Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.
The emotional life of God and his children is very complex. The inner workings of God's heart and the hearts of his saints are not simple.
The Complex Emotional Life of God
For example, Exodus 34:6 says that God is "slow to anger" and Psalm 103:9 says that God "will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever." Yet Psalm 7:11 says that "God is a righteous judge and a God who has indignation (or anger) every day." In other words, every day God's anger is rising slowly toward some, decreasing toward others, and sustained in fury toward others. In his infinite complexity God experiences the absence, the rise, the presence, and the fall of anger simultaneously.
And yet he is a "God of peace" (1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 13:20). The hurricane of his wrath against faithless men will never beat itself out on the beaches of eternity (Revelation 14:10; Matthew 18:35f.). And yet God is not the slave of his anger like a man who seethes with bitterness every day—because he is a God of peace. The hurricane of his wrath is somehow swallowed up in the great calm of the divine mind—like the firing of cosmic pistons while the engine idles smoothly and quietly, or like the churning of massive generators far inside the dam sustained by a great reservoir of deep, calm water. We can only grope for flashes and images of the rising, falling, perpetual, propitiated wrath of God. His heart is infinitely complex (Psalm 90:11).
Complexity in the Hearts of God's Children
It's not surprising, then, that the hearts of God's children should be complex, and that God's instructions to us about anger should require great spiritual sensitivity. Surely this is part of the reason why Paul speaks of a renewed mind and a new creature in Ephesians 4:22–24 before he teaches us about anger in verse 26. Let's look for a moment at these foundational verses before we talk about anger.
The Contrasts Between the Old and New Natures
Verses 22–24: "Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts (or: "is ruined through desires of deceit"), and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." Notice the contrasts. There is an old nature and a new nature (or old man and new man). One is to be put off; the other is to be put on. One is corrupted; the other is created. The corruption of the old accords with desires of deceit. The creation of the new accords with God in the righteousness of truth.
|old nature||new nature|
|put off||put on|
|in accord with desires of deceit||in accord with God in righteousness and holiness of truth|
Note especially the word "created." We do not produce our new nature as Christians. We were dead in trespasses and sins (according to 2:1) and were made alive by God's sovereign grace (2:5). We were created anew (born anew!). Ephesians 2:10 says, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." Our new nature is God's creation, God's workmanship. It is a supernatural work of grace.
God's Work and Our Task
But, we ask, if my new life in Christ is God's creation and workmanship, then what is my task? Ephesians 4:23–24 gives the answer. We are to put on this new nature. When God creates in us a new heart, he does not cancel out our consciousness. We are conscious hour by hour of choices—will we follow the way of deceit or will we follow the way of truth? The new creation is not the negation of choice; it's the transformation of the heart that makes choices. The moral choices which you face as a new creature in Christ are just as real and crucial as the choices you faced before you were born again (i.e., created in Christ Jesus). The difference is that your character, your nature, your heart, your will have been radically changed. The source of choice, the root of your choosing is now. There is a new nature within.
So when Paul says, "Put it on," he means, "Act it out." If you have been created anew after the likeness of God, clothe yourselves with godly garments. Your clothing is what men see. So when Paul says, "Clothe yourselves with your new nature," he means, "Make it visible in your attitudes and behavior." If the hidden spring has been purified, let the visible streams of your life run clean.
The Christian Life Is the Experience of a Miracle
But of course, if the spring has been purified, the streams will run clean. If the tree is good, it will bear good fruit. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth will speak. Christian morality is the experience of an inner miracle. But the experience in moment by moment living includes conscious choices to go the way of truth not deceit. These choices are the fruit that signify a good tree; they are the words that reveal the abundance of the heart; they are the clean streams that provide the purified spring; they are the obedience that confirms your calling and election.
If we fail to understand Ephesians 4:22–24, we will surely go astray in what follows about anger. The practical, nitty-gritty, day to day living of the Christian life is the experience of a miracle. If it were not, then all our moral choices and all our pursuit of holiness would be done in our own strength; it would signify our own merit and it would redound to our own glory. And the whole purpose of God to be glorified in his creatures would fall. So there are immense things at stake in the ordinary issues of truth-telling, and anger, and stealing which Paul deals with now in verses 25–28. We will restrict ourselves to the problem of anger.
The Problem of Anger
Verses 26–27: "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil." Keep in mind that the general admonition is put off the old nature and put on the new. Now the specific example of that is getting rid of bad anger and only having good anger. In other words, when you are born again, you are given a new nature, you become a new creature; and Paul says here that your newness will show itself in the way you experience anger.
Two Assertions About Anger
Verse 26 makes at least two assertions about anger: 1) There is a time to get angry; 2) the time to stay angry is short. Or: there are good grounds for getting angry, but no grounds for holding grudges. "Do not let the sun go down on your anger," means, "Let the day of your anger be the day of your reconciliation" (Estius). And if reconciliation is impossible, even so, do not stroke your wound, or cherish revenge, or hold a grudge. For Satan seeks a gap called grudge, and if he finds it, he will enter and ruin life with all manner of bitterness.
Let's take these two points one at a time:
- There is a time to get angry, and
- the time to stay angry is short.
1. There Is a Time to Get Angry
First, there is a time to get angry. "Be angry but do not sin." Not all anger is wrong for man. But some anger is clearly wrong. Verse 31 says, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger . . . be put away from you." What's the difference between good anger and bad anger?
Two Characteristics of Good Anger
I would suggest two things that characterize good anger:
- it is based on God, and
- it is mingled with grief.
