Is “righteous indignation” righteous?

Righteous indignation. You’ve felt it.

It’s that burning anger that arises within you when a driver flies past you, crossing a double yellow line in a school zone, driving 30MPH over the speed limit, risking the lives of children.

But how do you know that your indignation is actually righteous? We all become indignant. Each of us occasionally mounts our moral high horse, glancing down our nose at those whom we categorize as wicked, chastising the moral evils we see in others. I’ve done it. So have you. But what if your moral high horse isn’t so moral? Would you even know it?

The conscience is a funny thing. Your conscience is your faculty of discerning moral evil. It accuses you when you’ve done wrong. It acquits you when you’ve done right. Your conscience produces righteous indignation when the driver flies you by because it believes that such behavior is wrong. But is your conscience infallible? Sadly, it isn’t.

Your conscience acts like a filter. It lets through thoughts, words, and behaviors that it believes to be good, true, and right, and it prohibits that which it believes to be evil, false, and wicked. But it only acts according to what it knows.

If you were raised in a home in which “doo-doo” was considered a bad word, your conscience will accuse you if you say it. It will also accuse others, believing them to be immoral in their use of words. You might even experience “righteous indignation” at what you perceive to be their crass speech. But if you grew up on a farm, and “shit” was simply the word that you and everybody else you knew—including the leaders at your church—used to describe animal waste, then you wouldn’t think twice about saying it. Your conscience would not accuse you or others.

Individual conscience therefore differs from person to person. What causes righteous indignation in one person may be perfectly acceptable to another. Who’s right?

If there is no God, then none of us ever has the right to exercise righteous indignation. You can only sit back and sigh, frustrated that the man who flies by you in the school zone has a conscience that is—in your opinion—like a colander whose holes are too big. It might work well to strain out big, bow-tie pasta, but its useless for straining small macaroni. But if there is no God, then there is no moral standard, and therefore no way other than personal conscience to determine evil. Then the man in the car isn’t really a jerk, and he’s not really wrong. He simply has a conscience that allows him to do something your conscience would reject. And who’s to say that you’re right and he’s wrong? When there is no moral standard, it’s awfully hard to find a moral high horse to mount.

But blessedly God is, and he alone determines right from wrong. The more you subject your conscience to the Word of God, the more it will function properly. The Bible shapes your conscience, like forming colander along biblical lines, cutting the holes precisely the right size in just the right number, such that your conscience more and more aligns with the character of God himself. The Scripture provides an unchanging moral standard by which to calibrate your conscience.

Proverbs 8:12 says, “The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.” If you fear the LORD, righteous indignation will sometimes rise within your breast, and it ought to. For evil is real, and those who love the LORD hate it.

But before you mount your moral high horse, make sure it’s a biblical horse.

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