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What Do Christians Need to Know about Righteous Indignation?

What Do Christians Need to Know about Righteous Indignation?

Anne Lamott once quipped, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

We know from Scripture that the anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God. We read in the Proverbs (as well as James) that we should be slow to anger. “Fits of anger” is also present in the list of “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5. There is certainly a type of anger, which is a vice. We see an angry Jonah confronted by God. The question asked of Jonah could be asked of us, “do you do well to be angry”?

Yet, we also are confronted with Jesus at times being angry and indignant. Jesus was clearly angry when he cursed the fig tree and when he cleared out the temple. There are also several places where we are confronted with God’s wrath and anger towards sin. It is apparent, then, that not all anger is sinful. It is possible that anger is an expression of love. There must be some sort of righteous anger. But how can we tell if we are experiencing righteous indignation or simply creating a God in our own image and giving ourselves permission to outrage?

Brant Hansen explains this conundrum well, and encourages us to pause:

In the moment, everyone’s anger always seems righteous. Anger is a feeling, after all, and it sweeps over us and tells us we’re being denied something we should have. It provides its own justification. But an emotion is just an emotion. It’s not critical thinking. Anger doesn’t pause. We have to stop, and we have to question it.

What is righteous indignation and how can we tell if we’re experiencing righteous indignation or sinful human anger?

What Is Righteous Indignation?

One of the most helpful resources on anger is Uprooting Anger by Robert D. Jones. Jones outlines three criteria for determining whether anger is righteous anger. First, righteous anger reacts against actual sin. Most of our anger comes from our preferences or desires not being met. If the guy in front of me at the donut shop takes the last apple fritter, my anger towards him is not justified. The apple fritter example is an easy one, but what about the congregant who finds themselves in a rage because another believer brought an opened can of soda into the worship space? She’s upset because she feels that God’s holiness is being trampled upon. But is she correct? Is this something clearly outlined in the Bible? Does she do well to be angry? If anger is to be righteous it will be from that which is clearly defined as sin.

Consider the story of Jesus clearing the temple. It is clear from Isaiah 56 that this “making a house of prayer a den of robbers” is explicitly against God’s purposes for the nations. They were crowding out the Gentiles who were hoping to worship and so Jesus responded by driving them out.

Secondly, righteous anger focuses on God’s concerns and not our own. Sinful human anger typically responds to its own name being besmirched. A few months ago, our family went to the human society to try to adopt a dog. Through a misunderstanding one of the workers declared that our family was unfit to be dog owners. We were deeply offended and I was angry. How dare she? She doesn’t know our family! Sure, you could make an argument that God is angry at injustice, and this was an injustice. But there was nothing in my anger that was concerned with God’s glory. It was my own name that I was concerned with (and trying to get our family a dog). Righteous anger will be concerned about the name of God. Again, if we consider Jesus in the temple—his concern was with how God’s character was being defamed.

Lastly, righteous anger will be expressed in godly ways. Righteous anger will remain self-controlled and will exhibit the other fruits of the Spirit. Why does the Bible share that Jesus crafted the whip with which he drove out the moneychangers? I believe it is to show us that this was anger completely under control. This was not a fit of rage. Jesus was not “flying off the handle”. He was strong, stern, and forceful but he was still fully exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit.

There is one characteristic here that I think is present in righteous indignation which Jones does not focus upon. Righteous indignation is almost always expressed for the sake of others. It typically overflows in action on behalf of another. We see this with Jesus in the temple. And much of the Lord’s expressions of anger in the prophets is because of the unjust actions of the people of Israel. Jesus was not angry when people did things to him, but his anger was always expressed as a defense for others.

One definition of righteous indignation which I saw floating around on the web was this one: “Righteous indignation is typically a reactive emotion of anger over perceived mistreatment, insult, or malice.” That definition is far from how the Scriptures would set the parameters for righteous indignation. Righteous anger in the Bible does relate to injustice but it centers upon God’s Word and God’s character and it is concerned with the treatment of others more than treatment of self.

Angry man walking down the street

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/AntonioGuillem 

Is Righteous Indignation Sinful?

I think it may be helpful for us to think about anger in three different categories. Anger is an emotion that is evoked by an occasion. There can be different forms of anger and different levels of expression. But for the sake of simplicity let’s use this definition: a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong. Something which you perceive as wrong happens and you experience a strong feeling of displeasure. Are you sinning in this moment?

This is where I think Ephesians 4:26 is informative. Far from commanding anger, this verse is acknowledging the existence of anger as an emotion. There is an anger that is neither righteous nor unrighteous—it is simply a whole-person response to a perceived wrong. But my anger can be sinful. It can be sinful if I’m angry because my heart, worldview, motivations, etc. are all messed up. It can be sinful if it is stemming from my own self-centered heart. And it can be sinful if it is the fuel for other sinful responses. But there can be a type of anger that is not necessarily righteous indignation, but it is also not necessarily sinful anger. Have you been treated unjustly? You probably have a right reason to be angry. My anger is likely not centered upon God, and therefore it is not technically righteous indignation. But it’s not necessarily sinful either. But what do you do with that anger?

Righteous indignation is never sinful. The moment it becomes sinful it is no longer righteous indignation. That question often for us is what am I doing with my anger? How is it motivating me? Is the fruit of the Spirit present? Are there things which I should be righteously angry about but I’m not?

What Do Christians Need to Know about Righteous Indignation?

In my estimation, there are two types of people when it comes to righteous indignation. Some believers struggle with anger and rage, and calls for righteous indignation can be used as an excuse to give our rage a pass. These words from Robert Jones should be heeded:

“Let’s begin with a humbling observation: most human anger is sinful. The biblical record confirms this. The most frequent Old Testament term for ‘anger’ (Hebrew aph) denotes human anger forty-seven times. And at least 42 of them—89%—indicate sinful anger. While we tend to assume the best about ourselves, the Bible frequently warns against self-deception. We tend to conceal our sins, covering them with spiritual whiteout. We paint our anger as pure. The Bible knows better (Jer 17:9; Eph 4:22; Heb 3:12-13). This simple warning ought to color any consideration of the ‘righteousness’ of our anger. We must approach this question with a keen awareness of this danger.”

But there are others who have a more mellow and confrontation-averse disposition. Calls for not being angry are relatively easy to heed. But such a one would do well to realize that there are things which should rouse us to anger. There are occasions where it is wrong not to respond in righteous indignation. Though he does not use the term righteous indignation I think Martin Luther King Jr., was asking for such a response in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.


We began with a quote from Brant Hansen. We must question our anger. Is it truly righteous? We should be very suspicious of our anger—knowing our propensity to craft God in our own image. We should be slow to call our anger righteous unless we can clearly attach it to Scripture, prove to our own hearts that God’s glory is our chief concern, and see it expressed in godly action on behalf of others. Anger is a tricky thing. There are also times in which we should question our lack of righteous indignation.

Our certain path is to follow Jesus. As we look at his life and his responses to injustice, we see one who was willing to curse a fig tree as a symbol of protest against the religious leaders of his day and he was also to silently endure a scorn, mockery, wrath, and ultimately death at the hands of those same men. If our anger is to be righteous then it certainly must look like Jesus.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages-RyanKing999 

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake.