Be angry!…but do not sin.

Friday 3/23/12

This past Sunday at Wellspring Anglican Church where I am now regularly attending, Billy Waters (pastor) preached about sinful anger from Ephesians 4:25-32 during his focus on “sins of the heart” in this Lenten season before Easter.  It was a good sermon and it is a good series since it is what comes out of a person’s heart that makes them unclean, not what goes in (Mark 7:14-23).  Anger is one such sin that comes from within and it can be difficult to ascertain it, understand how it got there, and root it out.  Sinful anger in our lives is like an intruder in our heart yet we often don’t do much about it.  Laziness and complacency only make it worse.  Is the sinful anger in our lives the number one priority on our list to pray about and get rid of?  If not it should be because anger can and does destroy friendships and marriages, hurts your work, and poisons the body of Christ.  

What is the context of this passage?  In Ephesians 4 Paul commands us to be angry, but not to sin (quoting from Psalm 4:4). In v. 17 he had begun talking about the the new life in Christ and exactly what it means to be a new creation.  In v. 25 he applies the reality of this new creation to the body of Christ in a series of exhortations calling on Christians to live in unity.  Paul has just spent the first three chapters of Ephesians expounding on his proclamation in 1:10 that God’s ultimate purpose is “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (ESV).  In Eph. 1:15-23 Paul boldly declares that Christ has already defeated all the powers arrayed against him and God has put everything under his feet and elevated him to be head over all.  Due to this reality (indicative), Paul then elaborates on the implications of this in chapters 2-3.  In chapter four he switches from an exposition on the blessings we have in Christ to moral exhortations (imperative) on how we ought to now live.  The continual theme of unity runs throughout chapters 4-6: the unity of the church, of wives and husbands, parents and children, and slaves and masters is an unceasing declaration to the evil powers of this age that Christ has already won the victory and that Christians can partake in this victory in the here and now.  Thus, if believers in the Body are angry at one another and sinning, this causes divisions and ruptures relationships, and in effect rewards a temporary victory to this age.  This certainly is not what God calls us to and it is unnecessary because Christ’s work of subjugation and victory over evil and darkness has already been accomplished!  With this knowledge, the Church can stand on an unshakable foundation and live in unity and love in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Ok, you’re thinking, I get that.  But what exactly is anger?  And why does Paul actually command us to be angry, yet not sin?  Billy did a fantastic job at this point in clearly explaining the answers to these questions.  The clue is to look at the context of Psalm 4.  In this passage, the Psalmist (David), is calling out to God to hear and answer him amidst those who hate him, and David declares that God has set the godly apart to himself.  When God’s people are threatened by their enemies, God’s anger is aroused and it is good and right for Him to be angry.  Indeed, it is also good for other godly men and women to be angry as well.  The same is true in Ephesians 4.  In the process of putting on the new self, one becomes like God is true righteousness and holiness, which means that godly anger is often a part of this likeness.

Billy defined anger this way: “anger is the charged emotion that becomes aroused when anything that we love is threatened.”  In this sense, anger is very good and healthy!  If you never got angry about the things you love when they are endangered, you won’t care to guard and protect them, and ultimately this shows that you don’t value them very much.  One’s anger is therefore proportional to how much they love and treasure these things (be it people or possessions).  If you are only angry a little bit, you can be sure you don’t value that thing all that much.  If you are furious, it’s a sure sign that whatever is threatened inside is of immense worth to you!  This definition is also important because it helps us understand where our anger comes from.  If you can identify the thing in your life that is threatened and which you are angry about, you can figure out whether that is a healthy angry or disordered anger.  As Billy also said, “disordered loves lead to disordered angers; however, right-ordered loves lead to right-ordered angers.”  If you look at the things you are angry about, you will be able to more easily identify your false loves and good loves.  For example, if someone nicks you with their car on the way home from work and your explode in rage, yet you only shrug your shoulders when you get home and find out that the neighbors dog had attacked your wife, something would be seriously wrong!  You would have a very disordered love that revealed you cared more about your car than your wife.

