[As I have an uncontrollable urge to apologize for the quality of my writing, I will say that I wrote this over the space of two nights, consuming the hours of 8:00 – 12:00 and 8:00 – 11:00 respectively. The lateness of the hours may have contributed to whatever lack of quality is present, but I hope it hasn’t made this completely without profit to the reader.]
“‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27, NIV)
We can break the admonishment in Ephesians down into three parts:
- In your anger do not sin
- Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry
- Do not give the devil a foothold
Two thoughts come out of this:
- Sin in your anger –> Give devil a foothold.
- Let the sun go down while you are angry –> Give devil a foothold.
It is well worth noting that in his admonishment Paul does not say, “Never get angry. Anger is sin.” There are proper times and occasions for anger, but Paul gives some warnings about the matter.
Both of the warnings address how we deal with anger. We should not sin in the moment of our anger, and we should not harbor anger. A man might succeed in not sinning in the moment of his anger by restraining himself from knocking someone’s block off (and so think himself very righteous for his restraint) and yet still be sinning by harboring anger in his heart. Or, a different man might slug whoever irritates him and then promptly put the matter from his mind and think himself very for about doing so. I think anyone who has been angry has experienced both. There are times when something makes you angry–it flares up hot inside you–and you do something wrong as a result. And then there are times when something makes you angry and you let it fester and fester inside you. Paul condemns both.
Implicit in the “do not” of what Paul says is also the positive injunction of what to do. The fruit of godly anger is right action, promptly taken. In some cases right action may be a physical rebuke of the offending party. Other times the right action may be spiritually laying down the matter before God.
The Many Faces of Anger
Recently I began pondering how the application of this admonishment in Ephesians is really much broader than I recognized. Typically when I think about anger I tend to think about “Outbursts of wrath” directed against other people. But not all anger is so volcanic or straight-forward its origin or expression or directed against other people. Clobbering someone, or holding a festering grudge are the most obvious and extreme examples of anger, but anger does express itself in more subtle ways–such disgust, irritation, discontent, and depression. And besides being angry with other people, we can be angry with God, and with ourselves.
This broadens the matter of Ephesians 4:26-27 quite a bit. A little uncomfortably much, one might say. It is difficult enough applying those verses to our interaction with other people, but compared to the burgeoning reality of the many manifestations of anger in our lives, it is somehow so much simpler to run through those verses and apply them to our relations with other people and call that the end of the matter. The thing is, it isn’t.
Most Christians will agree that we have no right to be angry with God, and so most will deny to themselves that they have been shaking their spiritual fist at God. But I have found that so often at the heart of problems–beneath all the obfuscation and rationalizations–is an anger toward God. With everything stripped away, and the heart of the mattered admitted, the plan fact is that the person felt God wasn’t being fair, right, or whatever. I find this type of anger especially deceptive because unlike anger with other people–which we are far more likely to readily admit and even justify–anger at God is something most people don’t want to admit. And so we blind ourselves to it, and don’t deal with it rightly. It then becomes a festering thing which gives the devil a foothold.
Then there is being angry with oneself. Some people don’t seem to have a problem with anger toward themselves. There are people who go around exploding at other people fifty times a day, and seem to have the most golden self-loving attitude you have ever seen. They think they’re great stuff. And then there are the other people who appear constantly angry with themselves. Among those who do get angry with themselves, I think there is a great tendency to justify that anger above all others. The reasoning is along the lines of: “I’m not angry with you and I’m not angry with God. I’m angry with myself, and I can be angry with myself if I want to. I have every right.”
But Ephesians 4:26-27 constrains the right expression of all anger, including anger with oneself. That is a hard blow against anyone who has harbored years of rage against themselves, and justified it as their right and prerogative. Perhaps many people would pause at this point and look back over their lives and feel very proud that they have never gone to bed in a fit of cursing themselves. Such self-congratulation is premature. Anger can be expressed in more subtle ways than the extreme manifestations of self-damnation or abuse. It is one thing to admit that if I’m having a screaming fit at myself, then I have issues. But what if I’m disgusted, irritated, discontented with myself, or depressed over myself? If all of that is expressions of anger toward oneself, that starts to uncomfortably touch a lot more.
