Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 4:31 Introduction
Paul loved lists. Never content merely to generalize about sins, he particularized, thereby leaving no doubt as to his meaning. Learn from Paul. “It is not enough to confess sin in general, we must confess particular sins. It is rather a dangerous thing to confess sin in general. We bring these things home to ourselves by confessing them in particular” (Lloyd-Jones). As we study verse 31, particularize. Carefully consider these six evils one by one. With honest scrutiny, see if any dwells in our hearts.
Eph. 4:31a “Let all bitterness,. . .”
By saying “all,” Paul leaves no room for compromise. Not only must all six of these tenants be removed; every vestige of each one must be eradicated. Paul attacks “all” these evils ruthlessly. Every trace must go. None of these six traits should ever be true of a believer in any sense. Let not the most minute particle lurk even in the most remote corner of our heart.
As we contemplate these six evils, let’s consider ourselves as landlords who need to expel six undesirable tenants before they cause us serious trouble. The first resident we need to evict is “bitterness,” which Aristotle defined as “the resentful spirit which refuses reconciliation.” “Bitterness,” the opposite of sweetness, is an inner sourness, an acid within, a slow-moving cancer of the soul which gnaws at the very vitals of inner comfort, contentment, and tranquility. The world’s most miserable human beings are bitter people. They make themselves and everyone around them miserable.
“Bitterness” is resentment internalized and smoldering. It can result from a refusal to forgive a personal wrong done to us by another, or from certain events we fail to put in proper perspective. Maybe no particular person hurt us directly; there is no one to forgive, but we were hurt and never classified the event as “from a Father’s hand.” Family trouble, church trouble, work trouble, money trouble–try to view these from God’s perspective, and trust He foresaw a purpose for good in each of them. We can not forget them, but do need to work through them in prayer, talk through them with friends, and come to peace about them in our minds. When we fail to do this, and choose instead to brood over bad events, never speak of them, withdraw into our shells, and harbor ill feelings, inner frustration eventually becomes “bitterness” against God Himself. Our grievances may be genuine, but as we internalize them, they make us angry at life in general. Once this happens, we are angry against God, for He rules in the affairs of men. We may not consciously realize it, and may deny it, but it is nevertheless true. The bottom line of “bitterness” is anger against God.
Eph. 4:31b “. . .and wrath,. . .”
The second tenant we must evict is “wrath,” outbursts of temper. “Bitterness” inevitably expresses itself. What is not dealt with in private ultimately manifests itself in public. It eventually becomes a hidden force impelling outbursts of “wrath,” the loss of control, flying off the handle.
“Wrath” is an outlet given to dark hostilities within, a flash of fury, a violent outbreak of emotion, resentment boiling over. Doors are slammed, cats are kicked, fists are clenched and rammed into walls or people, faces become flush, veins pop out on the neck. In personal relationships, these outbursts of rage can in moments destroy camaraderie developed over years. Such outrageous activity should never be part of a Christian’s behavior.
Temper fits are learned behavior, a habit developed through years of practice. Adults with this ailment were not disciplined properly as children when they displayed this form of behavior, or worse, they may have learned the practice from imitating their parents. Parents, when your children throw a temper fit, do not turn and look the other way. Be good and kind to your children. End this behavior pattern before it becomes their habit.
Eph. 4:31c “. . .and anger,. . .”
The third tenant we must remove is “anger,” the ongoing, settled disposition of inner irritability and brooding, as opposed to “wrath,” which is the flaring up of passion. “Anger” is a deep seated desire to retaliate, internal stewing and smoldering, keeping the coals stoked. With proper motives and responses, “anger” is okay (4:26), but here it is forbidden for it is being viewed in the context of selfish sentiments.
Eph. 4:31d “. . .and clamor,. . .”
The fourth tenant we need to evict is “clamor,” irate shouting, the loud self-assertion of an angry person who wants everyone to know his or her grievances. An angry person is ever in danger of exploding into loud speech. Anger hates to stay quiet, and often vents itself through the mouth with blaring words and noisy disputes. Another learned behavior, “clamor” is anger sharpened and yelling at its object, shouting down opponents, noisy disputes, screaming matches at home, words boisterous and out of control.
Shouting is a red flag that things are getting out of control. When the voice goes up, let the argument go down. Stop the discussion a moment. Take time to think and pray.
Brothers and sisters, leave off yelling. Anger does not motivate. Take it out of our voices. Traffic control officers do not raise their voices. They do not have to raise their voices because they speak from the premise of authority. Their words are substantiated by facts. When people start shouting, they have run out of valid arguments to support their position.
Self-control, logic, and reasoning are the hallmarks of mature interaction. Youth, do you want to be respected and treated as adults? Do not shout. Talk. Parents, do you want to be respected and treated as adults? Do not shout. Talk. We could all save much heartbreak in the world if we simply lowered our voices.
Eph. 4:31e “. . .and evil speaking,. . .”
The fifth unwelcome boarder in our lives is “evil speaking,” harmful talking. The words are not necessarily loud, but nevertheless mean. “Evil speaking” entails “a tongue sharp as an arrow, keen as a razor” (Hendriksen). The person who stoops to this level, like the one who clamors, lost the argument, and had nothing more worthwhile to say.
“Evil speaking” includes threatening words, abusive talk, slander, defamation of character, stinging words which needle others, biting sarcasm, running down others, the cool deliberate saying of things which hurt others. In a previous church, we had an individual who negatively joked about his listeners, and we often could not be sure he was kidding. He is one reason I decided to restrict my efforts to be humorous at the expense of others.
Eph. 4:31f “. . .be put away from you,. . .”
Remember, Paul is writing to Christians. Just because we are saved does not mean these terrible tenants are automatically driven from the heart. Even after conversion, we are still subject to these things.
Paul is calling on us to make a decisive, once for all, total rejection of these things. Put them out, bolt the door, never open it to them again. Even with this level of resolve on our part, they will still slip in through cracks and crevices. We will continue to fall into these things from time to time through carelessness and weakness, but we can once and for all decide to hate them, to be done with them, to war against them till death.
We should be ashamed of all these things. They are rags of the old man and disgraceful to Christians. Can we say we have deemed this behavior in our own lives as totally unchristlike, or do we dabble in it, going from fit to fit trying to analyze the merit or demerit of each one in and of itself?
Eph. 4:31g “. . .with all malice:”
The sixth tenant we need to evict is “malice,” the desire to see others hurt. Grudge-filled, “malice” wishes evil on others, takes delight in their harm, rejoices in anticipated calamities, plots and plans mischief against others. This is an especially bad disposition because it is very enjoyable.
In fact, flesh and blood tends to relish all six of these residents, which makes them hard to evict, but we must remove them, for they are troublemakers, “a nucleus of agitators who could ruin a community” (Powell). These are six horrible sins which destroy relationships, break fellowship, weaken churches, and mar our Christian witness before the world.
One more important note on verse 31–of these six tenants, three are inner dispositions (bitterness, anger, malice), three are outward acts (wrath, clamor, evil speaking). We often downplay the interior and emphasize the exterior, but err grievously when we deal only with outward manifestations and fail to work on inner causes. The inner three spawn the outer three.
The inner three explain why we fly off the handle over seemingly little things. Our text reveals why small things trigger a fit of rage. The problem is not the vexing drip of the immediate problem, but that our cup of bitterness, anger, and malice is already full. The little new drop merely makes our cup spill over. Thus, “all”–inner three and outer three–must go.