Forgiveness and the Place of Anger
There is one certainty about human relationships, they can be painful. Forgiveness, absorbing the pain in hurtful relationships, is necessary for those relationships to function as God designed. We forgive, it’s costly, as we have been forgiven in Christ, it was more costly.
Anger is a necessary and costly emotion we experience when we are hurt by another. Trying to avoid anger in the midst of pain is like trying to smile when your child pokes you in the eye playing the fool. Experiencing some degree of anger is normally associated with forgiving someone for wrongdoing.
But not unrighteous anger. The Bible says, “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20); And, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26). Unrighteous anger is expressed when we are controlled by anger. It seeps out of our lives when our hearts are cold, hard, filled with animosity and bitterness. It oozes out in silence, physical separation, avoidance and numbness. Other times it comes gushing out in bitter language, wrath, clamour, slander, gossip and even murder. Unrighteous anger and forgiveness don’t go together.
Unrighteous anger is not interested in paying someone else’s debt. It makes others pay. It says, “I know God says vengeance is His, but I’ll take it from here.” When we make others pay for a wrong done to us we are getting back at them. It is our way to feel powerful and in control, to seek an advantage for ourselves, and to seek peace and joy when we feel others have robbed us of it. Unrighteous anger toward wrongs done to us only adds sin to sin.
Unrighteous anger is a self loving response to a wrong done to us. But righteous anger is a necessary human emotion that reflects God’s image in us. Christians are told, “Be angry and do not sin;”. (Ephesians 4:26)
It is deceptive to ourselves and others to act like evil or wrongs are insignificant and do not matter. Lying, drunkenness, addictions, infidelity, immorality, pornography, abuse, tongue lashings in front or behind, hatred toward others, racism, ethnocentricity, and all kinds of other wrongdoing matter. When we are angry about the things God is angry about our anger is justified, and we are experiencing pain and hurt correctly as the image bearers of God. When we deny that we are hurt by the wrongdoing of others we are not being human as God made us to be.
If we are to be angry and not sin, if we are not to be controlled by anger, then when a wrong is done to us we need to learn how to trust God with our anger and forgive.
Righteous anger is a process of turning to God in our hurt. Bitter people don’t turn to God honestly. People who see their bitterness and their other sins nailing Jesus Christ to the cross will humbly turn to God when hurt by the sins, evil, and wrongdoing of others. There is a process of turning to God acknowledging his rule even over your pain. The process continues as we learn more about God through the pain. There is the honest reflection on what I need to learn about myself, especially regarding the anger I feel. When we ask ourselves, “Why did I respond that way?”, we begin to understand our own hearts. This knowing of God and ourselves will lead us down the road of paying another person’s debt when we’ve been wronged entrusting God to do justly, even when another does not.
We can learn to experience righteous anger in the presence of God and ourselves by looking to the cross and the throne of God. At the cross we see Jesus entrusting himself to God the Father. There was no unrighteous anger in him as he bore our sins, paying our debt. Therefore he has left us an example to follow so that we will entrust ourselves, our relationships and circumstances to God when we are hurt. The cross tells us God judges justly and shows mercy (1Peter 2:21-23).
We can also look to his throne where Jesus reigns to help us by his mercy and grace in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16). He knows what it is like to be sinned against and can sympathize with our weaknesses. He also knows what it like to forgive others. He knows what it is like to confront the wrongs of others that are destroying theirs and others lives. He can give us help by his grace and mercy for all these difficult areas when we are forgiving others. He can help us know when to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11), and when to go to another who has sinned against God and us (Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1; Hebrews 3:12-13)
But his throne is also a future place where we see no more pain and hurt (Revelation 21:3-4). It is a place to look to in faith and hope as we experience the pain of suffering others wrongs in this life. It is a future communion with God and his people absent of the hurt we and others cause. In this promise we love by forgiving others and being willing to overlook or confront if necessary.
We must learn to confront evil and wrongdoing in ourselves as well as others when we are getting and giving forgiveness. My wife can tell me she forgives me while she expresses to me the anger she felt when I used my words to deceive her. She can pay down my debt and absorb the pain of my wrongdoing while she tells me in gentleness, kindness and love that God hates a lying tongue. She can express to me how she sees her own deceptive heart and how God has forgiven her in Christ, and now she can forgive me.
There is a place for a holy indignation. However, if we make someone else's wrongs against ourselves unforgivable, then we have made ourselves gods. But if we will see God, ourselves and others truly, then we will not be afraid to experience righteous anger as we pay someone else’s debt or wrongdoing in forgiveness.