“Be Angry and Sin Not”

Eph 4:26 (Ps 4:5 [4])

My parents had a mixed marriage of sorts.  My mother had Quaker and strict Methodist heritage; my father was (still is, he would say) a United States Marine.  Mother taught me that I should avoid conflict, bear insult and injury with quiet grace, and, above all else, maintain control of my temper.  In her view, anger was always and only as dangerous and destructive as nitroglycerin in a blender.  Dad’s frequent admonition, on the other hand, was never to pick a fight, but, if the other guy seemed intent on doing so, never to walk away either. ‘Don’t start a fight, Mark, but always be sure to finish one.’

My personal experience as an adolescent growing up in the mountains of northeast Alabama taught me how difficult it is to hybridize these two philosophies or to employ one in some conditions and the other otherwise. My hot temper in those days, however, influenced me to come to agree with my mother since very little good ever came from allowing my anger full, open expression.  Early in my life I, like she, classified anger among the “negative” emotions alongside fear and lust in a triumvirate of danger.

I remember the first time I read the statement in Ephesians, a quotation of the LXX version of Ps 4:5 (4:4 in English; the Hebrew should probably be translated “Be disturbed and sin not” as do NRSV and several other versions).  How is it possible to be angry without sinning?  Anger, I thought, is inherently sinful. Doesn’t Jesus warn that anger toward another human being is the seedling of murder (Matt 5:22)? Ephesians 4:26 was one of the first texts I turned to when I had studied enough Greek in college to muddle through a translation.  Maybe, I thought, there is some nuance in the Greek that English translations have missed or that English simply does not have the capacity to convey.

Nope. The Greek verb means, “to be angry,” all right.  Furthermore, it is a plural imperative.  The same holds true for the verb enjoining the reader not to sin.  I could not escape via a linguistic subtlety.

Of course, as I have now known for years, in and of themselves, emotions are neither positive nor negative.  Fear is extremely useful when one confronts a rattlesnake coiled at one’s feet – if it motivates one to wise and swift action.  It is detrimental if it causes one to panic or freeze.  Even love, usually considered wholly positive, can be harmful if misdirected, for example, or incapable of motivating the actions necessary to give it concrete form.

Anger often represents the first and strongest clue that one senses injustice, feels threatened, or has been harmed in some way. It is not possible to stifle it; it is the alarm claxon God built into human beings. The issue of whether anger leads to sin or not involves the nature of the actions taken to express it. Everyone learns this truth to some degree early in personal relationships within the family.

The news media tell us that worldwide the populace is particularly angry these days.  Middle class people are angry about stagnant wages, the rising cost of educating their children, an anemic job market, and the sense that the system, if not somehow rigged against them, is certainly unresponsive tothem. Sympathizers of the “Black Lives Matter” movement are angry over the seemingly cavalier attitude of the majority toward violence, especially police violence, perpetrated on young black men and boys.  Sympathizers of the “Blue Lives Matter” movement are angry because they feel that the people they protect do not appreciate the difficulty of the job or the degree of risk involved in it. Some Christians are angry because they feel pressured by the complexity of multi-culturalism and religious pluralism. Virtually everyone is angry with terrorists and terrorist organizations, with bankers, and with politicians or even government as an institution.

All of which is perfectly understandable and potentially acceptable: unless it motivates the middle class to mistrust and hate people because of their race or religion, instead of expecting the managers of the economy to focus on the common good; unless it becomes a justification for thinking that black lives matter more than blue lives or vice versa, instead of working for the racial reconciliation and economic just that should by now have been a reality; unless it fuels attempts to reassert control over culture and religion for one’s own benefit.

Anger alerts one that something is wrong. To be angry without sinning is to take action to correct the wrong without harming or disadvantaging others.  It can motivate positive change. Too often, however, it energizes aggression.  My prayer is not for the anger we hear and see every day on the news to diminish, but for it to find proper channels.  If things are wrong, fix them – without a fight.