Anger, rarely does a day go by that all of us don’t feel some kind of anger. This is why it’s extremely important for us to talk about our anger, what it is, what it does for us, where it comes from, and how we can actually learn to handle it in a constructive manner instead of a destructive one.
What is Anger?
To begin with, anger simply is one of our most basic human emotions. No matter what one might profess, everyone does get angry.
Most of the time, anger is a hostile emotion that often sets people against one another, or even against themselves. By its nature, anger involves antagonism.
Anger is a lot easier to define than it is to identify. Our emotions can take on a variety of different faces. Expressions of anger range from the overt, in-your-face brand of open hostility to the cool indifference of a silent stare.
Sometimes it can feel like an inner fire. It hits you in the gut. You see red and feel hot and sweaty. Your stomach churns, your blood pressure rises, and your breathing rate can increassays On the outside, your body responds to the internal activity with a flushed appearance. You might perspire, your nostrils may flare, and your jaw tightens.
On the other hand, anger can be experienced as compliance on the outside while resentment and hostility run just under the surface. The silent withdrawal and lack of involvement of a spouse is often an indication that one is angrily punishing the other for not doing things their way.
Because anger is so very common to the human experience, and because it is such a threat to most relationships, it’s not surprising that the Bible has a lot of say about the dangers, roots, and taming of anger.
The Bible shows the destructive potential of anger. There are several Old Testament Hebrew terms that provide word pictures of human anger. One word describes the face of an angry person, with nostrils flared (Gen. 39:19, Ex. 4:14). Another talks of anger as a burning emotion once ignited burns furiously hot (Ex. 22:24; 32: 10-12). Another word speaks of anger as an outburst of fury that burns, overflows, and consumes everything in its path like a molten wall of lava (Ezek. 22:21, 31). It’s not surprising then, that several passages of the Bible urge us to get rid of any kind of bitterness, rage, or anger (Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8)
The Bible, however, does not always paint a negative picture of anger. words like anger, rage, wrath, and fury refer to the anger and wrath of God. These passages, which speak of God’s own anger with His enemies, or even with His own people, far outnumber those that tell us to avoid anger.
The Bible shows us that anger is neither right nor wrong until there is a motive behind it. Anger can be productive and loving, just as it can be destructive and selfish.
Destructive, Selfish Anger
This is the kind of anger that moves a person to do harm to themselves or to others is selfish anger. It’s the kind of anger that destroys instead of building up.
The first mention of this type of anger in the Bible shows its potential to kill. Genesis 4 tells us the story of Cain and Abel. Both men brought sacrifices to God that reflected their individual occupations. But only Abel brought a sacrifice that truly pleased the Lord. This angered Cain.
God came to Cain and tried to help him deal with his seething rage toward Him. God made it clear that He desired to accept Cain, but that he had to come on God’s terms and not on his own terms.
Cain had to make a choice about how he was going to deal with his anger. His pride was wounded. He was hurt and angry that God would not accept the fruit of his labor the way God accepted the fruit of Abel’s work. But God still gave him an opportunity to deal with his emotions. The older brother could have repented and offered the sacrifice. But Cain stubbornly refused to place himself in the protective care of God. Instead, he was determined to take matters into his own hands.
Knowing that he was powerless to lash out directly at God so Cain pounced on the one with whom God was pleased, Abel. Cain brutally murdered his brother in cold blood. His heart had become so hardened that when God came to him and inquired about the whereabouts of his brother, Cain snidely remarked, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” It was because of his determination to harden his heart and murder his own brother that God cursed Cain to be a wanderer on the earth.
But instead of accepting God’s curse on him and being a wanderer, he again defied God and built a city. Cain is a prime example of a man angrily protecting and providing for himself instead of humbling himself under the mighty, all-sufficient hand of God.
Cain’s mistake should remind us that anger rooted in self-centered efforts to care for ourselves never works. Such anger seeks to destroy, not build. It is a consuming passion that devours anything in its path.
Man’s anger is far different from the godly anger that is good, constructive, and loving.
Productive, Loving Anger
A lot of people have the belief that the Bible teaches us that all anger is sinful. With that assumption in mind, we often will misinterpret Ephesians 4:26 to say, “Don’t be angry, because it’s sin. Don’t let the sun go down while you’re still angry.” But the text doesn’t say that.
The actual wording of Ephesians 4:26-27 does not support the assumption that anger in and of itself is sinful. The four verbs that are found in these verses make the translation a lot more clear. Paul commands us to “be angry.” But he doesn’t stop there. This is by no means a wholesale endorsement of indiscriminate anger. The first command is qualified by the three prohibitions that follow:
Be Angry – God knows that anger is an important and necessary emotion for a healthy person living in a fallen and broken world. Being honest about our anger is something we can’t avoid. The command is this: Be angry about how your sin harms you and others, and how others’ sin harms them and you. Ephesians recognizes that there is a thing such as Christian anger, and too few Christians either feel or express it. When we fail to do so, we deny God, damage ourselves, and encourage the spread of evil.
