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Sinful Anger and Righteous Anger

 

All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Darkness and Light.” The sermons were preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1954 to 1962. This volume is the fifth in a series of eight volumes. The contents were originally preached as part of a systematic exposition of the Epistle to the Ephesians. It was published in 1982.

 

`Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the devil.'

Ephesians 4:26-27

 

            In these words the Apostle continues the series of particular injunctions that he is giving to the Ephesian Christians in order to illustrate and to make quite plain to them what exactly is meant by putting off the old man and what is meant by putting on the new man. In particular he is concerned with the doctrine of the church, the unity of the church, the church as the body of Christ and our being members together and in particular in and of the same body. So that what he is really saying in effect is that we must put off that old life of sin and put on this new life of holiness because sin is not only something that is wrong in and of itself and indicative of the old life---sin always breaks fellowship; and that is his immediate practical concern at this particular point. Sin breaks fellowship: holiness on the other hand always promotes fellowship, and as he deals with these particular examples and illustrations he obviously keeps that in his mind the whole time. As we come to Paul's second injunction we find him dealing with something else besides lying, which not only breaks the fellowship amongst Christians but again violates the whole fundamental basis and foundation of the Christian life. So he takes up the question of anger, a very com­mon source of sin and disruption in the life of the Christian Church. I have no doubt that he put these things in the order in which we find them because it undoubtedly represents the degree of their frequency. And here again we see that he does not merely deal with this problem from the standpoint of morality, or of pagan philosophy, but in his own specifically Christian way. And that is, as we have seen, the only way in which we as Christians should face every single problem that confronts us in the Christian life. Our way of tackling these problems should be totally unlike that of the world. Very well then, what exactly does he say? What is the meaning of this statement, `Be ye angry, and sin not’?

 

     There are some people who think that it means that if you cannot get rid of anger altogether, the best thing to do is to suppress it, and to hold it down as much as you can. And that, I suggest, is quite wrong. The Scripture knows nothing of such teaching. That is what the world does, and the result is that ever and again when men are taken unawares, the trap door suddenly opens and the whole thing reappears, as violent as it ever was before. No, suppression is certainly not the Christian way of dealing with anger and its problems. What then does the Apostle mean? Clearly and obviously this is a positive command. It is not some concession that is made to a weakness. He says that it is out duty to be angry in certain respects, but that we must never be angry in a sinful manner, never in a temper.

There are times when we are meant to be angry---'Be ye angry'! But never in a way that becomes sinful, and never in a way that opens the door of opportunity to the devil. How are these things to be reconciled? how do we work it out? We can do nothing better, it seems to me, than to take the Apostle's statements as he puts them, starting with `Be ye angry'. In other words, there is a right kind of anger. In and of itself anger is not sinful. It is a capacity which is innate in every one of us, and clearly put into us by God. We can really call it one of the natural instincts. The capacity for anger against that which is evil and wrong is something which is essentially right and good; and it is because the non-Christian moralists so frequently forget this, that those who follow them find themselves in a false position. The pagan idea always is that you are to crucify your instincts, no matter what they are. But that is a false asceticism. The Bible never teaches us to crucify a natural instinct. What we are to do with them is to control them, not to get rid of them altogether. The Stoics believed in getting rid of them; they tried to kill them; the Epicureans just regarded them with disdain, and both were wrong. According to the Christian teaching, the instincts are to be governed, to be controlled and to be rightly used. Anger is something which is placed in us by God; it is a capacity within man which results in his being roused by the sight of certain things. And the result is that it is a priceless and precious thing.

 

To prove that anger is not sinful, and indeed something which is altogether right in and of itself, I simply need to draw attention to a statement which is made in the Gospel according to St. Mark about our Lord Himself: `And when he had looked round about on them (the Pharisees) with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts ...' (3:5). A similar statement is found in Luke's Gospel: `The Lord then answered him and said, Thou hypocrite'! (13:15) One of these lawyers, Pharisees, teachers of the law, was trying to trap Him and to trip Him, and our Lord turned upon him and said, 'Thou hypocrite'! He spoke with anger! Again, read the account, in John chapter 2, of the Lord's anger with those men trading in the Temple: `When he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables' (2:15). Here was our Lord in righteous anger and indignation, making a scourge of small cords and literally driving the traders out, and cleansing the temple.

