Righteous anger or sinful? A response to the Women’s Study Bible

Last Friday morning I wrote and posted a response (link) to Michael Pearl’s blog post in which he answered the questions of a woman who, with her children, was living with an abusive husband (link).

The title of my post, “Dear Michael Pearl, this is what righteous anger looks like seemed self-evident. This is because, as it so happened, the previous morning someone else had written to ask me a question that in God’s providence prepared me for Friday morning.

She asked for my thoughts on a short lesson about anger from the Thomas Nelson Women’s Study Bible (WSB), edited by Dorothy Kelley Patterson and Rhonda Kelley. (There appear to be dozens of editions of this Bible available, but I’m linking to one of the most recent ones.)

Here is the lesson, found at Ecclesiastes 7:9. (in this edition it’s on page 982.)  

Anger can most often be defined as an emotional response to a perceived wrong or injustice. Hence, anger is normally expressed when a woman misinterprets circumstances, makes a mistake in judgment, or reacts quickly because she feels threatened or hurt. This anger is unjustified and sinful. This anger, in effect, denies the power of God to care for your needs and hurts and can even completely take over your life. There are many warnings about the danger of anger in Scripture (Eccl. 7:9, Matt. 5:22; Eph 4:26, 31). Most often, you should leave your anger or wrath at the feet of Jesus and allow Him to act in your behalf.

God’s anger is always perfectly controlled and expressed (Ps 30:5; 78:38). There are examples of righteous anger given in Scripture, such as Moses’ anger toward the children of Israel for not trusting in God and following Him (Ex. 32:19). Righteous anger can be described as one that results when God’s laws and His will are knowingly disobeyed. The concern must be for righteousness and reconciliation, never for personal vengeance coming out of our own hurts. We must be careful to take our anger to the Lord for Him to analyze and manage.

Do you act or react? The answer to this simple question will most likely reveal any weaknesses you have in expressing the emotion of anger. A person who acts knows who she is, what she believes, and how she should behave (Col. 3:23, 24). She not only knows this information, but she chooses to act upon it. Another person’s actions do not dictate her reactions, but rather the wisdom of the Lord is her mainstay (Col 3:16, 17).


 The first thing I did was look up every Scripture the writer referenced and read and study them in context—an important thing to do when analyzing someone else’s Bible teachings. I’ll address those below.

But first, you may have noticed a few words that cause concern.

Anger can most often be defined as an emotional response to a perceived wrong or injustice.

From the very first sentence that word perceived invalidates the woman’s sense of wrong or injustice having taken place. It calls her perceptions into question. This is the very thing abusers do.

“You totally don’t get my sense of humor, babe. I said you weren’t a piece of meat. Don’t you get it?”

“You overreact to everything. When I talk about killing the kids, you don’t think I’m really going to kill them, do you?”

“Well, you think what I did was wrong, but I’m telling you, I wouldn’t be doing it if you weren’t such a piece of work. You need to get your s**t together and then everything will be ok.”

So, the abuser indicates, the wrong against her dignity, personhood, and safety, and that of her children, is only a perceived wrong. And then she comes to the WSB and reads the same thing.

Hence, anger is normally expressed when a woman

misinterprets circumstances,  

“See, what did I tell you? It’s all in your head. You’re a mental case.”

 makes a mistake in judgment,

“You know you can’t trust your own perceptions. You need me to help you see reality.”

or reacts quickly because she feels threatened or hurt.

“Whoa! Where did that come from? You always overreact, you know that?” 

This anger is unjustified and sinful.

 The author has set up a straw man, which, of course, is very easy to knock down. The author assumes that in the majority of cases a woman has no good reason to be angry, and she’s mixed up about what she’s perceiving. Then this anger is named as sinful.

