Updated: Aug 31, 2022
My dad was a volatile man. No one knew what would set him off or when he would lose it, so we were always constantly on guard and alert when he was around. Growing up, I was taught that his anger was a reflection of God, and that it was God’s Spirit within him responding to the evil in the world. So therefore, his temper and anger was justified, righteous, and good.
As an adult, I’ve had similar experiences with people acting out of supposed “righteous” anger. For example, someone on a work video call started yelling at me. He filled the virtual screen with his body as he rocked in and out toward the camera, in an intimidating manner… all the while shredding my character. He allowed no room for misunderstanding or grace for wrongdoing, (if these even applied at all). After running out of steam and starting to calm, he said that his angry outburst and attack was righteous and that he was proud of himself for having learned to let it out, rather than to keep it in. This man wasn’t the only one on that call, and everyone else sat by and watched.
So what’s the deal? Were my father and this man justified in their anger? Was God glorified by their behavior?
I sat down with Dr. Michael Ballard, who is a Christian licensed professional counselor, a certified anger management specialist, an adjunct professor of Counseling Psychology, and an author. With my personal and professional experience in religious abuse and his professional expertise in anger, we unpacked righteous versus unrighteous anger, in hopes of bringing light to what can be a very dark, confusing, and incredibly harmful topic.
Naomi: What is your response to this use of righteous anger?
Dr. Ballard: I do want to say first that I do think there is an element where anger is not always bad. I think there are times and places where anger is an appropriate and justified emotion. If we look Biblically, Jesus did get angry. So we’d be foolish to say that all anger is always wrong in every way, shape, and form as a categorical statement.
The big difference is righteous anger is about who it’s directed towards, or what it’s about. So when you look at Jesus, He was slighted over and over: people insulted Him, people mocked Him, spat on Him, and obviously crucified Him. However, He didn’t get angry about those things. For Him, it was never, “I’m angry because somebody’s wronging Me.” He was angry for other reasons: Are people getting in the way of people seeking God? Are people making it more difficult? For example, are you standing up and making religious rules that are furthering the divide between God and His people? Are you in the temple, making it more difficult and expensive for people to come to the temple and make their sacrifices? These things are what made Christ angry.
It’s this presence of “Am I mad about myself, or am I mad about something that is deeper for God?” If somebody was angry about injustice in the world, like if somebody is angry about human trafficking, poverty, oppression, or racism… There is a part of me that says yes, that’s appropriate to experience anger because that’s not right.
The basis of anger is that there is a perception that there’s an injustice that’s been done, and so I believe that something wrong has happened. Well, in those situations, something wrong really has happened. So anger is an appropriate response.
If I’m angry because I’m driving down the road and I get a red light or a car goes in front of me, or because my kids are taking too long to get their backpacks ready for school… That’s not a big moral problem in the world; that’s my own personal inconvenience. That is something that is getting in my way of living how I want to live in my own personal kingdom– and that’s the big distinction.
Most of the time when I talk to people about anger, they aren’t angry about worldwide injustices. Very rarely does that happen. People are more than likely angry because they didn’t get what they wanted, or because someone did something that made their life more difficult.
Naomi: Say someone believes their wife is supposed to have their dinner on the table at 5:00, and he believes that based on scripture, that it is the women’s role to submit to his belief that this should be the case. Let’s say dinner wasn’t ready until 5:15 one night, and he’s upset and he claims righteous anger. Even if they believe that righteous anger is indeed an appropriate label in that scenario, what action should come from that righteous anger?
Dr. Ballard: If that was righteous anger (which, obviously it isn’t), you’re still accountable for your action. You look at “in your anger, do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). So can you be angry? Yes. Should you sin with your anger? No. So if somebody does something to make you angry or you become angry because of their action, that doesn’t give you the right to then explode.
For example, if someone slashed my tires in the parking lot, that’s wrong, and I would be correct in being angry about having my tires slashed. If I go burn their house down, I can’t say, “We’ll, they slashed my tires so it’s righteous anger. They did the first thing wrong so I’m allowed to do what I did.” Obviously that is ridiculous. But you take that to the same example of a wife not having dinner ready at the table at 5:00. Say he is angry, so he yells at her and starts throwing dishes. He can’t say that is righteous anger because she is "wrong." He is still responsible for his actions, and there is no way that would be an appropriate response to act out in that way, especially for that “crime.” It doesn’t fit at all.
Naomi: Where I see this being so problematic is people use their “righteous” anger as an excuse and justification for whatever behavior they feel in the moment. What happens in the brain when someone really loses it in their “righteous” anger, including their ability to make choices about how they are going to behave?
Dr. Ballard: The basic way to look at it is we have the prefrontal cortex in our brain which is the area of our brain for logic and reasoning, long-term planning, and decision-making. Most of what we do as adults is to try to use our prefrontal cortex to think through things and say, “If I do this, it will lead to that.” A is going to lead to B, B is going to lead to C, and so forth. So we make our choices and think through them logically in our prefrontal cortex.
We also have another section of our brain, called the midbrain, that’s more based on our primal urges (like hunger and thirst). They can be used and are important at different times of our lives.
