for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God
At first sight, this verse seems strange. Even in the context of James 1. In this first chapter, James is in the middle of a discussion of trials and hardships, and tells his readers to endure, pray for wisdom, and rejoice, for God is maturing their faith (1:3). Then James transitions into an exhortation to not simply understand the Word, but to be sure to obey it (1:19-27). Enduring under trials is not easy, but God tells us to obey during them, for trials are not random; they are for our maturity, so obey. But then James tells us this: your anger does not accomplish the righteousness of God. If we are keeping track with James, we can conclude that rather than obeying the Law of liberty (1:25) under trials, it is our natural response to become aggravated at the situation. Rather than enduring and rejoicing under a God-given trial, we become angered. We become embittered, and want to fix the situation. Things aren’t going the way that we expect. Things aren’t going the way we want them to go.
But the whole point of this passage is that God has not only promised to keep you in trials, but they are a main means of your maturity. Trials are a tool in the hand of God (1:3-4). They are part of God’s story, and he has written trials into your life so as to make you perfect and complete (1:4). Don’t get angry under trials, because that is not accomplishing God’s righteous and good purposes. In all reality, this type of anger is setting itself against the righteousness of God. It is attempting to thwart the sovereign tool of God. And just because pain or hurt was not in your mind when you entered into this trial, God is using it for you betterment.
And this gives us a good understanding of the nature of sinful anger. Paul says in Ephesians 4:26 that we are “to be angry, and yet not sin”. This tells us two things: one, it is possible to be angry and not sin, even to be righteous in our anger. But two, it is very possible to be sinfully angry.
What’s the difference between the two?
Well, what does your anger promote? God’s story, or your own? Sinful anger reveals that God is thwarting your plans. Sinful anger is upset because things happen outside of your desires. And in your anger, you want to fix the story and establish your version of righteousness. But this type of anger does not produce the righteousness of God; it produces your own idea of righteousness. God has other plans though. This type of anger is simply pride.
Righteous anger on the other hand establishes the righteousness of God. Isaiah 10:22 says:
Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness
What a perplexing text! This means that there is a type of anger, wrath even, that brims over with righteousness. An execution of godly anger can and does overflow with righteousness. When God executes judgment, it is not toward ruin, but to renewal and the establishment of righteousness across the cosmos. This indeed is the purpose of God’s wrath. He does not get his jollies from smiting us. No, his wrath is for the establishment of righteousness. And why? God says so in Genesis 3:15:
I will put enmity between you (Satan) and the woman, between your offspring and her offspring
Genesis 3 speaks of God’s plan to redeem and renew the earth. In Genesis 3:1-14, we witness the high rebellion of mankind. They had set themselves against God, and as a result they fell. But in Genesis 3:15, God declares that he will one day establish righteousness again on this earth. And one of the main ways that he will do it is through enmity (anger against). Enmity against the serpent and his offspring. Why? Because he does not desire that the righteous renewal of God spread across this globe. And for that reason God is ever at enmity with him. And in order to establish righteousness, he must execute anger and wrath against all those who set themselves against the righteous reign of God. Wrath must come against this serpent. Righteous anger then, is anger that is at enmity with the serpent. It is for the righteousness of God. It desires earnestly that God’s righteousness be established on earth.
So what is sinful anger? It is that anger which exalts itself against the sovereign plan of God. It is that anger which desires to establish its own righteousness. And this is why man’s anger cannot establish the righteousness of God (Js 1:20). They are set against one another. They are not in cahoots, but at enmity. Contrastly, righteous anger is that anger that is against the serpent. It exalts in the righteousness of God. It rejoices in the supremacy of Christ.