Paul understood the potential for devasting harm that can come from unbridled rage. That is his reason for giving three qualifying prohibitions that follow this call to be angry.
Don’t Sin – The command is not to avoid anger, but to avoid sinful anger. If we don’t keep antagonistic emotions on a tight leash, they will cease to be useful in restraining sin, and instead will begin to multiply it. Anber that is stirred up by a bad conscience enables us to deny the truth, twist it, and say all kinds of unloving things about others. Our anger can grieve the Holy Spirit, and if we resist His gentle prodding our anger can degenerate into the sin of bitterness.
Don’t Nurse Anger – “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” This commands us to deal with our anger as soon as we are aware of it. Don’t stuff it inside and brood over it. It will only fester. Let the truth burn away your selfish rage before it grows and deepens and hardens. We are commanded to deal with anger promptly so that we will avoid undue relational hardship.
Don’t Give Satan An Edge – “Do not give the devil a foothold.” This reflects a progression in Paul’s series of commands. Satan knows how to exploit anger that is selfish. Once he has us nursing and justifying our selfish anger, he knows we are not far from hatred, a refusal to forgive, and violence.
There is a fine line between anger that is loving and anger. Complete avoidance of anger is another way of giving Satan an edge. Unfortunately, many of us avoid anger at all costs because they have experienced the volatile emotion of anger that is terrifying to deal with.
We play right into the devil’s hands not only when we follow our anger into sin, but when we allow sinful self-protection to keep us from obeying God’s command, “In your anger do not sin.” Few occasions give our enemy more freedom than when the children of God fail to love enough to be angry.
Righteous anger in a compassionate person can be very productive for the well-being of others.
What Angers God?
While God is slow to anger, there is much that His love causes Him to hate and despise and punish.
He is slowly but surely angered by those who repeatedly ale choices that rob Him of the honor He deserves.
God is slowly it surely angered by our stubborn refusal to live by faith, apart from which we can’t please Him. Our commitment to live by sight is an affront to the One who invites us to trust in Him. It is in our willingness to live by faith that He is honored and glorified.
God’s anger burned against Moses when he at first refused to accept God’s plan for him to lead Israel out of Egypt. God was angry with those who took advantage of widows and orphans, with those who were against His people and with idolatrous people who chose idols over Him.
In Matthew 23, Jesus displayed His Father’s anger against the hypocritical Pharisees. He was angry with them for their meticulous attention to things that really didn’t matter to God while blatantly neglecting the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He called them “snakes” and “a brood of vipers” warning them that unless there was an inner change of heart they would not escape hell. Now that’s righteous anger!
All of us should be angered by the things that anger God. If God hates sin His people should hate it too. If evil arouses His anger, it should arouse ours also.
God’s anger is not an aberration of love but an extension of His love.
Of course, God is angered by our individual sins, but He is patient with us. He is more enraged with those whose consistent pattern of living is one of rebellion and coldhearted disobedience.
The root problem is in the source and function of our anger.
Where Does Selfish Anger Come From?
External Sources of Anger – Generally, we see the cause of our anger as something outside of ourselves. Most of the time we don’t see ourselves as being directly responsible for our anger. External factors do affect us.
People are selfish. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all essentially live for ourselves more often than not. Looking out for number one is as natural as breathing. We’re bent that way because of inherited sin. And if that’s true, we have precious little time left over to look out for each other’s interests the way we are called to do.
Life is unfair. “Why don’t I ever get a break? I work just as hard than the next guy. Someone else always gets the breaks.” Do you ever wonder why you always seem to get the short end of the stick?
Life is hard. Doesn’t it seem as if your life is cursed at times? The truth is, it is! Life is supposed to be difficult. It’s filled with modern day thorns, Jesus said there would be trouble in our lives. (John 16:33)
Although the selfishness of others, the unfairness of life, and living under a curse are all realities to contend with, the Scriptures also teach us that the real source of anger is internal instead of external.
Internal Sources of Anger
Because of our outward focus on external issues, we often fail to see that our anger is caused by our realization that we are not getting what we want when we want it.
Disappointed desires. In James 4: 1-3 we’re told why there is so much angry conflict in our lives:
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
We want something that really matters to us, something gets in our way and prevents us from getting what we want. And we get angry about it.
God has created us with the desire for love and respect, and with a longing to be enjoyed and to know that we matter. The lesser desires for a new car, a raise, nicer house, better health and so on are all linked to the core desires of love and relationship. The desires that battle inside of us are those things we believe we must have to survive in life.
