Discerning the Differences Between Righteous Anger & Sinful Anger

Is it possible to be angry in a way that isn’t sinful? If we’re honest, it seems that when we get angry, anger threatens to control us.
September 20, 2023

Discerning the Differences Between Righteous Anger & Sinful Anger (and Being Slow to Claim the First Category When Angry)

How do you tell the difference between good anger and bad anger in someone else? When I say good anger, as a Christian, I mean an anger that actually honors God and comes from godly convictions. When I say bad anger, I mean anger that is more a result of selfish, self-serving motives, or at the very least, anger that expresses itself in ways that runs over people.

It’s not always easy to discern righteous and sinful anger in others, so let’s start with the person whose anger actually causes the greatest amount of harm in one’s life—ourself. That’s right, I am my own worst enemy when it comes to anger. In that statement, I am assuming that most of my anger is in the “sinful” category. Technically speaking, no one else ever makes me angry. Individuals may provoke me, insult me, or just simply be difficult to deal with, but my response of anger – whether it is expressed or stays latent beneath the surface in my heart – is my own. That individual did not force me to respond with vitriolic bitterness, condescension, or unkind words.

Before we talk about some markers of righteous versus sinful anger, let’s first acknowledge that it is possible to have righteous anger.

  • Jesus Himself was angry, and rightly so (Matt 21:12-3, John 11:38). Before we too quickly validate His anger by merely saying that He is God (which is true), let’s also remember that Jesus is the perfect human. He demonstrated what anger—rightly motivated, directed, and expressed—would look like if sin were not in the world. The anger of Adam’s race would be similar if not for the Fall.
  • Furthermore, the apostle Paul, borrowing from King David’s words in Ps 4:4, says, “Don’t sin by letting anger control you” (Eph 4:26a). Paul gives more definition to this by adding, “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil” (Eph 4:26b-27). Notice that Paul (and David) didn’t say “don’t sin by being angry.” They said, “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” That little qualifier is so very important.
  • Lastly, on a human level, I think we understand that anger is actually quite an appropriate response to certain things. When we see a kid on the playground leverage his bigger body size to bully a smaller kid into submission, something rises up within us that says “That is wrong!” We get angry. When we think of the evil of human sex trafficking, we run the danger of being morally bankrupt if we do not get angry. And much like Jesus when He witnessed the impact of the death of His friend Lazarus, the not-the-way-it-was-meant-to-be nature of death should lead to anger at the reality and consequences of sin.

So it is possible to be angry in a way that isn’t sinful. Yet at the same time if we’re honest, 99 times out of 100, it seems that when we get angry, anger threatens to control us. On top of that, our tainted and self-justifying human nature all too quickly rationalizes our anger, asserting that its sinful motives and expressions are warranted or that the circumstances drove us to it.

Let’s look at what some characteristics of righteous anger might be. I think this will help us better understand the layered nature and nuances of most cases of our anger. Just as anger is rarely experienced by us in a totally righteous manner, anger is also rarely, I think, totally unwarranted. Something really did go wrong. Someone really did commit an offense. Anger is a mixed bag. And given that we like to justify anger when it’s ourselves who are angry, I also think these points will slow us down and help us reconsider the complete rightness of our own anger.

I am borrowing the two lists below. Think of them as self-applied questions or criteria for discerning righteous anger from sinful anger. The first list comes from a helpful article by David Powlison. The second list comes from Robert D. Jones. Both are extremely helpful and can stand on their own. Taken together, they complement one another. Jones’s list is more summative in nature (i.e., his points encapsulate those of Powlison), while Powlison’s list parses out the same content covered by Jones into more fine points.

David Powlison (7 Questions)[1]

