As we have known for centuries, anger is a brief madness. And when a man comes to his senses again, after a fit of anger, he has plenty of leisure to repent of the damage he has done. But repairing the damage is often far more difficult than having a mere desire to repair it. "And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice. And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you" (Eph. 4:30-32).
But we have to handle this subject carefully because there is such a thing as righteous anger. Unless we have some biblical idea of what godly anger looks like, we will have no way to repent of our ungodly angers. Jesus was angry: when Jesus was presented with a trap baited with a man with a withered hand, His response was one of anger and grief (Mk. 3:5). The Scriptures never tell us explicitly that He was angry when He cleansed the Temple, although He quite possibly was. In this pattern set by Christ, consider three things about His righteous anger—the occasion for it, what accompanied it, and the results of it.
What occasioned the anger of Christ? It was a group of Pharisees who were so lost to the proportions of human kindness that they were prepared to accuse Jesus for ministering to a man with a withered hand. Those who are always ready to point the boney finger of accusation are those who were the recipients of Christ's anger. What accompanied Christ's anger? Wisdom, insight, shrewdness, and kindness. It was not an unbalanced anger. And last, what was the result of Christ's anger? The man with a withered hand was made whole.
So anger is not automatically unrighteous. Remember the anger of God; a great deal of what we see around us every day makes God angry (John 3:36). When a man remains in unbelief, the wrath of God abides on him. This provides us with an important doctrinal category. And lest someone say, yes, but God knows how to do it right, the Bible commands us to be angry. Be angry, the Bible tells us, but do not sin (Eph. 4:26). This is just a few verses before our earlier text where we are told to put away all wrath and anger. So even if the anger is righteous, like manna, it will not keep overnight. Often it is either one or the other. Consider the flow of argument between Romans 12:19 and chapter 13:6. Do not avenge yourselves (v. 19), but leave room for wrath. And who is the agent of such wrath? The magistrate is God’s deacon in this (13:4). Anger is not to be dismissed as automatically sinful.
But the reason it is easy to think so is that there is a great deal of unrighteous anger all around us. One of our more common problem is not how to deal with all our righteous anger. The Bible describes anger as one of the works of the flesh. Like the other sins we are considering, this one keeps bad company as well. It is one of the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:20). People whose lives are characterized by this do not inherit the kingdom (v. 21). We are told to put it off. In our text from Ephesians, we are told to put our wrath and anger away. We are also told to put it off (Col. 3:8). You are not your own; you were bought by someone else. He has told you to get the anger out of your life, because you have put on Christ. Instead of doing this, we want to make excuses. But note what the text says to all followers of Christ—put it away. It does not say put it away if . . . You may think you are not young enough to change, the provocations are too big for you to change, and so forth. But the word must be bluntly spoken to every follower of Christ—knock it off. Ungodly anger vents, and provides a (very) temporary relief, but it actually exacerbates the problems. Anger gets underfoot. The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God (Jas. 1:20). This means that your anger interferes with a biblical solution with whatever it is that angers you. Your anger complicates the problem, whatever it is.
Anger plants grow up from little anger seeds. What are those? In our life together, we must note that anger frequently grows up from what we think are lesser sins—annoyances, irritations, resentments, gripes, imputations of motive, and so forth. But the fact that they are smaller does not necessarily mean they are lesser. The seed of sin carries all future sins within it. The contrast we are to exhibit is that of tenderheartedness. What is the counterpart to every form of anger? It is kindness, tenderheartedness, forgiveness to one another. This is the only measuring rod we may use.
In order to be freed from our own fits of anger and rage, we must contemplate (through faith) the greatest display of wrath in the history of the world—the cross of Jesus Christ. There, in the wrath of God, the petty wrath of all His people was crucified. The solution to our anger is not to be our lack of anger. The solution to our fits of anger is God’s wrath with that anger. The solution to our anger is His anger. "Much more then . . . we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son" (Rom. 5:9-10). So we were saved from wrath by wrath. And if we have no glimpse of true wrath, we will spend our lives face down in the puddles of our own private animosities. Dear God, deliver us! But deliverance is only through the cross. You will be delivered from anger only by seeing how angry God was with it. And that is seen through the cross.