“Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil.” ~ Ephesians 4:26-27
Long before it became popular, the Bible outlined a brief, but complete course in Anger Management (in the verses above). Somewhere, over the two thousand years of Christianity, much of the church adopted the idea that believers are not supposed to be angry (perhaps because of misreading of Matthew 5:22). However, this is not the case. As our verse shows, being angry is okay: as long as it does not lead to sinful action and is not maintained for a prolonged duration.
“Be ye angry”
In the last fifty or so years psychologists have ‘discovered’ that it is important for people to be able to express their emotions rather than suppressing them (“bottling them up”). However, God’s Word had already revealed this truth over nineteen hundred years earlier. It IS okay to be angry, if there is a reasonable cause (Matthew 5:22). But, it is NOT okay to be easily angered (Proverbs 14:17, 29; Proverbs 15:18; Proverbs 16:32, James 1:19). It is okay to be angry at injustice; at a disrespectful child; at an abusive spouse; at a careless doctor; at an irresponsible parent; at a corrupt official. There are legitimate reasons to be angry and we need not be ashamed of anger if we remain under Gods direction and control (Mark 3:5, Acts 16:16-18).
However, anger does become a problem if it leads us into sin. In other words, while angry we MUST continue to allow God to control our actions and words. God does not accept/condone uncontrolled rage (James 1:20). There are three (3) keys to avoiding sin while angry.
The first key is being angry less often. That means we have to reduce the number of things/situations that irritate or bother us (Luke 10:41). Instead of being troubled by many things, like Martha was, we should focus on the things that really matter to God, like Mary did. In other words, we must value the things God values and devalue everything else (Philippians 4:8). The waiter’s spiritual state is more important than the fly in the soup he just served. Therefore, feeding his spiritual hunger, with grace and mercy, is more important than the extra time we will have to wait to satisfy our physical hunger.
The second key is being slow to anger (meekness) (Proverbs 14:17, 29; Proverbs 15:18; Proverbs 16:32, James 1:19). Slowness to anger means not rushing ahead of God and has to do with submitting to God’s direction/instruction (meekness). The intensity of strong emotions tends to sweep us away as we get “caught up” in a powerful current of feelings. To resist the powerful pull of strong emotions, like anger, we must first learn to “wait on God” in normal, mundane, unemotional times.
To be successful, a soldier trains diligently before entering a battle. Without training first, the soldier will (most likely) be unprepared to handle the heat of combat and triumph over the enemy. Likewise, we too must train ourselves to constantly seek Gods direction and guidance (through prayer), even in small things (“Pray without ceasing” ~1 Thessalonians 5:17). Then, when we are in circumstances that threaten to make us angry, we will be able to seek God’s guidance and wait on Him. If we are accustomed to constantly seeking God’s direction before we take action, it is more likely we will continue to do so when provoked. By constantly seeking God’s guidance (Psalm 142:2-3), allowing Him to order our steps (Psalm 37:23; Psalm 119:133) we will not be swept away by anger.
Note, we might still get angry eventually, but the point is that we won’t run ahead of God. Instead, being slow to anger buys us extra time: (1) to properly assess the situation, (2) to take an alternate course if necessary and (3) to retain control if/when we get to the point of anger. On the other hand, like driving a car, the faster we drive the less time we have to change course and the more easy it is to spin out of control. Being slow to anger protects us from losing control and careering into sin.
The third key is to stay within the boundaries God imposes (temperance). Like meekness, this is an aspect of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and is particularly useful when angry. If we routinely practice living inside the boundaries that He sets for us (in His word), we will desire to stay within them even when angry.
For example, if we normally stay away from profanity, even in our thoughts and private whispers, we are less likely to even think of cursing when we are angry. If we always practice being careful with our words we will be less likely to say hurtful words when aggravated. To be clear, practicing temperance does not make sin impossible, BUT it does make sin less likely when we are angry.
Uncontrolled rage only occurs when the basest aspects of our fleshly/carnal (unspiritual) nature controls the expression of our anger. On the other hand, when the Holy Spirit controls a believer (Galatians 5:22-23), anger is rare, anger is slow and, if it does occur, anger is well regulated.
“Let not the sun go down upon your wrath”
Anger also becomes a problem when it lasts too long. Emotions are primarily a result of circumstance. Someone cries at a particular scene of a movie because it provokes empathy within his/her soul. Once the movie ends, so do the tears, unless the person brings the scenes to mind again.
Likewise, all emotions arise from a combination of factors in a given circumstance (with the exception of mental illness). Once that combination of factors goes away, the related emotion soon disappears. This means that to prolong anger, or any other emotion, an individual must deliberately and repeatedly bring back to his/her mind the events that lead to the anger in the first place.
Anger, like any strong emotion, strains hard against the leashes of meekness and temperance. To prolong anger is to increase the likelihood those leashes will break. Furthermore, prolonging anger means maintaining our focus on the irritant(s) instead of on God.
Therefore, to avoid having the ‘sun go down’ on our anger means we must deliberately avoid recalling the incidents that stirred us up. As long as we have to deal with an aggravating situation, we need to focus on what God wants to do with it. After we have accomplished His will, we must let it go.
This approach is not “bottling up” (suppressing) our emotions; rather, this approach stops our emotions from overcoming us. For example:
- When that driver cuts us off in rush hour traffic, and our blood begins to boil, we have to consider what God wants us to do in the situation. Once we have figured it out, we need to let it go (which might mean slowing down, changing lanes or even taking an alternate route).
- When your husband mows over the petunias (again), after you reminded him to please be careful, express your anger wisely (being fully aware of the true value of petunias in the context of eternity) if you do become angry. But, reminding yourself (and your husband) of his careless mowing does not achieve God’s purpose if it prolongs your anger.
- Likewise, when your spouse blows the budget (again), if you do become angry, remember to spend most of your efforts finding ways to overcome that recurring problem in meekness. Instead of reminding yourself of why you are justifiably angry, remind yourself to pray for your spouse’s weaknesses as well as your own weaknesses.
Finally, recent studies on the brain have shown (as alluded in Scripture) that when we sleep (which was sundown in Bible times) our brain reinforces the thoughts that we spent the most mental effort on (Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself, Ch. 9, Penguin Grp. New York, NY (2007)).
In other words, if we go to sleep rehearsing the anger-inducing event(s) of the day, we wake up with a strengthened negative imprint of the individual(s)/irritant(s) that angered us. And thereby we have made it that much more difficult for God to channel His love through us to the person(s) with whom we are angry. Therefore, by prolonging our anger we are giving the devil a place (a foothold) in our lives from which to influence our thinking and our actions.
Controlling ourselves when angry is a challenge for many of us. The daily struggle with children, finances, inconsiderate drivers, poor service, etc. often drives us to the edge. But there is hope.
As we have discussed, anger management takes practice and deliberate effort. However, we should always remember that God is on OUR side. As we develop the habit of constantly communicating with Him, as we practice seeking His will in everything, as we learn to live within His hedge of protection, we will gradually learn how to draw strength from Him when we are sorely aggravated.
We CAN win the battle: God will help us to get angry less often, He will help us to stay away from sin when we do get angry, and He will help us to let it go. But, like good soldiers, we must train before we enter combat. And God will help us to do that too…. if we will spend time training with Him.
“He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.” ~ Proverbs 16:32
“The discretion of a man deferreth his anger; and it is his glory to pass over a transgression.” ~ Proverbs 19:11