Previously, when we examined the injunction to put away lying and to put on truth, we noted that lying, acts of falsehood, are perhaps the most destructive sin in our world. If that is so, then anger may be the second. People who get worked up to fever pitch cause lots of damage. Paul knows that Christians are not immune from this. So, in these two verses, he exhorts them to “cool it.”
Anger is a most destructive force. This should not surprise us, since the father of lies is also described as a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). Genesis 3 records the deception of Satan in the garden, and the first recorded sin following the fall is murder (Genesis 4:1–8).
If we do not properly “uproot anger,”1 then, like a weed, it will strangle healthy growth, and eventually what could be a well-ordered life, family, church and society will become a relationally barren wilderness. These are two very short verses, but they pack a huge punch—a punch that we need to wake us up to dangerously destructive anger. As has been wisely observed, the word “anger” is only letter short of “danger.”
The Christian is one who has been radically transformed. Among other things, this will be manifested in his relationships. This is a major theme in this passage. Paul, realising that Christians are “members of one another” (v. 25), expects the consideration of this organic reality to guide how we treat each other. The community of faith is to be a community of trust (v. 25) and it is also to be a community of peace (vv. 26–27).
In the church, there are plenty of occasions for anger; we must be careful how we respond. Paul is teaching that the community of faith is an emotionally righteous community, rather than an emotionally raging community. May our study be helpful towards this end.
First, in v. 26, Paul reveals what we are to put off: sinful anger: “‘Be angry, and do not sin.’”
Sinful Anger Identified
The word translated “angry” means to feel provoked it enraged. It speaks of becoming exasperated. The same word is translated in Matthew 22:7 as “furious.” The root word speaks of excitement of mind or of violent passions. It can speak of vengeance.
Webster’s dictionary defines anger as “a strong passion or emotion of displeasure or antagonism, excited by a real or supposed injury or insult to one’s self or to others, or by the intent to do such injury.”
There are more than 440 references to anger, fury or indignation in Scripture. In a sense, the Bible is an angry book; some of it is righteous and some of it is decidedly unrighteous. This is the concern in this passage. Most of our anger is rarely righteous and holy and, even when it is, we should not let it fester.
Essentially, as David Powlison comments, sinful anger can be defined as, “I want my way and not God’s, and because I can’t have my way, I rage.”2
The word translated “wrath,” like angry, speaks of indignation or exasperation. The word is found 201 in the NKJV. The main point is simply this: When you get angry—for whatever reason—be sure to cool it, sooner than later.
Command or Concession?
A major interpretive question revolves around whether this verse is to be interpreted as a command or as a concession.
Many see this as a command to “be angry”; specifically, a command to be righteously angry. They say that this is the force of the meaning here, though it cautions against such anger becoming sinful.
Since this is a quote from Psalm 4:4, it may be helpful to understand David’s meaning as a means to enlighten our understanding here. But this is, in fact, easier said than done, because there are a couple of possible interpretations of David’s words.
In fact, this verse has a number of possible meanings.
On the one hand, David could be saying, “Stand in awe, tremble before God and do not commit the sin of anger.” He is perhaps saying that, as we are persecuted by others, we should look to the Lord and tremble before Him, which will keep us from the sin of seeking personal revenge. This interpretation has a lot to commend it.
Another possible interpretation is, “Be righteously angry about persecution but be careful that you do not allow this to morph into sinful anger.”
Bible translators are divided on this. The second part of the verse is without dispute, but the first is not so.
But others think that Paul is not issuing a command but making a concession. Most commentators and lexicons interpret this verse as a concession that anger will occur. They see this as saying, “In your anger, be careful not to sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”
The NIV brings out this anger as a concession when it translates: “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”
This is not an easy matter to settle, but it does seem that we could combine the two and conclude that this verse is a concessive command! It is not necessarily commanding nor commending righteous anger. Rather it is acknowledging that anger is a reality in our lives. Therefore, the caveat, and the stress of the verse, is to make sure that, in our anger, we do not sin. Certainly this would imply that there is such a thing as non-sinful anger; there is a legitimate because righteous anger. But again, this is not the point! Rather the verse stresses the danger of sinful anger and thereby warning against it.
This is probably the correct meaning due to two contextual considerations: First, there is nothing in the context that would lead us to the conclusion that Paul is concerned with encouraging righteous anger; and, second, the thrust of the entire passage serves as a warning against the destructive nature of anger and therefore how it must be “put away” (vv. 26b, 31).