Furthermore, no-one who is at all familiar with the Bible can have failed to observe a term which is used constantly in the Old Testament and the New about God Himself---the wrath of God! For example, the Apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, says: `I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, The just shall live by faith' (1:16-17). Why is Paul so pleased about this? Why is he so anxious to preach it and to proclaim it in Rome and everywhere else? He gives the answer in verse 18: `For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness.' The wrath of God! Both John the Baptist and our Lord preached and exhorted people to `flee from the wrath to come.’ The Apostle John in the Book of Revelation, speaking about the end of the world and of time and history, and about the judgment that will be ushered in by the Lord Jesus Christ, says graphically `for the great day of His wrath is come' (6:17). So we realize that this is something that we must not dismiss.

And again the Apostle Paul, in writing to the Corinthians in the Second Epistle, makes this thing quite explicit and shows how at a given point we should feel anger and a righteous indignation, with ourselves. He is talking about godly sorrow, and says, `Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation, not to be repented of; but the sorrow of the world worketh death. For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge!' (7:10-11) Indignation! Anger! They were angry with themselves and the cause of the trouble, with the man who had sinned and with their own failure to recognise the sin, and with their failure to react to it as they should have done. The lesson for us is that we should always be angry against and about sin and evil. `Be ye angry', says the Apostle! In a sense he is just putting in New Testament language what one of the Psalms puts like this: 'Ye that love the Lord, hate evil'! (97:10) The two things go together: if you really love the Lord you must hate evil; evil and sin are definitely to be hated.

 

It is not at all surprising that the Apostle should give this exhortation to the Ephesian believers, these Gentiles, whose manner of life before their conversion he describes in the words: 'having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness' (4:18-19). We have earlier seen that 'past feeling’ meant that their consciences had become calloused and hardened, their sensibilities had become dull and blunted, they could not react to anything; they were `past feeling', they were so steeped in sin that nothing any longer could move them or shock them. They were past feeling!---they had become morally indifferent, they had become supine. This is always characteristic of godlessness and irreligion. It is one of the terrible aspects of paganism, that men and women become so steeped in sin that they are not ware of the fact that they are sinning, they cannot react at all, they never feel any sense of indignation or horror; they never come angry at all; they are past feeling. In the second half of the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, Paul tells us all about it. Men and women had forgotten God, and were worshipping birds and four-footed beasts and insects; they were also worshipping one another. And not only had they become immoral, they had almost lost a sense of morality; they were guilty of the most foul and repulsive perversions. The whole world had become a sink of iniquity.

Paul therefore says to the Christians, You have to get right away from the world's sins; you have got to learn to be angry about them; you must be roused; you must not be complacent and say that sin does not matter! Such an attitude belonged to their past, he said, but they must not be like that any longer. A failure to react with indignation and anger against sin and evil is always a sign of moral decadence and of godlessness and irreligion. I remind you of a word that I quoted earlier from the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 8, which describes sin at its acme. Let me give you the climax to the whole statement because it is such a great one. Listen to this. He says, `Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush.' What a terrible state to get into! You are not quite hopeless while you can still blush, it means that there is still something in you that makes you feel a sense of indignation and of shame and of anger. But certain people had become so sunk in sin that the prophet says `Neither could they blush'. And what we need if we are in that condition is this exhortation of the Apostle: Be angry! rouse yourselves! Do not allow yourself to be governed by that old mentality! put off that old man, put on the new man! We must learn, says Paul, to be really angry against iniquity and sin. God made us in such a way that that should be our natural reaction; it was the natural reaction of the Lord Himself; it is God's reaction to sin.

And how greatly this exhortation to anger is needed in the world today! Is not one of the greatest tragedies in the world at this hour the failure to feel moral indignation and wrath because of things that are happening? Is not there a fatal tendency to be complacent and to explain everything away, and to remain indifferent? Even though we hear people `on the air' and on public platforms deliberately teaching `Evil, be thou my good’, still there seems to be no protest. We seem to have lost the capacity to be roused morally by a sense of indignation. This is, to me, one of the major problems in the world today. There has been a steady decline in morals, not only in behaviour but in outlook and in reaction. We merely shrug our shoulders and allow sin to go unrebuked. I believe this was true of the attitude of the world to Hitler before the Second World War. This attitude would have been unthinkable fifty years before. There would have been protests, and Hitler would have been stopped. But not so in the world decadence of the thirties! We could not be bothered, we wanted to go on enjoying ourselves and having our good time, and we somehow hoped that world troubles would not affect us and all would be well. And so the whole sorry process was allowed to start and to continue.

