The title of my post, “Dear Michael Pearl, this is what righteous anger looks like” seemed self-evident. This is because, as it so happened, the previous morning someone else had written to ask me a question that in God’s providence prepared me for Friday morning.
She asked for my thoughts on a short lesson about anger from the Thomas Nelson Women’s Study Bible (WSB), edited by Dorothy Kelley Patterson and Rhonda Kelley. (There appear to be dozens of editions of this Bible available, but I’m linking to one of the most recent ones.)
Here is the lesson, found at Ecclesiastes 7:9. (in this edition it’s on page 982.) Anger can most often be defined as an emotional response to a perceived wrong or injustice. Hence, anger is normally expressed when a woman misinterprets circumstances, makes a mistake in judgment, or reacts quickly because she feels threatened or hurt. This anger is unjustified and sinful. This anger, in effect, denies the power of God to care for your needs and hurts and can even completely take over your life. There are many warnings about the danger of anger in Scripture (Eccl. 7:9, Matt. 5:22; Eph 4:26, 31). Most often, you should leave your anger or wrath at the feet of Jesus and allow Him to act in your behalf.
Anger can most often be defined as an emotional response to a perceived wrong or injustice. Hence, anger is normally expressed when a woman misinterprets circumstances, makes a mistake in judgment, or reacts quickly because she feels threatened or hurt. This anger is unjustified and sinful. This anger, in effect, denies the power of God to care for your needs and hurts and can even completely take over your life. There are many warnings about the danger of anger in Scripture (Eccl. 7:9, Matt. 5:22; Eph 4:26, 31). Most often, you should leave your anger or wrath at the feet of Jesus and allow Him to act in your behalf.
God’s anger is always perfectly controlled and expressed (Ps 30:5; 78:38). There are examples of righteous anger given in Scripture, such as Moses’ anger toward the children of Israel for not trusting in God and following Him (Ex. 32:19). Righteous anger can be described as one that results when God’s laws and His will are knowingly disobeyed. The concern must be for righteousness and reconciliation, never for personal vengeance coming out of our own hurts. We must be careful to take our anger to the Lord for Him to analyze and manage.
Do you act or react? The answer to this simple question will most likely reveal any weaknesses you have in expressing the emotion of anger. A person who acts knows who she is, what she believes, and how she should behave (Col. 3:23, 24). She not only knows this information, but she chooses to act upon it. Another person’s actions do not dictate her reactions, but rather the wisdom of the Lord is her mainstay (Col 3:16, 17).
The first thing I did was look up every Scripture the writer referenced and read and study them in context—an important thing to do when analyzing someone else’s Bible teachings. I’ll address those below.
But first, you may have noticed a few words that cause concern.
Anger can most often be defined as an emotional response to a perceived wrong or injustice.
From the very first sentence that word perceived invalidates the woman’s sense of wrong or injustice having taken place. It calls her perceptions into question. This is the very thing abusers do.
“You totally don’t get my sense of humor, babe. I said you weren’t a piece of meat. Don’t you get it?”
“You overreact to everything. When I talk about killing the kids, you don’t think I’m really going to kill them, do you?”
“Well, you think what I did was wrong, but I’m telling you, I wouldn’t be doing it if you weren’t such a piece of work. You need to get your s**t together and then everything will be ok.”
So, the abuser indicates, the wrong against her dignity, personhood, and safety, and that of her children, is only a perceived wrong. And then she comes to the WSB and reads the same thing.
Hence, anger is normally expressed when a woman
makes a mistake in judgment,
or reacts quickly because she feels threatened or hurt.
This anger is unjustified and sinful.
The author has set up a straw man, which, of course, is very easy to knock down. The author assumes that in the majority of cases a woman has no good reason to be angry, and she’s mixed up about what she’s perceiving. Then this anger is named as sinful.
However, a woman is not sinning if she has simply made a mistake. She’s not sinning if she reacts to feeling threatened. She’s sinning only if she responds to a wrong in a way that is disproportionate to that wrong, or if she lashes out at someone who has done no wrong. And again, with the confusion and tangling of mind that is inherent in abusive family situations, living with someone who has promised to cherish her, what is “right” and what is “wrong” can be very hard for her to recognize.
I understand that the WSB wasn’t written for abused women, but for the larger female population. BUT, this book has been in print for over twenty years. I looked at the first edition and the most recent edition, and several editions in between. This lesson on anger says the same thing every time. Has there come into the minds of Mrs. Patterson and Mrs. Kelley (both associated with Southwestern Theological Seminary, one of the Southern Baptist seminaries) no awareness at all of how this lesson impacts the 25% or more of Christian women who are (or have been or will be) in abusive marriages? What about how it affects the rest of the female Christian population who will be advising them?
The author says,
“There are examples of righteous anger given in Scripture, such as Moses’ anger toward the children of Israel for not trusting in God and following Him (Ex. 32:19).”
I’d like to give a few more examples of righteous anger. David was righteously angry at the Israelites when they cowered in fear before Goliath, and he was righteously angry at Goliath for defying the living God. Abigail was righteously angry at her husband when he refused to recompense David for protecting his men. Nathan was righteously angry at David when he took another man’s wife. Esther was righteously angry at Haman when he wanted to have all her people killed. God the Father was righteously angry at the wicked “shepherds” of Israel who were devouring the “sheep” (His people) in Ezekiel 34. Jesus was righteously angry at the Pharisees when they violated the heart of God’s law and devoured widows’ houses. Paul was righteously angry at Peter when he refused to eat with the Gentiles. The apostle James was righteously angry against the rich who were exploiting the poor. (I could go on to name several cases of righteous anger throughout history that motivated people to set things right for those who were being mistreated.)
Even though the word “anger” isn’t used in those Biblical accounts, it’s clear to me those people were righteously angry. That’s because righteous anger, an emotion given by God, energizes a person who sees a genuine violation of what is truly right, to empower him or her with appropriate words and actions to set it right. This is why an understanding of rights—human, civil, and spiritual (such as the right of Christians to go to God in prayer)—is so crucial.
The author of the article says:
“Righteous anger can be described as one that results when God’s laws and His will are knowingly disobeyed.”
Though this statement looks good and true on the face of it, there are two problems with it:
- An abuser can use it against his victim. “The way you’re going to know God’s will is by listening to me. That means if you disobey me, you’re disobeying God. That means I’m completely justified in my righteous anger at your wicked disobedience.”
- It sounds as if we can be righteously angry when the nature and character of God are directly affronted, such as the one example given about the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, but not when the nature and characer of God are indirectly affronted through a violation of rights, because this is only “perceived” or because it “denies the power of God to care for your needs and hurts.” But in the majority of examples of righteous anger I listed above, the energy to right a wrong was given in the case of a wrong perpetrated against people with the desire to protect the rights of others.
Jesus gave two great commandments, not one. Love God, and love others. An affront against the legitimate rights of people (human, civil, and spiritual) is ultimately an affront against God Himself.
The concern must be for righteousness and reconciliation, never for personal vengeance coming out of our own hurts.
Yes, certainly the concern must be for righteousness, or rightness. But the use of the word reconciliation is confusing. We can pray for the rights-violators to be reconciled to God. But the first concern of someone protecting her own rights or those of another shouldn’t be for reconciling with the abuser. Reconciliation comes only with repentance and fruits of repentance.
When the author says the concern should never be for “personal vengeance coming out of our own hurts,” she runs the danger of implying that if a woman is “hurt” she had better not do anything, because that would be personal vengeance.
The “hurts” women have suffered in abuse have killed them or nearly killed them. But a statement like this will confuse a woman in an abusive relationship.
Do you act or react? The answer to this simple question will most likely reveal any weaknesses you have in expressing the emotion of anger.
Hmmm . . . In the example of Moses this author gave, was he “reacting” to what the Israelites had done? Yes. He was “acting (angrily) in response to the actions of another.”
In the examples of David, Abigail, Nathan, Esther, God the Father, Jesus, Paul, and James I gave above, were they “reacting”? Yes. “Reaction” is part of the very definition of anger.
It’s impossible to be righteously angry except in reaction to something.
When you tell a woman she must not react, but can only “act,” and then back it up with Scriptures such as Colossians 3:23-24 and Colossians 3:16-17, she can very easily be left with the impression that in her situation there is no case in which it would be right to be angry.
The introduction to the WSB says in their work they were committed to: “A distinctive exegesis [that] pulls out the meaning of the text instead of reading into the text personal whims.” But I believe they did not pull out the meaning of this text, but came to it with preconceived notions. Here is Ecclesiastes 7:9, the Scripture that was the springboard for the study of anger quoted above.
Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.
This text means “Fools are the ones in whom anger is simmering at all times, ready to quickly burst out. Don’t let that be the case with you.” This verse describes the anger of abusers, not victims. It makes me sad that abuse victims (a legitimate term, unlike what Michael Pearl implied, meaning those who are currently suffering abuse) will read this short study, thinking that they have no right to be angry about wrongs perpetrated against their own human rights by someone who has committed to cherishing them.