What if our desires are not as trivial as a new car? The body’s demand for rest, the longing for love, the desire for respect, and the hunger to make a difference are indeed legitimate. These are basic longings of the human body and heart. They cry out for satisfaction. But in an imperfect world of self-centered people, even those legitimate desires will never be fully satisfied by the best of relationships or by the best of circumstances. We live in a painful world as hurting people with disappointed desires. And at times we are terrified.
Dreaded fear. The fear that grips our hearts is a fear that grows out of a lack of faith and confidence that God is really who He says He is. The painful experiences of life reinforce the belief that no one, including God Himself, seems to have enough goodness and strength to provide the level of safety and security we desire.
Once we eliminate God from the picture, we must find some way to survive in this world. So we take matters into our own hands and look to others around us to get what we want. And when we do, we become idolators. Because we can’t control God, we fashion a god of our own making that we think we can control.
Determined rebellion. In our angry rebellion against God, we look to others to provide what only God can supply, security in an insecure world. We don’t feel more secure when we’re in charge. So we need others to agree with our plans. But we fear they won’t cooperate and give us what we want. We see other people as having the power to make or break our plans for life. When they block our way, we become enraged with them because they are a threat to our fragile sense of security. We also get angry with ourselves because we feel weak in needing anyone.
Unfulfilled demands. Our angry rebellion against God forces us to demand that others fill in for Him. When others fail us, as they inevitably will, unfulfilled demands gives rise to angry battles.
James said that having self-indulgent motives is the reason we don’t receive the things we ask from God. Most of the time, our desire is not to have our hearts possessed, ruled, and provided for by God, but rather to have something of His creation that we think is necessary for our well-being. When someone or something blocks that desire, anger flares up. Anger hurts less than our fear and helps to dull the pain because it makes us feel more in control. But God is not interested in encouraging the illusion that a world under our control would be safer than a world under His control.
Asking God to meet our needs is one thing, He urges us to bring to Him the desires of our heart. But when those desires, no matter how legitimate, become demands, then we unwittingly change pleading children into arrogant rebels who are against God and out for ourselves.
We must, through the disappointments, losses, and maddening frustrations of life, learn to believe that our well-being lies not in our demands but in His hands.
What Does Our Anger Do for Us?
Most of us would agree much of our anger is wrong and should be avoided. However, if we really do hate our anger as much as we say we do, why do we hang onto it? We cling to it because we fail to recognize the purpose behind our antagonistic strategies. It is what we believe our anger does for us that keeps us hanging on to it.
We nurture our anger because, consciously or unconsciously, we believe it functions for us in these ways
- It protects us from additional pain,.
- It deflects responsibility away from our inadequate love for others.
- It keeps people at a manageable distance to ensure that we don’t risk giving our hearts to others.
Self-protection. Rather than facing pain, we will often choose to be angry because anger is easier to control than pain and disappointment. It’s easier for us to be angry. For instance, it’s easier to tell off your boss than to tell them how much they hurt you.
King Saul’s name is synonymous with such self-protective anger. Behind his anger was his fear. He felt threatened by the military successes and growing fame of David. (1 Sam. 18: 5-9) Saul felt sure that David’s intent was to steal the kingdom. Yet Saul’s real problem was not with his servant but with the Lord. He was told at one point by the prophet Samuel that the Lord had rejected him as king because of his disobedience.
Instead of repenting honestly of his sin and placing himself in the hands of God, Saul adopted a murderous strategy of self-protection. He remained David’s enemy until his death.
Deflection. Anger often shows up when we are caught red-handed in a wrong. Instead of feeling the weight of our sin and accepting responsibility for our actions, we get angry. We use our anger as an offensive weapon against those who expose and shame us. We try to turn the tables on them to get the attention off ourselves.
Distancing. Anger can also be used in an attempt to make sure that others don’t get close enough to discover our weakness. We use barbs of antagonism and intimidation to keep others at a distance.
The self-protective, deflecting, and distancing functions of anger can feel like they are working for us.
What are the Ways We Mishandle Anger?
The problem with most of us is that we are too quickly angered, and that once our anger is ignited it rages more like an untamed forest fire than a campfire. James made it clear that our hot-tempered anger doesn’t accomplish God’s purposes in our lives.
When we take our anger into our own hands, we end up destroying others or ourselves, and usually both.
Repression. We learn early in life that anger is a frightening emotion. So we work to avoid it at all costs. Most often, we just end up pretending we aren’t angry in the hope that it will go away and no one will get hurt. We reason, anger is not socially acceptable in our churches, homes, or workplaces.
Much of the depression that’s suffered by people today is a result of anger. Many depressed people have chosen to shut down and no longer engage with their world because they have discovered that all their best efforts to make life work on their terms have failed.
Those who stuff their anger say that feelings only clutter up their lives and make it too messy. So the best way to handle emotions, especially something as volatile as anger, is to swallow hard and pretend. After a while, they end up feeling nothing at all, neigher pain nor joy. Emotional deadness is applauded as being “emotionally stable.” Eventually, they become mannequin-like automatons who function well but touch no one deeply.
Quick and shallow confession. Very close to repression, this mishandling of anger too quickly and easily says, “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t feel angry. It’s sin and it’s wrong. Please forgive me.” The quick-confession mentality doesn’t want to take the time to understand where the volcanic energy of one’s anger comes from or what it is directed toward.
To assume that we can simply will away an emotion with sheer determination is foolishness. What we need is to explore our anger and expose its roots.
Volcanic expression. While we must learn to express our feelings, such expression must be done with discernment and regard for others. Those who express anger without love are “emotional dumpers.” They back up their truckload of emotional garbage and unload it all over your front lawn.
God never gives us the luxury of expressing our emotions without regard for damages. God and only God alone is in a position to express vengeful judgment. He alone is patient and loving and perfect enough to be able to use anger to give people the punishment they deserve. Not us, and we can’t use our anger in that manner.
How Can We Handle Our Anger in Godly Ways?
First off we need to acknowledge our anger to God. Don’t pretend that you don’t get angry. We all do. Don’t water down your anger by labeling it as “frustration” or “irritation.” Call it what it is. Be honest with yourself, and then with God. He knows anyway. Pour out your heart to Him and tell Him what you are feeling.
Second, we need to learn to get angry slowly. Angry words spoken quickly are usually regretted later. Take time to make sure that you have good reason to be angry. Learn to avoid jumping to unwarranted conclusions. Listen and ask questions. Always second-guess your own reactions.
It’s important to examine your motives. Ask yourself questions like the ones listed here:
- What did I feel angry about today?
- Where is my anger coming from?
- Why did I feel so threatened that I believed my anger was a justifiable defense?
- Why is my anger so intense over something so small?
- Is my anger for the benefit of another or is it directed against another?
- Did my anger further God’s interests or my own interests?
- Did I provoke anger in someone else today?
By asking yourself these probing questions, you will be forced to discern if your anger was characteristic of Jesus’ example of handling anger or more characteristic of Cain or Saul’s handling of anger.
Jesus was secure in His relationship with His Father, the anger He expressed did not reflect quick, touchy, self-protective hostility. Instead, He was angry with the evil that was against His Father’s plan and that which threatened to do harm to people whom He loved. His anger was accompanied by grief, and its expression was shaped by love.
Third, we need to change our beliefs about God. Most of our feelings are based on our deeply held beliefs about where life and security and significance are found. Our anger problem is rooted not in feelings, but in what we believe about God. The challenge here is not to change our feelings but to change our thinking.
All emotions, including anger, are therefore useful to help us track down the real beliefs of our heart. Feelings of rage can be used to trace the roots of that antagonism. We can discern if that anger is rooted in our confidence in Gord or if it is a self-centered response that’s rooted in a selfish spirit demanding that things go our way.
A fourth thing we need to do is confess wrong beliefs and repent. This points to the faulty belief system that fuels our anger. It means repenting of our stubborn commitment to survive in life on our own terms instead of on God’s terms. It means repenting of the angry resentment we have held toward Him for not doing things our way.. It means repenting of our belief that He really isn’t all that good, and that He can’t be trusted. And it means repenting for all the damage our angry demands have inflicted on God and on others.
Repentance also means turning toward something as well. It means a conscious commitment to walk by faith and not by sight, to recklessly abandon ourselves into the loving arms of our heavenly Father. It also means choosing to live by the belief that He does exist, and that He does reward those who diligently seek Him, even when things don’t turn out the way you think they should. It means trusting Him as the only provision for your hungry soul and believing that you have nothing to fear because of your confidence in His abiding goodness and love.
The fifth thing we can do is to place our anger under new management. While what we feel cannot be directly changed, we can change what we believe by surrendering ourselves to the Spirit and Word of God. Under His influence and enablement, we will find our anger increasingly shaped and restrained by a new kind of self-control.
Placing our anger and our well-being in the hands of God will help us better understand this mind of Christ. It will also help us develop a healthy fear of the anger that God reserves for His enemies.
Placing our anger under God’s management will not dissolve and evaporate all anger. But it will free us to express new and godly anger toward the kind of sin in ourselves and others that slowly anger the heart of God.
How we respond to God’s offer will determine our eternal destiny. It will also determine how we work through the more immediate issues of our own anger.