(In the language of the time 'man' as a generic noun referred to both male and female.)
Does this mean we should never be angry? But Jesus was, and Paul allowed anger. This statement is not about the human capacity to be angry. So what does this mean? Let us contrast "the anger of man" with God's anger:
|"Anger of man"||God's anger|
|Selfish||Because of love|
|Partial||From seeing the whole|
|Divisive||Recommends itself to all|
|Wants to defeat or crush others||Wants to heal and save|
|Make others defensive, and angry in their turn||Points towards true sorrow and repentance|
This page discusses in some depth what this verse means, by discussing what James would have had in mind by "righteousness", "righteousness of God" and "anger of man". First, by way of introduction, a brief note on translations.
This is written from a perspective that takes the Bible as authoritative. Readers who do not can just ignore such references and might still find interesting insight.
The NIV, along with many other translations, applies this in an individualistic way, such as "If I/you become angry, my/your life will not become righteous, and God likes righteous lives." I believe the individualistic interpretation misleads us, and hides some very important insights from us that James would have had in mind, writing from the Jewish culture.
As we have shown elsewhere, the Greek word dikaiosunen, here translated 'righteousness', does not refer to individual goodness but to "right relationships among all things in the created order". Indeed, in both Hebrew and Greek parts of the Bible, 'righteousness' is synonymous with the word 'justice'.
"Righteousness of God" means "right relationships among all things of the created order." Righteousness is relational, not individualistic - and it refers to relationships not only with other humans but also with all things, including animals, plants and the planet. 'Human anger' is problematic because it destroys relationships that God intended.
If we take this relational understanding of righteousness and anger we find the rest of the Scripture makes more sense. The individualistic interpretation cannot make sense of verses that seem to suggest that some anger might be valid, such as James 1:19, Ephesians 4:26, Mark 3:5, because it does not help us work out whether 'my' anger is 'anger of man' or 'anger of God'.
By contrast, the relational understanding sees God's anger as emanating from his love (see Justice as Love), in that if I harm another part of God's creation, then God is right to be angry at me. Righteousness, which is what God desires for all of us, is "right relationships among all things in the created order." Creator God has designed what those relationships are and can be, and anger at anything that breaks them is right, but anger that destroys relationships is wrong - whether it is relationship with other humans or with animals, plantlife or planet. "The anger of man" does just that.
The "anger of man" springs from an evil heart that is focused on self. It arises when 'I' am insulted, when 'I' am ignored, when 'my' ideas are spurned, when 'my' family is denied something I want them to have. The "anger of God" arises when the other is insulted, ignored or harmed. (But watch out! Those like me who have a cause: is my anger really because of harm to the other or because 'my' ideas are being spurned?)
If you would like to think about this in more detail, read on ...
See also the email-excerpt that perhaps expresses this more directly.
Righteousness is a word whose meaning has become distorted over the last century or so. We tend to think of it as a kind of sinlessness, uprightness, being morally pure and perfect. We tend to think of it as an attribute of a person, descriptive of their standing before God, of how God sees the person on his/her own, a kind of moral worth. (We also see it likewise as an attribute of a nation, as when "Righteousness exalts a nation".)
But in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, it is more than this, and is the same as the word 'justice', which we tend to see as more public than personal. The word which is translated as 'righteousness' is also translated as 'justice', suggesting that the two were the same concept.
In the OT it is 'tsedeq' and in the Greek, 'dikaios'. This strongly suggests that the two concepts, justice and righteousness, are one and the same, or at least very similar. This does not accord with the modern view, so the concept that the Bible has is probably rather different from either the personal-attribute that we think of as righteousness or the legal term that we assume justice to be.
We have individualized the idea of 'righteousness'.
Paul Marshall defines them as "right relationships among all things in the created order". This seems a useful view. Instead of righteousness being a personal attribute, it is to do with right relationships. A righteous person is one who is in right relationship with all around him/her; and 'right' is defined by reference to the will and intention of God. This makes more sense of 'Righteousness exalts a nation', since in such a nation all the relationships are in correct balance - so it is no wonder that everything works well, and the honour and dignity of that nation. Therefore "the righteousness of God" means the state of affairs in which all relationships are as God intended -
If righteousness is right relationships among all things in the created order, then "the righteousness of God" refers to how God intended the whole of Creation to work together in relationship. With love, respect, justice, harmony, frugality, sociality, communication, skills, knowledge, emotions and vitality.