     But this is not only evident in our attitude towards international affairs---as, for example, towards the rise of dictators and the toleration of things in nations, which should never be tolerated---but it seems to me that it is also creeping into the whole of life. I myself cannot be but appalled at the reaction to such a document as the Wolfenden Report, with its idea that you can regard certain perversions as natural. The plain fact faces us that the whole category of sin is rapidly disappearing. Indeed, many are claiming that there is no such thing as sin. No---the man was born like that, he has just got that tendency in him, and it is very strong in him, not so strong in another! Evil is explained away; there is no protest, there is no moral indignation. And it is into such a situation as this that the word of the Apostle, the word of God, comes: `Be ye angry!' Learn to react against these things! Feel a sense of indignation! There are certain things that should rouse us and should be denounced. An absence of a sense of shame and of anger and of righteous indignation is always the hallmark of deep degradation and sinfulness, and of a loss sense of God. Our Lord was angry when He observed manifestations of sin. And what measures our approximation to Him is that we manifest a similar reaction when confronted by similar things. It is our duty to be angry at certain points and with respect to certain matters.

 

But we move on to a second point, for the Apostle adds to `Be ye angry', `Do not sin'! that is, do not be angry in a sinful manner. We have been looking at the right kind of anger, we must now look at the wrong kind of anger. Notice that we are walking on a kind of knife edge. In other words, we can swing from one extreme to the other, and in consequence we have to be very careful. We have already seen other examples of this. The Apostle has already told us to speak the truth in love. Some people put the whole emphasis on truth, while others put it on love; the first set of people have no love, the second set of people have no truth; but they are both wrong, for we must speak the truth in love! Similarly here---`Be angry, but do not sin!'

There is a wrong way of being angry. And what is this? What must we never be guilty of? First, we must never be bad-tempered people. That is entirely and utterly wrong. To be bad-tempered, to be irritable or irascible, is something which is sinful and is condemned everywhere in the Scripture. So it is no use saying, `Ah! but I happen to have been born like that.' If you are a Christian, you have been born again, so you must not use that argument. It is wrong at any time and on any showing. We are not to explain what we are and what we do in terms of the balance of the various ductless glands, for that would be to do away with sin. We have to know ourselves and we have to deal with ourselves; and we are forbidden to be bad-tempered, irritable, irascible people. But we do not stop at that; there is another thing which we must not be. We must not be easily provoked. In the thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians the Apostle says that one of the most glorious things about love is that it is not easily provoked. A man who is easily provoked is bound to fall into sin very frequently. We must not be fiery. But let me put the case positively, in terms of the way James in his Epistle describes the wisdom that is from above: `The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy' (3:17). We must not be easily provoked. Yet how easily provoked some of us are, by all sorts of things! Now here is the test. Are you easily put off or put out by anything? It does not matter what it is. And can it upset you and disturb you and keep your mind on it and prevent your concentrating on something else? Christians often express to me their irritation at hymns or tunes and such-like things, and I get the impression sometimes that they have been so put out and so put off that they cannot settle down and listen to the sermon. Easily provoked! That is sinful. We should not be easily provoked. We must seek after the love which enables us to hear all things, and which is easy to be entreated.

But we must go further. Any anger or expression of anger that is excessive, violent, uncontrollable, out of control, is a wrong sort of anger. We talk about a man being in a towering rage. That is definitely, utterly sinful. We talk about people seething with anger, shaking with anger. Oh! that is sinning in anger---the white face, the very body trembling, the eyes blazing... . You have seen it, have you not? Now that is altogether wrong and sinful. It is lack of control, and such a man is being angry and sinning; he is being angry in a sinful manner.

 

The next step is the one that the Apostle himself gives us, in the words, `Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.' In the original the word wrath is not the same word as anger; hence it is a pity that the Revised Standard Version has put anger in both places. The second word, `wrath', is a stronger word than `anger'. It means exasperation, it means anger roused and nursed and nourished until it becomes a settled condition; it means hatred, bitterness of spirit, vindictiveness. It means that you are determined to get your own back, to seek vengeance and absolutely determined to get it. It is a settled condition of anger; it has become part and parcel of you; it is a mood; it is a condition which is permanent; and it is bitter and hateful and determined to get its own back. That is wrath as the Apostle uses the word here, but that is not the wrath of God, there is nothing of that in God's wrath. What the Apostle is condemning is the wrong sort of anger. The anger that we are to feel as Christians must never be felt by us just because we happen to be the sort of person that easily becomes `heated'. That is always wrong. In the same way our anger must never be personal, but rather against the principle of iniquity and sin. My anger must never be the result of my being the sort of man who is rather peppery, as we say, and testy, and a bit on edge always, easily provoked and ready to explode. That is the thing that we are required to put off. In other words, the anger about which the Apostle is speaking is an anger that should always be aroused against evil and sin ---those things that caused the anger and the indignation seen in our blessed Lord Himself.

