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Is it OK to be angry?

Unsplash/ Julien L
Unsplash/ Julien L

The Christian life, in many ways, is a life of responding to divine imperatives. An imperative expresses an obligation. It is a way of saying what we must do. All languages have some way of expressing necessity by way of the imperative. That was also true, of course, in the Greek language in which the New Testament was written.

There are many imperatives in the New Testament, but one of them may strike us as somewhat strange. In Ephesians 4:25–27, Paul writes:

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.

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The main thrust of this passage is a warning about a misuse of anger. Notice, however, the strange way that Paul introduces the subject. He begins with an imperative: “Be angry.” He will go on to qualify that statement, but here we actually get an exhortation to do something. The Word of God tells us, with the imperative form, to be angry. Isn’t that strange? Doesn’t that seem utterly inconsistent with everything else that we learn in Scripture about norms for human behavior? We don’t want to be known as angry people, do we? Yet the Bible says, “Be angry.”

The general principles of Christian behavior call us to be imitators of Christ, who Himself imitated God. Christian virtue is a matter of being an imitator of someone else who reveals the standard of perfect righteousness to us. The logic goes as follows: There are times when God is angry and there are times when Christ is angry; therefore, there are times when we should be angry.

The anger of God and the anger of Christ are, of course, always righteous. This imperative to “be angry” is not a license for the expression of any kind or force of anger; rather, the anger that we are called to exhibit must also be imitative. It must be like the anger of God in the sense that it must be righteous and not just selfish and explosive.

There are times when it is appropriate and even required that we be angry. It is not that it’s a sinful occasion every time that we’re angry. Some things that go on in the world, in schools, in the government, and in the church ought to make us angry. When the truth of God is maligned and distorted, we should be angry about that. When human beings are violated, we should be angry about that. When we’re not angry about it, it reveals a profound indifference to sacred things. The key, however, is to have our responses mirror the responses of Christ. We should be angry at the things that Christ is angry about and not angry at the things that He’s not angry about.

One of the noteworthy things about Jesus was the different ways that He related to different people. There were times that He came into contact with sinners who were involved in very serious sin, and He related to them in a profoundly gentle, sensitive, caring, forgiving way. One such occasion is found in John 8. A woman caught in adultery was dragged to the feet of Jesus, and the man involved wasn’t brought to Jesus. The Pharisees used this as an occasion to trap Jesus. And they weren’t concerned about this woman’s morality. They were concerned about utterly destroying her. They didn’t care about her forgiveness or her rehabilitation.

This was an occasion when Jesus was very calm. He bent down to write on the ground, and then He said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). One by one, the accusers went away, and Jesus was left alone with the woman. What do the Scriptures say next? “Then He poured out His wrath on her and said: ‘What’s the matter with you, you wicked woman, being involved in this adulterous relationship? I should have had them stone you to death.’” Jesus could have done that and would have been justified in doing so, but that’s not what He did. He said: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (John 8:10). She looked around, and she said to Him, “No one, Lord.” Then Jesus declared, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). Notice that He did rebuke her. He didn’t say, “Go and keep on sinning, and it doesn’t matter if you continue this kind of practice.” Yet we must notice the calm spirit that Jesus exhibited and how tender He was with her. She was guilty, but He understood that she realized that she was guilty, and He knew that her spirit was humble, contrite, and broken. There was no need for Jesus to pour out His anger on her.

Instead, He was angry with those who were the leaders. When Jesus dealt with the ordained clergy of His day, with the leaders of the community, with those in the seats of power and of authority, He gave no quarter. He didn’t put up with hypocrisy or injustice from them. He showed them His wrath. Yet with the broken and downtrodden, He was tender.

Leo Durocher was a Major League Baseball manager and the author of Nice Guys Finish Last. He was once asked about his secret to managing baseball players. He replied, “My secret is that I treat every person on my team exactly the same way.” I thought, “That’s a lousy way to coach.” If he meant that everybody has to play by the same rules and everybody has the same requirements, OK. Some people need to be treated tenderly, however, and other people need to be treated with greater strength. If we’re going to relate to all different kinds of people, it takes great wisdom to know when to be tender and when to be strong.

