Welcome to the first topic of this blog series entitled the “Things I Need to Tell Myself.” I decided to follow the advice of “experts” and come up with something big for the first one, and I already feel exposed. Our topic comes from a verse in Ephesians 4, which instructs Christians to “be angry, and do not sin.”
The truth is, I do not always receive the instruction well to be angry and not sin. According to Myers-Briggs, my personality type is INTJ (a discussion for a later time). INTJ’s respond to frustrating situations differently than others. Generally speaking, we have a fuse that is miles long. As my family will affirm, it takes a very long time, and an awful lot, for me to rise to the level of anger. However, if I get there, the result can be a massive, anti-matter explosion that is truly spectacular. My family will affirm that too, and that’s the reason I feel exposed at this very moment. Christians aren’t supposed to get angry, right? To be angry is sinful (at least, that’s what I hear from other Christians). But is that true? Or is there more to the statement “be angry, and do not sin” that we need to consider?
Human anger is an emotion inherent to being created in the image of God. That might seem to be a radical statement to some, but it’s true. When we’re angered by a situation, we’re expressing something that is also found in our righteous and holy God. Consider the Lord’s interactions with his chosen people, Israel, after their exodus from Egypt. He was angry with them many times. His anger “burned hotly” over their complaining (Num 11:1,10). He was angry with Miriam and Aaron for opposing Moses (Num 12:9). He was angry at the Israelites for sacrificing to a false god, Baal (Num 25:3), and killed Israel’s chiefs (Num 25:4) over it. His anger was kindled against ten of the 12 spies who returned with an unfaithful report (Num 32:10) and with Israel for believing them. The Lord’s anger against Israel is listed 23 times in the book of Deuteronomy. And yet, no one has ever said that God was deficient or sinful because of his anger. His anger is always right and just. Therefore, all anger cannot be sinful.
Of course, some will claim that only God can be angry and still be righteous. Humans are not capable of such a thing. And yet, we see the anger of Moses intertwined throughout the stories above. Moses also became angry with Israel many times. He was angry when the Israelites did not take up all the manna (as instructed), which caused it to stink and be filled with worms (Ex 16:20). His anger “burned hot” at the sight of the golden calf and Israel’s idolatry (Ex 32:12). He was angry at the priest’s laziness (Lev 10:16), at the people’s rejection (Num 16:15), and their disobedience (Num 31:14). However, there is no indication in scripture that Moses behaved sinfully because of his anger in these instances. They are simply recorded as “he was angry,” but it was not sin.
We do know of a moment when Moses’ anger with Israel resulted in sin (Num 20:2-13). Again, the people grumbled against Moses and Aaron due to a lack of water (Num 20:2). Moses sought the Lord on behalf of the people, who instructed him to “tell the rock to yield its water” (Num 20:8). Instead, out of anger, Moses struck the rock with his staff twice. The promised water came forth, but Moses had sinned. God had not instructed him to strike the rock, only to speak to it. In the previous incidents, Moses’ anger was justified. But in this case, it was his anger that led him to act excessively. He lost self-control and sinned against God and his people.
Switching to the New Testament, in Ephesians 4:17-32, the Apostle Paul describes our new life in Christ
by contrasting it with the life of unbelievers. He writes:
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”Ephesians 4:26-27
That first phrase in verse 26 is staggering if you believe all anger to be sinful. Paul literally says to those
who’ve received new life in Christ that it’s okay to “be angry.” However, notice there are two instructions in that phrase that are connected by a conjunction. In other words, both instructions must be maintained for the statement to be true. You can be angry if you do not sin. So, the question is what does it mean to “not sin”? Paul clarifies what he means by adding two more instructions; “do not let the sun go down on your anger” and “give no opportunity to the devil.”
By saying “don’t let the sun go down,” I don’t believe Paul means that we can be angry all day and we just need to stop before going to bed. Rather, he’s instructing us to self-limit our anger. Paul understands that we’re created with emotions that include anger. He knows we’re going to experience it, but we need to limit our experience, otherwise we will give opportunities to the devil. Satan will take that anger and turn it into something else – i.e., rage or bitterness. In fact, just a few verses later, Paul instructs us to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, slander, and malice (Eph 4:31). It’s important that we self-limit our anger.
Incidentally, some might look at verses 26 and 31 and conclude that Paul is contradicting himself. In verse 26, he writes to “be angry,” yet in verse 31, he instructs us to “put away all anger.” Which is it? The answer is that it’s both. Our English translation uses a singular word (anger) in both instructions. However, in the original Greek, Paul uses two separate words. In verse 26, the Greek word means to irritate, provoke, or exasperate. This is what Moses mostly experienced with Israel. His anger was a reaction. He was provoked to anger. However, in verse 31, the Greek word Paul uses means violent passion or abhorrence. Here, we’re past the initial reaction and have moved onto separate, retributive
action. Paul says it’s okay to experience the initial emotion, but limit your anger before it turns into sinful
behavior (bitterness, wrath, malice).
The apostle James tells us something similar and gives us a little deeper understanding of why:
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”James 1:19-20
James coaches us to be “slow to anger.” Try not to let it get there. Why? Because our anger does not ordinarily produce righteousness. Instead, we need to do something different that produces righteousness. We must give whatever the circumstance is to God (quickly), and through the Holy Spirit’s power, fight temptation so that our anger doesn’t become something that destroys our witness. The intent of Ephesians 4:26 is that our giving the circumstance over to God needs to be measured in hours, and maybe even minutes. I believe this is what Moses did with his anger so that it didn’t rise to sin in most cases, until it did in Numbers 20.
This is what I need to tell myself often. It is good that I have a “miles long fuse” (be slow to anger). In this way I am obeying scripture, but unfortunately, I still fall short. Too often, my obedience to scripture is obliterated by those times when my fuse still isn’t long enough, and then comes the earth-shattering explosion, followed by all kinds of rage, bitterness, and malice. I need to… no, I MUST tell myself to limit my anger. I MUST (force myself) to give it over to God, all the circumstances and all the results. They are his to solve. I can’t control the circumstances or the outcomes. Neither has God asked me to control those things. He has only asked me to control my reaction to them and not to allow his name to be dishonored by my behavior. These are the things I need to tell myself.
Thanks for reading.