Compassion and Anger
What would perfect anger look like? This is perhaps the key contribution of B. B. Warfield’s seminal essay, and it may map on to a rising question in your own mind in the course of any study of the heart of Christ. Namely, how does this emphasis on Christ’s heart, his gentle and lowly heart, his deep compassion, fit with the episodes of anger that we find in the Gospels? Are we being unhelpfully partial if we focus on his gentleness? Is he not also wrathful?
Consider what Warfield says as he begins to explore the anger of Jesus. After noting that it is a matter of moral perfection not only to distinguish between good and evil but to be positively drawn toward one and repelled by the other, he says:
It would be impossible, therefore, for a moral being to stand in the presence of perceived wrong indifferent and unmoved. Precisely what we mean by a moral being is a being perceptive of the difference between right and wrong and reacting appropriately to right and wrong perceived as such. The emotions of indignation and anger belong therefore to the very self-expression of a moral being as such and cannot be lacking to him in the presence of wrong.1
Warfield is saying that a morally perfect human such as Christ would be a contradiction if he didn’t get angry. Perhaps we feel that to the degree we emphasize Christ’s compassion, we neglect his anger; and to the degree we emphasize his anger, we neglect his compassion. But what we must see is that the two rise and fall together. A compassion-less Christ could never have gotten angry at the injustices all around him, the severity and human barbarity, even that flowing from the religious elite. No, “compassion and indignation rise together in his soul.”2 It is the father who loves his daughter most whose anger rises most fiercely if she is mistreated.
Consider Jesus’s anger through the following logical syllogism:
Premise #1: Moral goodness revolts with indignant anger against evil.
Premise #2: Jesus was the epitome of moral goodness; he was morally perfect.
Conclusion: Jesus revolted against evil with indignant anger more deeply than anyone.
Yes, Jesus pronounced searing denunciations on those who cause children to sin, saying it would be a better fate if they were drowned (Matt. 18:6), not because he gleefully enjoys torturing the wicked but most deeply because he loves little children. It is his heart of love, not a gleeful exacting of justice, that rises up from his soul to elicit such a fearsome pronouncement of woe.
Likewise with the sustained pronouncement of judgment on the scribes and Pharisees throughout Matthew 23—what fuels such terrifying censures? It is his concern for those being misled and mistreated by these revered religious PhDs. Those who listen to these teachers are being given “heavy burdens, hard to bear” (Matt. 23:4). These dear people are being made “twice as much a child of hell” as the scribes and Pharisees are (Matt. 23:15). In short, the scribes and Pharisees are guilty of the blood of a whole string of righteous prophets (Matt. 23:34–35). Their heart for the people was the opposite of Jesus’s heart. They wished to use the people, to build themselves up; Jesus wished to serve the people, to build them up. Jesus wanted to gather the people under his wings the way a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings for maternal protection (Matt. 23:37).
What about driving the money changers out of the temple? That wasn’t exactly a very gentle thing to do. How does his heart fit with that? We’re actually told that Jesus made the whip himself (John 2:15). Picture him there, off alone, weaving back and forth, calmly constructing the weapon by which he would ferociously drive out the money changers, flipping over their tables. But why did he do this? Because they had perverted the use of the temple. This was the house of God, the one place where sinners could come and offer sacrifices and enjoy fellowship with God, reassurance of his favor and grace. It was to be a place of prayer, of blessed interchange between God and his people. The money changers were the ones doing the real overturning—overturning the temple from a place to know and see God to a place to make money.
Too Much Love for Indifference
What we are saying is that, yes, Christ got angry and still gets angry, for he is the perfect human, who loves too much to remain indifferent. And this righteous anger reflects his heart, his tender compassion. But because his deepest heart is tender compassion, he is the quickest to get angry and feels anger most furiously—and all without a hint of sin tainting that anger.
His anger can be trusted. For it is an anger that springs from his compassion for you.
The clearest example of Christ’s righteous anger in the Gospels is the death of Lazarus in John 11, where the verb used in verses 33 and 38 to describe Jesus’s inner state is one of profound fury. “Jesus approached the grave of Lazarus, in a state, not of uncontrollable grief, but of irrepressible anger. . . . The emotion which tore his breast and clamored for utterance was just rage.”3 Warfield goes on to consider the role that Lazarus episode plays in John’s Gospel as a whole. Note the way he ties in the heart of Christ:
Inextinguishable fury seizes upon him. . . . It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage. . . . The raising of Lazarus thus becomes, not an isolated marvel, but . . . a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus’ conquest of death and hell.
What John does for us . . . is to uncover for us the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf. He has not only saved us from the evils which oppress us; he has felt for and with us in our oppression, and under the impulse of these feelings has wrought out our redemption.4
The Lion and the Lamb
While Christ is a lion to the impenitent, he is a lamb to the penitent—the reduced, the open, the hungry, the desiring, the confessing, the self-effacing. He hates with righteous hatred all that plagues you. Remember that Isaiah 53 speaks of Christ bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows (Isa. 53:4). He wasn’t only punished in our place, experiencing something we never will (condemnation); he also suffered with us, experiencing what we ourselves do (mistreatment). In your grief, he is grieved. In your distress, he is distressed.
Are you angry today? Let us not be too quick to seek to diffuse that as sinful. After all, the Bible positively orders us to be angry when occasion calls for it (Ps. 4:4; Eph. 4:26). Perhaps you have reason to be angry. Perhaps you have been sinned against, and the only appropriate response is anger. Be comforted by this: Jesus is angry alongside you. He joins you in your anger. Indeed, he is angrier than you could ever be about the wrong done to you. Your just anger is a shadow of his. And his anger, unlike yours, has zero taint of sin in it. As you consider those who have wronged you, let Jesus be angry on your behalf. His anger can be trusted. For it is an anger that springs from his compassion for you. The indignation he felt when he came upon mistreatment of others in the Gospels is the same indignation he feels now in heaven upon mistreatments of you.
In that knowledge, release your debtor and breathe again. Let Christ’s heart for you not only wash you in his compassion but also assure you of his solidarity in rage against all that distresses you, most centrally death and hell.
- B. B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ (Oxford, UK: Benediction Classics, 2015), 107.
- Warfield, Person and Work of Christ, 141.
- Warfield, Person and Work of Christ, 115.
- Warfield, Person and Work of Christ, 117. See also the comments of Calvin, explicitly disagreeing with Augustine and proleptically agreeing with Warfield, on the full-throttled humanness of Christ’s emotions in John 11: Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, 1:439–43.
This article is adapted from Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane C. Ortlund.
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