  1. Do you get angry about the right things? Anger is always directed at or against someone or something. Anger perceives that a real wrong has been done. Does that perception match up with reality? If I am angry at someone because I perceive they have intentionally slighted me, but they actually had no intention of the sort, then my anger is out of place. I have perceived wrongly. My whole starting point is wrong.
  2. Do you express anger in the right way? It is all too common to be angry about the right thing, only to express anger in a way that is sinfully excessive (i.e., is over the top, puts another individual “in their place,” etc.). Perhaps the easiest gauge of this is whether I address a problem or attack the people involved. Are my words giving “grace to those who hear”? (Eph 4:29) Even when Jesus spoke directly and with a sort of harshness, His aim was never to run roughshod over those He spoke to.
  3. How long does your anger last? We are commanded to not hold on to anger (Eph 4:26-27). There’s no way that anger can be clung to endlessly and Christ’s mercy and forgiveness simultaneously be ruling in that individual’s heart. This doesn’t mean that anger goes away immediately; the reality is that we must often turn to God in repentance again and again, especially if we really have been grievously wronged. But it does mean that if bitterness persists over the course of weeks, months, and years, our anger has revealed itself as sinful. Anger that has lasted that long usually remembers a high number of details of an offense, another sign that this anger is not pleasing to God.
  4. How controlled is your anger? Said differently, how intense is your anger? Is it controlled by godly ambitions and aspirations? Or is it impulsive, destroying with words and actions without a second thought? Being cathartic with anger does not actually help. Much like a fire that strengthens the more oxygen it takes in, the more that anger is given vent, the stronger it becomes.
  5. What motivates your anger? The heart of the matter is the heart, and that’s what this question gets at. What desires are ruling in my heart when I am angry? For instance, if my children are disobedient in public, they have done wrong. They deserve to be disciplined. So far, so good—I have gotten angry about the right thing (i.e., there has been a moral response within me, declaring that my children’s actions are not acceptable). But what is happening internally? Whatever motivates my anger will likely also determine my expression of anger (point #2). There is a difference between anger at my kids for the way their disobedience invites danger and shows disrespect to their mother, versus anger at my kids because the real issue is that I am afraid of how their disobedience reflects on me as a dad in the public eye. The first motive is godly; the second motive is self-centered and lacking any real concern for the good of my children.
  6. Is your anger “primed and ready” to respond to another person’s habitual sins? It is tempting to take an individual’s track record and leverage that as a weapon against them, reminding them constantly in anger of all the ways they come up short. This question is not suggesting you be naïve about an individual whose history deems them untrustworthy. This question is addressing our proclivity to be “trigger happy” with our anger. We too easily forget the gentleness and forgiveness shown by Jesus concerning our sin and His command to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matt 18:22).
  7. What is the effect of your anger? Simply put, what does your anger do? Are there predictable patterns left in the wake of your anger? For example, do individuals you’ve confronted come away knowing you love them or do they feel verbally lambasted? Powlison says this of anger’s effects on others: “The way you come across tempts [others] to duck or retaliate…If somebody were to eat your words—their condemning and belittling content, their tone of voice—they would gag.”[2] Do others know you care and want a restored relationship, or has the character of your anger only communicated that you want to come out as the “winner” (perhaps while trying to show that God is on your side)?

Robert D. Jones (3 Criteria)[3]

  1. Righteous anger reacts against actual sin. This means that what provokes godly anger is sin as defined or described in the Bible. Merely having our desires or preferences crossed does not qualify as sin. We do not get to use our personal wishes and predispositions as the standards for what is right and wrong.
  2. Righteous anger is God-oriented, not me-oriented. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” were the words spoken by Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist (John 3:30). Anger that is godly hones in on how God’s reputation and purposes have been offended, not ultimately how my reputation and purposes have been offended. Righteous anger “terminates on God more than me…accurately viewing something as offensive is not enough. We must view it primarily as offending God.”[4] When my character and heart are in line with God’s concerns, I am much more likely to be shaped and guided by thoughts, intuitions, and emotions that reflect care for His name to be honored. Concerns bound up in me, while not unimportant, are secondary.
  3. Righteous anger expresses itself in godly ways. This third criterion addresses many of the questions raised earlier by David Powlison. Anger that is directed at actual sin and is God-oriented must also adorn the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) if it is to be called righteous. It must have love as its aim, be patient, exude self-control, and so on.

How do the questions and principles put forth above impact the way you now view righteous versus sinful anger? If “achieving” righteous anger somehow now seems more unachievable, that is likely a good thing and a sign of appropriate humility. It is also good for us to remember that when (not if) we fail to be angry in a way that pleases God, He is willing and able to demonstrate the same patience, gentleness, and forgiveness towards us—“seventy times seven”—that He commands us to show others. Meditating on this fact alone would certainly make us people with longer “fuses” who are slow to anger.

Other Resources:

  • This link is an interview done by Robert Jones on the subject of anger. Much of the content of his book (Uprooting Anger) is distilled in this interview. The interview can be digested as a podcast or in transcript form.
  • This conference video contains John Piper responding to Douglas Wilson about the role of sarcasm in the Christian life. Piper’s response starts around the 7-minute mark. His response covers how Jesus’s ability to be rightly angry is different from ours, and why. The takeaway isn’t to say who “won” the point-counterpoint by Wilson and Piper (both men love God and are well-spoken). The takeaway is to ponder the character of Jesus and be personally changed by how “balanced” His anger was when it was displayed.

[1] David Powlison, “Anger Part 1: Understanding Anger,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 14:1 (Fall 1995): 49-53.

[2] Ibid, 53.

[3] Robert D. Jones, Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2005): 29-30.

[4] Ibid, 29.