However, a woman is not sinning if she has simply made a mistake. She’s not sinning if she reacts to feeling threatened. She’s sinning only if she responds to a wrong in a way that is disproportionate to that wrong, or if she lashes out at someone who has done no wrong. And again, with the confusion and tangling of mind that is inherent in abusive family situations, living with someone who has promised to cherish her, what is “right” and what is “wrong” can be very hard for her to recognize.

I understand that the WSB wasn’t written for abused women, but for the larger female population. BUT, this book has been in print for over twenty years. I looked at the first edition and the most recent edition, and several editions in between. This lesson on anger says the same thing every time. Has there come into the minds of Mrs. Patterson and Mrs. Kelley (both associated with Southwestern Theological Seminary, one of the Southern Baptist seminaries) no awareness at all of how this lesson impacts the 25% or more of Christian women who are (or have been or will be) in abusive marriages? What about how it affects the rest of the female Christian population who will be advising them?

The author says,

“There are examples of righteous anger given in Scripture, such as Moses’ anger toward the children of Israel for not trusting in God and following Him (Ex. 32:19).”

I’d like to give a few more examples of righteous anger. David was righteously angry at the Israelites when they cowered in fear before Goliath, and he was righteously angry at Goliath for defying the living God. Abigail was righteously angry at her husband when he refused to recompense David for protecting his men. Nathan was righteously angry at David when he took another man’s wife. Esther was righteously angry at Haman when he wanted to have all her people killed. God the Father was righteously angry at the wicked “shepherds” of Israel who were devouring the “sheep” (His people) in Ezekiel 34. Jesus was righteously angry at the Pharisees when they violated the heart of God’s law and devoured widows’ houses. Paul was righteously angry at Peter when he refused to eat with the Gentiles. The apostle James was righteously angry against the rich who were exploiting the poor. (I could go on to name several cases of righteous anger throughout history that motivated people to set things right for those who were being mistreated.)

Even though the word “anger” isn’t used in those Biblical accounts, it’s clear to me those people were righteously angry. That’s because righteous anger, an emotion given by God, energizes a person who sees a genuine violation of what is truly right, to empower him or her with appropriate words and actions to set it right. This is why an understanding of rights—human, civil, and spiritual (such as the right of Christians to go to God in prayer)—is so crucial.

The author of the article says: 

“Righteous anger can be described as one that results when God’s laws and His will are knowingly disobeyed.”

 Though this statement looks good and true on the face of it, there are two problems with it:

  1. An abuser can use it against his victim. “The way you’re going to know God’s will is by listening to me. That means if you disobey me, you’re disobeying God. That means I’m completely justified in my righteous anger at your wicked disobedience.”
  2. It sounds as if we can be righteously angry when the nature and character of God are directly affronted, such as the one example given about the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, but not when the nature and characer of God are indirectly affronted through a violation of rights, because this is only “perceived” or because it “denies the power of God to care for your needs and hurts.” But in the majority of examples of righteous anger I listed above, the energy to right a wrong was given in the case of a wrong perpetrated against people with the desire to protect the rights of others.

Jesus gave two great commandments, not one. Love God, and love others. An affront against the legitimate rights of people (human, civil, and spiritual) is ultimately an affront against God Himself.

The concern must be for righteousness and reconciliation, never for personal vengeance coming out of our own hurts.

Yes, certainly the concern must be for righteousness, or rightness. But the use of the word reconciliation is confusing. We can pray for the rights-violators to be reconciled to God. But the first concern of someone protecting her own rights or those of another shouldn’t be for reconciling with the abuser. Reconciliation comes only with repentance and fruits of repentance.

When the author says the concern should never be for “personal vengeance coming out of our own hurts,” she runs the danger of implying that if a woman is “hurt” she had better not do anything, because that would be personal vengeance.

The “hurts” women have suffered in abuse have killed them or nearly killed them. But a statement like this will confuse a woman in an abusive relationship.

Do you act or react? The answer to this simple question will most likely reveal any weaknesses you have in expressing the emotion of anger.

