As a young woman, Sarah Sumner never allowed herself to be angry, until her parents divorced when she was 22. The experience was one inspiration behind her doctoral dissertation (at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) on godly anger, which has blossomed into a book, Angry Like Jesus: Using His Example to Spark Your Moral Courage (Fortress Press). San Francisco–based Her.meneutics writer Dorcas Cheng-Tozun spoke with Sumner, former dean of A. W. Tozer Theological Seminary, about bringing a healthy dose of righteous anger to today’s church.
Why is the topic of godly anger so significant to you?
Over the years, working in Christian organizations, I have seen fudging and compromise and blatant refusals to do things in a Christian way. And then people want to cover it up. That makes me angry. I don’t mean blustery anger, where I want to slam the door. It motivates me to try righting wrongs in a structured, strategic way.
What’s the difference between sinful and godly anger?
Sinful anger does not trust God, while godly anger does. Sinful anger is prideful, while godly anger flows from humility. Sinful anger participates in evil, while godly anger abhors evil. But the main difference is that godly anger is loving. It’s not about feeling self-righteous.
In the book, you connect godly anger with virtues such as faith, love, and hope. How can anger express such qualities?
You can’t have godly anger without faith, in part because it’s risky. Showing godly anger is bound to displease certain people. You need to have faith that God will sustain you through any backlash.
Godly anger is the guardian of love. Psalm 7:11 says that God is a righteous judge who “displays his wrath every day.” Having godly anger means standing up for what’s right, for the sake of honoring God.
Godly anger gives us hope. So often, people lose hope when they feel like there is nothing they can do about wickedness. But that is not the case. You can always pray. And most of the time, you can do more. You can talk to somebody. You can step out and intervene.
How can godly anger speak to those stuck in their own sin?
The essence of sin is falsehood. When people sin, they are bowing down to lies. Godly anger hates those lies and battles to replace them with truth. We’re apt to believe the lie that God is not greater than our problems or chronic sins. But 1 John 3:20 says that if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts.
You argue that anger against God is sinful, even during suffering. What’s wrong with being angry at God?
Sinful anger is so often our rebellion against pain that is providentially ours to feel. It’s misguided to say, “I have such a close relationship with God that I can get mad at him and that bonds us more.” Isaiah 45:9 says, “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker.”
Being angry at God implies that God did something wrong. But God is holy. He is never the culprit. The lie in our head goes, “I know it’s better for me not to experience this pain.” But you don’t know. Jesus is a man of sorrows, a man of pain. And if we are following a man of pain, we have to be willing to experience pain ourselves.
You mention “inirascibility,” defined by Aristotle as a deficit in anger. Why is this so dangerous?
Inirascibility means not being angry when you should be. In 1 Samuel, Eli didn’t have godly anger against his sons: They were priests, dealing with matters of holiness, but they had profane attitudes. And all the defilement happening in the temple affected everyone associated with it.