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I am grieved by most Christian bumper stickers, T-shirts, and billboards. While I certainly encounter some from time to time that are not too bad, most of them are atrocious. One of the reasons I don’t like them is the way they often misrepresent biblical truth with pithy statements. Though I’m sure the people behind such things are often motivated by evangelism and discipleship, nevertheless, in providing people with simplistic claims and partial truths, these statements often result in people’s being misled about the clear and more thorough teaching of Scripture. I wish that instead of trying to come up with trendy catchphrases and simplistic doctrinal sayings, the creators of such things would simply quote Scripture.
While there is certainly a place for concise summary statements pertaining to our Christian faith and life, such as we often observe in sermons, in catechisms, in children’s Bible studies, and occasionally on social media, we must always verify the biblical fidelity of such statements and strive not to make things seem mutually exclusive when they are not. We can make things simple without being simplistic. An example of a misleading doctrinal statement is one that I see regularly on a prominent sign in Central Florida. It reads, “God is not angry.” Every time I see that sign, I immediately think, “I know one thing God is angry at—that sign.” Although I certainly believe that the sign is attempting to communicate the glorious truth that God is love and that God so loved the world, the problem is that the message as stated fundamentally misrepresents the character of God and misleads people into thinking that God is never angry about anything. While God Himself tells us that He is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Num. 14:18), He also tells us that He “is a righteous judge, . . . who feels indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11–13) and that His “wrath . . . is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18).
The Old and New Testaments are replete with references to the anger, indignation, and wrath of God. Yet some professing Christians want to pit the God of the Old Testament against the God of the New Testament, as if there were two different gods or as if God had a character change during the intertestamental period. They suggest that in the Old Testament, God displayed His anger, but in the New Testament and thereafter, through Christ, God displays only His love. This notion stems not only from a wrong reading of the New Testament but also from the misconception that love and anger are opposed when, in fact, they are close companions.
People who think they want a god of love but not a god of anger ultimately want a god of apathy. What many people fail to understand is that God displays His anger precisely because God is love. Indeed, God cannot not be angry at anything that is against all that is good. He cannot not be angry at that which is against His holy, righteous, and altogether lovely character. For God not to be angry at murder, abortion, human trafficking, kidnapping, slavery, racism, domestic violence, sexual immorality, unbiblical divorce, and every other sin would make God unloving, unmerciful, and uncaring. If God did not possess righteous anger against sinners, Jesus Christ would not have had to die in the place of sinners. If God did not possess anger, there would be no propitiation, no satisfying the wrath of God in the substitutionary atonement of Christ for the elect of God.
God’s anger is always just and is always righteously displayed. God does not possess or display His anger in the same way that we do because God is omniscient, sovereign, and omnipotent, and we most certainly are not. God is God, and we are not Him. Nothing surprises God, and nothing has ever occurred to Him as an unexpected thought or as a piece of new information. He not only knows all things and knows them before they happen, but He has foreordained all things that come to pass, though He is neither the author nor the approver of evil. Moreover, God’s anger is not like our anger because our God is “without parts or passions” (Westminster Confession of Faith 2.1), and that means that God, as He is in Himself, does not suffer or change and is not a passive being who is acted on by others. He displays His perfections and affections as He chooses, but He is not subject to mood swings, uncontrolled outbursts of anger, or reckless and impulsive wrath.
Our anger, however, is always reactive, based on what we observe, experience, and feel. Because we are sinful, our anger is not always righteously displayed. We are not always slow to anger as God commands us to be in imitation of Him (James 1:19). Too often we sin in our anger, which is why Scripture so often warns us against anger and wrath (James 1:20; see Gen. 4:6; Eccl. 7:9), because it can be difficult for most of us to be angry without sinning in our anger. Nevertheless, that is precisely what God demands of us: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph. 4:26–27; see Ps. 4:4). Therefore, there is a time and a place for anger.
Yet the entire concept of anger has fallen on hard times in recent years. Like discipline, speaking boldly, and expressing proper criticism, anger is seen by many in our culture as something that is inherently bad. But it’s amazing how rapidly that sentiment changes when people experience horrific injustice or evil. From what I have observed, it is not just the world that holds this perspective about anger but many professing Christians as well. Many have come to embrace the idea that because they believe that God is not angry, we should not be angry. They argue that to show anger is hateful and unloving and that to be angry at sinners is not how we show love to the world.
This thinking is the result of professing Christians’ embracing the spirit of the age—namely, that being angry is hateful and that it is hate speech to stand firm with conviction and to disagre with the practice of that which God has declared to be wrong. On the contrary, it is love speech. And as we strive to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we are called to “[speak] the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). While the context of Paul’s command is focused on how we as the church are called to speak to one another for our mutual edification and maturity in Christ, we also understand from other passages of Scripture (e.g., Ex. 23:5; Prov. 25:21–23; Matt. 5:38–42; Luke 6:27–30; Rom. 12:17–21) that this same principle applies to how we engage with the world. I have often considered how in my father’s generation, speaking the truth in love meant that we should be motivated by love as we speak the truth in a loving way, but in our generation, people take it to mean that we should not speak the truth at all if we really want to show love. In our generation, to speak the truth with conviction, clarity, and boldness is considered arrogant, belligerent, angry, and unloving. Nevertheless, we speak the truth out of love. We get angry because we love, because we hate when people hurt us and our loved ones and when unrighteousness and injustice abound in the church and in the world. Still, because we strive to imitate our Lord, when we must speak the truth in love, we must always strive to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19).
As Christians, we should be the most loving and gracious people the world knows. We should be the most righteous and repentant people the world knows. We should be the most principled and steadfast people the world knows. And precisely because we are loving, gracious, righteous, repentant, principled, and steadfast, we should be known by the world as those humble followers of Jesus Christ who get appropriately and necessarily angry at unrighteousness and injustice wherever it exists, whether in the world, in our churches, in our homes, or in our own sinful hearts.
As Christians, we stand on the unchanging Word of God amid a rapidly changing culture, and we must disagree without being unnecessarily disagreeable people. We must boldly speak out without being belligerent. We must stand stubbornly for righteousness and justice without being harsh, rude, or inconsiderate. And we must be slow to anger, but we must necessarily get angry while not sinning in our anger. The only way we can do that is by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
We get angry because we love. We get angry for the love of God and for the glory of God. Our silence in the face of evil would be most hateful. John Stott boldly declared:
There is a great need in the contemporary world for more Christian anger. We human beings compromise with sin in a way in which God never does. In the face of blatant evil we should be indignant not tolerant, angry not apathetic. If God hates sin, His people should hate sin too. If evil arouses His anger, it should arouse ours too. What other reaction can wickedness be expected to provoke in those who love God?
For the love of God, we must necessarily reclaim the right and appropriate place of anger.