Chapter 3

The Root of Selfish Anger

A couple sat at opposite ends of the couch in my office. “He just sits in front of the TV and watches sports. When I try to talk to him, he never hears me,” she fumed. “I might as well be a million miles away. Then, when he comes to bed he wants sex. Of all the nerve! He makes me so mad I could just scream!”

This wife’s anger seems to come from a source outside of herself—namely, her husband. At first blush, we might agree. But are we merely reactors to our environment? What kinds of things affect us?

External Sources of Anger

Generally, we see the cause of our anger as something outside of ourselves. We feel we’re merely reacting to external stimuli. “After all,” we reason, “if we hadn’t have been treated so poorly, we wouldn’t have gotten angry.” External factors do affect us.

People Are Selfish. Whether we 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.

Life Is Unfair. Have you ever asked, “Why don’t I ever get a break? I work just as hard as the next guy—maybe harder. So why does he get the promotion and I don’t? Other people seem to get all the breaks.”

Life Is Hard. Does it seem as if your life is cursed at times? The truth is, it is! We are living under a curse. Life is difficult. It’s filled with thorns and thistles. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble”(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 that the real source of anger is internal rather than external.

Internal Sources of Anger

Our anger is often caused by our realization that we are not getting what we want when we want it. Like an infant feeling the hunger pangs of an empty tummy and demanding food, we too feel the pain of disappointed desires.

In James 4:1–3 we are 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 desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because 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.

Desire. The desires at war within us fuel our conflicts. We want something that matters to us. Something gets in our way and prevents us from getting it. And we get angry.

God created us with the desire for love and respect, and with a longing to be enjoyed and to know that we matter. All of the lesser desires for a car, a raise, a nicer house, a spouse, a child, or better health are linked to these core desires for love and relationship. Ultimately, the desires that do battle within us are those things we believe we must have to survive.

Take Bill, for example. He wants a new car because he thinks he needs it to feel successful as a businessman. He asks God for it. He finds a nice sporty red one. He’s excited. He applies for a loan and gets turned down because he doesn’t make enough money. So he asks for a raise, but his boss says no. Bill feels angry with his boss, the bank, and himself because his goal of getting that car has been blocked. Disappointment is appropriate. But Bill’s anger indicates that the car meant more to him than it should have.

But 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 optimum circumstances.

Fear. The fear that grips our hearts grows out of a lack of faith and confidence that God is really who he says he is. Our painful experiences reinforce our misguided belief that no one, including God himself, has enough goodness and strength to provide the 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 to get what we want. When we do, we become idolaters. Since we can’t control God, we fashion a god of our own making that we think we can control. We become like Cain: angry rebels who hate God.

Rebellion. It’s a vicious cycle. In our angry rebellion against God, we look to others to provide what only God can supply—security in an insecure world. But now that we’re in charge, we feel less secure. We fear we don’t have what it takes to make it on our own. 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 fail to cooperate with our agenda, we become enraged with them because they are a threat to our fragile sense of security. Then we get angry with ourselves because we feel weak in needing anybody.

To compensate for our fear of what others might do to us if they really knew how insecure and desperate we are, we make angry demands of them in hopes that we can intimidate them into cooperating with us.

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 give rise to angry battles.

James said that having self-indulgent motives is the reason we don’t receive the things we ask from God (james 4:3). Most of what we ask for has nothing to do with a deepening desire to trust God and serve others more effectively. Our desire is not to let God meet our heart’s desire in his way and timing, but rather to have something of his creation that we think is necessary for our well-being. When obstacles block 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. We believe that a world under our control is safer than a world under his control. But God is not interested in encouraging that illusion.

Asking God to meet our needs is one thing. But when our desires become demands, we change from dependent children into arrogant rebels.

The solution for our anger requires a growing confidence in the presence and promises of One we cannot see. Through the disappointments, losses, and frustrations of life we must learn that our well-being lies not in our demands but in his loving and capable hands.



  1. What unmet desire in you might be fueling anger?
  2. Is there something you’re afraid to think about or feel that anger helps you to avoid?
  3. What does erupting in anger suggest about a need to be in control? Has there been a time you have felt so helpless and out of control that you might use anger to keep from ever feeling like you’re losing control?
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