Life, Hope & Truth

From the July/August 2018 issue of Discern Magazine

A Foothold for the Devil

What’s wrong with being angry? There’s plenty in our lives and in the news to get upset about, but God’s Word is filled with warnings against letting our anger spiral out of control.

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Naaman was a big deal.

As the commander of Syria’s army, he had the respect of his countrymen and his king. The Bible calls him “a great and honorable man in the eyes of his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria” (2 Kings 5:1).

But Naaman had a problem. “He was also a mighty man of valor, but a leper” (verse 1).

Leprosy. Naaman was plagued with a slow, painful disease that was gradually assaulting his nervous system and producing unsightly lesions all over his body. Left unchecked, the disease would eat away at his ability to feel and his ability to see, eventually leaving him open to infections that could rot his extremities.

There was no cure for leprosy in the ancient world. No one in Syria, not even the nation’s pantheon of gods, had the skill or the power to remove such an affliction. But a young Israelite slave girl had told Naaman’s wife stories about a prophet in her homeland with the power to heal all manner of diseases. So Naaman the great—Naaman the honorable, Naaman the mighty man of valor, Naaman the victorious commander—set out to see if the stories were true.

Disrespected?

When Naaman arrived at the prophet’s doorstep, his reception was a little less glamorous than he had expected. “Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you, and you shall be clean’” (verse 10).

A messenger? Naaman had come all the way from Syria with his entourage, and instead of rolling out the red carpet for such an auspicious guest, Elisha had the gall to stay inside and send a messenger?

Naaman wanted a show. A man of his status deserved a spectacle.

So “Naaman became furious, and went away and said, ‘Indeed, I said to myself, “He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.” Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage” (verses 11-12).

Sin and anger

The Bible has a lot to say on the subject of anger. It’s a tricky, multifaceted thing—not always right, but not always wrong, either.

One of the more interesting passages about anger comes from the apostle Paul, who urged the Ephesians, “‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27).

There’s a lot we can learn from that one God-inspired sentence. Paul was telling us that it’s possible to be angry without sinning. That’s important. That sentence also tells us that there’s a right kind of anger and a wrong kind of anger.

It also tells us that, even when our anger is justified, there should be a time limit involved. Nothing good comes from holding on to wrath day after day, allowing ourselves to get angrier and angrier.

But most important, this passage tells us that when we handle anger incorrectly, we make room in our lives for the devil. The New International Version translates Paul’s warning as: “‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (emphasis added throughout).

Looking for a foothold

Here’s an unsettling thought:

Satan wants a foothold in your life.

It’s not just a convenience he’ll take if the opportunity comes along. Part of his battle plan is to make you angry. To make you furious. And not just once or twice, but over and over again, as often as possible. The angrier he can keep you, the more secure the foothold he has in your life.

The Bible describes Satan as “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Ephesians 2:2-3).

All around the world, Satan is cultivating sons of disobedience and children of wrath, encouraging others to focus as much as possible on their own worldly desires.

It’s not hard to see that he’s succeeding. Paul prophesied that “in the last days … men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

It’s almost as if Paul wrote those words while watching our modern-day news. Those adjectives are disturbingly accurate when it comes to describing the endless parade of depressing stories that march their way across our TVs and through our news feeds every day.

Paul saw all that on the horizon and then warned, “From such people turn away!” (verse 5).

Cities without walls

The attitudes and behaviors of the children of wrath are contagious. It’s something we have to distance ourselves from both physically and mentally. And if Paul’s warnings aren’t enough, the book of Proverbs spends a great deal of time discussing the inherent problems with being an angry person:

  • “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls” (Proverbs 25:28).
  • “An angry man stirs up strife, and a furious man abounds in transgression” (Proverbs 29:22).
  • “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (verse 11, English Standard Version).
  • “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult” (Proverbs 12:16, ESV).
  • “If a wise man contends with a foolish man, whether the fool rages or laughs, there is no peace” (Proverbs 29:9).
  • “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

There are a lot of harsh words out there today. There are a lot of angry people giving full vent to their spirit, laughing or raging at godly wisdom, quickly taking offense and stirring up strife. That means there are a lot of cities out there with broken-down walls. There are a lot of lives that Satan can easily walk into and manipulate for his own purposes.

If we want to make sure we don’t become one of those cities, the Bible gives us some important advice on how to shore up our walls.

Wrath and righteousness

We can start with what we just read in Proverbs: A wise person can handle an insult without firing one back. A wise person doesn’t vent his or her thoughts and feelings at every opportunity. A wise person knows how to de-escalate a situation with his or her words rather than make things worse.

The more we improve in areas like these, the fewer and fewer footholds Satan will have in our lives.

“Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).The New Testament writers go even deeper and explore the core of the issue. James wrote, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).

That might be the most important verse on the whole subject. Being an angry or furious person doesn’t just give Satan a strategic advantage in our lives—it’s a path that leads us away from God. Godly righteousness is not produced by, cannot be nurtured by, is actively choked out by the wrath of man.

In other words, the anger-inducing moments of our lives offer us a choice. We have to choose between the wrath of man and the righteousness of God—between providing a foothold for our enemy and emulating the character of our Creator.

David calls God “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy”—a God who “has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:8, 10). That’s what the patience and righteousness of God looks like in action, and it’s a template for how we should treat others.

It’s worth noting, though, that God is slow to anger. We saw earlier that James encouraged us to be slow to wrath. It’s not that God never gets angry—it’s that when He does, it’s for the right reasons and at the right time. As humans, that’s not something that comes naturally to us—but the more in sync we are with God’s mind and perspective, the better we’ll do.

Lights in the world

The story of Naaman almost ended when he stormed off in rage. He was angry about the way he’d been treated. In his frustration, he could have easily climbed back into his chariot, driven back to Syria and spent the rest of his life as a leper.

Would that have been worth it?

No—but then, when we let anger direct us, we don’t do things because they’re worth it. We do things because we’ve been hurt or slighted or wronged, and we look for ways to lash out or get even.

That’s the state of mind Naaman was in—until his servants talked him down. “My father,” they asked, “if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13).

It was a reality check for Naaman. Was he really going to throw away the chance to be cured of an incurable condition just because the remedy wasn’t fancy enough for him?

In the end, Naaman calmed down “and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (verse 14).

Naaman’s story reminds us that when we give ourselves over to rage, we’re going to make foolish decisions and miss out on important opportunities. The book of Proverbs shows us in great detail what some of those foolish decisions look like and the damage they can do. And Paul teaches us that, on top of everything else, misdirected anger all too easily becomes a foothold for the devil.

We live in an angry world filled with angry people doing angry things, so it’s no surprise that “the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19). But God calls us to be different—to be better than that. “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14-15, ESV).

God wants you to grow in His righteousness and shine like a light in a darkened world. Satan wants to fill you with that darkness and keep you angry and distracted from the reason you exist.

Don’t give your adversary that foothold.

For more tools on dealing with anger, see our blog post “Overcoming Anger.”

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