Of the seven daily sins, wrath may be the most difficult to acknowledge as sin. We’re miserable in envy, depressed by sloth, and embarrassed by gluttony and lust. Those sins may be hard to admit to others, but not usually to ourselves. Wrath is different. We can be deeply angry without fully realizing we’re sinning because anger usually feels so right. Wrath is a chameleon adept at disguise, quickly adapting its color to a variety of background reasons and rationalizations.
Of course, there is a kind of anger that is not sinful (see Eph. 4:26). Aristotle praised the person “who gets angry at the right things and with the right people, and also in the right way and at the right time and for the right length of time.” The word Aristotle used to describe this kind of person is the same word found in Scripture for meekness or gentleness. A meek or a gentle person is a person whose anger is rightly ordered: directed at the right things and expressed in an appropriate manner. Sometimes it is right to be angry. When wicked people prey upon the weak and helpless, love for the victims demands anger and the pursuit of justice. But sinful wrath is what Dorothy Sayers called the “love of justice perverted to revenge and spite.”
The Diagnosis of Anger
One of the best ways to detect and diagnose sinful anger is by setting it in contrast to love. When wrath overruns love, we’re in trouble. In the Bible’s most heart-probing description of love, Paul tells us that love “is not irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:5b). This description shows us the two primary ways that sinful anger violates love.
– Hot anger. To be irritable is to get angry too easily. This is hot anger: the easily provoked, quick-tempered wrath of a volatile hothead who flies into fits of rage at the slightest aggravation. Proverbs shows us that this kind of anger is hasty, foolish, and given to stirring up strife. “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29). “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (Proverbs 15:18).
– Cold anger. To be resentful, on the other hand, is to stay angry for too long. This is cold anger: the record-keeping wrath of a bitter, cold-hearted person who always remembers, never forgets, and never forgives.
Most of us are more given to one form than the other. Some people shout, others pout. But whether you spew or stew, the underlying anger in either case is a violation of love. And either violation is sinful and dangerous.
The basic root of anger is inordinate, idolatrous desire (see James 4:1-2). It may be a desire for justice, esteem, comfort, approval, or security. None of these desires are wrong in and of themselves. But when we seek the fulfillment of these desires in ways that violate God’s will, our desires have become inordinate. What follows may be a hot torrent of molten anger or the slow onslaught of an icy glacier of resentment. But one way or the other, idolatrous hearts are spring-loaded to retaliate once their desires are crossed.