A Sermon on Ephesians 4:25-5:2
This week I encountered this quote from writer and preacher Frederick Buechner.
“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back; in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you”
Does that resonate with you at all?
You know, lots of people think the bible is a list of rules. Even if it were, in a game, rules help keep things safe and fun. Football is a very dangerous sport. But there are rules, because otherwise there would be chaos. You can’t just grab someone by their facemask to tackle. That’s a rule that keeps players safe, even though there are times when it would just be so satisfying and advantageous for the other team to bring someone down at all costs.
That’s the way it is so often with these things that the Bible warns us against. They feel right in the moment, but they end up destroying us.
Yet, we all have fallen into it, haven’t we? We’ve all been the victim of unjust anger. We’ve all doled it out, I imagine. I think that every one of us, if we’re honest, can be convicted of our need to change by these words from Ephesians. Here it is one more time starting at verse 26:
26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. … [skipping to verse 29]
29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
It’s easy to hear this list of commands from Paul and think, “Oh here we go again, another set of rules.” There’s more to it than that, though.
Just a few verses earlier, he says, “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, … and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God…”
There’s this common image in the new testament of taking off your old self and putting on Christ. Or here’s it’s putting on the new self. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
When people were baptized in the early church, they would literally take off their old clothes before they went into the baptismal be baptized, and be given a new white robe as they came out of the waters. They took off their old way of life and everything that was corrupt about it, and they put on a new life– clean, good, and holy.
So this is my point: even though this sounds like it’s just another list of commands, it’s really a wonderful testimony to what someone who has put their faith in Jesus can actually expect to happen for them.
Paul wrote this letter to the church in Ephesus. They were already Christians, but many of them came out of other religions, and they would generally think about things the world thinks about them. And so Paul is saying, “you can actually be different from the way you used to be because you are different. This is the type of people you can expect to be since Christ has come and given you a new life.”
Pastor confession time: I had to rethink the way I’d been thinking about anger since I read Paul say, “Be angry, but do not sin,” this week.
Sermon on the Mount: Anger is Bad?
This is what Jesus says in the sermon on the mount… Matthew chapter 5.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment”
The way I used to think about this was basically this: Jesus says don’t be angry, so anger is bad. Any time I’m angry, that’s bad.
But if that’s your view, as it was mine, you’ve got a problem when you come to Paul saying, “Be angry, but do not sin.” So I went back and looked at what Jesus said again. He says, “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…”
It seems pretty clear to me now– it’s not the anger that’s the problem, strictly speaking. Jesus is very concerned, however, about anger that’s directed to a fellow disciple– a brother or sister in Christ.
And as I looked into this more deeply, it became more clear– the New testament as a whole is primarily concerned with anger between people.
Anger in and of itself is not sinful. Jesus had it!
There are at least a few instances where Jesus himself is described as being angry. One of them is in Mark 3. There is a man with a withered hand who comes to the synagogue one Sabbath day.
3 And [Jesus] said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored
There’s another time when people were bringing little children to Jesus for him to bless them. In Mark 10 it says “the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me;”
Indignant isn’t a word I use every day. So I looked it up. It means “feeling or showing anger because of something unjust or unworthy”
That seems to be the type of anger that Jesus has. There is such a thing as righteous anger, and it’s anger against injustice. A man denied healing on the Sabbath, even though the Sabbath was created for the good of humanity. A child denied the blessing of Jesus, even though the kingdom of God belongs to those who receive like a child. These are the types of things that Jesus was angry about.
Do I have holy anger?
But most of the time, that’s not what we tend to get angry about, is it? We don’t tend to get angry because of an injustice done to others. Or even if we do, it tends to be directed more at the perpetrator than at the circumstance.
Usually, though, we tend to get angry because of what we perceive as an injustice done to me. We just don’t see Holy anger much. It’s very rare, even among God’s people.
James 1:20 says, “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” It’s not that anger can’t produce God’s righteousness. James just says, your anger doesn’t. You’re fallen humans.
Holy anger is like walking a narrow ridge. Step to the right and you find yourself falling off a precipice into bitterness, malice, quarreling, slander, and the like. Step to the left, and you fall into apathy to injustice– a feeling that injustice is “not my problem,” or at least a resignation that the injustice is permanent and unchangeable.
Henry Ward Beecher, a famous abolitionist from the 19th century said this: “A man that does not know how to be angry does not know how to be good. A man that does not know how to be shaken to his heart’s core with indignation over things evil is either a fungus or a wicked man”
That may be true. But that doesn’t mean that the anger we tend to have toward evil things is holy. I think it’s for that reason that Paul talks more about avoiding the polluted version of anger than how to get angry in the right way. You don’t achieve holy anger by thinking about things things that make you angry. You achieve holy anger by putting your ear to the heart of God.
Pastor Tim Keller actually identifies three types of sinful anger– as if there were three ways to fall of that ridge of holy anger. Bitterness, blowing up, and clamming up. When we let anger sink into our hearts, it becomes bitterness– that type of anger that Frederick Buechner was really talking about. The fun type that mulls over harms done and pain to be inflicted. Bitterness is deadly to your heart, and it’s deadly to the life of the church.
So how do we avoid bitterness? Paul says, “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” What does that mean? I think it means that anger is not something that should be a sustained emotion.
