There's plenty to get angry about in our world, to be sure. But should Christians ever display anger? Can love be stern? Can we faithfully represent Christ while not getting angry about injustice?
We might wonder when we read a scripture like this: "Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires" (James 1:20). In my New Living Translation footnotes, it mentions that "human" anger might be more literally specified as "man's anger." We've all seen some female anger, I'm sure. But James may target "male" anger as a case in point. "Righteousness" might be translated "justice."
My mind takes me to the old Westerns I watched as a kid. Most of the saloon brawls and street shoot outs involved men, defending their "honor," with perhaps a few women and children as spectators. Other times, a self-proclaimed posse would hunt down outlaws and lynch them. A better system of justice came when sheriff's detained suspects for courtroom trial before judge and jury. That still might fall short of the justice that God requires, but it offered more time for deliberation and hopefully fairness.
James originally addressed followers of Jesus living under the jurisdiction of ancient Rome. The Romans prided themselves on their legal system. But Roman justice moved too slow for some, and showed too much favoritism for others. The crucifixion of Jesus provides a shocking example of how it failed miserably. So people, then as now, sometimes took matters into their own hands. Indeed, we can describe Palestine as a powder keg in the time of Jesus, that exploded about a generation after his resurrection. The anger of nationalistic patriotism didn't restore the kingdom of God, but brought devastation to Jerusalem and to Galilee.
So perhaps James 1:20 shouldn't be taken as a prohibition of all human anger. Instead, it offers a cautious insight that hot-headed and desperate actions, as commonly expressed, don't get for us what we hope: the joy and peace of God's rule. The scripture immediately previous supports this view: "You must be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to get angry," (James 1:19).
The Bible never tells us to be slow to kidnap, or slow to commit murder. Even if we are slow to sin, we still sin. We can speak without sin, but only if we speak with care. We can get angry without sin, but only if we allow anger to rise and express itself with care. A short fuse usually means trouble. Good listening always has value. But it wouldn't be upright or fair to never speak. It wouldn't be righteous to never get angry either. But what does godly anger look like?
In her book, Angry Like Jesus, Sarah Sumner studies 15 examples from the gospels of when Jesus got angry. Jesus was fully human, so human anger doesn't have to sabotage God's justice, even if it often does. Indeed, Sumner believes that the example of how Jesus expressed anger can spark our moral courage. If we reflect on it, we can learn a kind of anger consistent with healing love and a healthy Christian life.
I hope to tease this out more on Sunday mornings in the weeks and months ahead. But for starters, consider the difference between an anger that trusts God as opposed to one that rails against God. Or the difference between a truthful anger and a self-deceived anger. Or even consider the difference between rebuke and "blame and shame." That's just the tip of the iceberg in discerning godly anger from the more common, self-centered kind.
Pastor Jim Byrne
The faithful presence