Our world is full of angry people. They are out there on the roads, in the office, and at home. You will find them on Twitter, Facebook, and the nightly news. Like the frogs, gnats, and flies in the Egyptian plagues, angry people are everywhere.
And anger is generally ugly. It was probably anger that lay behind the apostles’ desire to call down fire on a village that wouldn’t receive Christ. To these apostles our Lord replied, “Ye know not what spirit ye are of” (Lk. 9:55) and he rebuked them. It was anger that caused Moses to “speak unadvisedly with his lips” and to strike the rock when he should only have spoken to it (Ps. 106:32-33). It lost him the opportunity to enter the Promised Land.
Anger is so serious that our Lord likened it to murder: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (Mt. 5:21-22). A problem might arise between two people that is initially solvable; but once you interject anger into the matter, you have almost guaranteed disaster. We are told that it was hatred that caused Cain to kill his brother Abel (1 Jn. 3:12-13). In fact, the apostle John goes on to say, “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (1 Jn. 3:15). And though anger and hatred may not lead to murder every time, yet it has killed many marriages, alienated friends, and shut the doors on many a church. According to Jay Adams, sinful anger is behind about 90 percent of the problems that counselors deal with.
And yet . . . anger is not always bad and sinful and wicked or even ugly. We know this because the apostle says, “Be ye angry.” That is a command, not a concession. Though some commentaries try to soften the apostle’s meaning here by translating it, “If you are angry, don’t sin,” that is not what the apostle said. It is best to simply take the apostle’s meaning at face value. This is a command to be angry. In other words, there are times in which it would be wrong not to be angry.
Our purpose this morning as we look at this text is to consider how to balance this command with others like that in verse 31: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger [this is the noun form of the verb Paul uses in verse 26], and clamour, and evil-speaking, be put away from you, with all malice.” Obviously, there is such a thing a sinful anger. We are to put that away. It is part of putting off the old man. We also see this by the words that immediately follow the command to be angry: “and sin not.” The dividing line between righteous anger and sinful anger has been likened to a razor’s edge. It is indeed very thin. And it behooves us to know where that line is. Because the phrase “and sin not” is also a command. You don’t get to choose which one to obey. We must be angry and we must not sin when we are angry. The question then is, how do we do that?
As we consider this, we must be careful that we approach this as Christians. And that means that we approach this from the perspective of the gospel. With this in mind, the first thing I want to point out is that we must never approach lists of do’s and don’ts (as we find here in Ephesians 4 and many other places in the NT) as a way to become superior to others. If you can master your anger and turn it to holy and good uses, that is wonderful. But be careful that you don’t then suddenly think you are superior to those who still lose their tempers and struggle with anger issues.
That is not appropriate and the first three chapters of Ephesians tell us why. If we as Christians are in the position where we are now working on issues like truth-telling and anger and so on, it is because we have been made new (ver. 24). Who was it that made you new? It wasn’t yourself. The reason you are different is because God made you different. He chose you before the foundation of the world and predestined you to become a son or daughter of God. And that meant sending his Son to die for your sins and his Spirit to regenerate you and to give you spiritual life and to raise you from your death in sin. You didn’t do any of that, God did. As the apostle would say to another church, “Who maketh thee to differ from another? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
The point of these commandments is not to put you in a place where you can look down your nose at someone else. Grace precludes that. Grace reminds me that the good in me is a product of God’s good work in my heart and soul. If I am different, he gets the glory, not me. We don’t shine the light by pointing people to ourselves. We shine the light by pointing people to God. Humble people who know they are saved by grace can do that; proud people can’t. In fact, if anything, a proud person is more likely to turn people off the gospel than they are to turn people towards the gospel.
So the gospel helps us to get our attitude right. It helps us to see how we can even begin to approach applying these truths to our lives. It delivers us from Pharisaism and makes us humble light-bearers in the midst of our dark world.
On the other hand, I don’t see how you could do this without the gospel. Someone told me once that they had rejected the Christian faith in which he had been brought up and that this freed him from judging others. I reminded him that grace should keep every Christian from a harsh and judgmental spirit. But I also don’t see how people who reject the gospel can really be free from a judgmental spirit and remain consistent with their beliefs. For if you don’t believe the gospel, then if you have changed (especially when someone else hasn’t), you must believe that the reason for the change lies entirely in yourself. And if that isn’t grounds for a spirit of superiority and prideful disdain of others, I don’t know what is.