I like spicy food. It wakes up my taste buds. But if I eat too much, I’ll end up in a lot of pain. In the same way, the right type of anger can be useful, if it’s properly directed. But even then, if you hang on to it, it turns bitter, and it’ll eat you up. Paul’s saying, be angry– but don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. If you go to bed angry, you’re leaving a door open for the devil, and you’re gonna end up with a lot worse than you bargained for.
Anger also blows up. We all know that type of anger. Usually we think of the husband or father that lashed out against wife and children, but it’s certainly not limited to men. People shout or hit or just say really nasty things that they wouldn’t say in their right mind. We think of road rage.
Tim Keller says, “Anger is energy released in defense of something and released to attack something.” If that’s the case, then it can be helpful to ask yourself two questions when you get angry
- What am I attacking?
- What am I defending?
Now don’t get me wrong: this is very hard. And when you start out doing this, you’ll probably have to do it after your anger has subsided. When we get angry, our brain causes hormones to be released that increase our heart rate, which is good if you need to rescue your child from a lion’s mouth, but as a side effect, it clouds your critical thinking. So if you find that you don’t think clearly when you’re angry, there’s good science behind that.
But the next time you do get angry, try to ask yourself those questions. What am I attacking? If the answer is a person, then you have a problem. John Wesley, one of the fathers of Methodism, said, “Anger at sin is not evil; but we should feel only pity to the sinner. If we are angry at the person, as well as the fault, we sin.”
Again, this is hard. But one of the ways to tell if you’re angry at a person rather than at a situation or a sin is this: do you want something bad to happen to the person? Or do you sincerely hope that they turn from the wrong that they’ve done so that you two can reconcile?
It is very hard to detach the problem from the person. But the more you practice doing this, the more you’ll find yourself looking for constructive solutions to problems rather than lashing out at the person you feel is harming you.
So the other day, I’m driving home from a funeral– my friend’s mom who passed away suddenly. So I’m spent emotionally. I’m on 795 in the right lane, and I find myself coming up on this car that’s probably doing 40 in a 60 zone. I glance in my side mirror and I see a car coming up in the left lane doing about 75. By the time I realize that I can’t move into the left lane to go around the slow car without cutting this speeding guy off, I have no option but to brake hard and let the speeding car pass before I can change lanes.
As I was braking, I found anger rising up in my spirit. Has that ever happened to you while driving? So, and I’m not kidding, I just said, “would you bless him Lord?” I said it more out of obedience than from my heart, I admit.
But then I started thinking, “why am I getting angry?” I realized it was because I was defending my expectation that I’m going to be able to change lanes when I want to, regardless of what’s going on around me. I want things to go my way, but that’s not actually how driving works. It’s not a fair expectation.
And so, I realized that I didn’t need to attack the driver in my heart. I didn’t need to defend my selfish desire. So it was time to just drop it. Dropping it is a great way to avoid blowing up.
But it’s very close to that last way to sin in anger. Clamming up. Clamming up just denies the existence of the emotion. You know, in church, we tend to know that anger is usually bad. So we keep it inside. So we start getting passive aggressive. We don’t do the things people ask us to do. We subtly maneuver and work to undermine those we disagree with. Usually it turns to bitterness.
Now that we all feel equally condemned, or maybe just angry for the sake of irony, what do we do? How do we put on the new self, as Paul says?
He says we have to be “renewed in the spirit of our minds,” in verse 23. We’ve got to learn how to do good. So there is a lot about anger in this section of scripture. But in the middle of it, in verse 28, Paul throws this in: “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.”
People who steal don’t have to work for what they gain. That’s a poison to themselves and to the church. So Paul prescribes an antidote. He says, work for what you gain. And he says but don’t stop there. Don’t just stop taking things from others, but actually give away what you yourself have earned. Hard work and generosity are like the antidote to against theft.
And he says in the same way, for you people who struggle with anger, do the opposite. He says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice… be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Here’s the antidote: be deliberately kind. When someone does something you don’t like, pray for God to bless them. Then say something nice to them. Do something nice. Bake them cookies or something. Y’all I’m expecting a deluge of cookies to come into this church, even though I imagine most of them would land in my hands.
“Forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you,” Paul says.
Paul says if you really understood how much you’ve been forgiven… if you really understood what Jesus bore on the cross for your sake, you could extend the same grace to others with kindness and tenderness.
And haven’t we been forgiven so much? Don’t we need to ask for God’s forgiveness for so much more. Because, you know, blow ups, and clam-ups, and bitterness and all types of unholy anger– you know, they really do grieve the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit is grieved, we cease to experience the reality of God’s forgiveness. We cease to experience God’s presence as we worship.
But when deliberately begin to be kind, when we yearn to put an end our unrighteous anger, when we seek to forgive as God has forgiven us… we are transformed. We experience the depths of God’s love not only for us, but through us, by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that means some holy anger. Fine. But then there’s joy– real joy. There’s peace that wells up and spills out. And so much more. God has so much more for you. He wants you to have life, and have it to the full.
So my brothers and sisters, let’s look to Jesus Christ, the only person I know whose anger was always holy. Let’s see how anger put him on the cross– my anger… your anger. Let’s meditate on the reality that he bore it willingly. And he bore it so that we would no longer grieve the Spirit, but put on the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.