Here in the second half of Ephesians, Paul continues to instruct the church at Ephesus on how they should live as a Christian community. Central to that is how they should avoid conflict – a difficult thing for any group of people attempting to live and work together. The section we read today offers some very practical advice for how to keep the peace: speak the truth, speak positively, avoid bitterness, forgive one another. By doing these things, we can be “imitators of God,” “beloved children.”
“Beloved children,” what a lovely phrase. There’s another place in the Scriptures that connects peacemaking with one’s status as children of God; it’s in the Beatitudes. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
All who call Christ Lord and Savior are children of God, therefore working for peace isn’t optional for Christians. Yet sometimes we seem to be the most negative, hostile, and unloving people around, stirring up and perpetuating conflicts rather than resolving them. The comment threads on Facebook and online articles come to mind as the venue of particularly vicious arguments! It’s understandable, perhaps, that debates over moral and ethical issues raise the stakes and arouse the passions of faithful people. But, sometimes … Wow!
Here’s a little secret, just between us. The Bible does consider it normal for Christians to get angry. Nowhere, in all the many ethical instructions Jesus gives to His disciples, will you find the command to be “nice” – in the milk toast, doormat way others expect when they say, “And I thought you were a Christian.” It’s a distortion of the New Testament to equate all anger with sin.
Even Jesus Himself got angry. There are more than a few Bible passages where He does. Take Mark 3:1-5, for example. Mark reports how Jesus gets angry at the Pharisees: “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.”
And why? Because the Pharisees have been objecting to Jesus’ plan to heal a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath.
An even better-known example is Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. He strides through the temple courtyard, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sell sacrificial doves. In Mark’s version of the story, Jesus cries out, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Them’s fightin’ words. In John’s version of the story, Jesus is cracking a whip made of cords. Nothing especially nice about that!
The difference in both these cases – compared to the situations in which we typically feel our anger boiling over – lies in the reasons for the anger. Most of the time, when we find ourselves raising our voices and getting red in the face, it’s because we feel personally injured or abused in some way. Somebody just squeezed into the parking place ahead of us. A social media “friend” just fired off a trolling comment. The person ahead of us in the express line has 16 items in the cart. We feel injured, so we respond by getting angry.
Whenever the Bible speaks approvingly of anger, the object of the anger is not our own precious sense of injury, but rather injury or injustice inflicted on another person. When Jesus gets mad at the Pharisees, it’s because that poor man with the withered hand may not get healed. When He swings that whip of cords in the temple courtyard, it’s on behalf of all the poor, devout pilgrims who are getting swindled by a corrupt system.
Many of the great reforms in human history would never have happened were it not for righteous anger. Think of where the descendants of African slaves might be, were it not for the righteous anger of William Wilberforce, who labored tirelessly for much of his life until the English Parliament finally abolished slavery. Think of the crusaders against human trafficking today, who keep publicizing inconvenient truths – like the fact that a great many of the male tourists traveling alone to visit Thailand are coming to partake of the sex trade.
It’s a lot easier to put your hands over your ears and hum, pretending this sort of thing doesn’t go on in this world. Or even in our own country. Did you know that a high percentage of the Asian women who are kept in virtual slavery in massage parlors in Atlantic City, Las Vegas and New York were trafficked into this country by swindlers, who told them they were going to jobs waiting tables or working in factories? The women keep quiet because they’re afraid of being deported.
A Christian could be forgiven for swinging a whip of cords in response to situations like these! So, there is such a thing as righteous anger, but as Ephesians 4:26 makes clear, it’s not the anger itself that is the problem. It’s what we do with it.
“Be angry but do not sin.” That’s somewhat vague, if you’re not sure what constitutes a sinful response to feelings of anger, but the following verses help to clarify a bit.
“Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” I think a lot of married people can testify this isn’t always the best advice; when one partner is tired and cranky, it’s sometimes best to press the pause button on an argument until everyone is in a better frame of mind. Still, whenever possible, don’t let things fester. And that’s Paul’s point: resolve conflicts as quickly as possible, not holding a grudge or letting your anger stew and grow.
Those who live their lives driven by anger eventually pay a bitter personal price, as Frederick Buechner points out in this oft-quoted passage from his book, Wishful Thinking:
“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” [Harper & Row, 1973, 2.]
If we don’t let the sun go down on our anger – if we make sure there are intervals of rest and peace, even in the midst of a protracted campaign for social justice – we’ll find we do have the staying power to stick with the cause for the long term.
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” The translation “evil” – as in “evil talk” – is actually a cleaned-up version, compared to the original Greek. The word literally means something like “putrid,” as in rotting fish. How many arguments resort to low blows and name-calling? This in not helpful. If you are legitimately angry, choose your words carefully so that your point can be constructive and more likely to be heard.
What sort of talk is worthy of being described as putrid? You may think that this passage must be about profanity or obscenity. But if you read on, you’ll find the letter-writer has something very different in mind: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (v. 31).
It’s quite a list. “Bitterness” is a type of talk that keeps calling back to mind experiences of hurt or pain, some of which are better left alone. It’s possible to revel – or, should we say, grovel – in victimhood. We’ve all known injured people who just can’t let it go. Some people go to their graves feeling bitter for the way their parents or their spouses or their children failed them. Or, they castigate themselves for some missed opportunity decades in the past. Bitter talk, when it continues for a very long time without let-up, causes terrible emotional harm to the speaker – not to mention misery for everyone who has to listen to their complaints.
Next on the list are “rage” and “anger”: words that are pretty much synonymous. We’ve already talked about those.
Then comes the word “brawlings.” It’s a creative translation of a Greek word that literally means “shoutings” or “raucous outbursts.” If there is a place for anger in the Christian life – and surely there is, if it’s anger about injustice perpetrated upon the weak or innocent – it’s got to be anger of a more focused, disciplined nature if it’s going to accomplish anything over the long haul.
Next comes the word “slander.” The Greek is blasphemia, which you may recognize as our English word, “blasphemy.” Usually, we think of blasphemy as taking the Lord’s name in vain, but in the original Greek it means slanderous, gossipy remarks of any kind.
Another Greek word for “slanderer” is the word diabolos, which you may recognize as the root of “diabolical” (meaning “devilish”). It actually occurs earlier in this passage where it talks about not letting the sun go down on our anger. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger,” it says, “and do not make room for the devil” (vv. 26-27). Literally, it’s “do not make room for the slanderer.” You have likely heard Satan, or the devil, referred to as “the father of lies,” and that’s exactly what this word means. To slander another person is to serve a diabolical purpose.
Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay’s description of slander is pure poetry: “There are reputations murdered over the teacups every day.” Gossiping over bone-china teacups is a very British image. But you can substitute cardboard cups of Starbucks coffee if you wish. The tendency is universal. There’s a part of us that just loves to pass on that juicy bit of gossip, regardless of whether we know it to be true. And, on social media, the speed with which a slanderous remark can make the rounds these days is breathtaking.
The final word on the list is “malice,” or hateful feelings. We’ve seen the damage such feelings can do by people with weapons in their hands. From the bad boys and girls of talk radio to the employee who perpetuates a feud with a co-worker, malice can kill.
The antithesis of all this is found in the final verse of chapter 4. “Be kind.” It sounds so simple, but we all know that resisting bitterness and slander, being “tenderhearted” (literally compassionate) and forgiving, is often the hardest thing to do when we’re angry. Paul’s entreaty to be “imitators of God” hinges on this radical forgiveness, “as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
This is not weakness. It’s not cloying niceness. It’s not being a doormat. Rather, filling our mouths with positive, affirming talk is a strong and grateful response to the forgiveness and grace we have ourselves received from Jesus Christ.
Kind, compassionate, caring discourse is the rarest of commodities amidst the sound and fury of soul-destroying hate speech all around us. Yet, it is the key to making peace in spite of our anger: being like Christ, who sacrificed Himself in the face of an angry mob of undeserving people.