Proverbs 14:29 ESV
Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.
We like to reduce theology and morality to the simplest possible set of commands. “Don’t kill,” we say- and then get all tripped up about war, capital punishment, and (most commonly) self-defense. “Don’t drink alcohol,” we say, and then the Lord’s Supper comes and wallops us over the head. “Don’t get angry,” we say, and suddenly we aren’t quite sure how to respond to the evil of the world. Worse, in all these cases, these over-simplified moral dictates require us to condemn God Himself. “Don’t kill,” we say, and God commanded the Israelites to slaughter Canaan (Deut. 7:1), to execute the murderer (and more) (Num. 35:16), to absolve the man who slays a robber of the guilt (sometimes) (Ex. 22:2). “Don’t drink alcohol,” we say, and we rush to explain how Christ turned water to wine at Cana, how He drank and commanded the drinking of it again in the sacrament. “Don’t get angry,” we say, and we run into just such issues, run into the anger of Christ in the temple (John 2:13-17).
As it turns out, some parts of morality do better with a simple “Don’t do that” statement than others. “Do not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14) is fairly clear and without any exception, as is “Do not lie with man as with woman” (Lev. 18:22) and “Do not worship any save the Lord our God” (Ex. 20:2-6). The problem comes when we try to over-simplify a command. “Do not kill,” sounds good, until you realize that the Bible says, “Do not murder,” and the two commands are different, the two verbs are different (Ex. 20:13). So too exaggerating the scope of a command, taking it beyond its intent in imagined purity, as the Pharisees did in Christ’s time (Matt. 12:1-8) and as the generalized command, “Don’t drink alcohol,” does, will get us into troubled water. The Bible condemned drunkenness, after all, and not alcohol (Prov. 23:21); thus, while some may by reason of personal or family history be wise to avoid alcohol, to avoid its temptation for themselves or others (1 Cor. 8:13), the substance is not universally countermanded, is meant still for the good of the Christian, for joy and rejoicing in His bounty.
Anger is one such difficulty. We like to simplify the Bible’s teaching on anger to “Don’t.” It’s nice and simple, with the advantage of being easy to remember (though not to apply). Even better, it works a lot of the time. Most of the time, this standard coincides with the true one; most of the issues it identifies are actually issues. The problem is that inevitably it runs into a place where it is insufficient. It’s only a partial truth, after all, a command taken out of context and truncated.
Numbers 32 presents a difficult problem for the standard, shallow conception of God’s relationship with anger. Both verses 10 and 13, as translated in the ESV, include this clause: “… the Lord’s anger was kindled.” How, we might ask, can we reconcile the Lord Himself being angry with the apparent command of the Bible, in verses such as Ephesians 4:26 and Proverbs 14:29, to turn away from anger? The answer, as we will see, lies in careful consideration of what those verses actually command. Anger can be a result and part of righteousness; anger can also be a work of sin. How do we live, so as to stand in the first and not the second?
Proverbs 14:29, carefully read, does not tell us not to get angry. It tells us not to get angry quickly, not to get angry for the wrong reasons. We must be “slow to anger”, which implies we may sometimes reach it; we must not be “hasty”, which implies that our error lies either in speed with precludes consideration. The implied necessity of consideration-before-anger implies two further outcomes. We may consider, decide the anger unwarranted, and reach a responsibility to turn our backs upon it. We may also, having given the matter the time and care due to it, come to the conclusion that the proposed object of our anger really deserves that anger. Let’s go over these three cases- undue haste, considered refusal, and considered anger- in order.
That man’s anger is ill and destructive to himself and all it touches is clear in Scripture. The number of verses which testify to this is only outmatched by the number that testify to the rectitude and existence of God’s wrath. Man’s anger sins because it is anger out of consonance with God. When we are angered because our pride, our desires, our ideas are harmed, that anger is not right. It tempts us to act upon it. To act upon this anger, though, would be haste and folly, as today’s verse warns us. To act upon unrighteous anger invariably leads to harm. The anger will harm us, being a sin and therefore a harm to our souls, not to mention the inevitable ill results it will eventually lead to on a purely pragmatic scale or the strength each indulgence lends to the next. The anger will harm those around us through the damage it does to our relationships, the actions and words we take based upon our anger, and the bad example it gives to those whom we lead- child, sibling-, the bad witness it presents to the world. Worst of all, this sinful anger separates us from God (Is. 59:2); for the child of God, this is a separation temporary, not a loss of salvation, but painful nonetheless, for who desires to be separate from the Person he loves most (or ought to)?
The second path we can take with anger is to consider it, to discern that the anger is not justified (we’ll get to what anger is justified in a moment), and reject it. This course is a course of wisdom, and therefore it’s really, really hard at times. Making a habit of it will help, but we are sinful men and women. We will sin with anger. Some of us, by God’s grace, are more gifted here than others, but all face the trial. In God, nevertheless, we may find victory, both in each instance and in life eternal.
The final path is that of allowing and maintaining the anger. This is a dangerous course. Us humans like to justify our own desires by hook or by crook, and allowing ourselves to justify anger may easily grant us an excuse to justify unjust anger. What anger, then, is righteous for us to have? The example of David provides our first example for this brief overview. In Psalm 69:22-28, David lays a series of curses upon his foes. The important elements to consider here are twofold. First, David does not do so in search of personal vengeance. He does not say, “Because I want to see them hurt.” Second, David’s foes are explicitly men of evil, men whose enmity is unwarranted, who hate righteousness. In other words, David seeks the curse of his foes not merely because they are his foes but because it is justice that they be cursed. The second example is that of God Himself. God speaks of His wrath many (Deut. 1:34, 11:17; Ps. 7:6; Nah. 1:6). His wrath is towards sin. Our wrath, in imitation of this and of David, should therefore be wrath towards sin. In this, we must turn from any hint of hating His image in man. We must turn from hating because we are harmed, because of personal injury suffered. We must turn from sin, that we might not act as God hates.
The world is hardly a simple place, and our understanding of it should conform to its complexity. This necessity should never lead us into some illusion of ‘all shades of gray anyway’, though. Good is good; evil is evil; never the twain shall meet, save in conflict bloody and fraught. That which pleases God should be our aim; that which dishonors Him should be our abhorrence, the object of our anger. We must hate sin, must hate it first in ourselves and second in the world around us, the first to repent of that which separates us from Him, the second in order to proclaim the truth in warfare against sin. Ultimately, though, God has already won the victory. The earth is Christ’s and the fullness thereof (Col. 1:15-20; 1 Cor. 10:26). In the words of an old hymn, He is our “Victory won” (Be Thou My Vision, vs. 5).
Written by Colson Potter
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.