Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27)
Today's epistle reading from The Daily Office Lectionary is worth pondering a bit, worth ruminating on. I think that whether we have done so consciously or not, many who are familiar with these two verses tend to focus in on the middle clause: "...do not let the sun go down on your anger..." and leave it at that. And even better (this line of thinking goes) would be not to ever get angry in the first place.
My experience in the Church is that this leads us to far too many passive-aggressive behaviors. We think anger is "un-Christian." Jesus, turning tables over in the Temple, makes us more than a little bit uncomfortable.
But the verse begins with an imperative: be angry! Why is that?
Well, on any given day, there is lots to be angry about. I think we need to learn how to be angry with God even as we learn to praise and thank God. I think we need to learn to be angry with our neighbors and friends, even as we learn to love them. And yes, we need to be angry sometimes with ourselves; but we also need to leave room for the forgiveness and love that heals and brings new life.
Anger is a human emotion. The problem is when we do not name it, and let it go underground. The problem is when it gets misdirected, or buried. Anger itself is not un-Christian and this verse suggests the opposite: we are commanded to be angry!
I think the reason for this is obvious when we pause to reflect on it. When anger is the appropriate response but we fear rocking the boat, fear expressing it directly (for any number of reasons) it still has to go somewhere. So "be angry!" If those words of advice make you nervous or uncomfortable then pay attention to that and reflect on why it is that you feel you are immune from this human emotion.
That said, we don't solve the problem created by quoting only the second clause of this verse by replacing it with only the first half of the first clause. The order here matters and the whole sentence (within the larger context of Ephesians 4)is about living more fully into the new life Christ offers. We will experience anger; that is part of what it means to be human. What we do with that anger is what is supposed to distinguish followers of Jesus from the ways of the world. We can learn to "fight fair." By dealing with anger as it arises we keep it from spilling over into our next encounter. We avoid bullying and/or it's close cousin, passive-aggression. We all know how it can happen that road rage or anger at the boss can lead someone to come home and kick the dog. But this is not the way that Christians are counseled to deal with their anger.
Rather, we are called not to let our anger get the best of us, quite literally. By acknowledging it, naming it, claiming it, and owning it, we avoid all of the sin that can come our way when we just choose to ignore it. By dealing with it as it arises, we refuse to let it work at and take over our unconscious at night. "Don't let the sun go down on your anger!" Even when it takes hard work, work it out so that it doesn't fester.
Why? Because evil is real, and even if anger itself is not an "evil" emotion, unresolved anger issues make room for all kinds of trouble and for the Evil One to move in.
Be angry! Get it out, talk it through, and then let it go so that when you lie down to sleep you can get a full night's rest. Easier said than done, to be sure. But at least we can get it right in our heads what is, and is not, the goal here.