You find yourself in a moment of anger. You are not a happy camper, and worse yet, the person that offended you is either oblivious to your hurt, or doesn’t care. And to make matters seem much worse, ringing through your head comes an expression you heard in Sunday School: “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” You hope it is not in the Bible, for then you may feel obligated to do something about your anger. But it is:
26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27 NRSV)
To make matters worse still, you are a Canadian, it is winter, and the sun goes down very early indeed. What do you do?
Before you do anything, pray.
Then, ask this question: “Are my expectations of the person who offended me reasonable?”
It was at a pastor’s retreat that I first heard the concept that anger often comes from unmet expectations. We can see this in Jonah who expected that God should have judged the enemy of Israel, the Ninevites, with no chance for repentance. God did not meet that expectation which was great news for the Ninevites, but a great disappointment for Jonah. God responds to Jonah’s anger by asking “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4 NRSV). In other words, “are your expectations of how I should act appropriate and reasonable?” God goes on to use a rapidly growing, then declining, bush to teach an angry again Jonah a lesson about appropriate expectations:
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals (Jonah 4:9-11 NRSV emphasis mine)
Jonah needed to adjust his expectations of what God would do and how God would act. Now back to your anger toward someone who has offended you. Before you do anything with it, you can ask that same question God had of Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?” Are your expectations of the person who has offended you reasonable and appropriate? If the answer is ‘no, I have been expecting too much,’ then go back, adjust your expectations and your anger will subside even though the sun may yet have a long way to go.
But suppose you have prayed and reviewed your expectations, and you have discerned that, yes indeed your expectations are reasonable, and yes, the reason for your anger lies at the feet of the offender. They have messed up, and you have the right, some might push it here and say obligation, to be angry. Now what?
You now have two options before the sun goes down.
The first option is to go and talk with the offender about how you feel offended.
This is in keeping with a Biblical principal given to us by Jesus:
15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. (Matthew NRSV)
We do not have room here to go into Jesus’ instruction on the involvement of church family in verses 16 to 17. That is for another day. But for now, here is some wisdom that may help you in your chat with the offender:
1. Read and commit to living out the rest of the passage:
25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (from Ephesians 4:25-5:2 NRSV)
Then read and commit to living out the rest of Ephesians. In fact you may as well read and commit to living out the rest of the Bible. By the time you are done this, you may forget why you are angry! All joking aside, when you go to someone you are angry with, go as someone who who is Jesus-following, Spirit-filled, and Bible-informed. My Mum’s daily advice growing up rings through well: “Remember Whose you are and Whom you serve.”
2. Make it easier for your offender to get into putty mode than potty mode. That is, you want to communicate in a way that makes it easier for your offender to consider their offence and how they might have done better, and do better, rather than putting them on the defensive and getting them all angry too. This can be done by beginning with ‘I’ statements, like “can we talk about how I felt when something happened?” rather than ‘you’ statements such as “you did this to me.” Not only will beginning with ‘I’ be less likely to put the offender on the defensive, but it also starts with something the offender cannot deny; your experience. It is also good to avoid words like ‘always’ and ‘never.’ It is better to keep the discussion to the one offence that aroused your anger rather than make the offender feel like they have always been losers and never been good enough. That is how your offender may receive “you always” and “you never” statements.
The second option is to let it go.
This is not the best option if the offence is serious, or if the repeating of the offence will make it serious, or if this offence will be serious when repeated in the lives of others. But it sometimes can be the best option. We can be so easily offended and so quick to take offence. Perhaps we might benefit from growing a thicker skin? You might object and say “this is impossible, I could never let an offence go!” It might seem that way but like everything else, this gets easier with practice. We should note here that because God is holy, He can never let offence go unpunished. Instead He offers to pay the penalty for us, through Jesus Christ at the cross. When we are angry we do well to remember that amazing grace! Our offender may need grace. We might need it too.