Culture War, Outrage, and Joy

These days, you don’t have to be a news junky to hear of events that arouse strong disapproval or outright anger. But how should Christians feel about the foolishness and wrongdoing going on in our world and our culture? Should we be unmoved? Should we be perpetually outraged? What about Christian joy?

The Bible is clear that some things ought to get us worked up. We’re called to “hate evil” (Psalm 97:10, Prov 8:13, Amos 5:15), to “be angry” yet “not sin” (Eph 4:26).

We’re also called to be imitators of God and to be re-formed in His image (Eph 5:1, Col 3:10, Gal 4:19). We’re to walk as Christ walked (1 John 2:6). And anger is clearly part of who God is.

God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day. (ESV, Psa 7:11)

And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:15–17)

Scripture is also clear, though, that human anger is tainted. We’re frequently warned against it. For us, “righteous indignation” is apparently less likely than the unrighteous variety.

…for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (Jas 1:20)

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. (Eph 4:31)

So, are we supposed to be angry or not? Are we supposed to be a little bit angry all the time, a lot angry a little of the time, or what?

The key is, again, the character of the God we’re called to emulate and reflect. Note the phrase, “slow to anger.”

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. 6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex 34:5–7, emphasis added)

Since causes for anger happen almost constantly—especially if you’re a God who doesn’t miss anything—slowness means selectivity. This scene in Exodus shows us that outrage selectivity is essential to God’s character (“the name,” v. 5).

We’re also called to selective anger, and for us, that means our outrage is disciplined and informed. It’s no coincidence that, in James, anger and its expression are in tension with listening. We tend to do listening or do outrage, but not do both.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; (James 1:19)

Selective or hypocritical?

Selectivity is essential but it can go wrong. We could be like a toddler at a potluck, choosing what isn’t good for us. Worse, we could be like the Pharisees. Though the passages below lack the words “anger” and “outrage,” strong and vocal disapproval is clear.

And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt 9:11)

But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” (Matt 12:2)

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” (Matt 15:12)

Apparently, even if our outrage is infrequent it can still be twisted or misplaced. Pharisaical outrage:

  • misunderstands what it’s reacting to
  • flows from presumed but false superiority
  • expresses judgmentalism
  • inverts the major and the minor

Part of Jesus’ rebuke in Matthew 23 helps us tie this together.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! 25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. (Matt 23:23–26)

The Pharisees had a hideously convoluted sense of what was morally big vs. what was morally small. So they pointed their fingers at the little “offenses” of their enemies—political enemies, by the way—while feeling far less concern, if any, about the greater wrongs in their own ranks.

But we’re not always so egregious when we botch our outrage selectivity. Sometimes we’re just worked up about words or deeds of a political (or other sort of) “enemy,” but overlook a greater wrong by a more serious enemy. Which is worse, President Biden sending funding to the Palestinian Authority with the (debatable) result that Hamas starts bombing Israel—or the Jew-hating, Israel-hating acts of Hamas?

If we’re madder at Biden than we are at Hamas, our outrage isn’t hypocritical, but we’re not recognizing which events are the “weightier matters.”

Where’s the joy?

Let’s summarize.

We need to be selectively outraged because:

  1. Failings in areas we’re responsible for should bother us more than failings in areas we’re not responsible for.
  2. Some matters are weightier than others, and we need to get our priorities straight.

But there’s a third reason.

It’s pretty simple: We’re not good at being joyful and outraged at the same time—and Christians are called to be exceptionally joyful human beings.

Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8:10)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; (Php 4:4–5)

The Philippians passage reveals two truths we need so badly to keep in front of us in these times:

  1. As Christians we’re not permitted to join the perpetually outraged. We’re supposed to be perpetually something else: “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
  2. As Christians we’re not even supposed to let ourselves be perceived to be among the perpetually outraged: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.”
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