Therefore, consider a helpful paraphrase: “Anger is to be avoided at all costs, but if, for whatever reason, you get angry, then refuse to indulge such anger so that you do not sin.”3
In other words, Paul’s concern for the church arises from the knowledge that anger, this most human of responses to perceived evil, is bound to occur; yet we must not become guilty of the sin that accompanies it. When we get heated up, we must take personal responsibility to cool down—soon.
Even though this verse does not stress the matter of righteous anger, nevertheless we must address this. Clearly, the Bible reveals such anger.
God exercises righteous anger. He would not be a trustworthy God if He was not angry at injustice. Consider some texts that speak of God’s anger.
Exodus 4:14—So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and He said: “Is not Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. And look, he is also coming out to meet you. When he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.”
Numbers 11:1—Now when the people complained, it displeased the LORD; for the LORD heard it, and His anger was aroused. So, the fire of the LORD burned among them, and consumed some in the outskirts of the camp
Deuteronomy 6:14–15—You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are all around you (for the LORD your God is a jealous God among you), lest the anger of the Lord your God be aroused against you and destroy you from the face of the earth.
Joshua 7:1—But the children of Israel committed a trespass regarding the accursed things, for Achan the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the accursed things; so the anger of the LORD burned against the children of Israel.
2 Kings 21:14–15—So I will forsake the remnant of My inheritance and deliver them into the hand of their enemies; and they shall become victims of plunder to all their enemies, because they have done evil in My sight, and have provoked Me to anger since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day.
Psalm 7:11—God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day.
Since we are made in God’s image, it is a given that we too are right to be angry at injustices. In fact, unbelieving governments are mandated by God to administer His wrath (Romans 13:4). Clearly justice, as administered by the government, contains an element of anger against evil.
This matter of righteous anger is especially true of Christians. Henry Ward Beecher famously said, “A man that does not know how to be angry does not know how to be good.”
The Christian should be appropriately angered at the brokenness of the world; the world that, of course, was made by our holy Father God. When we see God’s law trampled, and when we see His light obscured, we should be righteously angered.
Anger supposes a standard. It supposes norms. It supposes that some actions are right and some are wrong. Where there is no sense of such standards there will be no anger. And, of course, that can be a problem. John Stott lamented, many years ago, that, in his view, Christians generally were not properly angry enough. He wrote, “There is such a thing as Christian anger, and too few Christians either feel or express it. Indeed, when we fail to do so, we deny God, damage ourselves and encourage the spread of evil.”4
If this is so, then the reason is quite clear: because we have ceased to take truth seriously (vv. 21, 25). If we do not love the truth than we will not hate the lie. If we do not love righteousness we will not hate wickedness. If we do not love the Lord, then we will not hate the evil (Psalms 45:7; 97:10). God’s standards stir the hearts of the saints. Righteous anger arises when we are offended that God is being dishonoured. Jesus was angry when He saw God dishonoured in the temple, and so He overturned tables and drove out the money changers. The psalmist wrote “Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked, who forsake thy law” (Psalm 119:53). Moses’ “anger became hot” when he witnessed the idolatry of God’s people (Exodus 32:9).
When Nathan confronted David for his sin with Bathsheba, he did so with a parable of a rich man who stole and slaughtered the only sheep of a poor farmer. Thinking that the prophet was recounting a historical event, he became angry at the injustice. His “anger was greatly aroused,” and he pronounced the sentence of death on the rich man (2 Samuel 12:35).
Of course, the Lord Jesus Christ, the perfect man, was angry at times. Since He was without sin we can conclude that His anger was righteously justified. Consider this example of righteous anger from Mark’s Gospel:
And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. And He said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.” Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent. And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other.
Matthew 21:12–13 recounts the second instance in which Jesus cleansed the temple: “Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, ‘It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’”
Jesus showed anger again when the disciples tried to send away the mothers and their children (Mark 10:13–16). He was indignant and distressed at the way the disciples were thwarting His loving purposes and giving the impression that He did not have time for ordinary people.
So yes, there is a place for righteous anger. However, I doubt that most of us have engaged in purely righteous indignation. Too often, we have begun with a righteous anger only for it to then morph into sin—from righteous to rage. This verse is a warning against this. I assume that this passage convicts us all. I know that it has convicted me as I studied in preparation for this message.
Sinful Anger Contextualised
The context of this anger is that of the church (“members of one another,” v. 25; vv. 1–6; etc.). This is important, for a couple of reasons.
First, if we learn to deal with our anger in these relationships then we will be in a better position to deal with our anger in other spheres.
Second, it is in these relationships where perhaps we can be tempted to sinful anger because of our high expectations for the community of faith. This is a very important point, which we would be wise to explore.
