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On Anger

"The anger of man does not
work the righteousness of God."

(James 1:20, KJV)
The above statement in the letter from James is translated in the NIV as "for human anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires." Other translations are similar. (In the language of the time 'man' as a generic noun referred to both male and female.)

They are wrong! Most would apply this in an individualistic way, such as "If I/you become angry, my/your life will not become righteous, and God likes righteous lives." As we have shown elsewhere, the Greek word dikaiosunen, here translated 'righteousness', does not refer to individual goodness but to "right relationships among all things in the created order". Indeed, in both Hebrew and Greek parts of the Bible, 'righteousness' is synonymous with the word 'justice'.

"Righteousness of God" means "right relationships among all things of the created order." Righteousness is relational, not individualistic - and it refers to relationships not only with other humans but also with all things, including animals, plants and the planet. 'Human anger' is problematic because it destroys relationships that God intended.

If we take this relational understanding of righteousness and anger we find the rest of the Scripture makes more sense. The individualistic interpretation cannot make sense of verses that seem to suggest that some anger might be valid, such as James 1:19, Ephesians 4:26, Mark 3:5, because it does not help us work out whether 'my' anger is 'anger of man' or 'anger of God'.

By contrast, the relational understanding sees God's anger as emanating from his love (see Justice as Love), in that if I harm another part of God's creation, then God is right to be angry at me. Righteousness, which is what God desires for all of us, is "right relationships among all things in the created order." Creator God has designed what those relationships are and can be, and anger at anything that breaks them is right, but anger that destroys relationships is wrong - whether it is relationship with other humans or with animals, plantlife or planet. "The anger of man" does just that.

The "anger of man" springs from an evil heart that is focused on self. It arises when 'I' am insulted, when 'I' am ignored, when 'my' ideas are spurned, when 'my' family is denied something I want them to have. The "anger of God" arises when the other is insulted, ignored or harmed. (But watch out! Those like me who have a cause: is my anger really because of harm to the other or because 'my' ideas are being spurned?)

If you would like to think about this in more detail, read on ...

See also the email-excerpt that perhaps expresses this more directly.

Contents:

This is written from a perspective that takes the Bible as authoritative. Readers who do not can just ignore such references and might still find interesting insight.

What is Righteousness?

In short, righteousness, rightly understood, means "right relationships among all things in the created order."

Righteousness is a word whose meaning has become distorted over the last century or so. We tend to think of it as a kind of sinlessness, uprightness, being morally pure and perfect. We tend to think of it as an attribute of a person, descriptive of their standing before God, of how God sees the person on his/her own, a kind of moral worth. (We also see it likewise as an attribute of a nation, as when "Righteousness exalts a nation".)

But in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, it is more than this, and is the same as the word 'justice', which we tend to see as more public than personal. The word which is translated as 'righteousness' is also translated as 'justice', suggesting that the two were the same concept.

In the OT it is 'tsedeq' and in the Greek, 'dikaios'. This strongly suggests that the two concepts, justice and righteousness, are one and the same, or at least very similar. This does not accord with the modern view, so the concept that the Bible has is probably rather different from either the personal-attribute that we think of as righteousness or the legal term that we assume justice to be.

We have individualized the idea of 'righteousness'.

Paul Marshall defines them as "right relationships among all things in the created order". This seems a useful view. Instead of righteousness being a personal attribute, it is to do with right relationships. A righteous person is one who is in right relationship with all around him/her; and 'right' is defined by reference to the will and intention of God. This makes more sense of 'Righteousness exalts a nation', since in such a nation all the relationships are in correct balance - so it is no wonder that everything works well, and the honour and dignity of that nation. Therefore "the righteousness of God" means the state of affairs in which all relationships are as God intended -

And of course, Christ died, to mend relationships.

What is "The Righteousness of God"?

Does "the righteousness of God" mean one idea of what is right among several equally-valid alternatives, held by one being, who happens to be called "God", among others that we hold? That would be the prevailing humanistic view, which is deep in our society? Does it mean "righteousness achieved by faith" rather than "righteousness achieved by works" as the Reformers were apt to emphasise? Does it mean a 'right-standing' before God that comes from faith in Christ? It might include these, but I think it is more than these, much more.

If righteousness is right relationships among all things in the created order, then "the righteousness of God" refers to how God intended the whole of Creation to work together in relationship. With love, respect, justice, harmony, frugality, sociality, communication, skills, knowledge, emotions and vitality.

