Anger is more common that we usually like to admit. There’s anger in our world, and there’s anger in our own hearts. Anger exists because things are wrong. And there’s a lot of things that are wrong, both in the world and in our hearts. Sometimes we’re angry on behalf of other people who have been hurt. Sometimes we’re angry because people have hurt us. Sometimes we’re angry because of our own selfish, uncontrolled desires. Often, it’s a mixture of all of these things. Some anger is perfectly understandable: it’s a right response to the wrongs we see and experience. Some anger is devastatingly obvious: rage and violence in full view of the world. Some anger is insidiously destructive, hidden from public view but unleashed in the privacy of our homes and relationships. Some anger never gets expressed, but simmers forever, steadily releasing a poison that turns our hearts bitter and drains our relationships of love and joy.
In these verses in Ephesians, the apostle Paul talks about anger and what to do with it. “Be angry…”, he says. Whether our anger is right or wrong, we can’t deny it’s there. But Paul isn’t simply commanding believers to get angry. Paul is talking here about what to do with our anger.
Be angry and don’t sin. Don’t let the sun set on your provocation and so give a place to the devil.
Anger, sin and God’s grace
What Paul says here about anger needs to be understood in light of what’s he’s already said in the rest of his letter. He isn’t simply giving a moral rule or a tip for living well. He’s talking to people who believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and he’s showing them what it means to live in light of that gospel. What Paul says here about anger is an example of what it means to be renewed by God’s Holy Spirit, putting on the “new humanity” that Jesus Christ has won for us (see Ephesians 4:22–24). The truth about Christ and what he has done for us undergirds everything Paul says here, and gives us the power to put it into practice.
This isn’t the first time Paul has mentioned anger in Ephesians. Back in chapter 2, he mentioned another kind of anger: God’s righteous anger (or “wrath”) against all of us human beings, who have gone our own way, done wrong, and followed our own desires and the ways of the world and the devil (Ephesians 2:3). In many ways, the gospel is a message about what God has done with his own holy anger. Out of his own great love, God has sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world. Christ has willingly taken God’s wrath on himself, dying on the cross so that our sins can be forgiven. Jesus has risen from the dead, and we have been raised to life with him. So we are saved by God’s grace. Left to ourselves, we would only be facing God’s wrath. By God’s grace, we are facing God’s riches of glory: life, love, certain hope, and a future with him forever. Through God’s grace, we are a new humanity, created by God to live for him and do good works. And so the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit at work in us gives us the motivation and the power to do these good works.
That’s why Paul says here: “Be angry and don’t sin”. We should never ignore or deny our anger, but we must never make it an excuse for sin. We’re better than that. Or to be more precise, the new humanity that God has graciously given us through Christ is better than that. And that’s the new humanity we’re to put on. God has forgiven our sins and made us to be people who live for him, not people who go back to our sins and follow our own selfish desires. So we mustn’t let anger grip us and provoke us to do the wrong thing.
But how do we do that? After all, our hearts have hidden depths and our motivations are complex, especially when we’re stirred up by anger and find it hard to think straight. Well that’s why what Paul says next is so helpful.
The sunset clause
“Don’t let the sun set on your provocation”, says Paul. It’s a vivid and memorable way to say we should take steps to deal with our anger, as quickly as we can, before it settles in and festers. It’s not meant to be a restrictive rule: for example, it’s not as if we’ve failed if the sun sets at 6:02pm and we don’t end up dealing with our anger until 6:14pm. In a time before the internet and electric office lighting, sunset was the time when the business of the day had well and truly finished and everyone had gone home. So Paul is saying that if we’re being provoked or feeling provoked, we need to make it our business to deal with the situation, and we shouldn’t be satisfied until we have done so. Dealing with anger, in other words, needs to be a top priority agenda item for our lives.
How can we deal with our provocation? In many cases, we can do it with a simple act of forgiveness. This is entirely possible when we remember how much God has forgiven us and how secure we are in his love. Whenever we speak the gospel to ourselves, we put our own feelings of provocation in perspective. The riches of God’s grace give us the power to write off a wrong that has been done to us. We can forgive as God has forgiven us, pray for the person who hurt us and for our own hearts, and go home and sleep easy. This is very similar to what King David says in Psalm 4:4–5, which Paul is quoting here:
Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. (Selah)
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the LORD.
Psalm 4:4-5 ESV
Sometimes, however, it’s not as easy as this. Sometimes our provocation is more deep-rooted and needs more attention. It might be that we or others we know have been hurt extraordinarily deeply by someone. It might be that the hurt is ongoing. Or it might be that our own heart has been gripped by rage and we simply can’t quieten it down. It might be a combination of all of these things. How can we deal with our provocation in these situations?
To start with, it’s right to come before God in prayer, to express our hurt and anger to him and ask him to bring justice, or to quiet our hearts and help us to remember his love and justice. The Psalms are full of prayers such as this—in fact, Psalm 4, which Paul is quoting here, can be a good place to start.
Sometimes we need to get help, especially if the hurt and rage is serious and ongoing (if you’re in a situation like that now, there are people who can help at www.1800respect.org.au). Sometimes we need to actively seek justice for ourselves or for others. Sometimes we need to take definite steps to raise a specific issue with somebody who’s hurt us and to express what we’re feeling in the hope of reconciliation. Sometimes we need to confess our own anger to someone we trust, and ask that person to pray for us. It will be different depending on the situation. But the point in every case is this: don’t let the sun set on your provocation. It might very well take longer than a day. If it’s a major wrong, then it will most likely take more than 12 hours! But Paul is saying, make it a priority to deal with it.
Anger: The devil’s playground
Why is it so important to deal with our provocation? Because there’s a wider, cosmic dimension to it all. It’s not only for the sake of our own well-being; it’s also so that we don’t “give a place to the devil”. Paul has spoken about the devil’s place several times in his letter so far. The first thing he has said is that the devil is firmly under the authority of Jesus Christ. God has acted in Christ, “raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and lordship, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:20–21). So Christ’s resurrection and exaltation has put the devil in his place, under Christ’s authority, and that means in Christ we don’t need to be afraid of him.
But still, the devil continues to have a place of power over those who sin and follow their own desires. He is “the ruler of the authority of the air, the spirit who is now acting in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:1–2). So when our anger turns into a provocation that invites us to sin, and we accept the invitation, we’re giving a place to the devil. We’re coming under his authority, and letting him rule. And unresolved anger is a particularly powerful playground for the devil, especially among the body of Christ. Unresolved anger can lead to resentment, gossip, slander, envy, fights, and all sorts of destructive, undermining behaviour. It can distract from gospel-preaching ministries and even destroy them. That’s why dealing with our provocation is so important: it’s a key way that we fight the spiritual war against the devil’s schemes (see Ephesians 6:11). The good news is that Christ has already won this battle. Ultimately the devil doesn’t have a place among us. So let’s not give him one. Let’s deal with our anger.
What, then, does Paul say about anger here? Anger is part of living in this fallen world. We mustn’t deny it. But because we belong to Christ, we must not let it lead us to sin. We need to make it a priority to deal with it. And as we do, we need to remember that it’s part of the spiritual battle we’re fighting against the devil himself.
How does the gospel of God’s grace help you to deal with anger?
Is there anger and provocation in your own heart now? What steps do you need to take to deal with it?
 I’m grateful to Evan Moses for this insight.