It is within the community of faith that we, correctly, expect the most righteousness. We expect for each member to love one another and to serve one another. As we have recently seen, we have good biblical reason to expect covenantal faithfulness from one another in the community of faith. We expect members to mean it when they commit to meaningful membership; what we don’t expect is meaningful members to be mean!
Therefore, when unrighteous behaviour arises from someone in the congregation, we may be stirred toward righteous indignation. But this can soon morph into unrighteous indignation. That, it seems to me, is at the heart of Paul’s concern.
David wrote Psalm 4 out of an experience of persecution and opposition from without. He was tempted to personal revenge, and so he reminded himself of the need to not sin in his anger. The same applies for the community of faith: Personal offence often leads to the desire for personal defence, and rage may arise.
Hard on Saints and Soft on Sinners?
Have you ever heard the criticism against the church that we are often kinder and more understanding to those who are in the world than to those who mess up in the church? This is what I mean.
The same applies to how we treat those in our home. We are often harder on family members than we are to those who are not in our family. Again, the cause is the same: high expectations. In fact, it is this very issue of “great expectations” that often underlies our anger towards those who fall short of the bar that we have raised so high. We might put it this way: Great expectations often result in grievous exasperation. Paul says, “This should not be!” Rather, gracious understanding is the godly expectation.
It seems pretty that the anger prohibited here is “a brooding, simmering anger that is nurtured and not allowed to die. It is seen in the holding of a grudge, in the smouldering bitterness that refuses to forgive. It is the anger that cherishes resentment and does not want reconciliation.”5 And it is contextually applied to our relationship to one another in the community of faith.
Kent Hughes comments concerning the danger of anger, of which Paul is warning, “What began so properly becomes a matter of pride and then, as the Puritan Thomas Boston said, becomes ‘evil in itself, and dishonourable to God; being the vomit of a proud heart and an unmeekened spirit.’”6
Sinful Anger Energised
Obviously, if we will discover and apply the cure for anger, we first need to understand its cause. Perhaps a definition will prove helpful in this regard.
Pastor and author Robert Jones, in his excellent book Uprooting Anger, defines anger as, “a whole-personed active response of negative moral judgment against perceived evil.”7 That is a mouthful, so let me break it down to its components.
Anger involves our entire being. It envelopes us as we actively respond. It affects us emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. There is nothing passive about it. Anger is rooted in a judgement call that something is wrong. It may or may not be an evil, but we perceive it to be so. In fact, it is this aspect that determines whether our anger is righteous or unrighteous.
But leaving righteous anger aside, what are the causes of sinful anger?
One contributor to sinful anger is wrong standards. We wrongly perceive something to be evil and so we make a judgement call about it and we have a “whole-personed active response of negative moral judgment against it.”
For example, we believe that righteousness demands we get the bigger piece of pie. We believe that righteousness demands that we get the promotion rather than our fellow-employee. We believe that we should be shown a certain level of respect. We believe that we should have the best seats at the rugby match. (Given the current state of South African rugby, the best seats may be no seats at all!) Paul Tripp helpfully explains this principle when he writes,
The “biblical acceptability” of your anger depends upon the law which you’re angrily defending.
Think about it this way: how much of your anger last week was a result of you angrily defending the law of God? Were you angered by injustice and political corruption? Were you angered by Christians being persecuted? Were you angered by the weak being exploited?
Sadly, that anger doesn’t last very long. Frequently my anger is a result of me angrily defending another law—the law of me. I get angry when someone changes the channel, when they add something to my schedule, or when they request I give up something to serve them.8
You can fill in the blank with numerous examples, but I trust you get the point. The only righteous standard whose violation deserves anger is God’s, not mine. So one way to deal with sinful anger is to be sure that your standard of right and wrong is the standard as determined by God. This brings us to the next observation.
Sinful anger arises, not only because of skewed standards, but also because of sinful self-centredness.
That is, the evil that we actively respond to with a whole-personed negative moral judgement is perceived from our personal standpoint rather than from God’s. Our good, rather than God’s glory, drives sinful anger.
It is when we become obsessed with our rights and our comfort that sinful anger takes root. Self-defensiveness, because of self-centredness, produces a crop of sinful anger. Sinful anger occurs when we perceive a slight against us as the most serious of sins. And because it is so serious, we cannot heed the advice of the popular song from Frozen; we just cannot “let it go.”
Frederick Buechner has observed,
Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontation still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back; in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.
