“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).”
This is the verse the Lord impressed upon my heart as I was asking for a topic for this article. It’s familiar to anyone who has ever experienced any Christian counseling, and like many Bible verses it bears closer examination. Translations differ slightly in rendering this passage and the Greek contains some interesting insights, but Paul was quoting from Psalm 4 where the intent of the passage was established. Let’s begin there.
Contained in the Old, Explained in the New
Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer.
How long, O men, will you turn my glory into sham? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?
Know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD will hear when I call to him.
In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and trust in the LORD.
Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?” Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD.
You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.
David was distressed by the Israelites’ continuing unfaithfulness to God. They were turning His glory to shame and seeking after false gods (Ps. 4:1-2). It is the same frustration we feel today in viewing the state of our world, so it’s logical to assume David was praying on behalf of all who would share his feelings, no matter how far into the future.
The Lord’s response was a warning to all of us not to let that frustration turn to sin, but to shift our focus away from what others are doing and search our own hearts instead. I believe the Lord had David explain this because the next bit of advice is to offer the sacrifices of righteousness and put our trust in the Lord (Ps. 4:4- 5). In other words we’re to make our own peace with God and trust Him to deal with those who’ve aroused our anger. In Psalm 4: 7 David said that in obeying, he was given greater joy than those other people experience even after a bountiful harvest, and he was then able to sleep in peace, his anger gone.
So back to Ephesians 4:26. Paul used two different Greek words translated anger in the NIV. The first one, at the beginning of verse 26, means to be provoked to anger. It’s a passive word, indicating the anger is the effect of an outside action. The other one, at the end of the verse, means rage or wrath and is used only here in scripture. The KJV translates the first as anger and the second as wrath, but the idea is the same. What begins as a reactive impression can quickly become an active expression.
In the preceding verses Paul had been saying, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness “(Ephes. 4:22-24). It’s interesting that one of his first examples of behavior unsuitable to our new selves is anger.
It Feels So Natural
It’s natural to feel anger over the flagrant violation of God’s laws in the world, both inside and outside the church. It’s bad enough when this hurts others, but when it’s directed at us personally, it’s even worse. And when that anger turns to resentment (anger stored for future use), or causes us to respond in kind toward another person it becomes sin for two reasons. One, it puts us in God’s role of judgment, and two it causes us to presume that we’re better than the object of our resentment. That’s called pride.
Using the context from Psalm 4 then, the lesson becomes clear. Feeling anger is natural, but harboring it or acting upon it is sin, even if we convince ourselves we’re justified because the Lord’s on our side. Before we go to sleep at night we’re to realize that in different circumstances we’d be quite capable of the very behavior that has angered us. Perhaps we’ve actually behaved that way at one time or another.
The Sermon on the Mount tells us that anger is as bad as murder from the Lord’s perspective (Matt. 5:21-22). It’s the thought that counts, not just the deed. As we lie on our beds we should let our hearts be convicted so we can confess and be forgiven of our own sins and purified from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). This is the sacrifice of righteousness counseled in Psalm 4:5. Trust the Lord, who judges the intent of every heart, to handle the rest and we’ll lose the anger and sleep peacefully.
Against You and You Only Have I Sinned, O Lord
If the object of our wrath is a friend or neighbor, or even the person lying in the bed next to us, it’s a good idea to patch things up with them. But remember the sin is against God. By judging other people’s motives and meting out real or imagined punishment we’ve tried to make ourselves like Him. Remember, He said, “It is mine to avenge, I will repay” (Hebr. 10:30). That means we’re not to worry about it.
Anger gives the devil a foothold (location or space) in our life. Footholds become strongholds (fortresses) and can be very difficult to demolish. The anger that spews from them can compromise our witness, steal our joy, and impede our healing. As the Lord’s brother said, Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires(James 1:19-20). Good advice.