For example, offering someone the left cheek when they slap us on the right (Mt 6). For example, visiting those in prison (Mt 25). For example, worshiping only the One True God (Ex 20). For example, not stealing (Ex 20). For example, letting the land have a sabbath (Lev 25). Rejoice in the wife of your youth (Proverbs). Image God to the rest of Creation (Gen 1). etc.
If we did such things, the whole of society and world would go well. This is what God intended and intends. This dynamic harmony, this working well together, is what I believe is "the righteousness of God".
What is 'Anger of man'?
Is "anger of man" any anger? No, I do not think James meant any anger (remember: Jesus was angry), but an anger that is contaminated with, and probably motivated by, pride and self-centredness. Some anger is at injustice (called "righteous anger"), but if we are honest, are we not also slightly motivated by self-regard, self-interest, etc.?
Example: Parent shouts at children who are being nasty to each other,
riled because they are "always at each other",
and knowing that the more it continues the nastier it gets until it ends in tears and bitterness.
Shouts, to stop them and order them to keep apart and not speak to each other.
This might halt the nastiness, but does it really sort it out?
Instead, it drives each child into sullenness,
inner anger at grown-ups,
and towards a tendency to cover up.
The 'righteousness of man' is to stop the current nastiness,
regardless of other issues.
The 'righteousness of God' is to sort out the deeper problem, by leading them to repentance.
True repentance is voluntary, never forced.
Repentance by the children
- but also repentance\ by the adults, who acted out of their own pride-stimulated anger.
Sometimes, once a parent realises what they have done, they repent inwardly, apologise to each child for the way they treated them, and the child then themself repents. (This is from my own experience.)
Have you noticed that, sometimes, anger, or its kin, annoyance, arises when things do not go "as they should," when our expectations are broken? Is this not reasonable? But let us ask, "What do we take 'should' to refer to?" - is it God's will and kingdom, or is it what is convenient or pleasant to us? Let us ask, further, "Why do we have a 'should'? Why do we hold expectations?" Is it not sometimes at least because of our selfishness and idolatry, even tiny versions of those? We presume an authority to determine "should" and a right to have our expectations met. The annoyance / anger often reveals what our idols are - those things our heart clings to as of supreme importance, something that holds authority over us. After all, is it not authority that pronounced "should"? Is this related to the original sin, of wanting to determine for ourselves what is good and evil, rather than letting God determine it?
The "anger of man" gets things out of proportion. Overlooking other related important issues, it causes problems in them, often worse problems. It makes its out-of-proportion issue the justification for what it is wants to do or has done, and bullies others into making it out-of-proportion too. So it spreads itself among others, and also spreads and multiplies the other problems it causes.
It works at all levels, from individuals to governments and even whole swathes of humanity. The latter especially when the media stir up anger about some obvious injustice.
Protests are often motivated by anger, often justified. However, the 'anger of man' can take over when, for example, people begin "stoning innocent motorists, or looting shops, or destroying goods of ordinary street traders who have nothing to do with the things you are protesting about. During protest actions, sometimes people go to the extent of destroying schools where their children go to, clinics they need for health care, a library that could improve their ability to understand the world around them, a community hall they need for gatherings and service, a road infrastructure they need daily." [From something Luc Kabongo wrote, citing Chikane (2013)].
That is one example of "the anger of man". There are others. One is hate speech, which is fuelled by this anger. Does not James also tell us that [James 3:6] "The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell." In hate speech the tongue is used to [3:9] "curse men, who have been made in God's likeness." That is hate speech driven by the "anger of man". Another example is conspiracy theories, in which most of those that we deem conspirators are ones we are angry about, and the conspiracy theory reinforces that anger.
Second, a main reason it obliterates all other issues: pride. Pride is the centring on self, placing self in some privileged position over others and separated from others. Pride destroys relationships. Anger that is contaminated with pride is vengeful, and against, usually, certain other people. Anger that is contaminated with pride is focused on self. And action that comes from it breaks and poisons relationships. (Think of the sharp word, meant to hurt, that is so small yet poisons so many relationships. James understands this well.) Therefore it cannot work what God intended.
On the other hand, some anger is founded on right relationships, and is purely anger at the way relationships have been poisoned or broken (such as Jesus' anger at the way religious commerce made it impossible for Gentiles to approach God). This kind of anger can indeed "work the righteousness of God". Because it attacks the poison of the relationships, not the relationships themselves.
