It’s Saturday afternoon. You’ve spent all day cleaning house for company on Sunday—vacuuming carpets, scrubbing floors, scouring sinks, polishing appliances. Now it’s ready for the white glove inspection—but that’s not quite what happens. Instead, your teenaged daughter buzzes in from the beach with a cheerful “Hi, Mom,” and proceeds to walk the length of the house leaving a trail of sand behind her.
Before you have a chance to open your mouth, your husband comes in from the garage where he has been fixing the transmission in his car, and with his greasy hands he managed to redecorate the kitchen sink, the refrigerator and two cabinet doors, in that order. As though perfectly planned and orchestrated by someone who hates you, ten-year-old Johnny, at that precise moment, loses his grip on a muddy bullfrog he has just brought in from the yard. It plants its marks squarely on your newly-upholstered white living room sofa.
The explosion is violent—your worst in months. You scream, call them names, accuse them of being inconsiderate and uncaring, complain about your status as a slave and threaten to walk out on them. They make you so mad!
The eruption is over now. The air is quiet and still, but tense. Everybody seems to be avoiding you. You feel lonely and rejected, and very guilty. You did it again; you let your anger get out of control, and it’s alienating the people you love.
Anger! Some have called it the greatest curse on interpersonal relationships. Dad may be the angry, hostile one in the family. He rants and raves if somebody interrupts his television viewing or newspaper reading, or leaves his tools out to rust. Maybe one of the kids blows his fuse if he doesn’t get his way.
Home is not the only site for exhibitions of anger. We see it on the job, in the neighborhood, on the playing field, even in church board meetings and congregational business meetings.
What is God’s perspective on anger? Let’s look at His Word, find out what anger is, what it does and how we ought to deal with it.
The dictionary defines anger as “a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism.” The major Old Testament word is the same word used for the nostrils. Anger is often revealed by the appearance of nostrils, or by heavy breathing. There are two primary New Testament words, one referring to a passionate outburst, and the other to a settled and lingering frame of mind. God isn’t very happy about either one. He tells us to get rid of both. “Let all … wrath and anger … be put away from you …” (Ephesians 4:31; see also Colossians 3:8).
But the strange thing is that God tells us in the very same context to be angry. “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). It is actually imperative in the Greek text, not “In your anger do not sin,” or “When angry do not sin” as some translations render it, but literally “Be angry.” God gets angry about some things, and Christians should, too.
Jesus gave us an example. There was a needy man in the synagogue. He had a paralyzed hand which Jesus could heal. The Pharisees were watching Jesus, hoping He would heal the man so they could charge Him with breaking the Sabbath. “And after looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (Mark 3:5). Jesus was angry with the hypocrisy that considers slavish bondage to man-made religious rules to be more important than showing mercy to a person in need. So He did the loving, caring thing and healed the man, even though it was contrary to their rules. That kind of cold, calloused insensitivity which masquerades as spirituality ought to make us angry too, as should evil and injustice of every description. That is God’s kind of anger, righteous anger.
What is the difference, then, between righteous anger and sinful anger? We might suggest several distinctions. For one thing, righteous anger is always unselfish while sinful anger is selfish. It occurs when our desires, our needs or our ambitions are frustrated, when our demands are not met, when our expectations are not realized, when our well-being is threatened, when our self-esteem is attacked, or when we are embarrassed, belittled or inconvenienced. “Why doesn’t she do what I tell her to do?” “Why doesn’t he clean up his mess when he’s finished?” Those things inconvenience us.
A second difference is that righteous anger is always controlled while sinful anger is often uncontrolled. It causes us to say and do things we are sorry for later, things we never would have said or done had we been in control.
A third contrast is that righteous anger is directed toward sinful acts or unjust situations while sinful anger is often directed against people. God wants us to hate the sin but love the sinner, just as He does. And that means treating the sinner in kind and caring ways. Sinful anger lashes out against people.
A final distinction is that righteous anger has no malice or resentment, and seeks no revenge. In fact, it takes positive action to right wrongs and heal divisions and disagreements. Sinful anger, on the other hand, harbors bitterness and seeks retaliation. “He’s not going to get away with that.” So we make him pay. The angry tirade itself is designed to punish him, as are the cutting and sarcastic remarks, or the silent treatment that follows, or the malicious gossip we spread, or the way we try to alienate his friends from him. Sinful anger wants to hurt, even destroy.
God wants us to be angry, but over the right issues, at the right times and in the right way. He wants us to get rid of all sinful anger. If we are honest, we would probably admit that less than 2 percent of what we display is righteous anger, while the other 98 percent is sinful anger. It is that sinful anger we want to deal with in the remainder of this chapter … those sinful, selfish, spiteful feelings we express toward people who displease us.
