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14. Righteous Anger (Ephesians 4:26-27)

26 Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not give the devil an opportunity.

Introduction

A few years ago, several of us went to minister in a maximum security prison in Texas. One of the inmates who participated in the seminar was “Mo.” Mo was a very large man, built much like a sumo wrestler. Numerous scars on his body bore witness to violence and hard-living he had experienced. This was underscored by his missing front teeth. Watching Mo eat reminded me of watching the clothes tumble about in a large commercial drier in a laundromat. One of Mo’s talents was singing. I will never forget his rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Nor will I forget the words of my friend, Dick Plowman, then area director for Prison Fellowship. Dick said, “Now just what song will Mo sing for us? Whatever one he wants!”

Mo was big enough and tough enough to do just about anything he wanted. God is bigger and stronger. But God’s character limits Him, so that He can act only within His own character. God can only do that which is holy, just, and right. This means that whatever God does is right. Human anger may often be sinful, both in origin and expression, but divine anger is always righteous anger. Human jealousy is most often a vice, rather than a virtue, but when God is jealous it is a righteous jealousy.

Because anger and jealousy are frequently attributed to God in the Bible, we must agree that not all anger and jealousy are evil. Pressing the matter further, if we are to imitate God, then there must be times when we should be angry. Our text in Ephesians 4:27-28 is about righteous anger. In this lesson, we will seek to learn the difference between righteous and unrighteous anger, and how it is that we can express righteous anger in a way that brings glory to God.

You will notice that Paul’s teaching in Ephesians chapter four is similar to that found in the Book of Proverbs:

Answer not a fool according to his folly, Lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own conceit (Proverbs 26:4-5, KJV).

Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity … .

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:26-27, 31-32).

In Proverbs, we are first instructed not to answer a fool according to his folly. In the very next verse, we are instructed to answer a fool according to his folly. Both statements are true, and are to be taken seriously. In the first proverb, we are taught that we ought not respond to a fool on his level, we ought not to allow ourselves to be brought down to the level of a fool by answering him as foolishly as he has spoken. On the other hand, we are to answer the fool in a way that gives him no dignity, no satisfaction, lest he take himself too seriously. A fool is to be deal with as a fool, but we should not be made fools also in the process.

So, too, in Ephesians chapter 4 we have two seemingly conflicting statements. In verse 26, we seem to be commanded to be angry; in verse 31 we seem to be commanded not to be angry. The solution is to be found in the fact that there are two kinds of anger. The anger which is a manifestation of our old self (the flesh) is to be put off. The anger which is a manifestation of God’s righteousness is to be put on.

In this lesson our study will focus on the righteous expression of anger. When we come to verses 31 and 32, we will turn our attention to Paul’s command to put off unrighteous anger. We will begin our present study by considering why Paul would appear to be commanding us to be angry. Then we will consider some examples of righteous anger, as seen in God the Father, in God the Son, and in the lives of some of the saints. We will then give attention to the ways in which anger can lead to sin, turning once again to the examples provided us in the Bible. We will also consider the consequences of unholy anger. We will conclude by identifying some principles which should guide us in distinguishing between holy and unholy anger.

“Be Angry!”
(4:26a)

The command, “Be angry!” just doesn’t sound right, does it? We are uncomfortable with a command like this. We find ourselves trying to avoid or explain this command away, because anger does not sound godly. But we must remember that there are two kinds of anger. There is the “anger of man” which “does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:20), and the anger which is an expression of God’s righteousness. We are commanded in our text to be angry in a way that is righteous, that is a reflection of God.

Let us begin our study by considering examples of righteous wrath in the Bible. We will begin by looking at some instances in which God was angry. Then we will consider the anger of our Lord Jesus Christ. Next, we will consider the righteous wrath of godly men in the Bible. Finally, we will seek to identify some of the characteristics of righteous wrath, which distinguishes it from the wrath of man.

God was angry at the unbelief of Moses, which caused him to resist obeying the command of God to go to Egypt and confront Pharaoh, insisting that he let God’s people go (Exodus 4:14). God is angered by the mistreatment of those who are helpless, the strangers, the widows, and the orphans (Exodus 22:21-24).73 God was also angered by men turning from trusting and worshipping Him, to the worship of idols (Exodus 32:10; Deuteronomy 6:14-15; Judges 2:13-14; Ezra 8:22). God is angered by the grumbling and complaining of His people (Numbers 11:1, 10), which is often expressed by resistance to His appointed leadership (Numbers 12:9).