This happens at all levels. Let us look at a number of examples.
Example of national anger: BP and its operatives made an oil spill in the USA. Americans got angry. It was fashionable to get angry. Many people put in claims. But some of them were spurious claims, 'vexatious' claims. The latter were unjust (i.e. unrighteous).
Example of national anger, media-stirred: Injustice to the Windrush generation. The Windrush generation are tens of thousands of people who came from the British Commonwealth soon after World War II - in the 1950s - to help Britain rebuild. Most are now elderly, having lived their whole lives in the UK and brought up families here. They are British citizens and hold UK passports. But, in the UK from around 2010 - 2015, a lot of anger was evident about immigrants "taking our jobs, taking advantage of our services". Many in the media stirred this up, to such an extent that it was almost impossible to argue for welcoming immigrants from disadvantaged countries. In 2010, the Conservative Home Secretary, Theresa May, along with the officials in her Department, felt pressured by this anger and, as a result, a "hostile" environment for immigrants was developed. Now, in 2018, it appears that the Windruch generation have suffered. Since they have been in the UK such a long time, papers showing their entry into the UK are not available (their landing cards were apparently destroyed in 2009-2010, presumably as no longer needed), since they have no formal papers to prove that they are legally entitled to remain.
Comment: The 'anger of man', when it is allowed to influence policy and attitude, can generate gross injustice and misery unexpectedly. Because the anger-of-man blinds us to all the diverse aspects and considerations of life.
Example of media-stirred anger: Anti-Climate-responsibility anger in the USA. Angry about those who try to tell them they should change.
Another example: People in the USA in 2020, 2021 can easily think of another example! In fact, when Donald Trump was standing for election, the main thing I had against him was his public display of "man's anger" as though to say "Man's anger is OK", which would encourage it in others. At that time, I put the following photograph on Twitter, which I annotated with the James verse: [not yet found in my archives].
Example of Technology that Provokes and Promotes "Man's Anger". The Facebook algorithm to choose what goes into a person's newsfeed (their filter bubble) is designed to find material that will keep them on site longest. It is material that provokes strong reactions that keeps people using the site. "Man's anger" is probably the strongest reaction there is. So Facebook provokes, encourages and exacerbates "man's anger". "The virality in Facebook is driven by engaging content, and the most engaging content is the stuff that triggers flight-or-fight reflexes. And so the algorithm was tuned in such a way that had the effect of reinforcing hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories." [BBC Radio 4, 6th September 2019, "The Political Butterfly Effect Did your holiday photos spread global chaos".]
Example of international anger: When Soviet Communism fell the West became triumphalist. NATO and the EU pulled in lots of ex-Soviet nations. This has caused many problems. [John Simpson, BBC Radio 4, Today Programme 10 March 2018]
Example: On BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 21 January 2020, it was reported that the legal costs to the UK National Health Service of medical negligence is around £4bn ($5bn) and a projected compensation bill for outstanding cases is more than £83bn. Some thousands of new types medical negligence cases occur per year. Why this increase, especially in new types? Obviously, partly it is because of actual negligence. But I wonder what role anger plays, including anger stirred up in the media and social media. The power of anger is enormous. Insofar as that is true, this state of affairs rewards anger in society; a redistribution of wealth in society to the angry. A tragic waste?
Maybe we need to make a good study all the varied aspects of anger, in order to understand it?
This page, "http://www.abxn.org/anger.html", is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden at all dates below. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.
Part of his www.abxn.org pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext.
Created: 18 December 1998. Last updated: 13 December 2015 was about to write a page on this, and rediscovered this page from 17 years ago! I have retained the original. My thoughts on this have developed over the last 17 years, and so I'm adding to this. 25 January 2016 better intro; levels; examples; responsibility. 21 August 2016 example: parent shouts at children. 26 April 2017 introduction, new .end, link to mans.anger.html. 8 August 2017 out of propn, and righteousness placed before anger. 18 April 2018 Windrush generation example. 23 December 2018 soviet fell. 5 July 2019 new intro. 8 December 2019 Alzheimer's. 21 January 2020 Medical negligence costs soaring because of anger; study of anger. 9 March 2020 out of proportion. 7 May 2021 chikane example. 29 May 2021 anger: when things not "as they should". 20 December 2021 table: makes defensive, wants to crush. 1 February 2022 reveals idols. 22 February 2022 Facebook, Trump. 19 May 2022 moral outrage.