Hmmm . . . In the example of Moses this author gave, was he “reacting” to what the Israelites had done? Yes. He was “acting (angrily) in response to the actions of another.”

In the examples of David, Abigail, Nathan, Esther, God the Father, Jesus, Paul, and James I gave above, were they “reacting”? Yes. “Reaction” is part of the very definition of anger.

It’s impossible to be righteously angry except in reaction to something.

When you tell a woman she must not react, but can only “act,” and then back it up with Scriptures such as Colossians 3:23-24 and Colossians 3:16-17, she can very easily be left with the impression that in her situation there is no case in which it would be right to be angry.

The introduction to the WSB says in their work they were committed to: “A distinctive exegesis [that] pulls out the meaning of the text instead of reading into the text personal whims.” But I believe they did not pull out the meaning of this text, but came to it with preconceived notions. Here is Ecclesiastes 7:9, the Scripture that was the springboard for the study of anger quoted above.

Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.

This text means “Fools are the ones in whom anger is simmering at all times, ready to quickly burst out. Don’t let that be the case with you.” This verse describes the anger of abusers, not victims. It makes me sad that abuse victims (a legitimate term, unlike what Michael Pearl implied, meaning those who are currently suffering abuse) will read this short study, thinking that they have no right to be angry about wrongs perpetrated against their own human rights by someone who has committed to cherishing them.

Pertinent Scriptures

The following Scriptures regarding defending the rights of others (which can legitimately be energized by righteous anger) are compiled in chapter 6 of Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind. This chapter concerns the concept of “Taking Up Offenses,” and gives many examples of people throughout history who have done so, for the betterment of this world.

Proverbs 31:9 Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Proverbs 29:7 A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.

Psalm 82:2-4  How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. 

Leviticus 19:15 You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 

Isaiah 58:6-7 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Isaiah 1:17  Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

Jeremiah 5:26-28 For wicked men are found among my people; they lurk like fowlers lying in wait. They set a trap; they catch men. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich; they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. 

Jeremiah 22:3 Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed.

Here are the other Scriptures about anger that the author cites in her study above

Ephesians 4:26 “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”

This Scripture supports the concept of righteous anger, but sets limits to it. Righteous anger should be controlled and short-lived.

Matthew 5:22  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

The respected commentator Adam Clarke says of this Scripture, “What our Lord seems here to prohibit is . . . that anger which leads a man to commit outrages against another, thereby subjecting himself to that punishment which was to be inflicted on those who break the peace.”

And Matthew Henry, commenting on the Greek meaning of the word, says, Christ tells them that rash anger is heart-murder. . . . Then he adds, “Anger is a natural passion; there are cases in which it is lawful and laudable; but it is then sinful, when we are angry without cause.” He then goes on to give several helpful examples of what “without cause” would mean, which would then be sinful anger:

(1) . . . When we are angry at children or servants for that which could not be helped, which was only a piece of forgetfulness or mistake, that we ourselves might easily have been guilty of, and for which we should not have been angry at ourselves; when we are angry upon groundless surmises, or for trivial affronts not worth speaking of.

(2) When it is without any good end aimed at, merely to show our authority, to gratify a brutish passion, to let people know our resentments, and excite ourselves to revenge, then it is in vain, it is to do hurt; . . .

(3) When it exceeds due bounds; when we are hardy and headstrong in our anger, violent and vehement, outrageous and mischievous, and when we seek the hurt of those we are displeased at.”

Matthew Henry has given a valid description of abusive, unrighteous anger.

Ephesians 4:30-31 “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.”

This explanation below is an excerpt from Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind in the chapter about “Destructive Bitterness.”

The context here is about words. We want our words to build up, not tear down. We want to minister grace through our words. 

Those words wrath and anger are both from Greek words for violent passion (the first one implies hard breathing). Clamor is yelling. Evil speaking is vilifying, slandering, railing, reviling (expressing scorn and contempt through insulting language). Malice is wickedness.  