All of these offenses which arouse God to anger seem reasonable enough, but there are times when men may commit offenses which seem minor to us, and yet which provoke God to anger. One such case is described in 2 Samuel chapter 6. The ark of the covenant had been captured by the Philistines, and was kept for a short time as a trophy in the house of their god, Dagon. The problem with this was that God shamed their “god” and caused a plague to fall on those in whose city the ark was being kept. Eventually, the ark was returned by the Philistines, transported on an ox cart.

One could expect the Philistines to transport the ark this way. They did not know any better. But God had stipulated in the Law that the ark must be carried by the Levites, by means of poles that were place through rings in the ark. The Israelites forgot this and began to transport the ark on an ox cart, like the Philistines. When the ox stumbled and the ark seemed in danger of falling off the cart, Uzzah reached out to stabilize the ark and was struck dead by God. This angered David, who could not understand this outburst of anger at first. Only later, upon reflection, did he realize how important obedience to God’s instructions was. And then, when the ark was transported, it was done as God had instructed (see 2 Samuel 6:1-19).

Our Lord Jesus was also angry. We are told of His anger at the Pharisees for their hardness of heart (Mark 3:5). That same anger seems to be expressed in the cleansing of the temple (John 2:13-22), and in our Lord’s woe’s to the Pharisees in Matthew 23. I believe it is also implied in our Lord’s rebuke of Peter, when he chided Him for speaking of His sacrificial death (Matthew 16:23).

Godly men were also angered by unrighteousness. Moses, who was initially unshaken by Israel’s worship of the golden calf, became angry when he finally came down from the mountain and saw the extent of Israel’s sin (see Exodus 32:1-20). Earlier, Moses was angered by Pharaoh’s hardened heart, and his refusal to listen to God and to let the Israelites go (Exodus 11:8). While the text does not say so, it would appear that David was angered by Goliath’s blasphemy (1 Samuel 17). David was later angry when Nathan told him the story of the rich man who stole a poor man’s little lamb, not knowing that he was the villain (2 Samuel 13:21).

Paul was angered when he learned that false teaching had reached the saints in Galatia, and that some were embracing it. The whole epistle of Paul to the Galatians is white hot with Paul’s expressed anger and outrage. One example of Paul’s anger in Galatians can be seen when he rebuked Peter and others for their hypocrisy in dealing with their Gentile brethren (see Galatians 2). When Paul was illegally beaten and detained at Philippi, he refused to allow his persecutors to simply release him. He demanded and received a public act of apology, which must have gone a long way in securing the protection of the church at Philippi from such injustice in the future (Acts 16:35-39).

Characteristics of Righteous Indignation

Anger is not always wrong. Anger that is righteous has certain earmarks, by which it can be distinguished from unholy wrath. Consider the following characteristics, which are evident from the examples cited above.

(1) Godly anger is God-like anger, it is an expression of the anger which has toward the actions of men. Godly people are angry when God is angry. It is anger which is consistent with the holy and righteous character of God.

(2) Godly anger is legal anger. It is wrath based upon men’s violation of God’s law, and it is anger which is lawfully expressed. The Old Testament Law not only revealed that conduct which was unacceptable to God, making Him angry, but what the consequences of God’s anger would be. Godly anger is not vigilante justice, it is legal justice. Those who hate abortion but express their anger in the burning of abortion clinics (and thereby endangering other lives) are not expressing their anger legally.

(3) Godly anger is not explosive, but is only slowly provoked.

Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth (Exodus 34:6). Repeatedly, God warned sinful Israel through the prophets before pouring out His wrath on them. God’s anger does not have a hair trigger.

(4) God does not take pleasure in expressing His anger in the judgment of men.

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

For the LORD will rise up as at Mount Perazin, He will be stirred up as in the valley of Gebeon; To do His task, His unusual task, And to word His work, His extraordinary work (Isaiah 28:21).

(5) Godly anger is always under control. Godly anger does not lose its temper. Ungodly anger is excessive and abusive; godly anger never is. Godly anger is always under the control of the one expressing it, rather than anger taking control of them.

But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; And often He restrained His anger, And did not arouse all His wrath (Psalm 78:38).74

“Be Angry, But Do Not Sin”
(4:26)

If anger is not always evil, it can easily turn one to evil. Anger, like greed, is often the root of various evils. Ungodly anger may become the root of some of the evils addressed in Ephesians 4 and 5. Anger may prompt one to speak to a brother in a way that is destructive. Just as speak may edify or build up others, it can also tear down and destroy. Anger which is not properly resolved may lead to slander or false testimony. Anger has prompted people to steal. Anger has caused some to be unfaithful to their mate.