Now, what then about the command to be angry? Again, the gospel helps us out here. Those who say there is no room for righteous anger run immediately into problems with the gospel. Because the gospel makes no sense at all apart from God’s righteous anger towards and hatred of, sin. This is exactly what the apostle says at the beginning of Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:16-17). Now why was the apostle so excited about the gospel? When there were a thousand reasons to be ashamed of the gospel, why was he not ashamed? Why, in fact, did he boast in the gospel? The answer comes in the following verse: “For the wrath [Greek is orge] of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [down] the truth in unrighteousness” (ver. 18). The reason there was a cross and an atonement was because God hates sin. He is angry with sinners. His wrath is against those who have broken his law. And he is holy and just and right to do so. In fact, God would not be holy if he were not angry with those who break his law. The gospel assumes that fact, and without it the gospel becomes unintelligible. If God is not angry with sinful men and women, why the cross?
The worst sort of person is the sort of person who yawns at wickedness. It’s the type of person who sees a Hitler and then says, “Well, that’s none of my business.” The problem with our generation is not that people are not angry. It is that we are angry at all the wrong things. We get all bent out of shape over trivialities, over the way a person says something or over issues that are at best secondary in importance. The problem is that we don’t get angry over wickedness. We ought to be angry at wickedness. It ought to grieve us, it ought to make us weep. The reason we don’t do this is not because we are somehow more mature but because we really don’t understand the holiness of God and the ugliness of sin.
Listen to how the psalmist prayed: “Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law” (Ps. 119:136). Or, “I beheld the transgressors and was grieved; because they kept not thy word” (ver. 158). Are we like that? Too often we are not, myself included.
I think we are more like the people that the prophet Jeremiah addressed in his day. He wrote about the false prophets, “For they have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore shall they fall among them that fall: in the time of their visitation they shall be cast down, saith the LORD” (Jer. 8:11-12). They saw abominations and they could not even blush. I think as a culture that is where we are.
The problem is that even the church can absorb the culture in this respect. We have to be careful the kinds of things we let ourselves watch and read and see. Because we can become hardened through continual exposure. We may be telling ourselves the whole time we are watching people on the screen do wicked things that we don’t approve, but as we let our eyes see it our heart is taking notice too. And so we get to where we don’t even blush anymore.
This had happened to the church at Corinth. Paul had to write to them to excommunicate a man who was involved in some unthinkably wicked behavior. The apostle wrote, “And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you” (1 Cor. 5:2). Not only were they not grieving and angry over this deed, they were proud about how they were tolerating him in the church! So the apostle had to tell them to put him out of the church and to deliver him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1 Cor. 5:5). He then goes on to say, “Your glorying is not good” (ver. 6). No, it is not, even in our day when we make such a big deal about being tolerant. More often than not, what this means is tolerating sin when we should hate it and grieve over it.
When our Lord was confronted with willful sin, he didn’t just yawn. On one occasion he made a whip and overthrew tables and ran the charlatans out of his Father’s house. On another occasion, we are told that “when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts” (Mk. 3:5). This is said of him “who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:22).
All this to say that the church needs to recover righteous anger. We need to tremble at God’s law, grieve over the wickedness we see all around us, and to be angry at the havoc that the devil is inflicting in our world. We will never make any real progress in holiness until we do.
But we are all aware of danger that anger brings. We may be strangers to righteous anger, but every one of us is very familiar with sinful anger and the danger is to mistake the latter for the former. So the apostle now goes on to qualify this command to be angry with several important and necessary qualifications. First, with the words, “and sin not,” which he then expands upon in the words, “let not the sun go down upon your wrath,” and then finally in the words, “neither give place to the devil.”
Here again the gospel is our template and frame of reference. Yes, the righteous wrath of God is real. But the gospel doesn’t stop at the wrath of God. It doesn’t just tell us to flee from the wrath to come. If that is all the gospel had to say, it would not be good news at all. The gospel is centered around what God the Son came to do: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16). That is the most amazing news imaginable. We deserve to perish because we have sinned against God. But God the Father sent his Son into the world to pay the price we should have paid for our sin.
In other words, God’s wrath against sin did not preclude his love for those who sinned against him. At one time, you and I were “by nature children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:3). That means that you and I were the objects of God’s wrath. And we were worthy of his wrath. We deserved it. We were dead in sin and slaves to the world, the flesh, and the devil. God could have let our stinking corpses rot for all eternity. But he did not. He sent his Son into the world to die for our sins and to give us life. He loved those against whom he was angry. That’s the gospel.