Now someone might protest, “Disgust, irritation, discontent, and depression aren’t manifestations of anger they’re . . . something else.” But what is the opposite of anger/wrath? It is satisfaction/peace. Anger and wrath exist where things are not right or good. Satisfaction and peace exist where things are right and good. Thus, while disgust, irritation, discontent, and depression are not an explosively violent manifestation of anger, they do flow from the same source as that tantrum. I might start out one day a little irritated with myself, and then become discontented, soon to be disgusted, to end up depressed or in a screaming fit. The foothold of the devil grows to a stronghold when we don’t admit something for what it is.
I have standards and expectations for myself. Every day I want to do certain things, and live in a certain way. And every day I fail in many ways to live up to my desires and standards. Throughout the day this produces disgust, irritation, and discontent. It can all come to a head when I reach the end of the day and reflect on my short-comings. It is easy to lay in bed and run down the list of failures for the day, beat oneself over the head with each, and then swear that next day will be better. The sun goes down, and what are we doing about our anger with our-self? We rise the next day, fail again in various ways, and go to bed angry again. And so it repeats, in a subtle way giving the devil a foothold that grows and grows as we become increasingly discontent, frustrated, irritated, disgusted, and depressed.
How do you deal with the daily anger with yourself? The response from people who don’t have high standards and stringent expectations is, “Stop worrying about it. Cut yourself some slack.” But to the person with the standards and expectations, such airy advice rings hollow. Anger springs from a perceived (rightly or wrongly) sense of injustice–and failure to live up to what is right and good, whether it be someone else, or yourself. To tell someone to not care about such things–whether about the failures of someone else or themselves–is to tell them to abandon their sense of justice and become a-moral. Not only is that completely useless advice to someone with a burning sense of justice, but it is also unbiblical.
What is the biblical answer to anger? There is only one right answer to all anger. That answer is the merciful justice of God. In dealing with our anger we must commit ourselves wholly to that merciful justice of God.
- When we are angry with God, we must believe and accept that He is mercifully justice if we are to ever surrender that anger.
- If we are angry with other people, we must commit them to the merciful justice of God, and act accordingly
- If we are angry with our children, with must act toward them in accord with the merciful justice of God, applying whatever punishment or restraint is in order.
- And we must submit ourselves to the merciful justice of God when we are angry with ourselves.
It is God who has the holy and righteous standard. It is only He who can judge rightly, and it is requisite that we acknowledge this. We must fall upon, and rest upon, this. It is true in our approach to God, to men, and to ourselves.
Sometimes, I know I’m not judging myself fairly. I can see that I made up such a list of things to accomplish in the day that I would have to physically be able to exist in two places at once before I could possibly accomplish them all, and the accusation of “Lazy, self-centered slob,” is a lie of Satan, not the truth. But other times it isn’t so clear. Sometimes it isn’t clear whether a failure to accomplish things was because of intervening events beyond my control, or because of personal failings. Then, often times I have truly fallen short of what I should have done, and my reaction is, “If only, if only.” If only I had done this instead of that, or if only I had been stronger, then I would have succeeded.
It is not wrong, and in fact it is a good idea, to examine ourselves at the end of a day. But we must always remember that wallowing in despair, self-pity, or self-anger is not scriptural. Such is not a spiritual response to our failures, but rather worldly grief which “brings death” (2 Cor. 7:10). Further, in examining ourselves we must remember that it is not our place to aggregate unto our-self the final judgement. That belongs to God, who knows all things. We cannot perfectly judge ourselves. Sometimes our conscience will excuse us when we should be condemned, and some times it will condemn us when their is no guilt. In examining ourselves it is not our place to declare what is, but to ask God to reveal what is.
