As someone who has spent a fair amount of time reading the NIV translation of the Bible, I was surprised when I translated Ephesians 4:26 from the Greek to find that it does not really say “in your anger do not sin” (NIV). It actually says, “be angry and do not sin.” (This is all in the second person plural, so one might say: “y’all, be angry, and y’all, do not sin.”)
Y’all, be angry!
We live in a time when all sorts of racial injustices and government abuses of power are becoming―for more and more people―harder and harder to ignore. Perhaps this makes it an especially good time to seek out and hear the parts of the Bible that invite us to acknowledge anger and embrace it.
Anger is a normal part of the range of human emotions. It is a very appropriate response to the things that are very wrong in our world. And the Bible is not nearly as uncomfortable with anger as some of us sometimes are, or as some of our church communities and church leaders sometimes are.
Ephesians 4:26 reads, “be angry, and do not sin; let the sun not set on y’all’s rage.”
Three quick side notes on this translation, for the real Greek geeks out there:
- If you find the “y’all” distracting, try perhaps: “let the sun not set on your collective rage.”
- I know “let the sun not set” isn’t really how we talk these days, but I wanted to clarify that this is a third person singular (“he/she/it”) command―referring to the sun―and not a second person plural command directed toward Paul’s hearers (like “be angry” and “do not sin”).
- I used the word “rage” at the end of the verse to reflect how this word comes from a different root from the word used for “be angry.”
Side notes aside, I like that Paul uses an imperative (command) form to tell the people of the church of Ephesus, communally and collectively, to be angry.
I also like that―and here I imagine Paul wouldn’t be averse to adding “as much as possible, as far as it depends on you” (to quote from Romans 12:18)―Paul prefers for these angry people not to find themselves still angry at the end of the day.
What it actually means to “let the sun not set on y’all’s rage,” though, is not exactly clear. But I think it means something more, or something different, from what we might be tempted to think, or what we might have been told: just forgive and let go.
It seems connected to verse 31: “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” (That’s from the NIV; a more literal translation could read, “all bitterness and wrath and anger and brawling and slander, let it be taken away from y’all, with all malice”―which I kind of like, because the passive voice makes it feel more like a prayer than a command).
Given this context, it seems that Paul wants the church community to be angry without destroying themselves in the process by giving in to the kind of bitterness that takes root, and grows, and finds expression in things like brawling and slander, and tears apart communities. Paul wants them to be angry, but not to hold onto malice.
This is all easier said than done, of course. But I think the general idea is that Paul wants the Ephesian church community to be angry without self-destructing. Paul wants to see them support one another and speak truthfully and heal wounds and thrive together, anger and all.
I think an important part of all of this is to seek out ways to meaningfully express the anger that we hold. To―actively and urgently―seek out ways to try to right the wrongs that cause us to be angry.
Not only is this the right thing to do, but it is also a more effective way of “letting the sun not set on our rage” than trying to just let go and move on. For the things that anger us deeply, is it really possible to just set these things aside and go to sleep? Can we really just let it go―all in one day?
When we try to do this, we often end up suppressing our anger―which is both unhealthy for us and less than loving toward the people around us, as our repressed anger tends to burst out in harmful ways at other times.
Perhaps we are not meant to just try to stop being angry by the end of the day, but, instead, to not let another day go by without doing something with our anger―something healing, right, and good.
This is what Jesus did in Mark 3:1-6. Jesus wanted to heal a man’s withered hand, but the religious leaders did not care about the dude and his hand. They just cared about what it would look like if they let Jesus do that on the Sabbath. They were waiting for Jesus to do something that looked bad, something they could accuse him of. And Jesus got angry at them (v. 5). Then, immediately, Jesus asked the man to stretch out his hand, and the man did, and Jesus healed him.
Jesus got angry―and then he moved urgently to do something good with that anger. Something healing and liberating for the man―and, at the same time, something that messed with the worldview of the powers that be (so much so that they went away wanting to kill him, as Mark 3:6 tells us.)
This is what “be angry and do not sin; let the sun not set on y’all’s rage” looked like, for Jesus, in that moment.
Maybe for us, in the moment we live in today, “be angry and do not sin; let the sun not set on y’all’s rage” looks like protesting. Maybe it looks like finding other meaningful ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Maybe it’s getting angry about something racist, sexist, etc. that we witness at work, or at church, or in other settings―and not letting the sun set before we take appropriate action in response. That may mean seeking out the person affected by what happened and expressing support and affirmation, and/or speaking with the person who made a racist comment, and/or bringing the matter to HR, and/or something else entirely.
Christians sometimes speak about anger as if it’s a bad thing―as if the goal is to try to get rid of our anger, through prayer, or community support, or singing a lot of soothing worship music.
But I think that our goal as followers of Jesus, when it comes to anger, is not to be less angry, but to be angry in ways that align more closely with God’s anger.
The goal is to get more angry about the things God gets angry about―things like inequity, needless suffering, dishonesty, racism, mistreatment of immigrants, misogyny, murder, rape, abuse of power, religious exclusion, spiritual abuse―and to figure out what to do with this anger.
And the goal is to let go of the other kinds of things we might tend to get angry about―things that are less about equity among people or flourishing among communities and more about our own ego, or convenience, or preferences.
So, as Paul would say, y’all, be angry! Be angry about the right things. And, before the sun sets, find something good to do with that anger.