Paul commands us in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin; don’t let the sun set on your anger.”
I’ve heard a lot of sermons on the “but do not sin” part: anger can give opportunity to the devil (Eph. 4:27) and birth all manner of hell in relationships.
I’ve also heard a lot of sermons on the “do not let the sun go down on your anger” part: harboring and stoking anger day after day can lead to grieving the Holy Spirit through bitterness, temper tantrums, shouting, slander, and malice (Eph. 4:30-31).
But I haven’t heard any sermons on these two words: “be angry”.
Paul assumes that being angry is part of our calling to imitate God in love (Eph 4:17-5:2). The love of God makes room for anger; we cannot imitate God, Paul indicates, unless we learn to be angry well.
As we look upon a world of injustice and abuse, even in the church, we can learn how to be angry in love together. And we learn this the way Paul did: from Jesus.
Learning to be angry from Jesus
Jesus got angry. Regularly. And we see a pattern in his anger: whenever someone vulnerable or powerless suffered injustice at the hands of the strong and powerful, Jesus opposed this injustice with loving anger.
Here are a smattering of texts in the New Testament that explicitly name anger as the response of Jesus to injustice or oppression:
- Mark 1:41 – Jesus is “incensed” at the skin disease a man had (this occurrence is contested; some manuscripts have the word “compassion” instead. But I think anger works for the reasons I’ll name below.)
- Mark 3:5 – Jesus feels “anger at their hardness of heart” because religious leaders are opposed to Jesus doing good on the Sabbath (healing a man’s withered hand).
- Mark 10:14 – Jesus was angry at his disciples for scolding the people who tried to bring their children to him for a blessing.
- John 2:15 and Mark 11:15 – The accounts of Jesus clearing the Temple display anger: Jesus drives out the animals with a whip, and throws out the people buying and selling, overturning their tables.
- Matthew 9:19 – After his transfiguration, Jesus comes down from the mountain to find his disciples arguing with the religious leaders and says “You faithless and crooked generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?”
Here’s what I notice about Jesus’ anger (organized into a little 3-point alliterated sermon!):
1) Jesus is present to his anger.
Jesus doesn’t bypass his anger and try to remain “positive” through denying, belittling, or gaslighting his own feelings. Nor is Jesus in bondage to his anger. Rather Jesus is present to his anger: he faces his anger, feels it, and is fully God and human in doing so.
2) Jesus is clear on the purpose of his anger.
Jesus is angry when others are suffering. His anger is God’s love moving to oppose those people and forces at work in the world to steal shalom.
Anger is how God’s love responds to injustice.
3) Jesus navigates the power at work in his anger.
Jesus chooses to respond in anger when those without power are suffering at the hands of the powerful:
- Disease has a man in its grip and he is moved to anger to release the captive.
- Religious leaders refuse to affirm healing on the Sabbath and Jesus grieves in anger at their misuse of authority.
- The disciples scolded others for bringing unimportant, powerless children to Jesus. Jesus responds in anger because they were misusing their power to exclude someone from his presence.
- Likewise in the Temple: the wealthy and powerful set up a system of exploitation and abuse that took advantage of the poor. His anger disrupted and prophetically denounced this unjust and exploitative system.
- Likewise after The Transfiguration: when Jesus finds his disciples arguing with the legal experts, Jesus responds with frustration and anger, heals the boy with the evil spirit, and then tells his disciples why they couldn’t heal the boy: “Throwing this kind of spirit out requires prayer.” This is quite the rebuke: the disciples, instead of praying and focusing on the boy, were instead focusing on the powerful legal experts in an argument. The disciples were focused on the wrong thing (winning an argument instead of praying and healing the one suffering injustice), and this made Jesus upset.
Jesus is present to his anger at anything that disrupts the shalom and justice of God’s kingdom. This most often comes through the misuse of authority and power: bad leadership from humans (religious leaders) and evil spirits (principalities and powers).
This is how Jesus is angry, and thus this is how God is angry, and humans are to be angry.
Applying our anger
Here are some implications for us as we reckon with our response to injustice and oppression, whether close to home or in far-off places:
1) It’s OK to be angry.
Evil stuff makes God angry and it should make us angry as well. Anger is how love responds to evil.
2) We must discern how power is at work in our anger.
Anger as a response to injustice for those who are powerless isn’t the same as anger as a weapon in the hands of the powerful.
Anger is sometimes the only way a powerless person can protect themselves. In fact, many of us who are in touch with our own anger first learned how to be angry in vulnerable situations where we were in danger.
But anger in the hands of a powerful person can be used to silence, coerce, dominate, intimidate, manipulate, etc.
We must discern the work anger is doing in each situation: who is angry? Why? What work is this doing here?
3) It’s good to feel anger when people are harmed, including you.
You weren’t created for harm. Hurt isn’t your birthright, blessing is. God is angry at the harm done to you, too.
God is also angry at injustice. In fact, God’s anger is how God’s love opposes injustice and evil.
4) We must learn how to be angry in love.
To hold our anger in love for ourselves and for others. To make room for godly anger is a necessary response to abuse and evil in our churches.
Let us learn how to be angry from Jesus.
Let us see how power is at work in injustices: the children molested, the women groomed, the subordinates gaslit and coerced.
And let us seek justice for those who’ve been hurt as we align the purpose of our anger with God’s.
Imitating God together, may we seek the love that has room for righteous, sacrificial, evil-naming, kingdom-seeking, truth-telling anger in our pursuit of justice for all who suffer oppression.