It Is Based on God
James 1:19–20 says, "Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of men does not work the righteousness of God." In other words, we should be slow to anger because the anger which rises quickly is very likely to be mere human anger which will not accomplish God's righteousness. But if we are slow to anger, if we rule our spirit and consider the matter carefully, then our anger, if it comes, may be the very anger of God. That is, our anger may be owing to the fact that God's character is dishonored not ours, and God's aims are resisted not just ours. In short, good anger is based on God not just ourselves. Its target is sin against God, not just assaults on us.
It Is Mingled with Grief
The second thing that characterizes good anger is that it is mingled with grief. The one instance where Jesus is said to get angry is Mark 3:5. Jesus was in the synagogue on the Sabbath about to heal a man's withered hand. The Pharisees were adamantly opposed. It says, "Jesus looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart."
Last week I was reading a book whose teaching is so wrong, so harmful to the church, and so injurious to God's glory that I got so angry I wanted to tear it in half. I think condition number one for good anger was satisfied—it was for God's sake. But that's not enough. I had to pray that God would give me the kind of grief for the author that Jesus felt for the Pharisees. "He looked around on them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart."
Here is where we fail so often. Our grief over the sinner gets burned up in the zeal of our anger against the sin. A person does something wrong and we get angry, but there is no grief over the person's hardness. We express our indignation for his sin, but we show no longing for his softening or reconciliation. This is natural, but it is not good. As long as there is hope for change, good anger should not only be directed against sin but also be mingled with grief for the sinner.
2. The Time to Stay Angry Is Short
So there is a time to get angry—that's the first thing verse 26 teaches: "Be angry but do not sin." But the time to stay angry is short—this is the second thing the verse teaches: "Do not let the sun go down on your wrath." This does not mean that Eskimos at the North Pole may hold a grudge for six months while the sun is up and natives at the equator may only hold one for twelve hours. It means that anger, for all its possible legitimacy, is a dangerous emotion and should not be nurtured into a grudge. Anger is the moral equivalent of biological adrenaline. It is good and healthy to experience periodic secretions of adrenaline in reaction to dangerous situations. But a steady flow would damage the heart. So with anger. It has damaged many hearts because it was not put away, but nurtured again and again into a life-destroying grudge.
Six Goals of Satan in Getting You to Hold Grudges
According to verse 27 this is what Satan is watching for—the gap called grudge. If there is any way that Satan can assist you to hold a grudge, he will do it. For there are six goals of Satan which are greatly advanced when professing Christians hold grudges.
1. To Make Us Put Ourselves in the Place of God
Ever since Genesis 3 Satan's goal has been to make us put ourselves in the place of God. "When you eat of the fruit of the tree your eyes will be opened and you will be like God." Nothing helps in holding a grudge like thinking too highly of ourselves. The more exalted we are in our own eyes, the more justified we will feel in holding a grudge against the person who offended us. If Satan can succeed in making a grudge feel natural or justified, he will have gone a long way toward his goal of making us put ourselves in the place of God.
2. To Make Us Act as If We Are Judge, Not God
Satan aims to make us act as if we were judge and not God. Romans 12:19 says, "Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to wrath, for it is written: Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. No, if your enemy is hungry feed him." If we hold a grudge, we act as though God were not a just judge. We act as though we are the moral guardians of the world and if we don't hold this wrong against this person, it's going to slip away into oblivion and a great injustice will go unrequited. But this is sheer unbelief. Vengeance belongs to God. He will repay. It is his business not ours. So again holding a grudge puts us in the place of God—just where Satan wants us.
3. To Make the Cross of Christ Look Weak and Foolish
Satan aims to make the cross of Christ look weak and foolish. Notice Ephesians 4:32–5:2. "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children. And walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us." The power that frees us from holding grudges is that in the cross of Christ God satisfied his grudge against us and dropped it. So Paul says, forgive as God in Christ forgave you. When we hold a grudge, we cancel out the cross. We act as though God did a foolish thing on the cross, since he dropped his infinite grudge against us, but we are going to hold on to our little grudge against so and so. And thus Satan brings the cross of Christ into contempt.
4. To Cultivate Disunity in the Body of Christ
Satan aims to cultivate disunity in the body of Christ so that the grand evidence for Christ's divine reality is shattered. Proverbs 15:18 says, "A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention." Short tempers and long grudges breed strife and disunity in the church. But in John 17:23 Jesus said that unity in the church is a great evidence to the world of his reality. So if Satan can preserve and deepen grudges among God's people, he will have achieved a great goal—the hiding of Christ's reality from the world.
5. To Crush Broken Christians into Depression
Satan aims to crush broken Christians until they are depressed into uselessness. Paul tells about an instance of church discipline at Corinth in which the offending party repented. Paul counsels in 2 Corinthians 2:7, "So you should turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you reaffirm your love for him." The burdens of life are so great at times that someone's grudge against us can be the straw that breaks the camel's back. You can destroy a person by holding a grudge against them—the very work of Satan from the time of Cain and Abel.
6. To Help You Destroy Yourself
Finally, by holding a grudge Satan will help you destroy yourself. Satan always throws away his tools in the end. He promises the moon and delivers misery. When the unforgiving servant was thrown into jail, Jesus said to his disciples, "So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."
Forgive from Your Heart—Put On the New Nature
Which brings us back to where we started—"from your heart," from your new nature, the purified spring, the good tree. The only way to get victory over anger is to put off the old nature corrupted by desires of deceit—Satan's deceit, and to put on the new nature, by acting according to the truth:
- the truth that none of us is so exalted that we can justify holding a grudge,
- the truth that vengeance belongs to God, he will settle all accounts;
- the truth that the cross of Christ is the wisdom and power of God, not foolishness;
- the truth that the unity of the church is precious beyond words;
- and the truth that it is possible by holding a grudge to commit spiritual murder and suicide simultaneously.
The Son of God came into the world to destroy the works of the devil. Let's resist the devil this Christmas with all the power of God by putting on the new nature Christ came to create.