For example, offering someone the left cheek when they slap us on the right (Mt 6). For example, visiting those in prison (Mt 25). For example, worshiping only the One True God (Ex 20). For example, not stealing (Ex 20). For example, letting the land have a sabbath (Lev 25). Rejoice in the wife of your youth (Proverbs). Image God to the rest of Creation (Gen 1). etc.

If we did such things, the whole of society and world would go well. This is what God intended and intends. This dynamic harmony, this working well together, is what I believe is "the righteousness of God".

What is 'Anger of man'?

Is "anger of man" any anger? No, I do not think James meant any anger (remember: Jesus was angry), but an anger that is contaminated with, and probably motivated by, pride and self-centredness. Some anger is at injustice (called "righteous anger"), but if we are honest, are we not also slightly motivated by self-regard, self-interest, etc.?

Example: Parent shouts at children who are being nasty to each other,
riled because they are always at each other,
and knowing that the more it continues the nastier it gets until it ends in tears and bitterness.
Shouts, to stop them and order them to keep apart and not speak to each other.

This might halt the nastiness, but does it really sort it out?

Probably not.
Instead, it drives each child into sullenness, inner anger at grown-ups, and towards a tendency to cover up.

The 'righteousness of man' is to stop the current nastiness,
regardless of other issues.
The 'righteousness of God' is to sort out the deeper problem, by leading them to repentance.
True repentance is voluntary, never forced.
Repentance by the children
- but also repentance\ by the adults, who acted out of their own pride-stimulated anger.

Sometimes, once a parent realises what they have done, they repent inwardly, apologise to each child for the way they treated them, and the child then themself repents. (This is from my own experience.)

The "anger of man" gets things out of proportion. Overlooking other related important issues, it causes problems in them, often worse problems. It makes its out-of-proportion issue the justification for what it is wants to do or has done, and bullies others into making it out-of-proportion too. So it spreads itself among others, and also spreads and multiplies the other problems it causes.

It works at all levels, from individuals to governments and even whole swathes of humanity. The latter especially when the media stir up anger about some obvious injustice.

Why Does Man's Anger Not Work the Righteousness of God

We can begin to see why human anger that is based on pride cannot work God's righteousness. Pride is the centring on self, placing self in some privileged position over others and separated from others. Pride destroys relationships. Anger that is contaminated with pride is vengeful, and against, usually, certain other people. Anger that is contaminated with pride is focused on self. And action that comes from it breaks and poisons relationships. (Think of the sharp word, meant to hurt, that is so small yet poisons so many relationships. James understands this well.) Therefore it cannot work what God intended.

On the other hand, some anger is founded on right relationships, and is purely anger at the way relationships have been poisoned or broken (such as Jesus' anger at the way religious commerce made it impossible for Gentiles to approach God). This kind of anger can indeed "work the righteousness of God". Because it attacks the poison of the relationships, not the relationships themselves.

This happens at all levels. Let us look at a number of examples.

Examples

Example of individual anger:

Example of national anger: BP and its operatives made an oil spill in the USA. Americans got angry. It was fashionable to get angry. Many people put in claims. But some of them were spurious claims, 'vexatious' claims. The latter were unjust (i.e. unrighteous).

Example of media-stirred anger: anti-Climate-responsibility anger in the USA.

But Does Not Anger Have a Place?

Does not anger have a place? For example, recalcitrant people only listen when people get angry, being irresponsive to pleas. For example, does not some anger motivate the righting of wrongs? Yes indeed. But if these are at all contaminated with "the anger of man", their righting of wrongs will be undermined, jeopardised, even reversed.

Our Responsibility

So we have a responsibility: to avoid "anger of man". At the individual level, to recognise when 'my' anger is of this kind, and then refuse to listen to it. When media stirs up anger, which becomes the fashion, to actively speak and reason against it, even if we are pilloried for it. (Did not Jesus tell us that we can expect persecution?)


This page, "http://www.abxn.org/anger.html", is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden at all dates below. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

Part of his www.abxn.org pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 18 Decembee 1998. Last updated: 13 December 2015 was about to write a page on this, and rediscovered this page from 17 years ago! I have retained the original. My thoughts on this have developed over the last 17 years, and so I'm adding to this. 25 January 2016 better intro; levels; examples; responsibility. 21 August 2016 example: parent shouts at children. 26 April 2017 introduction, new .end, link to mans.anger.html. 8 August 2017 out of propn, and righteousness placed before anger.