Is Anger Sinful?

Is Anger Sinful? December 14, 2016

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” –Ephesians 4:26

Some Christians seem to think that there are godly and ungodly emotions. Subsequently, they see all anger as sinful. But, not all anger is sinful as even our sinless God gets angry in the Bible. There’s a difference between righteous and unrighteous anger. Although this is the case, all anger, whether righteous or unrighteous, is caused by some kind of sin in the world. Since this is the case, we need to be careful with the anger that is in our lives—and this is exactly what Ephesians 4:26 deals with.

Context of Ephesians 4:26

At the beginning of Ephesians 4, Paul urges his readers to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” He goes on to tell them to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life” (v. 22) and to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (v. 24). The next verse begins with the word “therefore,” showing us that Paul is going to say something about what it means to put on the new self, and especially about how we treat each other.

He begins by saying to “put away falsehood” and be truthful with each other. We are all members of the same church body (v. 4), which is Christ’s, and in order to function we have to live in the reality of what is true with one another or the church will be dysfunctional.

Paul then tells us in verse 26 that we also should control our anger. He writes, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,” and he continues in the next verse, “and give no opportunity to the devil.” The general point here is not hard: runaway anger is an instrument of the devil to stir up trouble in the church. But the question is whether Paul is actually commanding a certain kind of anger (“Be angry!”) or whether something else is going on.

“Be Angry” and Psalm 4:4

The NIV translates “Be angry” as, “In your anger do not sin.” While this may be a legitimate translation, the actual Greek word is imperative, which is the usual form used for commands. We really have two imperatives in a row here: (1) “Be angry” (orgizesthe); and (2) “Do not sin” (hamartanete).

A lot of ink has been spilled over the wording and what Paul means, but before we ask if Paul is commanding anger, we must understand that Paul is alluding to Psalm 4:4. So we need to answer this important question, “What does the Psalm mean?”

In Psalm 4, David begins with a prayer: “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!” This is followed in 4:2–3 with David telling those who “love vain words and seek after lies” that God will surely hear him. Then in 4:4 David says, “Be angry and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.”

Either David is addressing the godly who are being slandered or the ungodly mentioned in the previous verses.[1] In either case, the idea is that when anger arises, we should not sin, but remain silent and wait for the deliverance of the Lord. The verse “speaks against personal revenge that circumvents the law and consumes the lives of the vengeful” and encourages patience, silence, and reflection “on how the Lord has shown himself trustworthy.”[2]

Paul picks up David’s words and uses them in Ephesians 4:26. This, again, has been the subject of much discussion. Daniel Wallace has observed from scholarly literature seven possible ways of understanding and interpreting the grammar of this verse, but he believes there are only two good options supported by the text:

  • “be angry” as a command, or
  • “be angry” as a condition or concession (“if you are angry” or “although you are angry”)

“Be Angry” As a Command

Those who interpret Paul as saying “be angry” as a command say we should understand the word in its simplest sense: as a Greek imperative, typically considered a command.

According to this view, Paul says to be angry over things that are worth our anger, such as injustice and unrepentant sin. As Wallace puts it, Paul has in mind “righteous indignation which culminates in church discipline,” whether formal or informal.[3] He calls this “the most explicitly positive statement of human anger in the NT.” In support of this view is the word kai (“and”) between “be angry” and “do not sin,” which on the surface makes the verse look like two commands in a row. This view would make the most logical sense from a strictly grammatical point of view, but there are other factors to consider.

First, the grammatical form that Paul uses comes from Psalm 4:4 and is not his personal creation. So, a thorough grammatical interpretation can only take us so far. We have to consider what the psalmist is doing as well. Is the psalmist commanding anger? Maybe he is, and maybe he isn’t. But the fact is that we cannot say that Paul is commanding anger only because of the grammar in the verse.

Second, the context both here and in Psalm 4:4 does not seem to be one where it would be natural for Paul to prescribe anger over injustice or sin. This is not to say Paul would never do this, only that in this verse the burden seems to be on what to do with anger that already exists. As one commentator writes, “Whether the anger is justified seems to be outside the purview of the admonition.” These factors must be considered before assuming Paul’s point is to prescribe anger here.

At the same time, it is possible to see the phrase as a command with an emphasis less on prescribing righteous anger and more on providing parameters for anger that is already present.