Even anger that begins as righteous indignation can turn sour, becoming ungodly wrath. This is why immediately after Paul commands us to be angry, he warns us to be angry, but not to sin. In seeking to understand Paul’s instructions regarding anger and its relationship to sin, we will begin by considering the Psalm from which Paul’s quotation has been taken. After this, we will consider the righteous expression of anger in the context of the Bible as a whole.

As you can see from the text, Paul’s words, “Be angry, and do not sin,” are cited from a psalm of David, Psalm 4:4. The words which Paul has cited can only be understood in the light of the context of the entire psalm, which is cited below:

1 (For the choir director; on stringed instruments. A Psalm of David.) Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! Thou hast relieved me in my distress; Be gracious to me and hear my prayer. 2 O sons of men, how long will my honor become a reproach? {How long} will you love what is worthless and aim at deception? Selah.

3 But know that the Lord has set apart the godly man for Himself; The Lord hears when I call to Him. 4 Tremble, and do not sin; Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.

5 Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, And trust in the Lord. 6 Many are saying, “Who will show us {any} good?” Lift up the light of Thy countenance upon us, O Lord! 7 Thou hast put gladness in my heart, More than when their grain and new wine abound. 8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep, For Thou alone, O Lord, dost make me to dwell in safety.

David composes this psalm out of his own distress. Unrighteous men have scoffed at David’s honor, making it a reproach. They have loved what is worthless and deceptive. In Paul’s words, they have not loved the truth (compare Ephesians 4:17-24). David agonizes over the wickedness of such men, and calls upon God to deal with them.

The structure of this psalm is significant, and critical to its interpretation. David’s words in the last half of verse 1 are addressed to God. He pleads with God to hear his prayer, and to respond.

If verse 1 contains David’s petition to God, verses 2 and 3 are David’s rebuke, addressed to those wicked men who have scorned his righteousness. Their sin is identified and rebuked in verse 2. Further, in verse 3 David teaches them the truth. The Lord sets the godly man apart. He loves and honors him. David may not react to their wickedness as they expect, but he does cry out to his God, and His God hears and answers him, because he is righteous. Let those who spurn the righteous take heed to this warning.

Verses 4 and 5 seem to me to be a kind of “self-talk.” Here, David addresses himself, urging himself to act as a righteous man should. He is being wrongfully treated by sinful men. He should not allow his anger to turn sour, and become sin. He gives the judgment of his enemies over to God, and in so doing leaves his own heart and soul at peace. No sleepless nights for David. He will rest in peace, leaving the judgment of men to God, and setting his heart and mind to the worship of his God in righteousness.

Twice in this very short psalm David refers to his bed. In verse 4, David speaks of being still, of not taking action himself. Apparently David has done all that he could, in the rebuke of his enemies as recorded in verses 2 and 3. Now, he remains still on his bed, not mulling over the sins of his enemies, or plotting their demise, but rather meditating on the virtues of his God. In verse 8 he speaks once again of lying down and sleeping in peace, knowing that his defender is God, which assures him that he will dwell in safety.

In my opinion, Paul’s words, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger,” recorded in Ephesians 4:26, are prompted by his grasp of David’s words in Psalm 4. While we most often think of this command as an instruction to make our peace with men (usually our mate) before we go to sleep for the night, I am inclined to think that David saw the only sure solution to his anger in obtaining peace from God. Unfortunately, confrontation and discussion may not resolve the problem which produces our anger. After having done what we can do, it is only as we give judgment over to God that we find the rest which David describes in his psalm.

And so David exhorts himself with the words of verses 4 and 5. His anger is wholly justified. He is right to be angry. He is duty-bound to be angry at the sins of men and of their injustice. But in being angry, David admonishes his own soul not to sin. The sins of his enemies against him should not provoke him to sin. He should, so far as vengeance is concerned, leave this to God. He should be still on his bed, devote himself to meditation, and concentrate on the worship of his God.

In verses 6-8, David’s words are again addressed to his God. He declares to God the despair of others, who wonder who will bring about good. And so David concludes his psalm by petitioning God on his behalf, and others like him, for divine intervention. He prays for the light of God’s countenance. He praises God for the gladness of his heart. And for the peace which enables him to lie down in peace, knowing that his life and safety is in the hands of His sovereign and trustworthy God.