There is a connection and pathway between the prefrontal cortex and the midbrain. What often happens is the midbrain gets the signal first–example? “I’m hungry.” Then the prefrontal cortex says, “Okay, what should I eat? Let’s think about this.” And the signal goes back and forth between the two areas of the brain.
When we’re angry, what happens is what’s called transient hypofrontality. There is a pathway between the midbrain and the prefrontal cortex that essentially gets washed out. In other words, during anger, the communication between the two areas of the brain are disconnected. When this happens, the prefrontal cortex is not able to be accessed. Some authors call this our caveman brain, where we’re basically angry and we’re just responding to our primal urges without thinking it through. Without the help of the prefrontal cortex, it’s the midbrain calling the shots without any logical thought process.
In short, being angry short-circuits you. It feels right to you in the moment, even though it’s not.
Once the anger is gone, that’s when that road between the prefrontal cortex and the midbrain reconnects. That's the point when we say, “Oh, why did I do that? That didn't make any sense.”
When someone comes out of a situation where they acted inappropriately while handling their anger, that’s when the acknowledgement and seeking forgiveness comes. However, some people don’t acknowledge they were wrong in their response and call it righteous. That’s a problem.
Naomi: Going back to your example of social injustice, what does our action look like in righteous anger? What are some options to go by based on what we have in the New Testament about Jesus’ model?
Dr. Ballard: You look at what’s productive; what can we do that will move things forward and make them better (instead of worse)? For example, if I find out a teacher at school slapped my child at school, that’s not okay. You can’t justify or be okay with that. If I slash the teacher’s tires as a response, that’s not productive and I haven’t helped anything. That only made the problem worse; which is what anger often does. Anger escalates.
A righteous anger response to the theoretical situation of a teacher slapping my child starts with me calming down. Even though my initial reaction is to lash out, I need to slow down so I don’t react with that initial response. But, you do need to respond. You don’t turn the cheek when there has been an injustice in the world (which is another conversation about when "turning the other cheek" does and does not apply based on scripture as a whole), I think that is wrong. We do need to react to injustices. So what am I going to do with the teacher? I am going to look at Matthew 18 as my example and schedule a meeting with the teacher. If that conversation doesn’t work, we’ll bring in another person like the principal. But it’s important to reiterate that I won’t have that initial conversation with the teacher until I’m calm and have collected my thoughts.
In short, we need to react in a calm way that won’t make anything worse.
Certainly if you’re a follower of Christ, there’s no way you want to go around making people hurt because you hurt. - Dr. Michael Ballard
Naomi: I’ve seen this idea of a bad temper being paralleled to Elijah in the Old Testament. In my own life, my dad claimed he had the Spirit of Elijah, saying his anger was God-ordained. With his anger, he behaved in an abusive manner. I was told that was how the Spirit of God showed up in him, so his behavior was justified. He saw his angry behavior as what needed to happen; it needed to be that way, so there was no attempt at repentance or any form of apology on his part.
Dr. Ballard: Psychologically, it’s a really hard thing to just say, “Well yes, I am angry, but it’s just because I have the Spirit of Elijah and that’s it.” In saying that, it closes the door to accountability or improvement. It’s impossible to move forward if someone has that stance.
Naomi: Similarly, whenever anyone excuses their anger as righteous (despite it contradicting scripture), they claim it is the Holy Spirit leading them to do it.
Dr. Ballard: When people excuse their anger as righteous, they are truly shutting down any form of communication that revolves around accountability, growth—not to mention all of the theological issues that come from that stance. I’ve seen this with pastors of large churches, where they come in and say the Holy Spirit told them what they needed to do. The Church elders respond with hesitancy, but the pastor fights back and steamrolls them because of his/her Holy Spirit claim. That is not the Biblical model of leadership, and it happens far too often.
Naomi: Absolutely. I think it is also important for us to examine a few scriptures taken out of context that people will often use to excuse “righteous” anger.
With the spirit of Elijah issue, it’s not even Biblical. Contextually, we know that Elijah wasn’t an angry man walking around wanting to give everyone a hard time. He was delivering a very difficult message to people who did not want to hear it… This was wearing on him. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah actually asked God to die, saying that it all had been enough for him and he didn’t want to do it anymore.
Another misinterpreted and abused passage of scripture to justify “righteous” anger is found in 2 Kings 2, with Elisha, the bears, and the boys. This name calling from the boys and Elisha’s reaction was not about Elisha being insecure and responding from a place of personal anger. It had everything to do with the disrespect and rejection signs of the nation’s despising of the Lord’s covenant and His prophets. The presence of Bethel’s idolatrous shrine may have motivated the boy’s behavior, and if their mocking went unanswered it could have led to greater conflict with God’s prophets who lived in that area.
A great way to ensure you are getting the correct context of what you’re reading in the Bible is to study the Bible. I personally use a study Bible that has contextual notes I can trust, so I can be confident that I'm not leading myself astray with incorrect context. Additionally, I'm able to recognize a false belief or teaching being used to manipulate or spiritually abuse someone. Biblical context is way more important than harmful leaders want us to realize.
You can listen to Naomi’s entire conversation with Dr. Michael Ballard, (including a discussion on how to control your own personal anger and how to deal with the anger of someone else who has hurt you) here.