I want to talk about the idea that feelings can be sin. To be honest, it’s such a ridiculous idea to me that I hadn’t really thought to discuss it before, but I’ve run into this idea several times in the last few months and I’ve felt convicted to address it. This is a teaching that is oppressive and unnecessary and I want to expose it and talk about what the Bible really teaches on this subject.
To put it bluntly, I completely reject the teaching that feelings can be sin. Feelings just are. We are not in control of having them – only for what we do with them. To suggest that a feeling can be a sin is like saying if a man looks at a woman and finds her attractive he is guilty of lust. It is not looking at a woman that is sin, or finding her attractive, but it becomes sin if the man proceeds to focus his attentions on her sexually and lusts after her – coveting her for himself.
Because anger is the emotion most addressed as sin I will start with this one. In fact, someone recently prooftexted for me the reason they believe anger is a sin so I’ll just cut and paste what they provided. There are probably more verses but I’ll take advantage of their ’5 minutes with the concordance’ and post this (by the way, if you spend 5 minutes with a concordance as the support for your argument you are prooftexting, not studying.)
- Ps. 37:8–Refrain from anger and turn from wrath.
- Proverbs 27:4 –Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming.
- Proverbs 29:11–A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.
- Ecclesiastes 7:9–Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.
- 2 Corinthians 12:20–I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.
- Ephesians 4:31–Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
- James 1:20–For man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
Let’s tackle these, though I’m not going to use any particular order because I’m going to group some of them for the reason of analyzing them. We’ll start with Proverbs 27:4. As is often the case with prooftexting, the person who compiled the list didn’t bother to include the entire verse. So what appears to be a Biblical argument is actually the set up for the point the verse was making. “Wrath [is] cruel, and anger [is] outrageous; but who [is] able to stand before envy? ” Now, as a study note, when using the KJV (which blb.org uses for the main page because concordances are based on it) anything found in parentheses is not in the original text. It has been added to help the reader understand the sentence. So it really reads “wrath cruel, and anger outrageous,” etc. That doesn’t really affect what we’re doing, but I wanted to share that for those who are learning how to study for themselves. But it’s time to see what this verse is really saying.
- Hebrew “chemah”
- 1) heat, rage, hot displeasure, indignation, anger, wrath, poison, bottles
- a) heat
- 1) fever
- 2) venom, poison (fig.)
- b) burning anger, rage
So we’re talking about a venomous, poisonous, burning anger or rage. This is intense anger that is consuming the individual. And we are told that it is “cruel”. The Hebrew word there also means “fierce”. It’s attacking, mean, vicious.
Anger – and that word really just means anger (or nose), we are told is “outrageous”. Actually, the word in Hebrew is “sheteph” and means
1) flood, downpour.
So passionate and burning anger is cruel and mean; anger comes out as a downpour; and then we find out about envy. The question is asked, “Who can stand before it?” Interestingly, the Hebrew word for envy is “qin-ah” and means
- 1) ardour, zeal, jealousy
- a) ardour, jealousy, jealous disposition (of husband)
- 1) sexual passion
- b) ardour of zeal (of religious zeal)
- 1) of men for God
- 2) of men for the house of God
- 3) of God for his people
- c) ardour of anger
- 1) of men against adversaries
- 2) of God against men
- d) envy (of man)
- e) jealousy (resulting in the wrath of God)
So we may be talking about jealousy that results in the wrath of God, or we may be talking about sexual passion, or zealousness. The interpreter gets to make the choice based on the context. Let’s just say jealousy because that’s basically the same as envy and it is something that seeks to benefit oneself.
What’s interesting is that the verbs attached to each of these nouns is physical and impacts the object of the noun. Passionate anger is cruel and attacking; anger is a downpour and flood, but jealousy, or envy, will overwhelm the other person.
Now, as a wisdom saying, this isn’t telling us what to do, it’s stating an observation in very poetic words. Passionate anger is X; anger is Y; and jealousy is Z. Okay.
Psalm 37:8 After we are told in 37:7 to rest in the Lord and not be jealous of the person who has prospered through wickedness, we are cautioned:
“Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil. “
Using our definitions above we are told to stop being angry, and let go of passionate and viscious anger. Fret is an interesting word for what we’re examining. It is the Hebrew word “charah” and means:
- 1) to be hot, furious, burn, become angry, be kindled
- a) (Qal) to burn, kindle (anger)
- b) (Niphal) to be angry with, be incensed
- c) (Hiphil) to burn, kindle
- d) (Hithpael) to heat oneself in vexation
So we are cautioned to not let ourselves get so worked up that we do evil.
