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Changing Clothes (3:8)

“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (Col. 3:8).

O.K., Paul, we agree with you about slander and obscene talk. Those are verbal actions over which we can exercise a measure of control. We can choose not to speak ill of someone or to use inappropriate language. Whether or not we do so is up to us. We can just keep our mouths shut!

But how can you tell us to put away anger and wrath and malice? Those don’t feel like choices. They are simply states of mind, passions of the heart.  Are you really telling us to stop being angry, to cease feeling wrath, to terminate malicious thoughts?

If I may be allowed to speak for the apostle, Yes, that is precisely what he’s commanding us to do! As was the case earlier in Colossians 3 when it came to sexual desires (Col. 3:5), so now with anger and wrath and malice, we are responsible before God to do whatever is necessary to eliminate these affections or emotions from our souls. Again, it isn’t simply the outward expression of anger or certain physical actions that reveal our wrath and malice. WE MUST CONFRONT AND CONQUER THE INNER IMPULSE.

This is the point Jesus was making when he said, “You have heard it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother [or more literally, says to him, “Raca!”] will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).

By “insult” (i.e., saying “Raca”, an Aramaic term meaning “empty[headed]”) Jesus refers to the mocking of an individual’s intelligence. This isn’t merely a casual reference to a person’s IQ or the equivalent of our calling someone a “nitwit” or “blockhead” or “boneheaded dufus.” He has in mind an angry and dismissive belittling that is designed to embarrass and humiliate. Worse still is the word translated “fool” (Gk. “moros”) which is an attack on the dignity or metaphysical value of the person. It’s bad enough to call someone an idiot, but something worse to call them a “worthless” idiot.

Jesus isn’t saying that people aren’t “fools” or that there is never occasion on which we are justified in saying so. He himself called people “fools” or “foolish” (Mt. 7:26; 23:17; cf. Lk. 11:40; 12:20), as do several OT authors (see Psalm 14:1; 49:10; Proverbs 1:7,22,32) who warn us to be cautious of our involvement with them. But in these texts the person is a “fool” because of their stubborn rebellion against God. In Matthew 5 Jesus has in mind the deliberate and angry undermining of a person’s dignity. He is describing that demeaning, denigrating disdain and malicious contempt for another human being

Now let’s return to Colossians 3. The metaphor Paul employs is vivid and to the point. Earlier he instructed us to “slay” sin (3:5). Here he tells us to “strip” it off. We must not only destroy it, but discard it. We are to “put it to death” and “put it aside.” The verb translated “put away” (ESV) was often used of disrobing or removing garments (see Rom. 13:12; Eph. 4:22,25; Heb. 12:1; James 1:21; 1 Peter 2:1). Thus, we are to put aside or strip off old sinful habits like a set of tattered, worn-out clothes.

The words Paul uses are instructive. “Anger” (“orge”) is the same term used in v. 6 to describe divine wrath! What is appropriate for God, it would appear, is inappropriate for humans. “Wrath” is the translation of “thumos”, a more passionate and spontaneous outburst of anger, as over against the chronic, settled seething or brooding that “orge” suggests (some argue there is no substantive difference between the two; but if Paul meant only one thing, why did he use two terms?).

“Malice” may refer to the conscious desire to harm another that is subsequently expressed in evil speech such as “slander” and “abusive language.” The word “slander”, although commonly translated “blasphemy,” most likely refers to the “defamation of human character” (O’Brien, 188) rather than a cursing of God (cf. Titus 3:2). The word translated “obscene talk,” found only here in the NT, isn’t so much curse words as it is the sort of speech that ridicules and embarrasses others.

Paul isn’t suggesting there is no place for anger at sin or injustice or cruelty. Nor is he saying that we should immediately forgive and forget apart from repentance. Given what he wrote in numerous texts it goes without saying that he is by no means undermining the importance of church discipline. Rather, he is talking here about the anger that erupts and lingers within interpersonal relationships in the body of Christ.

Although Paul doesn’t address the underlying cause of these emotions, it’s important that we understand our own motivation. Why do we feel such things in the first place? In most instances, it’s because of an “entitlement” mentality. Someone defrauded us or failed to respect our “rights”. Things haven’t gone our way and we blame them for it. Or we have been violated or treated unjustly. That may well be true, but does it justify “anger”, “wrath”, or “malice”?

Paul isn’t talking about psychological repression but spiritual mortification. So, how does one “put to death” and “lay aside” anger, wrath, and malice? I know of only one way: by meditating on the magnitude of mercy shown us in the cross of Christ. We must ponder deeply what Christ endured for us rather than fixate on what others have done to create discomfort or pain. That is to say, focus on what Christ has done “for” you and not on what others have done “to” you. As we labor to saturate our minds with what Christ has done on the cross, it will gradually, ever so progressively, swallow up and erase the pain of what others have done to us. This is the power of grace. This is the power of Spirit-anointed truth.

The “example” (1 Peter 2:21) Christ set for us, wrote Peter, was precisely in his refusal to retaliate in anger at those who unjustly inflicted harm. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

You may be wondering whether there is legitimacy in what we call “righteous indignation”? Is anger ever justified or warranted? We must account for Paul’s counsel in Ephesians 4:26-27 - “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”

Some argue that Paul’s exhortation is conditional or concessive: “If (or, when) you get angry, don’t sin” (however, this is grammatically unlikely; see Dan Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 491-92).

Another view is that the command and prohibition which follows are both to be taken at face value. There are occasions in the life of the church when righteous indignation is called for. But be careful. Don’t let your anger simmer and seethe and lead you into other sins such as pride, spite, malice, or a longing for revenge.

The exhortation not to let “the sun go down on your anger” (v. 26b) is not to be taken literally. If it were, “it would mean that those who lived in the Arctic or Antarctic would at certain times of the year have no temporal limitation on their anger!” (Best, 450). In the OT sunset was viewed as the time limit for a number of activities (see Deut. 24:13,15,23).

Paul’s point is that we must be brief in our anger; we mustn’t brood in it or nurse it or let it settle and harden before addressing its cause. Reconciliation (if possible; see Romans 12:18-19) must be pursued promptly.

Pursuing peace (as painful as it may be),

Sam