When we see injustice in the world around us or experience it in our own lives, we should rightly get angry and be indignant about this.  But if we find we are disproportionately angry about little things, we should do something about that because it gives the Devil a foothold.  We are trying to protect something that’s not very important and in the process we invite a malicious and merciless intruder into our lives.  So what should be done when we discover these disordered loves that are leading to sinful anger?  How can we root out the Devil and begin the healing process?  Should we lash out and vent in order to purge ourselves from it?  While this might be good in a limited way for someone who is in denial of their anger, this is not healthy for it just leads to more and more outburst that could eventually do permanent harm to ourselves or others.  God has a better way.  Billy outlined four things we can do:

  1. Ask two questions: “what am I defending?” and “what am I attacking?”  The first question will help identify the source of the anger.  In addition, knowing what we are attacking can reveal if we are attacking people when we should be attacking sin and injustice.
  2. Admit where you are wrongly angry or attacking and confess it.
  3. If you are angry at someone for what they have done to you or taken from you, you must step out in faith and forgive.  Forgiveness means taking that debt upon yourself because you can never get back what you have lost or what has been taken.  Revenge might feel good, but it won’t regain that which is lost.  Coming to grips with this debt – which is often terribly painful and overwhelming – and accepting it can only be done with the grace of Christ.  He took the ultimate debt of our sins upon himself and forfeited his life to save us.  Without this knowledge and reality in our lives, it will be near to impossible to forgive others.  This forgiveness is the only way forward, the only way to find healing within, and the only way to experience true freedom.
  4. Lastly, see God’s grace for us and for the other person.  This is the source which we can draw upon to do the first three things: ask, confess, and forgive.  Without God’s grace flowing though our lives we are powerless to deal with our anger.

I was listening intently during the sermon and I realized that many of the the things I have been angry about in my life stem from injustices against me or because people I love have been hurt.  Of course there are petty things I have been disproportionally angry about too.  In addition, I think that one of the sources of my self-hatred is anger I feel against myself when I hurt others.  When I am the source of injustice and hurt, I’m rightly upset!  In a way, these realizations were comforting to me.  Throughout most of my life anger in all forms has been condemned as being sinful and wrong, and thus I have often denounced myself for anger that was actually good and healthy.  This helps me not feel so badly about myself and forgive myself for all the times I’ve been angry and it’s actually been good.

During the sermon I took a closer look at Ephesians 4:26-27 and something jumped out to me that I had never considered before.  In the Greek, the text reads: (26) ὀργίζεσθε καὶ μὴ ἀμαρτάνετε.  ό ἥλιος μὴ ἐπιδυέτω ἐπὶ τῷ παροργισμῷ ὑμῶν, (27) μηδὲ δίδοτε τόπον τῷ διαβόλῳ (orgizesthe kai mē hamartanete.  ho hēlios mē epiduetō epi tō parorgismō humōn, mēde didote topon tō diabolō).  I would translate this as: Be angry, but do not sin.  Do not let the sun set upon your anger nor give a place to the Devil (implying a place in your life). In v. 26 Paul commands us to be angry, which means this kind of anger is good, most likely a righteous anger that comes from a threatened love.  Then he commands us not to sin, which implies two things: one can be angry and not sin, yet anger can lead to sin.  Then, he says something completely unexpected.  One would expect Paul to say “do not let the sun set upon your sin nor give a place to the Devil.”  Yet he doesn’t say this, but instead commands us not to let the sun set upon our anger.  However, from v. 26 we know that Paul commands us to be angry and that it is good.  Why would Paul tell us to not let the sun set upon our anger when he’s just told us to be angry?  This doesn’t seem to make sense.

Traditionally, the second half of v. 26 has been interpreted to mean “do not let the sun set upon your sinful anger.”  But Paul never says “do not let the sun set upon your sinful anger,” he just says not to let it set upon your anger, period.  So what kind of anger is Paul talking about here?  Although I feel hesitant to disregard the traditional understanding, I will venture another interpretation.  Perhaps Paul is saying something like this: Be righteously angry (when necessary), but do not sin.  For if you hold on to your righteous anger for too long, it becomes sinful anger and you give the Devil a place in your life (aka, foothold).  I wonder if Paul is saying that even though righteous anger is justified and good, if you persist in holding onto that righteous anger for too long, and you neither let go of it nor forgive those you are rightly angry at, then it becomes sinful anger – not because the anger itself is wrong, but because of the amont of time you hold on to it.

