Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 06/27/1999
"Be angry, and yet do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity."
In learning to walk worthily of our calling, nothing is more important than truth, as we saw last week. For if we are created in the image of the God of Truth, then the wooing, the presence, and the enjoyment--that is the search for, the knowledge of, and the belief in truth--are indeed the sovereign good of human nature, and heaven, whether on earth or hereafter, is to have minds that move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth, as Bacon said. With that foundaiton laid, there may be no more subtle and difficult fact of life to deal with in our efforts to speak that truth in love, than Anger. Why is this so? Because Anger always comes waving the banner of justice--or at least so it would like to present itself to our consciences. When we feel angry, we usually, while under the influence of that emotion, also feel right. Cowardice, lust, and greed are inherently shameful. But Anger is sometimes really justified, and always seems so at the moment. Therefore we do not have the same guard up against Anger as we do some of these other feelings, and that makes it a particularly difficult problem to deal with. Therefore, Paul's second specific instruction for the worthy walk is "Be angry, and yet do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity."
In vs. 26, a curious fact is that both verbs are imperatives. "Be angry" is grammatically parallel with "sin not." So what Paul is saying is not, "If you do happen to experience this, here is how to handle it." A better paraphrase would be, "When you get angry--as I assume you will--make sure you do not sin." So obviously Anger is not a sin in itself. An even better paraphrase then would be, "Learn to be angry without sinning--even as Jesus did."
We have to remember that emotions are natural occurrences that are not wrong in themselves. And this applies to all of them. A good analogy would be with the principle that "every good and perfect gift comes from above." NOTHING that God made is evil. Nothing. But those good gifts become the occasion of evil to us when we pursue them in the wrong amount, at the wrong time, or in the wrong way. Likewise, every natural emotion that God designed our bodies to produce has an appropriate object. There are no exceptions--not even hatred. But we must attach those feelings to their appropriate objects, and this, as fallen people, we do not naturally do any more. We are to hate the sin--not the sinner. We are to love God, our neighbors, God's gifts--not the world for its own sake. As C. S. Lewis explained it, our emotions--or insitncts--are like the keys of a piano. There are no "right" keys or "wrong" keys. All the keys are right at some times, but not at others. The moral law is like the tune we are supposed to be playing. So the same B flat that made a beautiful harmony in measure one may create a terrible discord in measure five. Its "rightness" is determined by where you are in the song. So it can be very right for a man to indulge his sexual appetite with his spouse, but horribly wrong for him to press the same key and play the same note if he is not married or if he is with someone else.
Now, Anger is no exception to this rule. It is an inevitable part of life, with its own appropriate objects, which we will look at in a moment. You cannot eliminate it, and should not try; but you should learn to handle it wisely and channel it appropriately. And this we will try to do in the coming moments.
Why are we given emotions in general? Think about the fact that the same root, "mot," occurs in the words emotion, motion, motor, motive, motivation, and motivate. Emotions are about movement. Their proper function is to aid the Reason in moving the Will to action. It is one thing to see someone drowning and to conclude that it would be a good and rational thing to save him. It is quite another to care enough to put oneself at risk by actually attempting the deed. It is one thing to see clearly, "We need a first down to seal the victory in this football game." It is quite another to find in yourself the energy required to knock the opposing lineman to the ground once more when you are already hurting and exhausted. So Emotion is what is needed to enable the Reason to move the Will to do what is required. That is why, when this happens, we say that the person was "motivated."
Well, then. The purpose of Anger is to provide the motivation required for heroic defensive or offensive action in a just cause. It is to the consciousness what adrenaline is to the body. If we were not fallen, we would only feel it when our cause was truly just, and it would cooperate with Reason to lead us only to just and appropriate acts in response to the perceived threat or injustice. And therein, of course, lies the rub.
When felt appropriately and acted on rightly, Anger leads to a cleansing Katharsis. But what if it is felt or indulged or acted on wrongly? This can happen in two ways. Our Anger may be directed at the person (always a wrong object for we who are fallen like him), leading to hate or bitterness. Or it may be directed inward at ourselves and suppressed, leading in the short term to a possibly debilitating depression and in the long run to an uncontrolled outburst over some triviality not in itself deserving of such a response. And either of these syndromes can lead to ulcers, heart disease, cancer, and violence, whether physical or verbal. In such cases, "The wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God" (James 1:20).
