the shape of leadership

Anger in Ministry

Righteous indignation versus human ire

Chris Colvin on June 30, 2020

Emotions are a part of human existence. They are not something to overcome, but they are also not something to be overcome by.

As ministers, we have a responsibility to remain emotionally healthy. That doesn’t mean shutting our emotions off, though. If God shows emotions in His Word, we should also show emotions in preaching His Word.

But some emotions are difficult to navigate, especially anger. We have all seen what anger can do when left unchecked. Hurt feelings, broken relationships, and even violence can result.

Does that mean we must always avoid this slippery emotion? Not necessarily. After all, Jesus’ ministry included moments of righteous indignation. When He turned over tables in the temple or called out Pharisees and Sadducees for their hypocrisy, His words and actions revealed God’s displeasure toward sin.

Jesus’ followers similarly demonstrated indignation at times, as when Paul opposed Peter to his face in Galatians 2.

Anger is not a fruit of the Spirit, but self-control is. That means those led by the Spirit will be in control of their emotions, especially their anger.

On the other hand, anger itself is not sin. Paul makes that clear in Ephesians 4:26, but he also suggests anger could lead to sin. So what does this mean for ministers?

Human Anger

God shows His anger throughout Scripture. In Exodus 32, God exhibits anger against the people of Israel who have created a golden calf to worship in place of Him. Throughout the Psalms, we read about His anger toward disobedience. And Proverbs even speaks of the sins God hates.

Of course, the Bible never suggests all anger is godly. On the contrary, James tells us there is such a thing as “human anger” that does not produce the righteousness God desires (James 1:20).

As ministers, we have a responsibility to point to Jesus not only in what we say, but also in how we live. That includes how we express our emotions — perhaps most importantly, our anger.

How do we know whether our anger is godly or human in nature? In the heat of an argument, it can be difficult to be discerning. One way is by following the instruction James gives in verse 19. He cautions us to be quick to listen and slow to speak. In other words, we should listen and reflect before responding in anger.

As ministers, we have a responsibility to point to Jesus not only in what we say, but also in how we live.

James also says to be slow to become angry. Keeping anger in check is beneficial not only from the pulpit, but also around the meeting table.

When you interact with staff or church members, exercising emotional self-control means you’re less likely to jump to conclusions or blame others. Instead, you can display godly grace at all times.

The What and Why of Anger

Another helpful tool in deciding whether anger is godly is to think in terms of the what and why. What is the object and objective of your anger?

First, ask yourself what you are really mad about. This is the object of your anger. We may defensively say we are not angry at a person, but instead at a situation or circumstance. That may be true sometimes, but relational problems are at the root more often than we’d like to admit.

Paul is clear that we do not engage in battle with people but with “powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). In other words, the object of our anger should be the systems that cause injustice, the evils that tempt us, the forces that seek to destroy us, and the strategies that seem to undermine us.

Being angry at the way the world is should be a natural response for Christians. We see firsthand the results of the curse of sin. Of course we should be angry about that. But too often, we lash out at individuals who are subject to the effects of sin. They are just as powerless to overcome sin as we were before coming to Christ.

That brings me to the why of anger. What is your objective? Jesus may have seemed angry with individuals, but His objective was always to win them over, never to count them out.

When Jesus pronounced woes upon religious leaders of His day, the Lord was doing so because He knew they had the potential to lead people into righteousness. Jesus wanted them to correct their bad behavior, not be overcome by it. He was willing to hold off on judgment and give them a chance to repent.

Anger that is condemning is not godly. We would do well to remember that before an angry outburst. In the heat of a sermon, it’s easy to get caught up in indignation. We may even use it as fuel and charisma. But if not careful, we are soon directing wrath against those we are called to lead to repentance.

There is a place for emotion in ministry, but we should be careful about displays of anger. When anger does not produce the righteousness God desires, we need to surrender it to Him. When we are led by the Spirit, He will not misdirect us.

Be quick to listen to God and slow to show anger at all times, including from the pulpit.

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