“Be Angry” As a Condition

Still, others prefer not to see it as a command but rather as a condition (“if you are angry”). Whatever we accept as the exact translation of this, i.e., “if,” “although,” or “in your anger” (as with the NIV), the idea is that anger exists. It just is.

On this view, Paul simply assumes there will be anger sometimes. This is a fact of life and a symptom of the fallen order of things. Not that all anger is sin—Jesus was without sin but not without anger (see Matthew 21:12–13)—but all anger, whether righteous or unrighteous, is caused by some kind of sin in the world. So the idea here is that the Greek imperative is used as a condition, which is a grammatical possibility.

Within this view there is a spectrum of thought on exactly how anger is permitted. Is it a begrudging permission (“be angry if you absolutely must”) or a more liberal permission (“of course anger is common, just don’t sin in it”)?[4] This question really can’t be answered by the text alone. Other Scripture, as well as our approach to human emotion in general, will influence our interpretation.

Sometimes, in support of the conditional view, Ephesians 4:31, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you,” is brought into the discussion to say that Paul would never command anger. But this is tricky, because no matter what view one takes on 4:26, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that at some level anger is being allowed for. Otherwise, Paul would simply tell his readers not to be angry in 4:26.

Conclusion

In the end, we should not exclude the possibility that Paul is commanding righteous anger on some level, but it is unlikely that the point of the passage is to prescribe it. The point of the passage has to do with behavior in the household of God, on how to live in harmony with one another as the body of Christ.

The idea, “Yes, you will be angry, but don’t let it lead you into sin,” seems to fit better than, “Get angry over sin and injustice, but be careful when you do it.” The bottom line is we cannot avoid anger in a fallen world, nor are we called to do so. In both Psalm 4:4 and Ephesians 4:26, the emphasis is not on anger, but on what to do with anger that is present.

If there is anger in our lives, we’re to deal with it promptly. Paul provides us with a time limit in doing so by encouraging us to handle it before the “sun goes down” (4:26). Our motivation for handling anger so quickly is provided by Paul’s exhortation in 4:27, “do not give the devil a foothold.” The Greek word translated in the NIV as “foothold” (topos) is rendered in the ESV and NASB as an “opportunity.”

Even though Paul doesn’t tell us exactly what kind of foothold the devil can obtain in the life of a believer, we are left with the idea that we’re to resist his schemes (6:11) by not allowing him an opportunity to exploit the anger in our lives by dealing with it quickly.

And dealing with our anger can take many forms.

For instance, if we have righteous anger over sin committed against us or against someone else, we are within our rights to speak our mind graciously and directly to that person to seek reconciliation. In more extreme cases, such as abuse, we also have the right and duty to seek justice through the institutions God has ordained such as the police force.

If our anger is not righteous, we must search our hearts, pray that the Holy Spirit would convict us, repent, and seek reconciliation with those whom we are angry.

In closing, perhaps a very practical example of a good use of anger would be helpful.

On May 3, 1980, a repeat drunk driver climbed into his car after a three-day drinking binge and ran over 14-year-old twin Cari Lightner as she was walking to church. The impact threw her one 125 feet, and once the drunk driver awoke from his passed-out state, he sped away. He was later caught and Cari’s mother, Candace, said she felt “rage” that the murderer of her daughter would likely not even get jail time despite the fact he was already out on bail for one of the four drunk driving arrests he had in the previous five years. Channeling that anger toward justice and good works, Candace then began MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Indeed, anger can be a great force for good if our anger is caused by injustice and compels us toward justice.

As Ephesians 4:26 indicates, what we can never do is allow anger simply to be in our lives without any resolution—that will only lead to bitterness, sin, and more pain.

________________________________________

[1] For the view that the godly are being addressed, see the entry of C. John Collins in the ESV Study Bible, 945; for a view that the ungodly are in view, seeThielman, Ephesians, 313.

[2] Collins, 945.

[3] Ibid., 372. Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 620, takes a similar view.

[4] For example, both Lincoln (Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 42 [Dallas: Word, 1990], 301) and Best (Ephesians, 449-50) opt for this view but are hesitant to see too much permission for anger, while others are more comfortable with Paul allowing for anger.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!