Jesus mastered that balance. He always seemed to save His anger for those who really should have known better and who were in positions of power and authority. So there is a place and a time and a way for Christians to reflect the anger of Christ in a righteous way. Yet if there’s any emotion that is laced with danger and can be the occasion for the destruction of other people and of our own souls, if not guarded and tempered by the truth of God, it is anger.

Paul states, “Be angry.” He doesn’t go on to say after that, “I want you to be as angry as you can be all the time.” Rather, he says, “Be angry and do not sin,” because he understands that the emotion of anger is a powerful impetus for sin. When we become angry, we can overreact. We can become violent. We can become hateful. We can become bitter. We must be careful about where our anger takes us.

At the opposite extreme, some Christians believe that it’s a sin to grieve, that if their spouse or their child dies, they’re supposed to act like stoics and smile all the way through the funeral. Yet the Scriptures tell us that Jesus was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He wept at the death of His friend Lazarus.

Grief is a legitimate human emotion. Special blessings are promised to those who mourn. Those emotions are fine, just as the emotion of anger is fine. But emotions can be dangerous because if we do not find our comfort in God, they can easily slip into self-pity or bitterness. The author of Hebrews warns about allowing a root of bitterness to spring up in the soul, by which our lives are spoiled (Heb. 12:15). Do you see what a short journey it is from grief to self-pity, from grief to bitterness, from anger to bitterness? There are a lot of angry people in this world whose anger has eaten away their souls. Their anger has been pent up inside for so long that it has slowly but surely eroded their very character. As a result, they come across as angry, hostile people who have become bitter people.

So Paul admonishes us to be angry and not to sin because he understands that anger can be, and often is, the occasion for sin. What’s his remedy? “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” What does he mean by that? You can be as mad as you want in the daytime, but as soon as the sun sets, you can’t be mad at anything that happens? The sunset is not the point. This was a proverbial expression among the Jews: “Don’t let the sun set on your wrath.” What is meant by that? Don’t harbor it. Don’t nurture it. Don’t hold on to it; instead, let it dissipate, let it go away. This is often hard for us, especially in our relationships with the people we are closest to. We get angry, and then we sin and we harbor grudges. We begin to feed and to nurture animosity and a lust for revenge and an attempt to get even in order to hurt the person who has hurt us.

Paul instructs, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” According to the proverbial saying, idle hands are the devil’s workshop. I would say, no, it’s unresolved anger that is the workshop of Satan. If he can take an otherwise healthy person and distort and twist his anger and make it bitterness, he can destroy that soul along with a lot of other people along the way.

Later in this same passage, Paul exhorts: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 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” (Eph. 4:30–32). The keyword in that passage is malice. That’s the danger lurking in the shadows of anger: that anger can make us malicious people. In the criminal justice system, malice aforethought refers to something that is done with angry intention, with purpose to harm other people. That is a fruit of unresolved anger.

We are allowed to be angry. Indeed, according to the Word of God, we are required to be angry about certain things. That anger, however, must always be brought coram Deo, before the face of God, and judged by the standard of His righteousness and of His anger.

This article was first published in Tabletalk, the Bible study magazine of Ligonier Ministries. Find out more at or subscribe today at

Dr. R.C. Sproul was founder of Ligonier Ministries, first minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew's Chapel in Sanford, Fla., first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor of Tabletalk magazine. His radio program, Renewing Your Mind, is still broadcast daily on hundreds of radio stations around the world and can also be heard online. He was author of more than one hundred books, including The Holiness of GodChosen by God, and Everyone’s a Theologian. He was recognized throughout the world for his articulate defense of the inerrancy of Scripture and the need for God’s people to stand with conviction upon His Word.

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