Throughout Scripture, we are told repeatedly that the heart is what really matters to the Lord. It is not that outward acts are unimportant, for the Bible also condemns external, visible sins and commends righteous acts that are evident to the human eye (Matt. 5:16). Ultimately, however, visible deeds of love for God and neighbor are good only if they are rightly motivated and not done merely to win the approval of other people (23:25–26). Our Creator does not see as man sees; when He looks upon the individual, He looks upon the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).
Furthermore, the heart is also the seat of all impurity. Consequently, external sins are finally addressed only through dealing with inward transgression. If we do not set aside the sinful intentions of our hearts, then all the mortification of sin we perform externally does little permanent good. Paul essentially makes this point in today’s passage as he urges us to put away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice (Eph. 4:31). Bitterness, wrath, and anger are fundamentally attitudes of the heart, while clamor and slander are the ways in which these sinful dispositions find their outlet. Matthew Henry comments that bitterness, wrath, and anger refer to “violent inward resentment against others,” and clamor is “intemperate speech, by which bitterness, rage and anger vent themselves.”
The apostle does not urge us to give up being angry altogether. After all, if that were his point, he would be contradicting his earlier injunction to exercise righteous anger on appropriate occasions (v. 26). The kind of anger that Paul wants us to put away is characterized by malice (v. 31), the consuming feeling of hatred that seeks only the destruction of others and not their restoration to fellowship with God and with other people. Malice regularly characterizes human anger, so we must keep our anger in check by the Spirit’s power (Rom. 8:5–6; James 1:19–21).
“Slander,” in Ephesians 4:31, translates the Greek word blasphēmia, the same word from which we derive the English term blasphemy. We blaspheme the Lord when we tell falsehoods about His character or curse Him. Similarly, we blaspheme or slander other people when we curse them, spread rumors about them, or lie about their acts or intentions. These acts are wholly unchristian.