by David Tavender
One of our readers notes Paul’s words of Ephesians 4:26 “Be angry and sin not”, which seems to contradict the words found just a few verses later, “Let all.. anger.. be put away from you” (Ephesians 4:31), and asks for an explanation.
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As always, it will help us to observe the whole context. Note that the whole verse in question says, “Be ye angry and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath”. This alone should tell us that any anger we might have is not to linger on and on. Ignorance of this advice has led to much heartbreak and bitterness among people, and sadly, Christians are not excluded.
Let us now notice a few other verses which Paul wrote about anger, sometimes called “wrath”, and see if we can build up a bigger picture. He also wrote:
“Let all …wrath and anger…be put away from you”. (Ephesians 4:31).
“Put off all these: anger, wrath”. (Colossians 3:8).
“The works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: ..wrath” (Galatians 5:19,20).
Likewise, James writes:
“Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God”. (James 1:19,20).
It seems strange that Paul would write so many times that we should put off anger, and yet seem to tolerate it in one phrase.
Anger vs. Love
All of the verses quoted above urge the Christian to put away anger. In each instance, there is a verse following which talks about putting on, love. Compare these verses with those we just read:
Ephesians 5:2 – “walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us”
Colossians 3:12-14 – “Put on … longsuffering, forbearing one another above all these things, put on charity (love)”
Galatians 5:22 – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love”.
James 2:8 – “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”.
Taken in conjunction with the great love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, and the practical applications found therein (such as love not being easily provoked to anger, v.5), do the Scriptures paint an overall picture that Christians should be angry, or be loving? I think the answer is obvious.
But can’t a Christian exhibit righteous anger? We shall discuss this in a moment, but first we should take into consideration a matter of grammar.
From a linguistic viewpoint, the Greek grammar of the phrase translated, “Be ye angry and sin not” is somewhat ambiguous for a few reasons. It may be a command, as here in the KJV, … or perhaps it is a question. The original Greek texts had no punctuation, and questions were usually written as sentences, with the reader having to supply the question mark. The context would usually determine whether it was in fact a sentence or a question.
It may well be that a more accurate translation of “Be ye angry and sin not” would be in the form of the question, “You are angry and you sin not?”, with the implied answer – “it is doubtful”. Another possible alternative is, “Are you angry and you sin not?” The Greek grammar allows all three translations, but reading the phrase as a question eliminates any apparent contradiction in the Scriptures on this issue, and I would suggest this is a more accurate rendering of the phrase.
What I am suggesting here is that the phrase we are considering is actually a question implying the difficulty of being angry without sinning. Anger is rarely portrayed in the Scriptures as an appropriate action among God’s people. When we exhibit signs of anger, we almost always are in error to do so, if we are honest with ourselves.
However, even if I am wrong, and “Be ye angry and sin not” is indeed the intended translation, our anger is not to last, for what possible benefit is there to it? It will help us to remember that this verse is in the overall scriptural context of putting OFF anger, and putting ON love which is patient and etc. etc.
One may object to this idea by bringing to mind the righteous anger displayed by God in the OT (e.g. Numbers 11:1) and the Lord Jesus Christ in the NT (e.g. Mark 3:5), but how many of us would dare to say we are in the position they were in to exhibit such “holy wrath”. We are in an even less sound position when we carry out our “judgement” in any number of ways – violent or nonviolent – upon those we might be angry with. Shouldn’t we leave these sorts of responses to the righteous Judge?
When we look at the evils of the world around us, there is much that can make us angry, such as wrongs against the human race, as well as those wrongs against God. And yet, shouldn’t our appropriate response be to address those situations in which we find ourselves with love and patience … even those we are not happy about? After all, that phrase about being angry and not sinning, regardless of whether it’s a question or a command, is addressed to US, not to the Lord.
I am certainly not advocating some sort of flowery “smile-at-everything” attitude. Some things will upset us and frustrate us, and we will have wrongs done against us and it will hurt. There is no doubt about that. On this very subject, Oscar Baker (in Truth for Today, Vol 13, p. 9) writes:
“You may think you have to stand up for your rights. But as a Christian under grace, what rights do you have that must be defended in the flesh? The warfare we have is not with flesh and blood in this world, but with spiritual powers of wickedness in the heavenlies. [Ephesians 6:12]. Carnal attitudes and carnal weapons have no place in our warfare. Let us take time to stop and think it through. What have we to gain by being angry? Will it help our testimony? Will it honour the Father and the Son?”
It seems to me as if there are several ways to deal with the wrongs and injustices of this world, and anger doesn’t appear to be one of the better ways.
The question I am forced to ask is: will a reaction steeped in anger bring glory to God? The conclusion I keep coming back to is: a Christian’s anger is often more about a lack of self -control, and rarely about lifting up the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. On this point, it surely can not be any coincidence that, in Galatians 5:19-23, “wrath” is listed as a work of the flesh (v.20) and “self-control” or temperance (KJV) is listed as a fruit of the Spirit (v.23).
So, can we be angry and not sin? I actually think it is rather difficult to do so.