 

This brings us to our third big principle. How are we to deal with this sinful anger, this sinful tendency to lose control of ourselves and yield to the wrong type of anger? We are to note that the Apostle bids us remember that such loss of control over ourselves belongs to the old man, the old life, and we are to put that off. In the second place, such loss of control always gives the devil his greatest opportunity. Paul adds verse 27 to verse 26: `neither give place to the devil'! What he means by that is, Never open the door to the devil. When you lose your temper you open it wide; it could not be wider. Nothing opens the door more widely than anger, and for this good reason. The moment you are controlled by your temper you are no longer able to reason, you are no longer able to think, you can no longer give a balanced judgment, for you are altogether biased on one side and against the other side. In other words, the power to reason and to think and to equate and evaluate---all that makes man man ---is gone; for the time being he is like a beast, the creature of his own passion and of an instinctive kind of power. And of course that is just the very situation in which the devil sees his most glorious kind of opportunity! It was when he persuaded Eve and Adam to be angry against God that he very easily had them in his hands. He aroused in them bitterness and enmity against God, and made them believe that God was against them; and so immediately the devil could do as he liked. And think of the matter as you know it in life. Is there anything that leads to more trouble than anger? Things said in anger and in a bitter moment!---you would almost cut your tongue off, if you could, to get them back; and sometimes, though forgiven, they leave permanent wounds and scars. What havoc is wrought in the world by sinful anger!

And then a sinful anger leads to the nursing of grievances, to a desire for revenge and to have our own back; it leads us to despise people and to treat them with contempt. Sinful anger! The moment it has taken over the devil enters in. He will keep it going and insinuate thoughts and ideas and implant them. Indeed, the whole of life can be ruined just because of anger. Anger is always a cause of confusion, not only in the life of the individual but in the lives of all those who are involved in the business of living with such an individual. Nothing, I maintain, so constantly gives the devil an opportunity as loss of control in anger.

 

But let us note a still more important principle. Vindictiveness, or the wrath that the Apostle condemns, is a denial of the whole Christian gospel. Without doubt the Apostle had this in his mind. If you become vindictive, if you get this settled wrath, if you have a desire for vengeance in you, you are denying the whole foundation of the gospel as laid down in the Epistle's earlier chapters, namely, that God forgives us in spite of our being what we are. We are Christians entirely and solely by the grace of God. It is all due to God's mercy. It is in spite of our being what we are, in spite of our being hateful and hating one another, in spite of our being ungrateful, in spite of our being rebellious, that God sent His own Son, and He took our sins upon Him. He died for us while we were sinners, while we were enemies. Our salvation is all of the free grace of God. As a Christian you say that you believe this gospel. But if you are in a condition of settled wrath against another person, how do you reconcile it with your Christianity? Come, let me ask a more practical question. How can you say the Lord's Prayer every night and morning? 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us'! You pray that prayer, and you are denying it in your life and in your practice.

Listen to what our Lord said in the parable that he spoke on this subject, as found in Matthew's Gospel, `Likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses' (18:3 5). The parable is not difficult to remember. A servant owed a great sum of money to his lord who was about to put him in prison; but the servant said, Have mercy upon me, give me time and I will pay you everything. Very well, said the lord, certainly I will. And then the servant was very thankful and very pleased. But he happened to meet a fellow servant who owed him a hundred pence, a mere triviality, and he said, Pay me what you owe me. The man said, I'm sorry, I have not got it. He therefore took him by the throat and said, You have got to pay me every farthing. The man then said, Have mercy, give me time. No, said the servant, I will not give you time, you must pay at once, up to the last farthing. And he threw him into prison! The lord called that man to him and said, You wicked servant! why did you not deal with your fellow servant as I dealt with you? And our Lord Jesus Christ, applying his parable, said: `Likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if you from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.' If you cannot forgive your brother, I tell you in the Name of God you are not forgiven yourself. You cannot play fast and loose in God's moral universe. Listen to John stating the truth in his First Epistle: `If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?' Evil behaviour is a denial of the very foundation of the gospel. The new man, Paul tells us, who, after God, is created in righteousness and true holiness, is created in the image of God! So if I claim to be a Christian, I believe I am renewed in the image of God, and therefore I must do to others what God has done to me. He has forgiven me in spite of my being what I was. I must forgive another in spite of his being what he is. That is the logic! It is a foundation truth of the gospel.

