and His faithfulness and provision with our unfaithfulness and dependence on Him for everything.
In James 4:6-7, the author ties all the preceding verses in chapter four together and draws a conclusion that also happens to be the greatest antidote to anger. The verses say, “God resisteth [is opposed to] the proud, but giveth grace [unmerited favor, desire, and ability to do God’s will] to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Anger can be controlled by human efforts provided the motivation is strong enough, but none can ever conquer anger without submitting their heart and life wholly to God. Anger and pride are the hallmark of Satan. He thrives on and perpetuates these sinful twins by exploiting man’s selfish tendencies toward serving his own purpose and goals. Man cannot win this spiritual battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil by fighting in worldly ways or exerting his own willpower and determination. We succeed in fighting our sinful nature and the wiles of the devil by bowing our will to God and submitting wholly to Christ alone. To submit to God is to resist the devil. James 4:10 records, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up.” Humility, then, is the cornerstone truth that will lead to true freedom from anger.
The Many Faces of Anger
Anger is expressed in many ways besides the common reaction of blowing up or speaking hatefully. While anger commonly takes the form of loud outrage, verbal attacks, throwing objects, or slamming a door, anger is expressed just as easily by crying, clamming up, refusing to cooperate with others, or sulking. Some resort to physical violence such as hitting, slapping, or kicking when a person or thing gets in the way or displeases. Others use sarcasm, excessive teasing, or biting humor to vent their buried anger. Many expressions of hostility and anger are easily recognizable—others are not. Those who are inwardly and quietly seething with anger may not even recognize it in themselves. Such people typically learn to use words that can be masked expressions of anger. These include “I’m annoyed,” “I’m irritated,” “I’m fed up,” “I’m hurt,” or “I’m frustrated.” In all honesty, words such as these might more accurately be replaced with, “I’m angry.” Some people are able to keep their anger so well hidden that others never so much as suspect a problem with anger. The single most difficult aspect of identifying and conquering anger is coming to a place where there is a willingness to face, admit, and biblically deal with one’s own sins in the matter. Angry people tend to convince themselves (and others) that their anger and related problems are a direct result of circumstances they did not bring about or a result of other people who have not dealt with them in ways they believe they deserve. Attempts to justify or excuse anger contribute to this self-deception and keep an angry person in bondage to the sin of anger. Anger always betrays our belief that we have a right to expect someone or something to fulfill our desires; and when our desires are not fulfilled, flaring up in obvious or hurtful ways is viewed as justifiable, if not reasonable.Debi Pryde has taught ladies’ Bible classes and spoken at retreats and seminars for the past 30 years. A certified biblical counselor, she is particularly burdened for women and for the problems they face in today’s world. She has published a variety of Bible studies and books, including Secrets of a Happy Heart, Happily Married, and Precept Upon Precept. She and her husband, Tom, are active members at Lighthouse Baptist Church (La Verne, CA). You can read more about Debi, about her ministry, and about her rose garden by visiting her website.