It has been said that harboring resentment is like ingesting poison and then waiting for the other person to die. Indeed, resentment rots the soul. It causes the soul, and in some ways the body, to wither on the vine. Thus, if we wish to keep our souls vibrant and our bodies healthy, we must find a way to deal with the temptation toward resentment.
Consider Frederick Buechner’s exploration of resentment and its negative consequences:
Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton of the feast is you.
At bottom, resentment is anger. Anger rehashed. Over and over again, endlessly. Thus in order to understand resentment, we must understand anger—in both its sinful and righteous manifestations. Just as a bank teller learns to identify counterfeit bills from genuine ones, so we learn to distinguish sinful anger through a firm understanding of righteous anger.
One of the difficulties with exploring the topic of anger is expanding our often-reductionist understanding of what it is. Often, when we think of anger, we think of hot-headed moments when we spout off at the mouth. But the root system of anger runs much deeper and spreads much broader than just losing our cool.
What is anger? Anger is a passionate response to an injustice, whether real or perceived, and can be triggered by pain, fear, or loss. Anger can manifest itself in milder versions such as annoyance or irritation, in a stronger manner through resentment or vexation, and in a more explosive manner through exasperation or wrath, Fortunately for Christians, the Bible addresses anger in its fullness, distinguishes between good and bad anger, and teaches us how best to respond to these feelings.
The Old Testament reveals the nature of righteous anger by depicting various situations in which God the Father is rightfully angry. Usually, his anger is on account of some form of idolatry. In Numbers 14, God’s anger is stirred up because Israel refused to listen to his voice even after he had shown steadfast love and provided miraculous deliverance. In the Psalms, we are told that God has “indignation” every day (Ps 7:11) which turns to “wrath” at certain times (Ps 78:21). Yet, God’s anger toward idolatry is generally shown to pale in comparison to his mercy toward sinners; after all, he came to Earth in order to suffer and die on our behalf.
Similarly, the New Testament reveals righteous anger in the life and ministry of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The most famous example of his wrath is the depiction of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple; in this instance, his controlled righteous anger was directed toward miscreants who had desecrated the temple (Jn 2:13-17). But there are other examples. Jesus became angry at the Pharisees because they used the pain of a crippled man to try to further their false ideology and trap Jesus; in response, he exposed their hypocrisy while showing love to the crippled man (Mk 3:1-6).
The Bible makes clear that it is possible for humans to experience righteous anger. That is why James warns Christians to be slow to wrath (Jms 1:19) and Paul instructs the Ephesians that it is alright to be angry, as long as our anger is not sinful (Eph 4:26). Whereas God is right to be angry at the tarnishing of his own glory, we sin if we become angry because we are concerned for our own glory. Whereas God has the right to exercise vengeance, we do not (Rom 12:19-21). Thus, if our anger is righteous, it must be motivated by God’s glory rather than our own.
What is unrighteous anger? Unrighteous anger is any type of angry emotion we experience because we have misunderstood the nature of justice or responded to injustice in an unrighteous manner. Scripture makes clear that our sinful hearts darken our understanding of injustice and how to respond to it (Eph 4:18).
The Bible’s first portrayal of sinful anger appears in Genesis, when Cain killed his brother Abel (Gen 4:8-9). A short time later, we learn that God cursed Simeon and Levi for their cruel anger (Gen 49:5-7). Famously, God disciplined Moses for losing his temper and striking a rock twice with his rod (Num 20:1-13). King Saul’s rebellion against God was characterized by fits of anger (1 Sam 20:30). God’s opponent, Haman, acted in a fit of rage when Mordecai refused to bow to Haman. Examples abound, but these will suffice to emphasize that the Bible often warns against sinful anger.
In addition to narratives about anger, the Bible offers specific teaching about anger, much of it contained in the Proverbs. We are told to “refrain from anger and turn away from wrath (Ps 37:8). We must think carefully before acting on our anger (Prov 12:16; 14:29; 19:11), be patient in the midst of our anger (Prov 16:32), sand show restraint in our anger (Prov 29:11). If we do not exercise careful thinking, patience, and restraint, we will cause unnecessary conflict (Prov 29:22; 30:33) and get ourselves in trouble (Prov 19:19). We should avoid sinfully angry people (Prov 22:24-25).
Sometimes, we are sinfully angry because we view something as unjust when, in reality, it is just. This typically happens when we elevate some part of the created order to the level of “god” in our lives, thus committing idolatry. And naturally, when something threatens our “god,” we become angry in a manner disproportionate to the offense. For example, a man might become angry with his boss because he received an (accurately) poor job review. The man has elevated “professional success” to the level of a god and thus feels threatened when his god (i.e. professional reputation) is threatened.
Other times, we are sinfully angry in the goals we set when we respond to a (perceived) injustice. Perhaps the best example of this is when our goal is to punish, humiliate, or otherwise get revenge for an injustice committed against us. This is unrighteous because the Bible clearly teaches that our goal should be to get justice rather than revenge, and to tell the truth about a situation rather than to punish or humiliate. It is not our job to be Judge; that is the job of civil authorities and, ultimately, of God himself.
Still other times, we are sinfully angry because of sinful actions that arise from our anger. In this instance, our behavior reveals the corruption in our hearts. “A quick-tempered man acts foolishly, and a man of evil device is hated” (Prov 14:17). To take the example above, a man who has received what he perceives as an unjustly poor job review should not react by cursing the man, slandering him to colleagues, or giving an equally unjust review of his superior to his superior’s boss.
A Checklist for an Angry Heart
In his article, “Addressing Sinful Anger,” biblical counselor Tim Keeter offers a helpful set of questions we should ask ourselves when we are angry:
- Is there a “log” in my eye? We must beware of self-deception and hypocrisy when we are angry (Mt 7:3).
- Do I have the facts right? We must not react to the perceived injustice before we fully understand all of the facts of the situation (Prov 18:13).
- Should I overlook the injustice, especially if it was an offense against me, personally? We must not deal with an injustice if it would be better to let it go and move on.
- Is my timing right? There are right and wrong times to speak out against an injustice (Prov 15:23).
- Is my attitude right? If I intend to right an injustice, I must speak the truth graciously rather than stripping truth of its proper context—Christian love.
- Are my goals God-centered? I must make sure that my primary goal is to glorify God in every way in this particular situation (Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 10:31).
With anger, as with any emotion we experience, we must examine our hearts before responding. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps 139:23-24). Such self-examination is best undertaken prayerfully and with relevant Scripture at the forefront of our minds.
Cleanse and Renew
Scripture makes it very clear that not all anger is sinful. Yet, in many instances, we sin through our anger. For this reason, James warns, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (Jms 1:19). Similarly, Ephesians 4:26 warns, “Be angry, but do not sin” (Eph 4:26). Thus, we must entrust our anger to God. To him, and not to us, belongs vengeance. He, and not we, can properly discern the intents of another person’s heart. Our job is to participate in his play to glorify himself by making sure any anger we hold is for the purpose of upholding God’s glory rather than our own.
As we discipline ourselves to exercise restraint in the face of anger, we must ask ourselves questions such as, “What actually happened?” “How did I process what happened?” “How did I respond to what happened?” “What should I do now?” “What passages of Scripture and which people can provide godly counsel as I think through these things?” In so doing, we can get to the heart of the issues. The rehashing of angry thoughts and feelings leads to resentment and bitterness, which will eventually rot the soul. But the cleansing of our hearts from unrighteous anger renews the soul.