Being told to stop being angry and let go of vicious anger and not do evil ourselves when we look on the prosperity of the wicked who have prospered, because we are to trust God, is beautiful counsel. Absolutely! We should not covet and seek to meet our own needs or wants for material things – we are to trust in the Lord and wait for His timing. But this is not a verse that can be used to suggest that anger itself is a sin. So far this idea has not been supported by either verse we’ve examined.
I have to admit, as we take a moment for Proverbs 29:11, that I’m not at all sure what version of Scripture the person who compiled this list was using. Because this is how it reads in the KJV:
“A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise [man] keepeth it in till afterwards.” I agree with that. I suppose it would apply to anger as well as anything else, but the idea is that a fool spews everything on their mind without thinking about it, but a wise man holds his tongue. Having anger isn’t the issue (even in her version), but spewing it without any thought to the matter. Having anger isn’t contrasted with having self control; spewing everything on your mind is contrasted with having self control. This is a huge difference.
Ecclesiastes 7:9 “Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools. “
So we’re cautioned to not rush into being angry, but the Hebrew word for “to be angry” here is “ka-ac” and means:
- 1) to be angry, be vexed, be indignant, be wroth, be grieved, provoke to anger and wrath
- a) (Qal)
- 1) to be vexed, be indignant
- 2) to be angry
- b) (Piel) to provoke to anger
- c) (Hiphil)
- 1) to vex
- 2) to vex, provoke to anger
So we’re not to be quickly provoked to anger. Our response isn’t supposed to be hasty anger. There is no instruction to not be angry, but a caution against being easily angered. Why? “Anger resteth in the bosom of fools.” Being easily provoked to anger is a quality possessed by fools. That is a defining quality of a fool – not being angry, but being easily provoked. A fool is “1) fool, stupid fellow, dullard, simpleton, arrogant one”. It’s arrogant and stupid and foolish to have your first response, or your regular response, be anger. This is not addressing being angry, it’s addressing the character quality of an angry person.
2 Corinthians 12:20 “For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and [that] I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest [there be] debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults:”
This needs some context to be provided. Paul is closing out his letter to the Corinthians and talking about coming to see them. He expresses a fear that when he comes they will not be as he hopes or he will not be as they hope (they have had some conflicts over the course of the two letters we have and they reference visits and letters that we do not have). He fears if this is the case (that he is not as they hope or they are not how he hopes) the result may be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults. If that is the case, Paul goes on to say in verse 21 “[And] lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and [that] I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed. ” So if they aren’t as he hopes or he isn’t as they hope and the result is debates, etc., then God will have to humble him among them and he shall bewail, or mourn, those who have sinned and not repented. What is the sin? Is it anger? No – it is uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness.
And the Greek word for wrath in verse 20 is “thumos” and means”1) passion, angry, heat, anger forthwith boiling up and soon subsiding again
2) glow, ardour, the wine of passion, inflaming wine (which either drives the drinker mad or kills him with its strength)” This is one of the things Paul is worried may happen when they get together if they can’t see eye to eye, but it’s not what he lists as sin.
On to Ephesians 4:31 “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: “
“Wrath” is again “thumos” or the boiling anger that comes and goes, and it could be expressed as the easy offense that Proverbs warns against.”Anger” is “orge” and is “1) anger, the natural disposition, temper, character
- 2) movement or agitation of the soul, impulse, desire, any violent emotion, but esp. anger
- 3) anger, wrath, indignation
- 4) anger exhibited in punishment, hence used for punishment itself
- a) of punishments inflicted by magistrates”
This would be the character of anger. Not just anger, but the angry person. In modern language we would talk about someone who has an anger issue or anger problem.
Paul, in Ephesians, is addressing the coming together of Jewish and Gentile believers into one Body and before telling them, in verse 32, to be kind to one another, he admonishes them to get rid of the things that are driving and keeping them apart -including easily being provoked to burning anger or having a character flaw of being angry all the time. Also, he is not stating that these things are sin – only that they need to be put away, or caused to cease. These are certainly not beneficial qualities or actions, but I still see no evidence that they are “sin”.
James 1:20 – our final prooftexted verse. “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” “Wrath” here is, again, “orge” and that is the character quality of anger or indignation. James is warning that being an angry person will not result in you having the righteousness of God. But is anger, or wrath, a sin? If it is, then James’ instruction in verse 19 is odd indeed for he instructs: “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath”. Be slow to get angry, don’t rush into taking offense, don’t walk around with a chip on your shoulder – this will not result in God’s righteousness being worked out in your life.
And, I want to finish the examination of anger with a verse that I’m not surprised to see didn’t make it onto the prooftexted list. Ephesians 4:26 “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath”.
I could go through a similar study on every emotion, but I don’t care to. If anger isn’t a sin then I think it’s safe to say that other emotions aren’t sins. But I want to talk about what I understand to be a Scriptural perspective on emotions and sin.
