I’ve often wondered how to be angry and yet not sin because it seems that most anger is self-seeking. For instance, I become angry when I don’t get my way, when someone cuts me off on the road, or when I stub my toe on a piece of furniture that some furniture maker obviously built with the express purpose of inflicting pain! But there are times when my anger seems to be what might be called righteous anger, for I can become angry when I see extreme poverty, arrogant and deceitful leaders, or senseless violence inflicted on the innocent. Nonetheless, in either case of selfish or righteous anger I find myself still prone to sin because I not only want vengeance but I imagine how it could occur, and it usually involves me playing a big role in its execution. It is at this point that I know I have fallen into sin. It is then that I wonder how it is possible to be angry and sin not.
As with many questions of scripture, the answer is found by looking a bit closer at the context of the verse and sometimes the meaning of the word being used. As pertains to context, the psalmist is clearly under pressure from those who are not the most righteous of people, and in crying to the Lord for relief from their persecution has only felt silence. As pertains to the Hebrew word for anger (ragaz), it doesn’t only mean angry but its meaning also includes tremble, shake, troubled, afraid, and perturbed. In fact, a couple of translations have used the phrase “stand in awe,” or “tremble with fear” instead of the word “angry.” Thus, when the context and the word are put together, the call to be angry and sin not can be taken a couple of ways. First, there is the traditional, and very acceptable, interpretation which says that we shouldn’t spend time wishing sinful harm upon our enemies. But it is the second interpretation that I think is the true point of the psalm: in the inevitable silence as we wait for God’s answer, we shouldn’t tremble in fear.
I saw a quote today that read “The hardest thing about ‘everything happens for a reason’ is waiting for that reason to show up.” This is a nice sentiment but I’m not so sure God promises to always reveal his reasons. In fact, if we look at the book of Job I think we find just the opposite. As you recall, Job had lost nearly everything and was sitting on a heap of ashes asking God why he was suffering. Job’s friends tried to answer him by (improperly) explaining the ways of God, but their answers were not comforting. When God did finally show up, he was the one with all the questions, none of which Job was able to answer. It is here I suspect the point of the book can be found. Job responds to God by saying “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6) Faced with his unanswered questions about God’s purposes and his inability to answer God’s questions, Job rested in the dust and ashes of repentance in the presence of God.
I think it is safe to say that Job’s repentance was his way of admitting he had not trusted God. Job was unable to echo the words of the psalmist and say “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” While Job’s suffering is beyond comprehension and should not be marginalized, we find ourselves in similar situations and are often guilty of the same thing. We question God and his reasons, but most of the time we are left only with silence. We want answers, but we are left ignorant. We want justice, yet there are no actions. We want comfort, but we sit in the ashes of a former life. More often than not we become angry, and through gritted teeth say, “when I get to heaven, I have a few questions to ask of God!”
You would think we would learn from Job and know that God’s presence is the only answer we need. You would think when we lie awake in bed late at night we would not allow worry to overtake us. You would think we would not become angry and fall into sin. You would think all those things, but you would be wrong, because most of the time we are dense people who have not learned to trust the Lord in the silence.