Is it Possible to Be Angry and Sin Not?
- Britt Mooney Contributing Writer
- 2021 16 Aug
We come home after a hard day’s work and kick the dog. Yell at the kids. Get into an argument on social media. Someone cuts us off on the highway, and we utter some choice words or use other physical ways to express our frustration.
Often we are confronted with situations that are tragic or deeply personal, whether betrayal or grief or other traumatic circumstances.
“In this life you will have trouble,” Jesus said (John 16:33). It’s not one of the most quoted promises, but it is a promise of God. We will have trouble. When we deal with that trouble in all of its forms, external or internal, we get frustrated or angry. That anger (based on negative situations or emotions) then results in actions that are negative and cause the same amount of chaos in others.
It becomes a cycle where pain begets pain. Hurt leads to more hurt. A cycle of bondage and slavery.
Unless someone steps in and stops that cycle. But how? In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul gives the following direction, “Be angry and sin not” (4:26).
What Does “Be Angry and Sin Not” Mean?
When we act in hurtful ways out of anger, those are called reactions. Let’s look at that word for a moment. React. To act again. The term is one of excuses. One action leads to another. There was an action, and I REacted.
That very mentality is one of bondage. I couldn’t help it. I was angry. I’m sorry I hurt you. I was angry.
Thank God that he didn’t leave us in that state. He came to set us free. Through Jesus, we are intimate with the Truth, and the Truth will make us free (John 8:32). After Jesus said we will have trouble, he continues, “But take heart, I have overcome the world.”
The Truth reveals to us that God didn’t look upon our sin and treat us as we deserve (Psalm 103:10). He didn’t react. He acted. There’s a difference. Even though I acted like his enemy, God chose to act based on his love and mercy to reach out and redeem me (Romans 5:8).
When I choose to then follow God, I am forgiven and born again with the Spirit of Christ, empowered now to live and act from that freedom. I can refuse to act from anger, hurt others, and say, “I couldn’t help it.” The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead lives in me (Romans 8:11). That’s not based on my power or ability but God in me (Romans 8:1-3).
Even though we’ve lived a good bit of our lives justifying our sinful reaction based on our anger, or blamed that person who made us mad, God tells us to instead choose to act from his love and power. To break the cycle of bondage and invite others into freedom.
Be angry and do not sin. That would have been impossible before Jesus. However, he has overcome the world, including my selfish heart and motives. Now we can be a light where we once continued the darkness and chaos spread to us.
Is Anger Inherently a Sin?
I find it interesting that Paul doesn’t tell us, “Don’t be angry.” That would condemn us all. We can’t help the initial emotional reaction or the temptation to respond out of anger or bitterness.
My mentor used to say, “You can’t help if a bird lands in your hair, but you can keep it from building a nest there.” The initial emotional or subsequent thought to act in a hurtful way isn’t the sin. If it was, then Jesus would have been a sinner. Scripture is clear that Jesus felt “negative” emotions of anger or sorrow or grief. And he was tempted “in every way.” (Hebrews 4:15) Yet Jesus was without sin because he didn’t act out of those emotions. He didn’t deny they existed, but he wasn’t bound to them.
Jesus acted out of the relationship with his Father. He only acted and spoke from the direction of his Father (John 5:19). Jesus always acted out of love.
No, it isn’t a sin to be angry. It is sin to act from anger. We are called to intentionally act from love.
What is the Difference between Righteous and Unrighteous Anger?
Jesus walked into the Temple in Jerusalem and took a moment to watch the moneychangers in the Outer Court. He stood off to the side, spent a little time to make a whip. Jesus proceeded to drive out those moneychangers, literally smacking them around with a whip until they left. He upended their tables, pitching their wares on the ground (Matthew 21).
As more evidence that anger alone isn’t a sin, God gets angry several times throughout the whole Bible. Jesus gets angry. The difference is the root of that anger. What made him angry?
For Jesus and the whip, the Outer Court was the place where the Gentiles, the women, the “unclean” were to gather to worship God. The most abused and oppressed of society could go to the Outer Court to pray. That area was crowded with merchants profiting from the exchange of currency, from the Roman coins to the Temple coins, since the Temple would only accept its own monetary system (itself a type of scam). By the way, the Jews were already second-class citizens in the Roman Empire and under heavy taxation. These moneychangers were profiting off the oppressed and poor, all in the area specifically designed to invite all people to worship God. Jew, Gentile, anyone.
This didn’t make God happy. Didn’t make Jesus happy, either.