The following Scriptures regarding defending the rights of others (which can legitimately be energized by righteous anger) are compiled in chapter 6 of Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind. This chapter concerns the concept of “Taking Up Offenses,” promoted by Bill Gothard, and gives many examples of people throughout history who have done so, for the betterment of this world.
Proverbs 31:9 Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Proverbs 29:7 A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.
Psalm 82:2-4 How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
Leviticus 19:15 You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.
Isaiah 58:6-7 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Isaiah 1:17 Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Jeremiah 5:26-28 For wicked men are found among my people; they lurk like fowlers lying in wait. They set a trap; they catch men. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich; they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
Jeremiah 22:3 Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed.
Here are the other Scriptures about anger that the author cites in her study above
Ephesians 4:26 “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
This Scripture supports the concept of righteous anger, but sets limits to it. Righteous anger should be controlled and short-lived.
Matthew 5:22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
The respected commentator Adam Clarke says of this Scripture, “What our Lord seems here to prohibit is . . . that anger which leads a man to commit outrages against another, thereby subjecting himself to that punishment which was to be inflicted on those who break the peace.”
And Matthew Henry, commenting on the Greek meaning of the word, says, “Christ tells them that rash anger is heart-murder. . . . Then he adds, “Anger is a natural passion; there are cases in which it is lawful and laudable; but it is then sinful, when we are angry without cause.” He then goes on to give several helpful examples of what “without cause” would mean, which would then be sinful anger:
(1) . . . When we are angry at children or servants for that which could not be helped, which was only a piece of forgetfulness or mistake, that we ourselves might easily have been guilty of, and for which we should not have been angry at ourselves; when we are angry upon groundless surmises, or for trivial affronts not worth speaking of.
(2) When it is without any good end aimed at, merely to show our authority, to gratify a brutish passion, to let people know our resentments, and excite ourselves to revenge, then it is in vain, it is to do hurt; . . .
(3) When it exceeds due bounds; when we are hardy and headstrong in our anger, violent and vehement, outrageous and mischievous, and when we seek the hurt of those we are displeased at.”
Matthew Henry has given a valid description of abusive, unrighteous anger.
Ephesians 4:30-31 “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.”
This explanation below is an excerpt from Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind in the chapter about “Destructive Bitterness.”
The context here is about words. We want our words to build up, not tear down. We want to minister grace through our words.
Those words wrath and anger are both from Greek words for violent passion (the first one implies hard breathing). Clamor is yelling. Evil speaking is vilifying, slandering, railing, reviling (expressing scorn and contempt through insulting language). Malice is wickedness.
So the contrast is between grace-filled words that build people up, and poisonous, evil words that tear people down.
If you think about this context in light of the other Scriptures about bitter words, you can see that this one is reminiscent of Psalm 64—it’s easy to imagine the bitter words being aimed like poison-tipped arrows.
Also, if you look at it in the light of Romans 3:14 (and Psalm 10), you can see that Ephesians 4:31 is actually describing abusive behavior, not the words that express the pain of having been injured by abusive behavior.
Let’s suppose someone who has been oppressed and abused comes to you for help. I know you would listen to her, love her, and try to help in any way you can, but imagine with me for a minute that you don’t.
Imagine that instead of building her up and speaking with grace, your heart isn’t tender toward her, you accuse her of holding anger, you tell her to get over it, you even become angry and impatient with her.
This kind of communication doesn’t minister grace to the hearer. It doesn’t edify the hearer. It isn’t kind or tenderhearted. In some cases it can even be considered corrupting talk. In a twist of irony, the one who accuses a person of sinful bitterness can in reality be the one who is exhibiting sinful bitterness.
This is a more complete version of the study I did last Thursday morning, the day before I wrote the post on Friday regarding Michael Pearl’s counsel. As in any case of righteous anger, my anger was motivated by love, love for those who are being abused and love for the God who cares for them and was being misrepresented.
Also, in accord with the examples of righteous anger I gave above, my anger was controlled. No one else became the target of my anger, and I didn’t harbor it. Although I’m sure I haven’t executed my righteous anger flawlessly, and am truly sorry if there was any sin involved, I did make a point, before speaking, while speaking, and after speaking, to go to God with my anger, as I’ve done many times through the past few years.
I went to Him in confidence that He is the Just Judge, the One who will one day fully and completely set all things right. Until that day, He calls on His people to be His hands and feet in this world, to judge justly, and to plead the cause of the oppressed.