So how does that apply to you and me? It means that, like God, we are merciful and slow to anger, just as he was to us. We learn to “let not the sun go own upon your wrath.” This is clearly a proverb that is not meant to be taken with excessive literalism. If you live in Greenland and the sun doesn’t go down for several months, this doesn’t give you the right to nurse a grudge for that long! Rather, this just means that we are not to allow ourselves to go on being angry. Whether or not we can resolve the issue isn’t the point; the point is that we have such self-control that we do not allow ourselves to be controlled by anger. It doesn’t dominate us, it doesn’t fester and build up into rage and revenge.
The Christian is a man or woman or boy or girl who has self-control. Paul tells Timothy that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind [self-control]” (2 Tim. 1:7). The initial cause of your anger may have been just; but if you go on allowing the anger to build, whatever else this may be, this is at least a lack of self-control and it now becomes sinful. It is self-control that allows us to be longsuffering and lowly and meek; it allows us to forebear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2). It is what produces the man the apostle James describes in his epistle: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy” (Jam. 3:17). Does this describe us? Are we easy to be entreated? Or are we like a human porcupine that people are afraid to approach? Are we “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you”? (Eph. 4:32). I sometimes think that if people would just be more tenderhearted, a lot of problems in the home and at church and at the workplace would just disappear.
The book of Proverbs has a lot to say on this matter. It tells us that “a man of quick temper acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated” (Prov. 14:17). It tells us that “whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (14:29), and that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1). It tells us that “a hot tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (15:18). It tells us that “good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (19:11). Above all, we learn that “a man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (25:28). Someone who can’t let go of their anger lacks self-control and walks in foolishness.
Now the reason the apostle gives for this is found in verse 27: “Neither give place to the devil.” The problem with anger run amok is that it makes us spiritually vulnerable. Remember what the proverb said: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” The devil is out there waiting for an opening. For us to give into anger is to give him that opening. He knows that once anger begins to control us, we aren’t thinking straight anymore. Satan can start feeding us his lies and we will believe them.
Beware of ever making any decisions based on anger. The probability is that your decisions are being more informed by the devil’s lies than logic and Scripture and good sense. Put away the sinful anger first and then come back to the issue at hand.
We are then to be angry at the sin around us (and in us) but we are not to allow anger so to control us that we give place to the devil and place ourselves at his command. Instead, we are to be angry and sin not, and to not let the sun go down upon our wrath.
I want to end our consideration of this passage with three final observations.
First, there are those who really struggle with anger. The reality is that probably all of us do. I thought I didn’t until I got married and had kids and had to live in an environment where my preferences had to constantly give way to the preferences of others. Then I discovered that I too had a problem with anger! Well, the danger is to say that we can’t help it. That it is just too engrained in our nature to put it away. Now what I want to say to that is just this: it is a false and total lie. If you are a believer, you have put off the old man and put on the new man. You are a new creation. Sin no longer has dominion over you. To say that you can’t obey the apostle’s command is to admit that you are not a Christian, that you are not born again, that you are not being recreated in God’s image. No, my friends, if you are a believer, you are able to obey this command: Be angry and sin not! Put away your anger! Don’t give the devil and opportunity to make hay out of your situation.
Second, we need to remind ourselves of the context. Go back to the beginning of chapter 4. Go back further to chapter 2 and recall that the apostle is very concerned about the fellowship and unity of the Christian church. The reason he is dealing with these issues of truth-telling and anger is that he knows that lies and unbridled anger will inevitably undermine the unity of any body of believers. So this is not just about becoming a better person. This is about becoming a person who can live better in community with others. Christian sanctification is not an exercise in navel-gazing; it is all about building up the community of the church.
Finally, this issue of anger is utterly important for the witness of the church to the world. Beware of becoming like Talkative in Pilgrim’s Progress. Though he could grapple with any theological issue, no matter how abstract, yet he did not have an ounce of true godliness in him. And we are told that it came out in his relationships with others. Here is how Bunyan describes him: “His house is as empty of religion as the white of an egg is of savour. . . . He is the very stain, reproach, and shame of religion, to all that know him, A saint abroad, and a devil at home. His poor family finds it so; he is such a churl, such a railer at and so unreasonable with his servant, that they neither know how to do for or speak to him.” May it not be said so of us.