Now, when Paul says, “do not let the sun set upon your anger” I don’t know if he meant this to be taken literally or if this is some kind of cultural expression with idiomatic connotations.  Does Paul intend for us to deal with our anger – righteous or sinful – within a literal 24-hour period?  Or just sooner rather than later?  I do not know.  The other thing is that I realize Paul does not use a logical or adverbial conjunction between “be angry but do not sin” and “do not let the sun set…” which would draw some kind of causal connection between the two.  He simply states the first command and then the second command.  Since Paul was highly educated and well-versed in Greco-Roman rhetorical styles and argumentation, I would think he would have used a γάρ (“for” – explanatory conjunction) or a ὅτι (“since, because” – causal conjunction) at the beginning of the second phrase to link the two.  Thus, it would say something like this: Be (righteously) angry, but do not sin, for/because if you let the sun set upon your (righteous) anger you will give the Devil a place (in your life).  In addition, the last phrase would have to be future indicative for this to work (but it is imperative in the original).  So perhaps the grammatical construction rules out my interpretation.

Let’s just go with this idea for now and tease it out a little.  If a person is rightly angry about an injustice that has been done against them, is it ok to hold on to this righteous anger indefinitely?  I suppose one could justify holding onto it forever if the offending party never seeks forgiveness or reconciliation.  Does God want us to bring our righteous anger to him as well – to confess it, give it to him, entrust him with justice, and then forgive?  I would say yes!  I can imagine myself (or another) having justified anger and holding onto it for years, all the while rationalizing that there is no need to confess it and forgive since it is righteous anger over an injustice.  I would think this would be damaging, and even sinful.  This could cause someone to become resentful, unforgiving, bitter, and revengeful.  I think this is really important because in this life we are faced with an endless stream of injustices, sin done against us, atrocities, and the like which could easily overwhelm us with the amont of righteous anger we would have if we weren’t continually casting it upon the Lord and trusting him to be a just judge and to grant us forgiveness toward our enemies and the willingness to bring them the gospel.  Even righteous anger, while good, could possibly prevent a Christian from witnessing to and evangelizing those who have unjustly sinned against them.

What does righteous anger call for?  It calls for justice to be served and things to be put right! Yet we often can’t accomplish this in our fallen and corrupt world even when we try.  If we were to hold onto our righteous anger and strive for justice when it is not possible, this could lead to some of the things I’ve already mentioned: bitterness, anger at God, resentment toward those who are perpetuating the injustice, etc.  Since God is the one who will avenge (Romans 12:19), there are times when we must admit that justice just won’t happen this side of heaven and trust that God will one day put things right.  This frees us up to then forgive, even in the absence of justice, and to love and serve our enemies.  Thus, the progression would look something like this:

Injustice > Righteous Anger > Confession & Trusting God to Avenge > Forgiveness > Freedom to Love > Eager to Serve, even our Enemies.

Think about how God has related to us.  Was he just in being angry when Adam and Eve sinned and rebelled against him?  Was God just in being angry at all of man’s sin since then?  Yes.  But what did God do with his just and righteous anger?  Did he set out on the warpath to judge and avenge?  No.  Even in his good and justified anger God sought for a way to forgive and reconcile rebellious man to himself.  And that way was Christ, who took upon himself God’s righteous wrath (propitiation) in order to accomplish both justice and reconciliation.  So in the same way I think we ought not to hold onto our righteous anger and seek revenge (although working toward justice is never wrong), but give it to God and forgive so that we too can extend the hope of salvation and reconciliation to those who have wronged us.

This has very personal implications and application for me.  I had 20 years of my life stolen from me by an abusive pastor and church, and I have a right to be righteously angry at all the injustices done against me and my family.  I could insist upon holding onto this until my dying breath.  In fact, I have been holding onto my justified anger for about two years – not so much purposely, but simply because the consequences of this abuse keep coming up again and again in different areas of my life causing me to cry out to God for justice and for answers.  How could he let this happen?  Why didn’t he stop it?  How can such evil be permitted to exist and perpetuate for so long?  I have a right to be angry, but I now see that I need also to be continually confessing and giving my anger to God because accomplishing justice in these things is beyond my ability.  And as long as I hold on to my justified anger, I doubt I will ever be willing to forgive and be reconciled (if this is even possible).  Yet to do this, I need God’s grace, I need to look ever to the cross and what Christ has done for me, and I must trust that God is a God of justice who will one day put the world to right.

If you would like to listen to this sermon, please go here.  It’s entitled “Sins of the Heart: Anger” from Sunday March 18, 2012.

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2 thoughts on “Be angry!…but do not sin.

  1. Very good! I like the interpretation. Think of Christ’s example, who gave his righteous anger over to His Father instead of holding it: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

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