If somebody grabs you and begins yelling at you angrily because you accidentally stepped on his toe, a number of physiological changes will begin to take place in your body immediately. Adrenaline will pump into the bloodstream. Blood pressure and heartbeat will increase. The pupils will dilate and the muscles will tense. It is the body’s way of readying itself for sudden crisis. That response is involuntary. It will happen whether you want it to or not. It may be a mixture of surprise, fear, anxiety and anger, but that anger is not sinful. God built the capability to respond that way into your being. The question is, what will you do with that initial wave of anger? The choice is now yours to make. You have a few moments to evaluate the situation, process the data and formulate your response. What will it be?
If you decide that the situation warrants venting your anger, that you would be justified in expressing it, you will probably yell right back, insist it was an accident, or that it was really his own fault. Some psychologists say it is good for us to vent our anger, get it out and release the pressure. The problem is that venting it tells the body to maintain emergency status, so it keeps more anger flowing. Furthermore, it establishes more deeply in our brain cells the habit of reacting angrily, and it makes it more difficult to put away all sinful wrath and anger, as the Bible tells us to do.
Furthermore, if we allow that emergency state to continue, it reduces our ability to reason clearly, and ultimately upsets the chemical balance in our bodies and makes us physically sick. Doctors suggest that things like migraine headaches, thyroid malfunction, ulcerative colitis, toxic goiters, high blood pressure, ulcers, heart attacks, backaches, rheumatism, arthritis, allergies, indigestion, asthma and many other illnesses can be emotionally induced.
But equally serious is the fact that we will alienate people from us, often the people we love the most. They are the ones on whom we make the greatest demands, from whom we have the highest expectations. Consequently, they become the objects of our fiercest anger. It is unrealistic to hurl angry accusations at our loved ones, then expect them to shower love on us in return. They are human too. And a basic human principle revealed in Scripture is that anger begets anger. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger pacifies contention” (Proverbs 15:18). “An angry man stirs up strife, and a hot-tempered man abounds in transgression” (Proverbs 29:22).
There is a great deal of contention and strife in Christian churches and homes today because God’s people have not dealt with their anger. We hear people say, “But getting angry is the only way I can get any action.” So they go on yelling at each other and excusing it. But God’s Word says “… the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). We are not really teaching anything by our anger except a poor example that will adversely affect generations to come.
There are some harmful ways to deal with anger. We have already mentioned its unrestrained expression and the damage that does. But there are others. One of the most common ways for Christians to handle it is to deny it. We tell ourselves that Christians aren’t supposed to be angry. I’m a Christian, so naturally, I’m not angry. I’m concerned, hurt, disappointed, a wee bit upset, but not angry.
My image as a spiritual Christian requires that I not be angry, so I deny it, or I repress it and drive it deep down inside where it eats at my organs, makes me physically sick or causes me to get depressed. I store it up until the pressure gets so great that it explodes in a flare-up much out of proportion to the seriousness of the incident, or I hold it in until I can direct it at some less threatening object. My boss can fire me, so I don’t yell back at him. I go home and yell at my wife instead. And she yells at the kids. And they kick the cat. And the cat scratches the baby, whose developing lungs can make life miserable for everyone.
If we don’t let our anger explode, we may let it ooze out in subconscious ways, like being consistently late, or burning the supper, or avoiding people, or pouting, teasing, being sarcastic, forgetting to call or other such habits that let people know we are angry with them. Those things don’t accomplish anything constructive. There are better ways to manage our anger. Paul said to put it away. But how? That is the question that needs to be answered. Let me offer several suggestions.
The first thing we can do is to admit our anger honestly and accept full responsibility for it. That may be difficult to do if we have repressed it or denied it all our lives. But it is essential. Learn to ask yourself “What am I feeling right now? Am I angry with that person for what he has done?” Then admit it. Not, “You make me angry.” That is an attempt to pin the blame on others, and it is not fair to them. Nobody makes us feel anything! They are responsible for their actions, but we are responsible for our feelings. We choose to be angry. We could choose to forgive, to act kindly, to speak softly or to express humor. But if we choose to be angry, we should be willing to say so: “I feel angry when you talk to me like that.” We make no sarcastic remarks, no put-downs, no accusations, just an honest statement of fact. We feel angry.
It is amazing how much pressure is relieved by that simple, honest admission. Yet many folks have never thought about being that honest. They have never seen any model other than uncontrolled expression or stifling repression, so they do not know how to be honest. Paul says we are to speak the truth (Ephesians 4:25). James says we are to confess our faults to one another (James 5:16). Try it. And when you do, it might also be good to express your desire to overcome the anger. Say something like, “I don’t want to feel angry with you. I don’t like myself when I’m angry like this. I want to feel close to you and loving toward you.” That will also help to expedite the healing process.