Is it wrong to be angry with ourselves? Not if we are angry for right reasons, and in a right way, leading to a right result. What is the right result?
The right result of anger with ourselves is confession.
If, on the one hand, there truly has been a failure in the day, the conclusion should not be bitter self-anger in the judgement of our own mind, with punishment meted out by ourselves. No, we are to confess to God of the sins and failures that we do recognize. “Big” sins and “small” sins, (for there is that tendency to confess to God what we think are big sins, and then try to deal with our “little” failures by ourselves, and not trouble God with them). “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 NIV). We ought to admit our failure, admit that we are not able to do better by our own strength, ask God for forgiveness for the failure, and strength to do better.
If, on the other hand, we recognize that we are wrongly angry with ourselves, we must confess that failure also and acknowledge that in such an attitude we are not following God’s way, bur our own instead. Wrong anger with ourselves springs from a desire to be self-sufficient–to have a perfect rule over ourselves and to live up to standards by our own effort and might. The answer to such angry striving is to confess our dependency on God: Both for strengthening to do good, and for forgiveness when we fail.
And then there will come the times when we do not know which it is. We may recognize that we are angry, but whether for right or wrong cause we cannot determine. In such times we must confess that we cannot see clearly if we have failed in some matters, and ask God for wisdom in the matter (to understand) and peace (to accept).
We ought also to ask God for grace to accept as much accomplishment and success in each day as He gives from His hand. For, most assuredly, the prayer for strength will be forever unfulfilled in our eyes if we mean “strength to do all that I want to do” when we so pray. God won’t fulfill that selfish request, but He will always give us strength to do what He has called us to in that day. What we need is grace to recognize and accept it.
The end result of these confessions is to lay all things down before God. The great truth is that it does not depend on us. It does not depend on us to be fully understanding, or able. Nothing–absolutely nothing–depends upon our wisdom, our skill, or our righteousness. To strive in our strength is to set up an idol in our hearts. To let the sun go down while we are angry, is to have anger as an idol in our heart, a foothold to the devil. In surrendering all things to the merciful justice of God, we give up all our claim in the matter and entrust ourselves to His sufficiency–both to forgive us, and make us able. If God has forgiven us, who are we to harbor wrath against ourselves? If it is God who gives us all our strength, who are we to harbor anger for our weaknesses? To hold on to either is to hold contempt for the merciful justice of God.
It is God who grants us all the success that we need each day. And it must be recognized, and faced, that to our eyes that may mean appear to be no success. But if we are walking by faith, and not by sight, then what we see with our fleshly eyes each day is not our measure or judgement of ourselves. What we should concern ourselves with is the will of God. And if we cry, “Thy will be done, O God!” we know it is true, and then we can rest in peace at the end of every day. We are not sufficient, we will never be sufficient, and in ourselves we will never meet the standard of God. He has provided for that. And so, just as Christ Jesus is our ultimate rest, so in the trials of each day we must continually rest in him. In him and through him we will accomplish all that we need to accomplish. By faith we know it, and by faith we rest in peace at the end of day, not because we have accomplished our accomplishments, but because the promises of God in Christ are true.
God is a far kinder and wiser master of us than we are of ourselves. He is not overwhelmed by our sins, as we are, or deceived by Satan’s accusations, as we are. There will be no peace in trying to live up to our standards, but there is peace in resting in God and His provision for His standards in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Every day we must surrender to the lordship and provision of God. We are angry, and perhaps even afraid, because we have fallen short. But God is able to provide for us, and He will provide for us, in righteousness, ability, and daily provisions. If the agitation over failed accomplishments is not surrendered to God every day in acknowledgement of His sovereign grace and merciful justice, it becomes rebellion, a seed of bitterness that will grow into a tree of bitterness in our lives.