“Don’t go to bed angry.” How many times have you heard a version of this marital proverb? Many bright-eyed couples hear it during premarital consultations and happily nod in agreement. Those who have been married for a while may laugh at naivety. We’ll see if they’re still smiling and nodding in a few months.
Once married, counseling quickly becomes more complicated, uncomfortable and expensive. Sometimes dealing with anger before bed can feel like finishing the basement before bed. My wife and I know this firsthand, having struggled hard for seven years to control our anger before exhaustion overtook us. Achieving cheap and superficial peace can be easy enough, but meaningful reconciliation usually takes a lot of time and energy and, well, work.
The advice is really good advice, however, because it is Gods advice: “Let the sun not set on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). The commandment covers all relationships, but marriage can be the hardest place to apply. For many of us, marriage is most likely to make us angry the most (or at least the most often).
This increased tendency to anger is not a fault in marriage. It’s actually a consequence of what makes marriage beautiful. Marriage has a higher and more consistent capacity for anger because marriage has a higher and more consistent capacity for intimacy. Sin hurts more when we have opened up and confided in someone. Closeness and vulnerability can make even small sins feel like acts of war.
So how can couples fight to put their anger to bed? While many (rightly) look to Ephesians 5 for a vision of marriage, the verses immediately preceding this chapter also contain valuable weapons in the struggle to love each other well.
Be angry. (Ephesians 4:26)
You won’t often hear these two words together in premarital counseling (or any other counseling, for that matter). Before we try to put our anger aside for the night, we need to remember that anger can be a wholesome and godly response to evil.
“Many marriages suffer because we assume that anger is always wrong – or that our anger is always justified.”
Many of us have developed a map of our emotional life in which anger is always off limits. We tend to assume that anger – especially any anger directed at us! – is unjustified and erroneous. It was my desire to get married. The word of God for us, however, is not: “Never be angry”, but: “Be anger, and do not sin. Has your marriage made room for righteous anger in the face of offense? Have any of you ever said, “I was wrong. I have sinned against you. And it’s good that you’re angry about that”?
Many marriages suffer because we assume anger is always bad – Where that our anger is always justified. Often we assume the former when it comes to our spouse’s anger, and the latter when it comes to our own. The rest of Chapter 4, however, puts a damper on the anger that inevitably arises in marriage.
Let all bitterness, anger, anger, outcry and slander be removed from you, as well as all wickedness. (Ephesians 4:31)
Wait, isn’t that a glaring contradiction? Didn’t Paul just say:Be wrath and do not sin”? The is a tension here, but not a contradiction. Much of the maturity and wisdom in marriage (and in the Christian life in general) lies in the ability to know when to apply seemingly opposite commandments – when to correct offenses and when to ignore them; when to speak and when to be silent; when to be angry with sin, and when to get rid of anger.
“Be angry at the sin in your marriage, and don’t go to bed angry.”
The message must be clear: anger has a place in healthy hearts, but it is a limited and temporary place. It is right to feel angry at wrong, but only in a life where anger is actively and constantly put aside – and not just most anger, but everything anger (“Let everything bitterness and anger and anger. . . be away from you”). God even gives our righteous anger an expiration date – and that expiration date is today.
Be angry and do not sin; don’t let the sun go down on your anger. (Ephesians 4:26)
Have you ever wondered why God made each day last 24 hours? There are surely hundreds of good reasons, but he himself gives us at least one here: because it curbs our anger and prevents it from turning into a silent forest fire. In this way, the 24-hour day is a great mercy for marriages. As the sun crosses the sky each day and begins to bury itself in the horizon, it gradually draws us towards reconciliation. It draws a line in the sand that forces us to choose between submitting to God and seeking reconciliation or refusing his counsel and cherishing our hurt.
Many marriages suffer because we allow offense to turn into bitterness that slowly erodes trust and intimacy over days, weeks, and even months. Trust is the currency of intimacy. Spouses can squander that trust in big and obvious ways that we could all name. Trust is also wasted in more subtle ways, and perhaps the most common way is by committing and stirring up offenses. The initial hurt or anger may have been completely justified, but the term has long since expired, and yet the bitterness quietly remains and hurts and separates. So God pushes the sun around the earth, every day, to give us a golden opportunity to put aside all our anger.
Let me add an important qualification here: full reconciliation can be unrealistic on some days. Releasing our anger does not mean all is well in the relationship. That’s why, at home, we talk about pursuing significant reconciliation before going to bed. A little time and sleep can actually be great allies in the process. insisting on full reconciliation in a short time will often only prolong the pain and discord (again, I learned this first hand). This does not mean, however, that we should allow ourselves to harbor anger or settle for anything less than true forgiveness and reconciliation. It just means that sometimes we will have to be patient for the warmth and harmony to return fully. The important lesson here is that both spouses decide to set aside all anger on a regular, even daily basis.
Be angry and do not sin; don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and don’t give the devil a chance. (Ephesians 4:26-27)
Maybe we would be quicker at resolving conflicts in our marriages if we could see what Satan can do with unresolved conflicts. It’s not just that it can provoke and inflame unresolved conflicts and escalate them over time; it’s that the unresolved conflict gives her access to all other areas of our marriages. An open wound in one area ends up bleeding on all the other areas. Sleeping together becomes more difficult. Praying together becomes more difficult. Parenting together is getting harder. Planning together becomes more difficult. Serving together becomes more difficult. The mere fact of existing together becomes more difficult.
Many marriages suffer because they ignore the spiritual warfare against marriage. “We wrestle not against flesh and blood” – including the flesh and blood lying next to us in bed – “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly darknesses of places” (Ephesians 6:12). Every marital battle is first and foremost a spiritual battle, and we will inevitably lose that battle if we think we are just fighting.
Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgive one another, as God has forgiven you in Christ. (Ephesians 4:32)
How many marital crises and divorces could have been avoided if these fifteen words had really imposed themselves?
Notice that Paul doesn’t just say, “Be kind and forgive one another,” but “Forgive as God has forgiven you in Christ.” God didn’t just ignore our sin and grudgingly move forward; no, his Son bore our sorrows, he bore our sorrows, he received our thorns, he was crushed for our iniquities, he was wounded to bind up our wounds, he was cursed, all so that we might be forgiven . So forgive as you have been forgiven. Nothing that you or I suffer in marriage will ask or require of us more than what Christ bore for us on the cross.
Many couples who have practiced this verse have made a startling discovery: conflict is actually an unusual occasion for intimacy. Why? Because when we deal with another’s sin as Christ dealt with ours, we both see and experience more of it. Sure, we can see and experience it on the days when we get along, but how much more present and real does it feel when we give and receive meaningful forgiveness, when we receive harshness with kindness, when we stay and enjoy when we could reasonably leave?
The moments of marriage that anger us the most can become the clearest pictures of Christ and his church. What else could make a husband so nice, even now? What else would make a woman forgive him – Again? Where would a love so disinterested, so patient, so resistant come from?
So, husband and wife, be angry at the sin in your marriage, and don’t go to bed angry.
Marshal Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and editor of desiringGod.org. He is the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness and Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College and Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have two children and live in Minneapolis.