In C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, there is a section where Ransom fights the Devil himself. There, in what is almost a throwaway line, we find one of Lewis’s greatest insights.
“It is perhaps difficult to understand why this filled Ransom not with horror but with a kind of joy. The joy came from finding at last what hatred was made for.” (C. S. Lewis, Perelandra)1
What is hatred made for? If God has given us every emotion for his purposes, why hatred? Why anger? How can we process these volatile emotions properly in his presence, rather than be mastered by them, ruined by them? How can we “be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26)? Or, better put, how can we practice righteous anger?
Avoiding Two Main Errors
As we get to know the Bible’s teaching on the matter, it will help us avoid two errors. First is the error of avoiding anger. This is foolhardy and impossible; it will come out eventually. Second is the error of acquiescing to anger. That is, allowing anger to master or dominate your life. It will gladly do that and destroy you in the process. Our goal is appropriate anger that has been processed in the presence of God.
In Scripture, there are many considerations about anger that we must take into account.
1. Recognize that anger is a byproduct of love.
The Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). It also says he is often “angry” (Psalm 7:11). It never once says that God is anger itself. We can conclude from this that anger is a byproduct of love. When you are a loving person, sometimes you will get angry. Think about it like this. A wife cheats on her husband. How does he feel? Angry—and righteously so. Thus, the God of Israel is a “jealous” and “angry” God, upset that his people have cheated on him with other gods (Deuteronomy 3:21-22). His anger is a result of his love.
2. Therefore, recognize that anger is not God’s primary emotion.
Anger is a “flash,” or a “circumstantial flare-up,” caused by outside circumstances. It is not God’s primary disposition toward sinners. In Exodus 34:6, he introduces himself as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger…” God forgives and keeps covenant love. However, he will “by no means clear the guilty” (v. 7). His anger will flare up in time. Through correction, discipline, and judgment, his anger will be poured out when it needs to be.
3. Recognize that anger is meant to accomplish something.
Since it flares up based on circumstances, we might ask, “What circumstances? And why?” God’s anger flares up at injustice and idolatry. Injustice is when something is happening that is decidedly not right according to God’s ways. So, when Jesus goes off at the temple (John 2:13-16), it is because the poor are being mistreated—in God’s own house! And when he burns with anger at the leaders (Mark 3:1-6), it is because a sick man is being denied healing and prayer because of religious excuses. He is sick and tired of it; it is unjust. God’s anger accomplishes God’s justice.
God’s anger burns against idolatry as well. This is because God is fiercely loyal and therefore “jealous.” But it is not an ego trip. God knows that idolatry is what leads to injustice! So, in Deuteronomy 7, when he commands Israel to wipe out the Canaanite nations, it is because of their unjust practices. For hundreds of years, that region has been the center of child slaughter, economic unfairness, and backward theology. And the people who lose are women, children, the poor, and the immigrant. That is why in the worship of YHWH, the people who benefit most are among those four groups (Malachi 3:5).
4. Come to see that man’s anger will not accomplish God’s justice.
This does not mean that we should never be angry. (More on that in a minute.) It simply means that “man-centered” anger will not do what anger is supposed to do. James says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). Notice that the goal is “slowness to anger”—not none at all. We do not avoid anger.
But we must be honest with ourselves. If we are quick to anger, easily frustrated, always on edge, primarily bitter and resentful toward someone, waking up angry in the mornings, ruminating on past hurts, or fuming in silent brooding aggression—then we are definitely not practicing God’s anger. We are acquiescing to it. Anger has become our master. Paul says, “do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). We need to recognize this and process our emotions differently.
5. Believe that you can process your anger in the presence of God.
The primary way we do this is through prayer and soon, forgiveness. Processing our hate-filled emotions in prayer looks like Psalm 109. There, David explodes in guttural cries of grief, erupts in sorrowful anguish, and desperately asks God to do the unthinkable: “May his days be few!” That is, “Kill him, God. Please.” While this might seem unchristian to us, we need to see the utility—the necessity!—of it. If we do not express our emotions in prayer, they will come out in other, more destructive ways. This is a repeat process, daily if necessary.
Forgiveness is the result of processing our emotions in the presence of God. Remember that forgiveness does not give up hope for justice. By forgiving someone, you are not “excusing” them or “letting them off the hook.” Instead, you are freeing them of the debt they owe you so that they can be dealt with by God. Everett L. Worthington, Jr. says, “Justice and forgiveness are the twin edges of the sword of love.”2 This might take months or years. But it is possible on the basis of Christ’s forgiveness. “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). Paul is not saying to avoid anger; he’s saying to pursue justice through forgiveness.
Tim Keller has written, “Forgiveness is not the opposite of seeking true justice. It is, among many other things, its precondition.”3 Armed with forgiveness, we are ready to wield anger to accomplish the justice of God. That could look like action, defending the defenseless, legislation, tough conversations, or even godly rage. Some wrongs need to be screamed at.
Applying This Every Day
The best verse on this topic, in my opinion, is Romans 12:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Here Paul covers all the bases.
1. Do not retaliate.
“Never avenge yourselves.” Be skeptical of how anger makes you think “I am right” and motivates you to hit back. That might do something quickly, but will it make things better for me in the long run? Before we take action, we must “leave it to the wrath of God.”
2. Give anger away.
Knowing God gets angry is not bad news; it is good news for angry people. It means that I can let it go and “leave it” to him. His wrath will take something from me that was too heavy for me to carry. What a load off.
3. Know God’s heart.
“Vengeance is mine” (a quote from Deuteronomy 32:35) means that God’s heart is to put things right. Sometimes we call this “justification”—God putting things right again (see Romans 5:19). Remember that he is not only putting other people right, he is also putting you right! Thank God for his gracious gift!
4. Look forward to the end of the story.
“I will repay” is a short-form way of giving away the ending of history. When Jesus comes again, he will put everything right. In judgment, he will angrily wipe away wickedness and restore everything that was broken as the world’s true King (see Revelation 19:11-16). Like Ransom in Lewis’s Space Trilogy, Jesus will once-and-for-all defeat the Devil. That is what hatred is for.
1 C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, Reprint Edition (New York: Scribner, 2003), 132.
2 Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 48.
3 Timothy Keller, Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? (New York: Viking Press, 2022), 167.