Again, I as a Christian claim that I have received the Holy Spirit. `And the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.' And therefore, not to forgive, but to be in a towering rage, losing control, shows an absence of the fruit of the Spirit.

Furthermore, believers are members of the same body of Christ and we need one another, and we are interdependent upon one another. Therefore, if you think about harming your brother, you are harming a part of yourself, a part of your own life and of the body to which you belong. It is a denial of the whole doctrine of the church. Sinful wrath and the seeking of vengeance is a usurpation of God's right of judgment. The Apostle tells us so in his Roman Epistle. `Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath':---that is, the wrath of God---‘for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink, for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good' (12:19-21). `Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord'! I know this or that thing is terribly wrong, says the Christian, but I am not the judge, I leave it all to God. That is the Christian way! Put off the old man! Put on the new man!

 

Finally, if this is the way in which we are to deal with a false, sinful anger and wrath, my final question is this: When am I to do this? when am I to deal with it? And the Apostle supplies us with one of the most glorious answers in the whole Bible: 'Let not the sun go down upon your wrath'! Do it at once! Do not go to bed, do not give yourself to sleep, with this in your mind or your heart. Clear it at once. Never go to sleep without settling your moral accounts. Never leave a thing like that on your books. Get rid of it! Erase it! Paint the blood of Christ on it! Get rid of the thing! Let not the sun go down upon your wrath. Never go to sleep with a bitter, hateful, angry thought in your heart. Do not let these things have a lodging place. If you have had some terrible provocation during the day---and such things do happen---and you really have felt a righteous anger and indignation, do not let it settle there to become a bitter, malignant hatred.

Let me remind you of what our Lord Himself said about this matter in the Sermon on the Mount. He is talking about a man going to the temple to take his offering, his gift, to God. But He says, If you find yourself even at the very altar and suddenly you remember that a brother of yours has something against you, `leave there thy gift before the altar', before you have given it, `and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift' (Matthew 5:23-24). That is very strong, is it not? Imagine it! Here you are! you are actually in the temple, you have actually advanced to the altar, you are going to put your gift upon the altar. But you suddenly remember! Leave your gift there! go away, settle it with your brother, put matters right with him first. `First be reconciled to thy brother, and then', and only then, are you fit to `come and offer thy gift' unto God.

I sum up the whole position like this. Hate sin, always; hate sin in the sinner, always: but never hate the sinner. Both sides of the truth are absolutely essential. Sin must never be condoned. Sin must never be excused. Sin must always be condemned. There are people who are sinners who do not like that! Ah! they say. But where is your principle of grace and of love and of mercy and of compassion? The sinner should never speak in that way. He should feel that he deserves all he is getting and infinitely more. He should never defend himself; he should feel indignation against himself; he should be angry with himself; he should hate himself. Sin is to rouse a holy anger in us, every time it occurs, and in every form. But the sinner is to be forgiven; the sinner is to be loved. The sinner is to be helped to forsake his sin and to rise up. This blessed balance of the Scripture!---hatred of sin, but never hatred of the sinner: anger, but never in a sinful way. And above all, I repeat, always make sure that you never put your head down on your pillow to rest and sleep for the night with any spirit of bitterness or hatred or lack of forgiveness in your heart or mind or soul. `Let not the sun go down upon your wrath'! You may have a great struggle with yourself, but do not go to rest until you have settled it. You may have to argue it backwards and forwards; go on, I say, until you have realised the love of God in Christ to you, until you have seen Christ bleeding and dying on the cross that you might be forgiven; dwell on it until He has melted your heart and broken you down and made you sorry for the one who has offended you, and until you forgive freely. Then, but not until then, get into your bed and put your head down on the pillow, and sleep the sleep of the just and the righteous and the holy, because you have a right to do so; you will be doing it as the Son of God Himself did it; you will have acted in your life and domain as God Himself has acted with respect to you.

`Be ye angry, and sin not; let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the devil.'(225-238)

 

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