The question must be asked, he adds, “how many of us are gnawing on our own souls?”9
Take the examples above. In each instance, the problem is that we are self-centred about our desires for the pie or the promotion or the affirmation or the privilege. Even when our cause is righteous, it can all too easily morph into self-centredness. Stott observes, “We need to remember our fallenness, and our constant proneness to intemperance and vanity…. We have to make sure that our anger is free from injured pride, spite, malice, animosity and the spirit of revenge.”10
For example, how often, when our children disobey us, does our anger arise because they have disobeyed us, not because they have disobeyed God? How often do we get angry at church members who are not fulfilling their covenantal obligations, not because of the disgrace it brings to Jesus Christ, but because of how it affects us? How often do lawless drivers anger us, not because they put other road users at risk, but because they are beating us to the next robot or stop street?
It is this insidious cause—self—that corrupts what might be righteous anger into very unrighteous indignation and rage. We will look at the cure for this rage in a future study.
The Desire to Control
Finally, another cause behind sinful anger, closely related to self-centredness, is the desire to control. And it is most often this desire for control that leads to the folly of being angry with God.
Children who will not rule their spirits are essentially struggling with wanting to be in control. The same is true for many who struggle with anger, no matter their age. But when we aim to be in control, we are attempting the usurpation of God’s sovereignty.
The matter of divine sovereignty does not only relate to salvation—as essentially beautiful as that truth is. It has also to do with every sphere of our life. The Christian who learns to submit to the sovereign hand of God will relinquish control to God; and rather than being angry at the circumstances God has ordained, he, like Paul, will be content in whatever situation he is in (Philippians 4:11).
Rather than being angry at God for our sufferings, we need to acknowledge His unblemished character, and therefore we will be empowered to suffer well. Part of that is being calm rather than contentious—either towards others or God.
Jones very helpfully counsels, “Anger, as God-playing, is of the worst moral evil. To repent of [such] anger is to acknowledge God’s rightful and sole place as King over your entire world.”7
Sinful Anger Exercised
How does anger express itself? What are the consequences of sinful anger? We can identify these under two categories: blow up and clam up; rage and retreat. Neither is healthy; both are destructive.
Rage or Blow Up
Someone has well said, “Don’t fly into a rage unless you are prepared for a rough landing.” Let’s consider some biblical examples of this expression of anger.
When Naaman was told that cleansing from leprosy was dependent on him washing in the Jordan River, he was angry. There were far better rivers in Damascus, he reasoned. Besides, Elisha had not even had the common courtesy to talk to him directly, but had done so through his assistant. “So he turned and went away in a rage”—and still very much a leper (2 Kings 5:12)! His rage did not serve him very well at all.
In 2 Chronicles 28, the Lord allowed Judah to be defeated as a result of idolatry. First, the Syrians attacked at defeated Judah, and then the Israelites took advantages of Judah’s weakened state to do the same. Israel took two hundred thousand captives, and much spoil. God, however, was displeased with the way that they did so, and so He sent a prophet to Israel with this message: “Look, because the LORD God of your fathers was angry with Judah, He has delivered them into your hand; but you have killed them in a rage that reaches up to heaven” (v. 9). God’s law forbade Israel from taking Jewish captives, but their rage had led them to sin in this regard, and the result was that “the fierce wrath of the LORD” was upon them (v. 11).
Nebuchadnezzar was offended that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would not bow to his golden statue, and so, “in a rage and fury” he commanded them to be cast into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3:13). When Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, the religious leaders “were filled with rage, and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:9–11). David portrayed the nations of the earth in a “rage” against God as they plotted to kill Jesus (Acts 4:25–29; cf. Psalm 2).
In each of these instances, self reigned supreme and, for the most part, rage led to destruction. This is usually the case. Sinful anger is destructive. It destroys marriages, families, friendships, workplaces, nations and churches. How many pastors have lost their effectiveness, if not their entire ministry, because of sinful anger! How many church members have apostatised because of sinful anger! How many church members have been wounded because of the sinful anger of other church members!
Jesus warned that sinful anger is closely affiliated to hatred, which is tantamount to murder (Matthew 5:21–22). Therefore, we had better cool it!
Clam Up or Retreat
The slow burn of anger may be masked for a while, but ultimately sinful heartburn will reveal itself in very destructive ways.
