By coincidence (read: providence) I landed on Ephesians 4 and Psalm 4 this morning, as part of a plan to go through one chapter of Ephesians and one Psalm a day. As often happens when I read Pauline epistles, I got overwhelmed by the sheer density of the passage of Ephesians and found myself reading words but not absorbing anything… losing the trees while trying to take in the entire forest. I was about to call it quits and come back to the passages later, when I noticed identical verses in both chapters: “Be angry and do not sin” (Psalm 4:4, Ephesians 4:26). Though my ESV Bible didn’t say this was Paul quoting Psalm 4 in the annotations, other commentaries do. I always find it marvelous when those cross-references are found by happenstance in my devotions… connections I never would have made if not for reading those two specific chapters back-to-back.
So God had brought that verse to the fore, and even though it didn’t seem immediately illumined, the more I thought about it the more interesting it became. Almost like a mirror, those simple six words prompted me to look at my own life and experiences in a way I hadn’t thought much about before.
Be angry and do not sin.
Such a statement holds and entire theology of emotions within it. It is admission that anger is a real and expected emotional experience on this side of restoration, and the verse implicitly gives us permission to feel it. It says that to feel anger isn’t wrong in and of itself (although it might come in reaction to wrong things in the world around us); rather, what matters is what we do with such feelings that could lead to sin. In this way, negative emotions like anger are similar to temptation. We are to expect them to come, and our focus must be on what we do with them more than the fact of them being there. Satan loves to mire us in shame at the fact that we experience temptation to begin with, which is invariably a distraction to keep such experiences from becoming opportunities for honest wrestling and faith-building.
For most of my life, I’ve fallen prey to that subtle-yet-pervasive lie that negative emotions are wrong, bad, or even sinful — leading to the belief that they should be noted but shoved under the rug. Of course, this thinking did nothing to prevent the experiences of those emotions, which only led to immense frustration whenever they would bubble up. Inevitably, there would come times when space under the rug ran out and external stressors would cause it all to explode, alienating me further from God and others.
I’m not exactly sure how these beliefs lodged themselves in my inner being and began to spread their deforming roots, but I do know that they stem from not understanding grace. Insofar as I believed that negative emotions were unacceptable — before God or others — they had to be purged from my inner world. Genuine vulnerability was terrifying, because without grace in the picture all of the things I saw as unwanted, wrong, or defective were simply causes for rejection. The problem with this was that without healthy vulnerability, I felt known by no one, including God. The very connectedness and acceptance I hoped would come from burying my emotions was only exacerbated.
This year, pushing away negative emotions has not been an option. Without many normal parts of life to serve as distractions and in the privacy of months at home, I’ve been forced to grapple with stuffed-away feelings more than ever before. Out of sheer necessity, I’ve had to push the boundaries on my comfort with vulnerability, finally allowing myself to be honest with God and others about how I felt.
The beautiful thing is, regardless of how hot my anger was and how volatile my emotions were, God never left — and neither did the people in my inner circle. Instead of rejection, I was met with listening, openness, and presence. I’ve grown, more than any other time in my life, in my knowledge of love.
I’m seeing that this is what it means to live in grace. If grace means that God’s love is unmerited, then there is no amount of negative emotions or misunderstanding or unbelief that can turn it away. However deep brokenness might run, God’s love is always large enough to reach down and encompass it. His doing so is not contingent on anything we do or do not do, feel or do not feel.
I’m not sure who needs to hear this today, but there have been many points in my life when I needed to: allow yourself to exist — to really exist with all that you are and feel –before God and others. Let yourself be angry, and do not sin. This kind of honest vulnerability is much easier said than done, and at times can be terrifying. It takes a leap of faith to trust that there will be enough grace to encompass everything you might be carrying, but take the jump. You might be surprised by how wide, long, high and deep the love you fall into turns out to be.