To be clear, Jesus was clearly angry and acted violently, but he didn’t act out of anger or some sort of personal offense. Jesus had been in the Temple several times over the years since he was 12 and had seen these moneychangers before. He had never done this before. Why now?
First, because his Father said it was time. Jesus acted out of obedience to his Father.
Second, because of God’s love. God’s heart is close to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. The letter from James tells us that our pure religion is to take care of the fatherless and the widow and keep ourselves from being corrupted by the world. Those representing God, therefore, should bring hope to the marginalized and distressed. Not tax them and profit off of them like the Roman Empire (i.e., the world).
Jesus cried out while overturning tables and beating people with a whip he personally made, “My Father’s house is a house of prayer! You’ve made it a den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13). Read Luke 11 as another example for some of the harshest language from Jesus to the religious Jews as a further example.
Even God’s anger is rooted in his love. His hate of evil (Psalm 119:163). His sorrow over the death in this world like Jesus at the grave of Lazarus. God experiences these intense emotions, as did Jesus, yet at the root of all of those emotions is his love. Remember, God is love (1 John 4:8).
He gets angry at the sin and the lies that destroy, steal, and kill the beings made in his image, the people he died and rose for to reconcile back to himself and to life. That’s not what he created it to be like. Righteous anger is rooted in love.
Often, I get angry because I’m inconvenienced, or someone devalues me or betrays me or someone I love or a million other reasons. Sometimes I’m legitimately hurt by others, but my anger can still be twisted to lash out in return, to get an “eye for an eye.” Unrighteous anger, then, is rooted in my selfishness, the way I seek to punish and condemn others. It is unrighteous when I try to “make it right” in my own strength and ability when I believe that my vengeance will satisfy my soul and make it right. It won’t.
Doesn’t it say, “eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth,” in Scripture? Yes, it does, but the next line is “vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35).
If God doesn’t treat me according to what I deserve but according to his love, then as his disciple, that should also be true of how I treat others.
4 Steps to “Be Angry and Sin Not” in Your Most Frustrating Circumstances
I get it. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’ll get angry and still love people and be like Jesus,” but it doesn’t feel easy at all in the midst of circumstances that push our buttons and make our brains explode. The opposite, actually. It feels impossible.
The first Truth to cling to is this—don’t believe that lie. It’s not impossible. With humanity it is. With God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).
So, in the midst of our most frustrating moments, how can we “be angry and sin not”?
Stop. Don’t React. Choose to take a breath and be still. This is a good general rule for any emotion because our feelings can be easily manipulated: Don’t act out of any emotion, good or bad. In regard to anger, your anger might be righteous or unrighteous, but either way, the initial step is keeping our human nature in check. To be clear, emotions aren’t bad or sinful. They are important. They just can’t be the foundation of truth and decision-making. This is the hardest step because everything in us will want to react. If we are to act out of love, it doesn’t happen without first refusing to act from the emotion and our own decision.
Ask God questions. Seek God’s revelation. God loves us and whomever we are dealing with. He is out for the best in each of our lives. We must discipline our minds and hearts to turn to God and ask questions like, “What is true in this situation? How do I treat this person with love and truth? What would you have me do?” Simple truths like, “I know God is good and loves me,” or “I know God is good and loves this person,” those truths lead to other truths.
Listen. Yes, listening is its own step. Choose to hear what the Spirit is saying. Jesus said that the Spirit would lead us into “all truth” (John 16:13). Not just religious truth on a Sunday morning but all of it in every situation and choice. As humbling as it may be, choose to listen. Be patient until we get an answer on what to do next.
Obey. Once God tells us what to do, our next step is to trust him and act from his Truth and revelation. God is love, so obeying his voice is loving all people. That is the goal. It may appear shockingly generous or firm or even harsh, but at least we can be at peace that God’s love is at the heart of what we do.
Stop. Seek God’s voice. Listen. Obey. This will keep us from sin and participating in the chaos that wants to spread and destroy all the good that God wants to do. Instead, these steps will make us agents of light and hope to others.
Related Resource: Listen to our FREE podcast, Reframed: The Power of Perspective. In each episode, Carley provides practical techniques for identifying and reframing negative thinking patterns. Listen to an episode below, and check out all of our episodes on LifeAudio.com.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Siphotography
Britt Mooney (with his amazing wife, Becca) has lived as a missionary in Korea, traveled for missions to several countries, and now lives in Suwanee GA as a church planter that works bi-vocationally with Phoenix Roasters, a missional coffee company. He has a podcast about the Kingdom of God called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author with Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.
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