First, emotions are not a reason to sin. Be angry but sin not. A fool spews everything on his mind, but a wise person holds his tongue. And having an angry character isn’t going to bring about God’s righteousness being developed in your life. Just as the man who finds a woman attractive hasn’t sinned until when and if he lusts after her, someone who is angry hasn’t sinned until he acts on that anger in a sinful way. If he is wise and doesn’t give vent to his anger, then there is no sin. This means that I do not need to fear what will happen if I can’t get my children to stop being angry or having angry responses, but I do need to teach them how to handle their anger and what appropriate responses are. I’ve been known to tell a toddler or two my own version of Paul’s Ephesians caution, “You may be angry, you may not hit me.”
Second, emotions may be an indicator of a bigger issue. The emotions themselves are not sin, but they may signal that there is a bigger issue going on and if not addressed in children it may become a sin issue in an adult. If someone is always jealous and throwing fits because they are frustrated and disappointed that they aren’t getting what they want all the time there may be an issue with being content, or being grateful for what you do have. If someone is angry as a rule, or is known for having a character quality of an angry person, or is often easily offended, then the heart issue needs to be addressed. Because I believe that people who feel good act good I start with seeking to discover what hurt is in their heart that is causing them to take offense. Punishing for, or restricting, the expression of these emotions will not cause the emotions to cease. This is a very faulty and, in my opinion dangerous, teaching that is popular in many circles. A child who doesn’t show you his anger hasn’t necessarily ceased being angry. Knowing the proper response to please a parent or avoid a punishment is not what I want to teach my children. I would rather see the indicator of these deeper issues and be able to continue addressing them until time, maturity, prayer and discipline (true teaching) have taken effect and the issue is resolved, than to demand my child hide the issue and convince myself that means it’s gone. The lack of an angry response doesn’t mean the anger is gone, but when the anger is gone the response will go as well.
Third, emotions are not at odds with the Fruit of the Spirit, but as James points out, anger will not promote the righteousness of God in your life. As the Fruit of the Spirit are growing in my life I will not respond out of my emotions. Just as a fool gives vent to everything he thinks while a wise man waits and holds his tongue, so a mature Christian will be able to be angry but respond with self control, love, peace, patience . . . Fruit of the Spirit. Anger and the Fruit of the Spirit can coexist because anger is not a sin. We must be taught how to not be ruled by our emotions, how to not be like the fool who gives vent to everything on our minds, how to be angry and sin not.
What I believe about emotions isn’t pop psychology, or my own musings. Rather, it is wisdom that I glean from both the Bible and those who study emotions and the mind. I consider it foolishness to ignore outright the knowledge of those who have devoted themselves to studying something simply because they do not hold to the same faith I have. Where our faith causes incompatible views that must be considered, but where it doesn’t then there is wisdom to be gleaned from many sources. And because the Bible doesn’t say that anger is a sin I believe there is wisdom in listening to those who have studied anger and how to address it. I teach reflecting feelings, validating them, teaching healthy and appropriate ways to express them, and never stuffing them. Stuffed feelings don’t go away, they go underground and affect the person in ways that are less obvious. Emotional issues are at the root of many (though not all) addictions, depressions, anxieties, eating disorders, etc. But the emotional root of these things is not obvious to those who are not experienced at treating them. This is why I say I want to provide a safe place for my children to experience and learn how to express their feelings.
I have found, in my own life and in my own home, that when emotions are intense and negative there is a reason. Often the child doesn’t understand how to respond to something at a basic core level – there is confusion or hurt or misunderstanding. By not reacting to the emotion (though responding to how the emotion is expressed and teaching proper expressions) but reacting to the heart of the child in a loving and accepting way I am able to determine what is prompting the negative emotion and address that. An example that just happened today. Yesterday my daughter was having some intense reactions to things and getting the stomach aches she gets when she is stressed. I couldn’t figure out what was going on with her, though I addressed any inappropriate reactions she had, until she said something this morning about the appraiser who was coming to our home today because we are refinancing our home. She didn’t understand what a refinance was and thought we were moving again – something that has caused her great stress when we’ve done it and we’ve done it too many times in her life. When I explained what a refinance is and assured her that we aren’t moving and are staying put she smiled a smile I haven’t seen in days and began to glow. She returned to her normal cooperative and helpful self. It would have been too easy to punish her reactions and the inappropriate expressions of her emotions, to see her as defiant or as having an “angry spirit”, but I know her to be a beautifully social child and I assigned a positive intent by assuming something else was wrong that she couldn’t put into words. Turns out I was right.
Throughout Scripture we read about an emotional God, and an emotional Jesus, and emotional disciples, writing to emotional people. Emotions aren’t sin. They do, however, need to be understood.