Is it OK to be angry? Paul says in Ephesians 4:31, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”
I guess that settles it. Anger must be put away, avoided.
But not so fast! Just a few verses earlier, in Ephesians 4:26, Paul says, “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.” Clearly, there must be something a little more complicated than a blanket prohibition on anger.
Anger itself is not a sin. Perhaps it is helpful to compare anger to pain. Pain is a natural emotional reaction to an external stimulus. Thanks to the sensation of pain, we become aware of the sharp thorn or the hot cookie sheet, and quickly withdraw our hand before worse damage is done. Thanks to the sensation of anger, we know that someone has done something wrong or injurious, and we can deal with it before worse damage is done.
How we express anger is what divides sinful anger from righteous anger.
Wrong Ways to Express Anger
Older couples, when asked to give advice to newlyweds, often say: “don’t go to bed mad.” That’s good advice. Paul says, “do not let the sun go down on your anger,” which suggests dealing with problems the same day they arise, if possible.
Anger that is ignored or internalized begins to fester and build, giving the Devil an opportunity for greater mischief. That word is topos in Greek, from which we get our English word “topographical map.” It means “a place to occupy” (Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words). Satan is always looking for a toehold in our minds, a beachhead in our hearts, from which he can launch deeper and more successful attacks.
A pebble in a shoe will chafe unless a worker sets down his shovel long enough to remove the pebble. Just so, anger will not fix itself. It must be addressed. Don’t allow anger to build and build until it releases itself in an explosion of rage.
Of course, overreacting or getting even are wrong ways to handle anger, too. Romans 12:19 says, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God.” Jesus says that anger that turns into insults or malicious deeds is tantamount to murder (Matt. 5:21-24). Many are the fist fights and that started because of a simple misunderstanding that could have been corrected in a friendly way by cooler heads.
Notice what made Jesus mad. Not personal insults. When Peter denied Him, He looked at him with sad eyes (Luke 22:61-62). He endured mockery and abuse, and still said, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). But when someone insulted His Father, Jesus spoke up (John 2:13-16, Mark 3:1-6). Strangely, we tend to do the opposite. We see or hear sin and it hardly registers outrage. Let someone bump our car or cut us off in line, however, and it really pushes our buttons. That’s why James 1:19-20 says, “let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” God always gets mad at the right things, at the right time, to the right degree—we are rarely so purposeful and fair. When it comes to anger, err on the side of patience and caution.
Right Ways to Express Anger
Here are a handful of quick tips on expressing anger constructively and righteously, so that the problem that caused it may be fixed:
- Pick your battles. Not all things are worth getting mad about. Some things should simply be ignored and accepted. They are petty, and it is virtuous to say nothing at all. “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression” (Prov. 19:11; cf. 17:14).
- Wait for the rage to subside before speaking, otherwise you’ll do more harm than good. “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Prov. 15:28).
- Choose an appropriate location. As a rule, criticize in private and praise in public.
- Choose an appropriate time. When stressed out trying to get kids dressed and out the door for church is probably not a good time. “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who is quick-tempered exalts folly” (Prov. 14:29-30).
- Limit criticism to one complaint a week. “He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Prov. 17:27).
- Avoid cutting words and bitter sarcasm. One insult erases twenty compliments, and can never be fully forgotten. Comments that start with “you never…” and “you always…” and “you are a…” tend to be damaging and unfair. God gave us spouses to nourish and cherish (Eph. 5:28-29) not to tear down (2 Cor. 13:10).
- Prepare a way for criticism with praise (Prov. 16:21).
May we all learn to show the love of Christ when expressing our anger. –John Guzzetta