The third question we encounter in the Bible comes from the lips of God: “Why are you angry?” (Genesis 4:6). It was addressed to Cain, and it concerned his response to God’s rejection of his offering. God had rejected it, and Cain should have repented of it. But he didn’t. Instead he got angry.
Anger fills the pages of Scripture. Some form of it (anger, indignation, wrath, rage, fury) is explicitly mentioned in at least 550 verses of the Bible, and that’s not including the places where it seems to be clearly implied (e.g. 1 Samuel 25:13, 33). And though both genders experience anger, it is noteworthy that the Bible never cites a specific woman being angry. God is angry with the wicked every day (Psalm 7:11)—and is therefore the one angered more than any other in the Bible—and thirty-plus men are recorded as being angry, but never once does the Bible explicitly state that a particular woman is angry. God speaks once of a type of woman who is angry (Proverbs 21:19), but this stands as an isolated case. And this accords with our own experience. Men seem to be more inclined towards anger than women.
The New Testament writers use three distinct nouns when discussing “anger” or “wrath.” Noting the differences in these words can be helpful in understanding the proper exercise of anger. The two most common were thumos and orge.
Thumos is the more intense of the two, sometimes referring to rage, and is nearly always rendered “wrath” by the King James translators. It is used of people (Luke 4:28), God (Romans 2:8), even Satan (Revelation 12:12). It is more passionate and sudden than orge, but also more temporary. It is the word behind “outbursts of wrath” in 2 Corinthians 12:20 and Galatians 5:20 (NKJV). It is never used positively concerning people (though God can rightly exercise it, see Romans 2:8), is the word used to describe mob anger (Luke 4:28; Acts 19:28), and is listed among the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:20). Orge, on the other hand, though it also usually appears as “wrath” in the KJV, speaks to a less intense form of anger. It is less sudden, has a more enduring quality, and can occasionally be righteously experienced by us, as it is by Jesus (Mark 3:5), though this must be done with care: “Be angry and do not sin...” (Ephesians 4:26).
The third word rendered “wrath” in the New Testament appears only once. It is used by Paul when he enjoins the Ephesians to “not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26). The word is parorgismos, and speaks to a state of being intensely provoked, irritated, exasperated. Paul, then, was not saying that anger (assuming the cause is righteous) must always be abandoned before the day is over, but rather that we must take care not to nurse anger. If the cause is justifiable, the strong displeasure (the orge) may have occasion to remain for a time, but the intense provocation we felt when initially angered must go, and soon. Anger can be right, but a provoked, angry mood is not.
So what is a righteous cause for anger? When is it right to have orge? Jesus, of course, is our example. Though His two cleansings of the temple are often cited as occasions on which He was angry, the Bible never says so. Instead, it says the driving force behind His first cleansing was “zeal” (John 2:17), and concerning the second makes no comment. Jesus may have been angry, it is true, but we cannot say so with certainty. The only occasion on which we can be certain that Jesus got angry is recorded in Mark 3:1-5. On that occasion, Jesus was angered by the attitudes and actions of hard-hearted men who cared nothing for the truth, but who instead were looking only for something of which to falsely accuse Him. When asked a simple but important question, they refused to answer, not because they didn’t know the answer, but because giving it would have justified Jesus. And they didn’t want Jesus to be justified. This kind of willful sin made Jesus angry…as well as sad: “And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts…” (Mark 3:5).
It is right to be angry at sin. Not all the time, nor even frequently, necessarily, but the time does come. Probably, our first response to sin should be grief. This is the Spirit’s response (Ephesians 4:30), and note how grief and anger are mentioned together in Scripture: Genesis 34:7, Genesis 45:5, and Mark 3:5. But situations can arise when anger is the proper response. When Saul was informed of the monstrous evil that Nahash, the king of Ammon, was planning to perpetrate, out of pure spite, against the innocents of Jabesh Gilead, the Scripture says: “[t]hen the Spirit of God came upon Saul when he heard this news, and his anger was greatly aroused” (1 Samuel 11:6). Anger was rightly aroused in Saul, even accompanied by the Spirit’s presence. Saul would either have had to be spineless, or wholly without moral conviction not to have been angry. Furthermore, anger, the strongest of our emotions, served to prompt him to take the necessary steps to right the wrong (1 Samuel 11:7). Anger is empowering, and once in a great while that power can serve a good purpose.
But here’s the catch. Though anger can be right at times, and its empowering qualities a help, neither generally turns out to be the case; hence, James’ injunction to be “slow to wrath (orge), for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19, 20). Some of us engage in internalization, some of us ventilation. Some of us clam up, some of us blow up. Some of us are pressure-cookers, others of us volcanoes. Some of us hurt ourselves, others of us hurt others. And therein lays one of the evils of anger. Anger is intended for destroying problems, but too often it becomes the tool for destroying people. And this is so wrong. “Let all things be done for edification (building up)” (1 Corinthians 14:26), not tearing down. And so Paul says to put it off (Colossians 3:8) and put it away (Ephesians 4:31), rare exceptions being understood (Ephesians 4:26).