A second suggestion for eliminating anger is to examine its cause. God would have us think carefully and deliberately before we speak too quickly. Many passages of Scripture allude to that (compare James 1:19; Proverbs 12:16; 14:29; 16:32; 19:11; 29:11). The answer is not to count to ten, but to think. The best thing to think about may be the reason for our anger. Almost all anger can be traced to our needs and wants. Two Christian psychiatrists suggest some common causes: (1) selfishness: our selfish demands are not being met; (2) perfectionism: our perfectionist expectations are not being satisfied, which makes us angry with ourselves and others; (3) suspiciousness: we misinterpret the motives or intentions of others. We think they are ignoring us, belittling us or contradicting us.8 We want people to treat us properly and we get angry when they do not, so an important step to resolving our anger is to identify exactly what we want from them.
Is it attention I want, respect, recognition, appreciation, consideration, love? Do I want to be listened to, to have my opinions regarded as worthwhile, my requests regarded as important? Do I want to be relieved of some of my responsibilities? Do I want my belongings handled with care? Do I want people to be more concerned about my feelings, or my convenience? We have all become angry because we expected someone to fulfill some want, and they failed. So identify the desire.
That leads to the third step in resolving the anger. Forgive others for their failure to meet our expectations. We really have no recourse but to forgive them when we realize how much God has forgiven us. And forgiveness can wash the anger right out of our lives. Anger is often an attempt to pay others back for wrongs they commit against us. But if we forgive, we pay for the wrongs ourselves. And since they are paid for, there is no reason to be angry anymore.
Some of us Christians struggle with anger because we have a weak understanding of God’s grace. We live in the realm of the Law, and think that somehow we must perform in order to be accepted by God. So we expect others to perform up to our perfectionist demands before we extend to them our acceptance. If they fail, we think we have the right to punish them with anger. God has accepted and forgiven us, not on the basis of our performance, but on the basis of His grace.
When we understand the immensity of our sin, and the vastness of His forgiving grace, we will stop trying to exact payment from others for all the petty little ways they fail to meet our expectations. We will be able to forgive, and our anger will dissolve. We shall deal more fully with forgiveness and its place in our relationships with others in a later chapter. But with that brief word, we should be ready for some preventative medicine.
Step number four in resolving our anger is to express our wishes openly. If we want something from those close to us, or feel that we need something from them, we should say so. Don’t play that old game of hide and seek: “If you loved me, you would know what I want.” Say it plainly, whatever it is. “Honey, I would like to go out to eat tonight ...” “It’s important to me that you throw your dirty clothes in the hamper.” “I’d like you to try to greet me cheerfully when I come home from work. It makes my whole day ...” “I want you to say ‘I love you,’ or ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong,’ or ‘Thank you.’”
Sometimes people fail to fulfill our wishes because they really do not know what they are. Some have protested when I have made this suggestion to them: “But I’ve told him a thousand times. It doesn’t mean anything if I have to tell him.” We may have whined, complained, nagged, and accused a thousand times. But that only arouses antagonism and resistance. We need to explain directly, calmly, kindly and lovingly what we want. And there is a difference! Try talking it through, sharing what you would like and why it is important to you.
And incidentally, it would be good if we would go through this whole process before bedtime—admitting our anger, examining its cause, forgiving the failures of the other person and expressing our wishes. Look at it again: “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). Don’t let resentments build up. Talk about the things over which you have gotten angry, and do it before the day is over if at all possible. When we let it linger, it has a way of getting buried in the pile of daily responsibilities and becoming the worm that spoils the relationship.
Maybe we should remind you again that now that you have made your wishes known, you should give others the freedom to fulfill them or not fulfill them. You want that freedom from them, don’t you? So extend the same freedom to them. Refuse to lock them into your expectations and demands, to manipulate them into conforming to your will, or to make them feel guilty if they fail. Commit all your expectations to God and let Him give you back through them the things He wants you to have. The Spirit of God will use that relaxed attitude of submission to help remove anger from your life.
A final suggestion for putting away sinful anger is to seek help from the Lord and from others. This is probably the most important step of all. Talk to God about your anger. Ask Him to give you a clearer understanding of its cause, a greater desire to overcome it, a willingness to forgive others and to yield your expectations to Him. Then invite others to help you overcome it by letting you know when they feel anger coming from you. I have asked my wife to do that, and much to my surprise at the moment, sometimes she does it. It stops me short. But I usually have to admit, “Yes, I am feeling anger right now.” Then I can ask God to help me resolve it, right there on the spot. It works wonders, when I remember to do it!
Anger is the work of the flesh, the old sin nature (see Galatians 5:19-20). It comes naturally. But God wants us to change, and He can help us. “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). Live in God’s presence, depend on His power. Ask Him to make you aware of your anger and help you resolve it. Ask your spouse, your children and your friends to tell you when they sense anger in you, then turn to God for the victory-producing power which He makes available so that anger and wrath will be put away from you, just as God commands.