Paul’s message to the Ephesians reveals eternal truths about anger

Published: August 12, 2006

By Dr. Linda Webster

When looking over the reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians for this week (4:25-5:2), you might want to pause a moment for a rueful chuckle before the sermon begins. We hear in the reading that good Christians should be mindful of their language, be honest, share with others and grieve the Holy Spirit. Be kind, compassionate, forgiving — all of the basic tenets of contemporary Christianity are in Paul’s letter addressed to these ancient people who were beset by false prophets while Paul languished in a Roman prison. Some things never change. Nearly two millennia later, you’re likely to hear the same pleas from the pulpit this weekend in response to the reading. Why? Look at 4:26 and you find the key. “Be angry but do not sin …” Paul is acknowledging that these new Christians are human. Humans have emotions. To deny the existence of our emotions is to deny our human nature, which, of course, God created. Anger, in particular, appears repeatedly in Scripture. In Exodus (32:10) God’s wrath is directed at the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf, but Moses reasons with him. Moses (32:19) then breaks the tablets in wrath at the sight of the Israelites dancing around the idol when he comes down from the mountain. But (with Paul there’s always a catch) the emotion should not rule our behavior or cause us in any way to separate ourselves (through sin) from God. One may “feel” angry, but one must not shout or lie or be malicious as a result of this feeling. Look at how many of the actions Paul abhors are verbal. One can control what one says (or does) as a result of feeling angry and Paul seems to be making a point about self-control here. “Be angry” but work out your anger with compassion so that you do not separate yourself from the Holy Spirit of God. (4:30) Be aware that we are human and that we react to the world around us on an emotional level, but part of that awareness is to test our reactions to the environment. If we behave properly by controlling our reactions to our emotions, we might eventually be able to control our emotions themselves to “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” (5:1) Today, we would call this behavior modification therapy. Young children who act out their anger and frustration toward a schoolmate in the classroom might be sent to a “time out” room to reflect on their behavior. What Paul is demanding here is that we modify our own sinful behaviors by taking a mental “time out” when our emotions rise up; that we should examine our emotions and test them for sinful intent. By the end of the passage (4:31), Paul is telling to refrain from anger, fury, malice and bitterness — all emotions that separate us from God; that these emotions must be “removed” from us. In addition, shouting and reviling must also be removed which makes sense. If you control the emotion, the outward manifestation of that emotion disappears as well. Simply controlling one’s speech “such as is good for needed edification” will actually change one’s behavior. After all, we are charged to provide models for those around us. The idea is that if we act compassionate and speak with compassion, we will become compassionate even if it takes another couple of millennia. Dr. Linda Webster, a member of St. Mark Church in Monticello, has a bachelor’s degree in theology from St. Gregory University in Shawnee, Okla.