I suppose that most of us are prone towards one form of anger more than another. But even those who usually rage, will at some point probably express their sinful anger by shunning those with whom they are angry. They will cut themselves off from others, cruelly ignoring them. We may argue that it is better for everyone if we keep our distance, and yet inwardly we are simmering. The result is self-destruction. As someone has put it, “anger is an acid that consumes its container.”12
What does this look like? It looks like church members avoiding others in the congregation. It looks like the experience of every pastor I have known: an angry congregant who refuses to make eye contact with him as he preaches God’s Word. It looks like husbands and wives who go to bed early, sometimes in separate rooms, as a means of cold-shouldering. It looks like children who give their parents the silent treatment (and vis a vis). Moping and sullenness may also reveal an angry heart.
Whatever the form it takes, the angry response of isolation is no less a sin than the angry response of ventilation. The consequences of either of these sinful displays of anger can be divisive, destructive and even devastating. We need to get a grip. We are not to heat up; we are not to freeze up; rather, we are to cool it!
Paul also reveals here what we are to put on: self-control. That is the drive behind “do not let the sun go down on your wrath” (v. 26). Someone has put this principle well by saying, “One thing that improves the longer it is kept is your temper.” There is some simple advice in these words that will help us to properly guard against sinful anger. We can use the acronym KISS: Keep It Short, Sinner.
Boice comments, “To allow it to fester and swell and surge about for any extended period is quite dangerous.”13 And Chapell writes, “Our emotions are not to so control our actions that they then turn to ungodly and destructive expression (Ps. 4:4).”14 This is why Paul exhorts with this caution.
We are to cool it—immediately: “do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” This exhortation perhaps is rooted in the thought emanating from Psalm 4:4. There, the writer exhorts those who are tempted towards sinful, self-centred anger, to rather cool it by meditating on their bed. The idea is that, rather than responding in kind (see Romans 12:17–21), those tempted to anger should deal with it before going to sleep. After all, as the psalmist testifies, if we properly handle our anger, we “will both lie down in peace, and sleep,” for the Lord makes us to “dwell in safety” (v. 8).
I think that David and Paul are teaching the same truth: Deal with your anger immediately and appropriately by dealing with it theologically. Let God be your defence and you will sleep well. Such theology is the ultimate sleeping aid.
This verse is not teaching that every conflict must be resolved before going to bed. This reminds me of the story of the little boy who got into a fight with his brother. The whole experience left him feeling bitter. When his brother wanted to make things right, he refused to listen. In fact, he would not speak to his brother all day.
Bedtime came, and their mother said to the boy, “Don’t you think you should forgive your brother before you go to sleep? Remember, the Bible says, ‘Do not let the sun go down on your wrath’” (Ephesians 4:26). The boy looked perplexed. He thought for a few moments and then blurted out, “But how can I keep the sun from going down?”
That’s exactly the point: You can’t keep the sun from going down. We are to therefore defeat the temptation to sinful anger as soon as it arises. We are not to linger on offences committed against us. Though we must, in many cases, still work on reconciliation, the anger is not to last. We are to put it away immediately. If we do not, then even righteous anger will soon become sinful anger.
But how do we do this? We do it by preaching the gospel to ourselves—by remembering our offences against Christ and His forgiveness. We do so by self-examinations—frankly admitting that we have probably many times committed the same wrongs. We do so by remembering God’s promises and His sovereignty. We do so by remembering God’s glorious purpose for us, as well as His purpose for the one with whom we are in conflict. Jones speaks of what he calls “holy lamenting—learning how to complain in faith—to God about the calamities He sends.”7
We are called to honour the Lord. Let us therefore grow in our knowledge of God and of His gospel. And then let us turn away from anger—immediately.
Christian, are you angry? Then cool it—before the evil one exploits it (v. 27). Jesus Christ deserves better from His church. And thankfully He has supplied all we need to cool it. Let us put off sinful anger and put on righteous self-control as we put into our minds the glorious grace of the gospel of Christ.
- Robert D. Jones, Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2005). ↩
- Scott O’Malley, “Understanding and Redeeming Anger,” https://goo.gl/mCbaKN, retrieved 20 November 2016. ↩
- Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians: Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1990), 301. ↩
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 185. ↩
- Precept Austin, “Ephesians 6:4 Commentary,” https://goo.gl/90Sy3g, retrieved 20 November 2016. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 149. ↩
- Jones, Uprooting Anger, Kindle edition. ↩
- Paul Tripp, “Be Angry. Don’t Sin.” https://goo.gl/xNbw2s, retrieved 20 November 2016. ↩
- Hughes, Ephesians, 149. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Ephesians, 186. ↩
- Jones, Uprooting Anger, Kindle edition. ↩
- Bryan Chapell, Ephesians: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009), 224. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 168. ↩
- Chapell, Ephesians, 222. ↩
- Jones, Uprooting Anger, Kindle edition. ↩