“In your anger do not sin” ( Eph 4:26)
This is a quote from Psalm 4:4 which literally translated says, “Be angry and do not sin.” Most commentators translate this as conditional – “if and when you get angry, do not sin.” Some, however, view this as a double command. In other words, be angry if the situation requires it, but do not sin in your anger.
The command to get angry AND the command not to sin. While some might argue this is reading too much into the text, I find this a liberating understanding of the epistle.
There are times in prayer that the Holy Spirit invites me to feel as I pray. As I’m praying for those recently widowed, I go back in my mind to our conversations and to their raw grief and I pray from that place of connection with their feelings. As I’m praying for kids without families, I picture their loneliness and need for belonging and I pray from that place. As I’m praying for those who have recently lost work, I picture specific people who have been laid off or furloughed and remember the insecurity, pain, and uncertainty I heard in their voice as I pray for them.
In the same way that my prayers are changed by feeling with – that is empathy – in the presence of the Holy Spirit, what if I am invited to anger for the same reason? “Get angry” as a command, invites me to recall injustice, discrimination, violence, and pain, and to feel the anger response. This anger is not meant to lead me to sin, but rather to light a fire to my prayers and my living.
Divorcing prayer from our real feelings of despair and sadness, or anger and fury only quenches the power of our prayers. In verse 30 it says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit.” In another place in Paul’s writing, he says, “Do not quench the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19). I believe the Holy Spirit is grieved when we don’t show up honestly because it limits the part of us that God has access to. The Holy Spirit is quenched when we are seeking to suppress a part of ourselves in the presence of God.
Maybe you’ve heard or said, “I don’t mind praying I just don’t feel anything?” Or “I don’t feel like anything is happening.” Maybe this is simply because you’re not allowing yourself to feel.
Clearly, anger can be destructive. The emphasis in this verse is ‘Do not sin,’ yet what if we are only able to avoid sin and “get rid of,” as the verse says, the negative side of anger in the form of “all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (v. 31) if we allow ourselves to feel anger. As we’ve seen, the more people tell you “don’t think of the pink elephant,” the more you will think of it. Instead, what if God is saying, get angry. Feel the injustice of it all. See how the system is rigged. Things are not fair. Take the abuses of power and see them for what they are. Look at what People of Color go through. Think about the stress and distress women live with each day due to discrimination. Remember the injustices that happened and continue against the native and indigenous peoples. Recall the plight of the poor, the fatherless, the widow, and the stranger, as the Scriptures call them. Get angry.
Then, don’t stay there. Do not sin by getting bitter or staying in the place of rage. Science tells us that it only negatively affects the health of the bitter person. But let that anger move you to prayer and move you to action.
We all want to get to the last verse of the chapter: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). But perhaps we only get there by heeding the potential command to be angry.