Ephesians 4:26–27 makes room for anger that is not sin.
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.
The problem is that we are happy to exploit what seems to be a legal loophole. Anger, in its very nature, is self-justifying. My anger is righteous; your anger is not. So if we are to find some righteous wiggle room here, we must proceed very carefully.
Let’s begin with what is clear. The passage names anger as a close neighbor of the devil. At a moment’s notice, anger can drift toward his murderous ways, and we transform into something less than human. With this in mind, Paul also writes, “Let all… anger… be put away from you” (Eph 4:31). Our anger, therefore, puts us on high alert. Best to put ourselves in chains until it passes.
Since Paul’s words in Ephesians give no specifics on anger without sin, we turn to the illustrations on which he relied. We turn first to Jesus who, indeed, could be angry without sin. He was angry when money changers interfered with the Gentiles’ worship of God (John 2:13–16). He was angry when children were kept away from him (Mark 10:14). He was angry with Pharisees who opposed a healing and preferred to use the law to place a burden on the people (Mark 3:1–6). He was angry when his disciples wanted judgment rained down on a Samaritan village rather than mercy (Luke 9:5–55). Paul, too, could be angry in his rhetoric against those who hoped to put Christians under the law of Moses (Galatians 5:12). What these and similar passages have in common is that this anger was never in response to personal attacks, but it was on behalf of those who had been wronged. What did Jesus do with personal attacks? He followed the ways of the psalmists and entrusted judgment to his Father (1 Peter 2:23).
The Ephesians passage is a quote from Psalm 4:4—a reference that might give more insight. The inciting event in this psalm is not identified, but it is probably linked to Psalm 3 and Absalom’s mutiny (2 Sam 15–18). There, David was never angry at Absalom. When a military confrontation became inevitable, David asked his commanders: if you happen to be victorious, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (18:5). Meanwhile David was subject to Shimei’s cursings (16:5–14), yet, even there, David never responded in anger, choosing instead to live under what he interpreted as God’s will for him.
Psalm 3 has a slightly different feel from Psalm 4. In Psalm 3, David asks that the Lord be a defensive shield of protection, yet he also recognizes that war is afoot and asks that the Lord “strike all my enemies on the cheek” (3:7). These requests are absent in Psalm 4. Instead, the very center of the psalm is decidedly introspective and Godward.
Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord. (Ps 4:4–5)
This is the quality of righteous indignation. It is the way of wisdom and the fear of the Lord. Wise men and women know that anger is volatile and its instincts are self-exalting, so they slow down. They count to 1,000 before they react. They consider their own hearts with questions such as these:
- Do I live over others or under God?
- Do I believe that God cares and hears?
- Do I entrust judgment to him—“leave it to the wrath of God” (Rom 12:19)—or do I prefer my own version of vigilante justice?
- Do I cry out to him for help when I am agitated?
- Do I come to Jesus before I go to war?
- Do I say to him, “I am not my own. I have been bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:19–20)?
- Have I confessed my own sin today?
And wise people pray. Before anger is at a full boil, we pray. Godly anger is slow to gather momentum because it first turns to God and listens to him. We submit ourselves before our creator and rescuer, and we pray that we would know and follow the counterintuitive ways of Jesus.
Here is a possible paraphrase of the text from Ephesians. Anger says that something is wrong, and something, indeed, may be wrong. But anger has particular instincts: it reacts without careful reflection, too often it misses that God cares, and it veers toward the murderous ways of the devil. So proceed with great caution. You have certainly known anger’s vicious ways. You have been victimized by anger and others have been victimized by yours.
Now consider this. Is the inciting event about you or the oppression of others? When it takes up the cause of the oppressed, you are less likely to give opportunities to the devil. But, either way, slow down. Reaffirm that you put your trust in your Father who judges justly. Pray that the Spirit would anoint you with wisdom and grace, as you remember the grace that you have received from Christ. If you have missed this path, you have yet to find the place that Paul gives to righteous indignation.