So the contrast is between grace-filled words that build people up, and poisonous, evil words that tear people down.

If you think about this context in light of the other Scriptures about bitter words, you can see that this one is reminiscent of Psalm 64—it’s easy to imagine the bitter words being aimed like poison-tipped arrows. 

 Also, if you look at it in the light of Romans 3:14 (and Psalm 10), you can see that Ephesians 4:31 is actually describing abusive behavior, not the words that express the pain of having been injured by abusive behavior.   

 Let’s suppose someone who has been oppressed and abused comes to you for help. I know you would listen to her, love her, and try to help in any way you can, but imagine with me for a minute that you don’t.  

 Imagine that instead of building her up and speaking with grace, your heart isn’t tender toward her, you accuse her of holding anger, you tell her to get over it, you even become angry and impatient with her. 

This kind of communication doesn’t minister grace to the hearer. It doesn’t edify the hearer. It isn’t kind or tenderhearted. In some cases it can even be considered corrupting talk. In a twist of irony, the one who accuses a person of sinful bitterness can in reality be the one who is exhibiting sinful bitterness.   

***

This is a more complete version of the study I did last Thursday morning, the day before I wrote the post on Friday regarding Michael Pearl’s counsel. As in any case of righteous anger, my anger was motivated by love, love for those who are being abused and love for the God who cares for them and was being misrepresented.

Also, in accord with the examples of righteous anger I gave above, my anger was controlled. No one else became the target of my anger, and I didn’t harbor it. Although I’m sure I haven’t executed my righteous anger flawlessly, and am truly sorry if there was any sin involved,  I did make a point, before speaking, while speaking, and after speaking, to go to God with my anger, as I’ve done many times through the past few years.

I went to Him in confidence that He is the Just Judge, the One who will one day fully and completely set all things right. Until that day, He calls on His people to be His hands and feet in this world, to judge justly, and to plead the cause of the oppressed.

12 thoughts on “Righteous anger or sinful? A response to the Women’s Study Bible

  1. Rebecca, thanks. I am only part way into this excellent post, but had a question. Do you remember where the statistic about 25% of Christian women being in abusive marriages came from? That is a stunning figure.

      • My voice feels like a drop in the ocean being swept away in the torrent when I see the latest statistics released by WHO surrounding exploitation of women. Sexual exploitation is historical however it appears that it is spreading at an unprecedented rate. It has become so woven into the global landscape that it has become normalized. So ingrained that we have now given this monster the title of “Rape Culture”.

        WHO Stats:

        Violence against women – particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence – are major public health problems and violations of women’s human rights.
        Recent global prevalence figures indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
        Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (30%) of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner.

        (I was unable to hyperlink the above please copy and paste into your browser.)

        In my quest to understand this culture, I began investigating the underlying structures that enable this exploitation to flourish. The Church is one of those structures.

        The following two excerpts have been reverberating for me. Shocked is an understatement.

        The Women’s Crusade by Kristof and Wudunn (New York Times magazine)

        “The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.”
        http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/magazine/23Women-t.html?_r=0
        Dismantling Rape Culture around the world: A Social Justice imperative by Pamela R. Fletcher, Associate Professor of Women Studies, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota.

        “Based on our research and analysis of the high incidence of sexual violence perpetrated around the world, we contend that the term rape culture encompasses widespread anti-female attitudes and values, and the resultant oppressive conditions women and children encounter in the global institution of patriarchy.

        Misogyny and sexism are the cornerstones of patriarchy that enable a rape culture to flourish”

        http://forumonpublicpolicy.com/Vol2010.no4/archive.vol2010.no4/fletcher.pdf

        It has further been determined that this exploitation is not unique to developing countries rather in developed nations it is concealed or trivially dismissed as individual misfortune rather than a cultural phenomenon.