David was right to be angry because his enemies were sinners who mocked at the righteousness which God reckoned to him. There are two kinds of anger, that which is righteous and that which is sinful. Both David and Paul speak of righteous anger. David recognized that anger has within it the seeds of its own destruction. It is possible for a good thing to lead to evil (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 6:12-13). And thus, the exhortation to be angry, but not to sin.

Paul adds a dimension which David does not mention in his psalm. It should provide the Christian with strong motivation for heeding Paul’s admonition to avoid sinful anger. He warns us that we are not to “give the devil an opportunity” with respect to anger. How can this be? Several opportunities are apparent. First, Satan may take advantage of unresolved anger to promote some other sin, such as slander, strife, or even physical violence. Satan would surely seek to use our anger to create divisions within the body of Christ. Many churches have been split over petty differences between two saints (see Philippians 4:2-3). Satan, as the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10) will surely use our sin, spawned by anger, as an occasion to accuse us before God, and perhaps may use us to accuse our brethren. Satan recognizes anger as a fertile field, capable of producing all kinds of sin, and sin is his specialty.

Paul gives but one method here, by which we may avoid letting righteous anger turn to sin. He instructs us not to “let the sun go down on our anger.” While righteous anger is to be slow to originate, it is to be quickly dispelled. Anger has a kind of corrosive effect. Anger is designed to prompt us to act, to get us “off the dime” of passivity.

But what are we to do? How are we to act on our anger, so as to produce that which is righteous and profitable, rather than giving Satan an opportunity? Paul does not tell us what we should do here. I believe that other Scriptures do spell out what is usually required of us. In short, the process of “church discipline” is the course of action we should take. This process for dealing with our anger toward a brother is Christ is outlined in several texts, and is illustrated in others.75

The first step in the process is confrontation. The one who has offended us, or who has acted in a way that dishonors God is to be confronted with his sin. This is to be done as privately and on as small a scale as possible. If the wayward one repents, the matter is settled. If not, then the matter must become more and more public, until it is resolved. If the sinning saint persists in sin, he must finally be put out of the church, and deprived of the benefits of its fellowship. In the case of the brother who accepts correction, our anger should be converted to forgiveness. If the brother is disciplined, our anger should turn to grief. In any case, our anger should not be allowed to linger on, turning to bitterness.

In those cases in which our brother is angry with us, we also have a responsibility to bring matters to a conclusion that dispels anger and which reflects the righteousness of God. We are to go to that brother who has an offense against us, and seek to bring about a reconciliation as quickly as possible (see Matthew 5:23-26).

There will be those cases where confrontation is not possible, or advisable. Such seems to have been the case with David in Psalm 4. The Scriptures provide us with the “ultimate cure” for our anger, and that is to leave our wrath to Him who alone can judge men in truth and justice:

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS UPON HIS HEAD.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).

Conclusion

Most of our anger is the “wrath of man” and not the “holy anger” of God. And thus we should wish to see less and less of this self-centered anger in our lives. But if we are to take this text seriously, we must also say that we should see more righteous anger than we do. If God is angered by sin, then we should be angered by it as well. We, like the saints in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 5), seem to be more willing to accommodate sin than we do to condemn it, and to remove it from our midst. All too often, I see parents—Christian parents—who think of the sinful actions and attitudes of their children as cute, rather than to be angered by it and to deal with it as God would have us do. We are not angered by rebellion, irate over injustice, distressed by abortions and immorality and sin. We think of a man like Lot as “soft of sin,” but this righteous man was “vexed” in his soul over the sin which was all about him (see 2 Peter 2:7-8). When we see sin as God does, it will make us angry.

And when we are angry, then we should deal with sin as God has directed us, so that our anger is dispelled, and it does not lead us to sin. We need to confront the sinner, and without minimizing the sin, to seek its solution in genuine repentance. In many marriages that end up on the rocks of divorce, the root problem is anger that has not been righteously expressed and dispelled. In many families, the division and discord stems from a failure to obey Paul’s instructions concerning anger. In many churches, the unity of the body of Christ has been hindered by the lack of righteous anger. Let us seek to be both good and mad to the glory of God and for the health and unity of His body, the church.


73 Surely, in or day, we would include the helpless fetus, which is killed mercilessly in the womb, day after day, time after time, in the abortion mills of our cities.

74 See also Isaiah 48:9.

75 See Matthew 5:21-26; 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1-5; see also 1 Corinthians 5:1-13.

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin)