Anger is a tricky sin. Unlike other sins, it’s easy to be sinfully angry while convincing yourself you’re in the right. If someone commits adultery, steals, or lies, they may make excuses, but they typically don’t claim they made a righteous choice. With sinful anger, however, it’s easy to be in the act of sinning while convinced you’re actually doing right.
This is perhaps never more true than when you respond to sin in your kids. You may even invoke Ephesians 4:26 (Be angry and do not sin): “I’m not sinning! It’s righteous indignation!”
- “My kid didn’t listen to me and he needs to obey…so my anger is righteous!”
- “I told her she’d be disciplined…so my anger is righteous!”
- “He needs to know the dangers of disobedience…so my anger is righteous.”
I find myself arguing for my anger much more than arguing against it, and that’s dangerous. If you apply Ephesians 4:26 while glossing over James 1:20 (“…the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God”), could it be that you’re sinfully angry?
“God desires patient words and a grieving heart.”
So if anger shouldn’t characterize your response, what should? How does God want you to respond when your kids sin? God desires patient words and a grieving heart.
Patience Over Anger
The Book of Proverbs famously details how anger destroys relationships. If its truisms apply to relationships in general, they certainly apply to our closest relationships—those within the home. Instead of anger, God advocates gentle patience:
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)
The verse contrasts the results of your words: Soft words -> cause wrath to turn around / harsh words -> inflame anger. God commends gentle words, but he isn’t advocating weakness or passivity. A few chapters later he references the same word, a “soft” tongue, as a tool of strength:
“With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” (Proverbs 25:15)
This bone-breaking strength is a gentle, patient tongue, a soft answer. The result? Proverbs 15 says the gentle, patient answer causes wrath to do an about face—the word is “repent” or “turn back.” Isn’t that what you want for your children, to turn from their wrath?
What’s the inverse? If you habitually speak harshly to your children, you’ll fuel anger in their hearts. “Harsh” describes something that pains or harms the listener. (It’s the same word that describes the pain of childbirth in Genesis 3:16!) The word “stirs up” is picturesquely used in Proverbs 24:31 as Solomon passes by the field of the sluggard. He observes it’s all “overgrown” with thorns. That’s our word, “overgrown/stirs up.” If you want anger to take over your kids’ hearts like a weed, make a habit of answering them in sinful, harmful anger.
Thousands of years later, the Proverb still holds true: if your words are soft and patient, you’ll cause others to turn from wrath; if you use cutting, painful, angry words, you’ll spread anger like a weed.
Grief over Anger
What other quality should characterize our response to our kids’ sin? As with any aspect of fatherhood, it’s important to look at how God acts towards us. Among God’s many perfections in his fatherly discipline is his grief over our sin:
- God punishes Moab, Israel’s long-time enemy, and yet he weeps over them: “…I have put an end to the shouting [by judging Moab]. Therefore my inner parts moan like a lyre for Moab….” (Isaiah 16:9–11)
- Jesus weeps over the city that will soon crucify him: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Matthew 23:37)
- The Holy Spirit’s reaction to our sin is described as grief: “…do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…” (Ephesians 4:30)
Perhaps most insightful is a brief story in Mark that highlights the relationship between righteous anger and grief. Jesus responds to the legalistic Pharisees with anger because he is grieved at their hardness of heart.1
“…A man was there with a withered hand.…And he said to [the Pharisees], ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart…” (Mark 3:1–6)
Grief gives rise to righteous anger. Is that your pattern? Are you so grieved by sin that you rightly rise in anger at the sin and its destructive, God-defying power? Is your discipline stern because you are grieved by sin and its effects or do you simply rise in anger and call it righteous?
Patient Grief Applied in Discipline
I found myself kneeling next to my daughter’s bed in tears as she silently watched me. She’d been disobedient all week and I’d tried everything—firm discipline, strict punishments, bellowed commands, and anything else you can imagine! I cried not because I was tired or frustrated but because I was broken over her sin. In that moment, I’d mentally forecasted what her life would be if she continued on her path and it broke me. Grief over sin changes little hearts (and big ones, too!). My soft-answered grief over my daughter’s sin did what a week’s worth of anger could not. It revealed the sinfulness of her sin.2
I related the story to an older friend of mine and he confirmed my experience. One of his boys was particularly rebellious in high school. My friend would demand obedience, angrily taking away privileges, speaking harshly, and yelling at his son to try to force repentance. But it wasn’t until God caused him to chiefly grieve over his son’s disobedience that something amazing began to happen. His son started to change. Sustained, patient grief will lead your kids where sinful anger cannot. It will lead them to repentance.
If I can reappropriate James 1:19–20, “Know this, let every dad be swift to grieve and patient to anger, for the anger of dads does not produce the righteousness of God.”
There truly is such a thing as “righteous anger.” We know this both biblically and intuitively. As Mark relates, Jesus himself was angry here. And intuitively we all recongize anger is the only righteous reaction to some things. For instance, it would be sinful not to be angry when you learn of abuse, rape, or some other evil. The right-ness of anger is determined by its source, which is why Mark mentions the source of Jesus’ anger (i.e., grief). We should examine our own anger and trace it back to its source. ↩︎
Grieving over your kids’ sin does not mean you ignore their sin or that discipline is flimsy or muted. Remember, God was in the midst of severely punishing Moab while he was weeping over them. Greiving over your kids’ sin should motivate your discipline, not do away with it. When grief does not motivate discipline, sinful anger often does. ↩︎