        • Thank you, Trish. Yes, it can be overwhelming looking at it all, and if we look at the whole thing, we might be immobilized. Today when I was praying, I said, “God, I just want to rescue the whole world.” But really, that’s His job, and no one else’s but His. We’re called to be His hands and feet in the arena He puts before us, and the Holy Spirit of God will energize each of us according to the calling He has given us in reaching out to others to help them as we continue to “seek His face” and look to Him for that empowerment. One of the most important thing for Christians, I think, is to realize that this problem is not just “out there.” It is IN our churches. We can refuse to be “Possums” and can become Protectors. http://www.heresthejoy.com/2017/05/the-other-kind-of-hypocrisy/

  2. Going through a divorce from an abuser who has always been protected by the church has left me with quite a bit of righteous anger. Recently, I have been dealing with a family member who has started to lecture me much like this Bible study lesson. I stand my ground and know what Scripture says, but I may point them to this article for support, because they believe my mind is so clouded that I couldn’t be thinking right.

  3. Thank you Ms. Davis! Several years ago as God opened my eyes to the truth of my abusive marriage, I began to study God’s word more fervently than ever as I desperately searched for answers. Needless to say, I tossed all the so called “study bibles” because I found that they all interpreted scripture differently!
    I believe that we are all called to be bible scholars for ourselves, NOT students of man, or woman as the case may be. I have an English-Greek translation of the new testament, and an English-Hebrew translation of the old testament is on my wish list. With the help of the Holy Spirit He helps me discern and understand His word clearly, and what a difference it has made!
    I am 3 years free of a 32 year incredibly destructive marriage and God has called me to “Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy,” as it states in Proverbs 31:9.
    The truth will indeed set us free.
    Debbie

    • I’m very encouraged by your words, Debbie. I still read from the same old wide-margin Scofield “study” Bible I got when I was 23, but the Bible is full of places where I’ve crossed out Scofield’s headings and replaced them with other headings, and places where I’ve argued in the margins with his interpretations of the Scriptures. I’m afraid that when readers see notes in their Bibles, though they cognitively KNOW they’re not Scripture, they may tend to accept them more easily as the correct interpretation. It’s so important not to do that.

  4. Dorothy Patterson, the author of this study Bible, is married to Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Seminary. He once boasted of the fine counsel he provided to an abused woman when he told her to pray in front of her abusive husband and warned her, “Get ready because he may get a little more violent.” Next time he saw her at church she had two black eyes. But no worries! Today that man is the best husband ever, all thanks to Paige Patterson’s advice!
    https://dannimoss.wordpress.com/clergy-abuse-links/abuse-in-the-church/paige-pattersons-views-on-domestic-violence/

    • I saw that Dorothy Patterson was Paige Patterson’s wife (and that the two editors of the book were sisters-in-law), but I certainly hadn’t seen this information–thank you! The first edition of The Women’s Study Bible was, I think, in 1995, and this story of Patterson’s was in 2000. I can’t help but think their beliefs are not much different from then, because they haven’t changed what they wrote in the Bible at all.

    • And I noticed he said she should “elevate” him, the same terrible counsel given to the “CBC Moscow” wife–the kind of counsel I’ve heard from several women caused them to be disbelieved when they finally did desperately ask for help.

  5. I think I see what the study-Bible authors are trying to do — they’re trying to point out sinful anger. But they use the passive voice and, as you explained, launch immediately into invalidation and dismissal. Even for a non-abused woman, the idea that I’m usually sinfully angry is destructive. One of the most freeing ideas I read was that it was *good* to be angry over injustice and abuse — whether mine or someone else’s.

    Always a caveat, of course — and I think you encapsulated it well here:

    “This verse describes the anger of abusers, not victims.”

    Thanks for this post.

    • Abusive anger is sinful, for sure. But when Jesus got angry–which He certainly did–it wasn’t abusive. As you say, He was angry in the right way, over things that it’s right to be angry about. He sets the example for us.

I welcome your thoughts