Everyone experiences anger. We can all think of times when we did something regrettable out of anger. Controlling our emotions, especially anger, is a challenge we all face. The Bible has a lot to say about this emotion that often gets us into trouble.
To be angry... or not to be angry
In Ephesians 4:17-24, Paul wrote that we must put off the old self and put on the new. While we often think of this transformation as occurring at baptism, this instruction was addressed to the saints (1:1). This transformation begins at baptism and continues throughout our lives. Likely, Paul was addressing some lingering struggles from the old life.
He then got into some specific topics, including anger. In verses 31-32. He wrote:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
A quick note here on “anger” and “wrath.” The Greek word behind “anger” here is orge, an emotion that has built up, settled, and can last for a long time. “Wrath” is from thumos, a passionate emotion which arises and subsides more suddenly.
Paul’s instruction seems simple enough. Right? Just get rid of all your anger. In verses 26-27, he wrote:
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.
So which is it? Is anger okay or not?
Anger has a purpose
First, we need to understand that God himself becomes angry, and he has given this emotion to us for a reason. When the Israelites refused to enter Canaan, God said, “I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter my rest” (Hebrews 4:3). Jesus showed anger when he purged the temple courtyard of profiteers (John 2:14-17) and on other occasions (Mark 3:5). Therefore, anger is not inherently sinful. Sometimes, it’s the right way to feel about a situation. That said, anger can become sinful and lead to other sins.
Be angry but do not sin
There are plenty of examples in the Bible of people who sinned out of anger.
The first human example is Cain, who was angry because his worship was not acceptable when Abel’s was (Genesis 4:5-7). Violence can happen in a moment of passionate rage or after holding onto anger too long.
David had a near miss with disaster when Nabal insulted him by refusing to help David and his men (1 Samuel 25). David exploded and had his men grab their swords to go wipe out every man in Nabal’s company. Thankfully, Nabal’s wife approached David in humility and wisdom, convincing him not to attack. After he calmed down, David realized how close he’d come to being guilty of revenge and murder.
Moses lost his place in the promised land over a moment in the wilderness when he lost his temper (Numbers 20:2-12). The people’s complaints, understandably, wore through his patience. God told Moses to take his staff and speak to the rock, and water would come out for everyone. Instead, Moses lashed out and struck the rock twice.
There are many such examples of people letting their anger become sinful. We want to stop it before it gets to that point.
Don’t let the sun go down on the source of your anger
Earlier, I quoted Ephesians 4:26 from the English Standard Version, and most popular translations read similarly. But these translations have missed a nuance that explains exactly what the verse means. Although “angry” and “anger” appear to merely be the noun and verb forms of the same word, they aren’t. The verb is orgizo (corresponding to the noun orge). The noun here, parorgismos, refers to the source or cause of anger.
Here’s the same verse in the New English Translation:
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on the cause of your anger.
The Complete Jewish Bible likewise captures the precise meaning:
Be angry, but don’t sin – don’t let the sun go down before you have dealt with the cause of your anger
The meaning is not simply, “Don’t go to bed angry.” This verse actually provides a much more practical solution. It tells us to promptly address the reason we became angry. Often, the reason is people, and another text about dealing with those who sin against us is applicable to those who provoke us to anger too.
In Matthew 18:15, Jesus gave this command:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
Is that how we usually want to respond to being wronged? We tend to react more like David and Moses, or we gossip and slander. Think about how much of the hatred and conflict in this world could be avoided if we always followed this simple instruction. Just go talk to the person.
Remember that the goal is to restore friendship. Approach them with love, compassion, humility, meekness, and a desire to forgive (Colossians 3:12-14). Approach them the way you’d want to be approached if they were angry at you (Matthew 7:12). Hopefully, they’ll change their actions and apologize so you can forgive them. Even if they refuse, you must let that anger go. Forgiveness is contingent on the offender’s repentance, but letting go of anger isn’t. If you hold onto that anger, tomorrow it’ll be bitterness and hatred. It’ll only become more destructive the longer you let it reside in your heart. As Paul put it, holding onto anger is giving the devil an opportunity to get you. So go deal with it quickly and constructively.
Be slow to anger
In James 1:19-20, we find perhaps one of the most difficult commands in the Bible:
Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
When you get angry, your blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate increase. Your body is getting ready to act. You need to get those levels back down. A proven method is deep breathing. Inhale deeply, hold your breath for a moment, and then let it out. This will calm your body down, and that will calm your mind down too. Sometimes, you might also need to step away from the situation for a moment. Before you react verbally, ask yourself whether your words will help or hurt the situation. Every time you can get a grip on your temper before it gets out of hand, you’ll be a little slower to get angry next time. We can learn to listen and think first, then react calmly and constructively.
After you’ve become angry, reflect on what caused it. I’ve often felt pretty foolish for getting mad about something ridiculously insignificant. We’d be wise to just ignore such “offenses” (Proverbs 19:11). Sometimes, we get angry due to misunderstandings that arise because we assume the worst. After the conquest of Canaan, Reuben and Gad returned to their land and built an altar at the Jordan River. The other tribes assumed it was for worship and prepared to attack. But Reuben and Gad reassured them that it was only a memorial of the unity between the tribes. Love demands that we “believe all things”– not that we’re gullible, but that we don’t just assume bad motives and meanings (1 Corinthians 13:7).
God placed anger among our emotions for a purpose. We can become angry for the right reasons and use that emotion as motivation to solve problems. But it becomes sinful if we lose control of it, don’t deal with the cause, and let it drive us to destructive, regrettable behavior. We can manage our anger if we work on it.
A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression. Proverbs 29:22
Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. Proverbs 16:32
Ruhmann, Scott. “Anger Management.” 27th Street Church of Christ. Access date: . http://www.churchofbend.com/art/anger-management.htm