What then is the appropriate object of Anger? The answer is found in Romans 1:18. "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness." Note carefully the language of this verse. Even the wrath of God is not said to be revealed against the men directly, but against their ungodliness, their unrighteousness, their suppression of the truth. This is not a terribly comforting thought to the sinner, for if he is determined to cling to his sin, then he will be judged right along with the sin. But it is a very comforting truth to the repentant sinner, for it tells him that if he turns from his sin and turns back to God, the Father will be ready to receive him.
The more godly we become, then, the more we will feel the same way: our righteous displeasure will be excited by ungodliness and unrighteousness and by the suppression of truth, but we will not transfer those feelings to the people responsible as persons, first because even God does not direct his anger so, and additionally because we are not their judges but their fellow sinners. But we should be highly motivated to oppose what they are doing. We live in a land in which abortion, the cruel murder of innocent children, is practiced as a routine form of birth control. We live in a land in which excecutives routinely get rich by defrauding their stockholders at the expense of their employees. We live in a land in which a president can quibble about what "is" is and get away with it, in what William Bennett has accurately called "the death of outrage." Now, if such things do not make you angry, this is a sign not so much of godliness as of impotence. So we need to learn to be angry without sinning.
We are then to be angry without sinning. We are indeed to be angry at the right things and in the right way, so that our anger is not allowed to build up and fester but is appropriately released in a healthy and constructive manner. And in order for that to happen, it is important, as Paul reminds us in vs. 27, that we deal with it daily. Do not let the sun go down with Anger still unresolved. Nothing is more important to your health--whether it be physical or emotional health, the health of your marriage, or your spiritual health--than this.
How do we deal with our Anger daily? We do something about it. And what we do depends on whether it is righteous Anger or not.
Even righteous Anger needs to be released daily. Going to bed with even righteous anger, that is, anger directed to an appropriate object, unresolved, is bad for you because it is disobedient. If it is indeed righteous anger, you need to do something constructive about it. It is there precisely to motivate you to constructive action; if you do not take any, you are just revving your psychological engine and grinding your emotional gears without ever putting the car into motion, and this will wear you out to no good purpose. So write a letter to your congressman or to the editorial page of your local paper, or volunteer at a shelter for unwed mothers, or participate in a peaceful protest, or study about the issue (do this first, actually), or write a check to a Political Action Committe or to a Christian ministry constructively dealing with the problem. The things you can do are endless. The point is that righteous Anger is good for you and for your community if it makes you part of the solution; otherwise even righteous Anger is bad both for you and the community, because it becomes unrighteous by not being acted on obediently and in a Christlike manner. So do not take it to bed with you, but release it in constructive action. That is what it is for.
Unfortunately, we are ourselves so disordered by the Fall that our Anger is often not directed at the right objects at all. We also may have formed bad habits of either internalizing Anger or acting on it in harmful ways. When this happens, there is also something we are to do before the sun goes down. When we find unrighteous Anger in our hearts, we must first acknowledge it, confessing it honestly as sin before God (and also to our brothers and sisters if they have been affected by it). Then we repent of it, turn from it, in intention if we cannot yet do so in feeling. But we can help ourselves do so emotionally as well, by consciously and deliberately redirecting that Anger from the person to the problem, and then taking the kind of appropriate, loving action described for righteous Anger above. In this way we can eventually retrain our emotional responses so that they are righteous to begin with. But in the meantime, we need to learn ways of letting the negative emotional residue of our Anger drain off in ways that are innocent and healthy. Vigorous physical exercise and music are ways that many people have found helpful. Find something that works for you. And above all, we are to do this daily, not letting the sun set with Anger undealt with. Medical and psychological professionals will universally attest to the supreme wisdom of the Lord in this commandment.
If we do not learn to practice this approach to Anger, it will be, as Paul warned, an opportunity for Satan to work in our lives. But if we do learn to deal with Anger rightly, it will be an opportunity for God. Let it be so, for his golry and our good. "Be angry, and yet do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity." Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams