What the Bible Teaches About Anger and Peace

To understand anger and its peaceful Biblical therapies, we make use of the Puritan John Downame’s book, The Cure of Unjust Anger.[1]  Downame focuses on Ephesians 4:26 to frame his discussion:  Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath.

Downame describes anger as, “…an affection in which someone is moved to retaliation in response to a perceived injury or injustice.  The injury in question may be either a true injustice or only an injury in one’s perception, and it may be an injury against oneself or one’s friends, relatives, or some other group.”[2]

Discussing the Greek words that denote a displeasure for offense or a desire for retaliation, he emphasizes the main Old Testament word for anger, apf, meaning literally the flaring of the nose.[3]  The word is ascribed to the LORD Himself, such as in Exodus 4:14 and Numbers 11:1 (see also Romans 1:18,  Mark 3:5 and John 2:13-17).  This connection leads to an important qualification: not all initial anger is unjust if it has a legitimate cause and response (Matthew 5:22).  Downame explains:  “We do not condemn all expressions of anger without making distinctions between them.  For no matter how turbulent and pernicious this affection is when it is corrupted, we must hold that the natural affection itself, as created by God and to whatever degree it is renewed and sanctified by God’s spirit, is just, holy, and lawful.”[4]

Next, Downame transitions to unjust anger with the second part of Ephesians 4:26.  Though we are first told to “be angry” in holy indignation, we are then warned to “sin not”, for in verse 27, Paul warns that the Devil will get a foothold in us, as Downame explains, by an immoderate rejoinder, a misplaced offense or retributive motive, or by indulging sinfully while justifying it to ourselves. 

Downame continues by describing the nature of unjust anger, its internal and external causes,[5] its properties, various kinds, and evil effects.  He then lists the antidotes to avoid or arrest unjust anger.  As we consider his solutions, let us take him to heart, for, “ … it is vain to prescribe medicine if the patient will not take it.”[6]

First, as an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, we must remove the causes of unjust anger before they take hold of our minds; so Downame guides us through how to extinguish self-love, pride, covetousness, fastidiousness (perfectionism), vain curiosity, listening to talebearers, and a lack of meditation while laboring for patience.[7]  He challenges us to bridle anger for one entire day no matter what—and then to build on that daily until it develops into a new habit, for “custom will alter nature.”[8]

But what to do when we have given into unjust anger?  As Ephesians 4:26 instructs us to let not the sun go down upon your wrath,” Downame prescribes the following to quickly get control of ourselves by, 1) not feeding the fire (Proverbs 10:19); 2) proactively withdrawing from others (1 Sam. 20:34); 3) restraining from outbursts (James 1:19);[9] and 4) stopping to think and cool off in the Spirit (John 7:38). 

And what of others unjustly angry with us?  First, be silent with them: “For as fire cannot long continue without wood, so anger cannot long endure when words and cross answers are not multiplied” (Proverbs 26:21).[10]  But because some increase in anger for not being answered, when we need to show our innocence or seek forgiveness we must answer softly (Proverbs 15:1; 25:15).[11]  For, “If you blow on a spark, it will increase into a flame, but if you spit on it, the flame will be quenched—and both proceed from the mouth.”[12]

Lastly, Downame wisely counsels, “It will not benefit a sick man to merely read his physician’s prescription or carry the medicine in his pocket.  If he wants to get well, he must take the medicine according to the doctor’s orders” (James 1:23).[13]  Still, he assures us that God alone can and does this work in us: 2 Cor. 3:5; Phil 2:13, so “let us seek the Lord, the only true physician.”[14]

As we heed Paul’s example to practice such therapy by Christ’s strength in Philippians 4, we can trust we will have His peace that is not of this angry world and transforms us like the man called Legion: clothed, unchained, sitting still, quiet, and in our right mind.[15]

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He and his wife, Fernanda, have six covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, Gabriel, and Gideon.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

[1] John Downame, The Cure for Unjust Anger (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020).  Its original name when published in 1600 was, Spiritual Physick to Cure the Diseases of the Soul, Arising from Superfluitie of Choller, Prescribed out of God’s Word.  Downame, xii.

[2] Ibid, 5.

[3] Ibid, 5-6.

[4] Ibid, 7.  So R.C. Sproul wrote, “The life of Jesus has shown us that being angry, in itself, is not evil. Ephesians 4:25–32 takes this idea a step further. Paul tells us not only that we are permitted to be angry, he also says there are times when we must be angry.”  See “Be Angry, Do Not Sin” as well as part two of his article.

[5] It is interesting to note that even in external offenses that might cause us unjust anger, Downame highlights imaginary offenses which have no other ground than our own suspicion …” as the most common cause of anger in these days, for lack of love causes people to assume the worst of others.” Downame, 50-51.  Also intriguing is that when Downame distinguishes between hidden anger and open anger, he qualifies that, when people conceal the anger they nourish in their hearts in order to have a better opportunity for revenge, which they seek with such complete resolve that they refuse negotiation with the offender … This anger is far worse.”  Ibid, 61-62.  He explains, A secret enemy is more dangerous than one who openly shows enmity.”  Perhaps this is what is often referred to in modern times as passive-aggressive” behavior especially experienced in violating the second greatest commandment per the entire allusion to Leviticus 19:18.  Downame cites such Scriptures as Gen. 3:1; 4:8; 2 Sam. 13:22-23; 20:9-10; and Luke 22:47.  He further elucidates, Their anger is like a river that is most dangerously deep in the place where its waters are most still and smooth.” Ibid, 63.  Still, open outbursts of anger are no trifling matters to manage and are as destructive to self as to others, per Proverbs 16:32 and Ecclesiastes 7:9.  And as we are always to reflect God as His recreated image bearers in Christ, we will want to be slow to anger and swift to forgive (Psalm 103:8; Joel 2:13).

[6] Ibid, 75. As well, let us shiver at who we will be like if we are quick to anger and slow to forgive and reconcile: Satans nature is full of dissension, wrath, and revenge.” Ibid, 78.

[7] Included in that sage advice is to avoid too much busyness “… the mind is distracted and disturbed with abundant busyness and thus made a suitable dwelling place for anger … when we are too busy, something is bound to go wrong.”  Ibid, 105.  Psalm 127:1-2 comes to mind, as well as Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 135.

[8] 106.

[9] He references an ancient counselor’s advice to Caesar to repeat the twenty-four letters of the alphabet before acting out on his anger—just as we often advise our children to count to ten. Ibid, 112.

[10] Ibid, 120.

[11] Ibid, 121.  He provides Abigail’s cooling down David’s tempestuous advance in 1 Sam. 25:24 as our example to follow.

[12] Ibid.  He also notes, “As a red-hot iron when dipped in cold water loses all its heat and returns to its natural coldness, so can the heat of the hottest anger be cooled with a soft answer.”

[13] Ibid, 125.

[14] Ibid.

[15] John 14:27: Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.  Phil. 4:6-7: Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.  And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.


Grant Van Leuven