Why do we hang on to our anger? We nurture our anger because we believe it functions for us in these ways: (1) It protects us from additional pain, (2) it deflects responsibility away from our inadequate love for others, and (3) it keeps people at a manageable distance. Let’s look at each of these functions of anger.
Self-protection. Rather than facing our pain by acknowledging our disappointed longings, we choose to be angry because anger is easier to control than pain and disappointment. What we tell others by our anger is, “Don’t expect much from me because I’m too wounded to care about you.” When we expend all our energy protecting ourselves, there’s nothing left to protect others from our failure to love them.
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 a weapon against those who expose and shame us. We try to turn the tables on them to get the attention off ourselves. We try to intimidate them into accepting the message, “I’m not the problem here; you are!”
Distancing. Anger can also be an attempt to make sure that others don’t get close enough to discover our weakness. Like porcupines, we use barbs of antagonism and intimidation to keep others at a distance, protecting the soft flesh of our flaws and insecurities.
Think of the people you find intimidating. Often they use anger to create space for themselves. They may come across as strong and confident. But they can’t afford to allow anyone to get close enough to see their fear or their insecurity.
Dealing with Anger
Ways We Mishandle Anger
Once our anger is ignited it can rage like an untamed forest fire. James made it clear that our hot-tempered anger doesn’t accomplish God’s purposes in our lives: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (james 1:19–20).
Selfish anger directed toward others will lead to murderous activity toward those whom we feel have threatened, hurt, belittled, shamed, or controlled us. Anger directed toward ourselves will fuel suicidal behavior that strips vitality from life. Either way, anger handled our way always results in devastation.
Repression. We learn early in life that anger is a frightening emotion, so we avoid it at all costs. Most often, we end up pretending we are not angry in hopes that it will go away and no one will get hurt. After all, we reason, anger is not socially acceptable.
When a child grows up in a home where she is regularly subjected to angry, demeaning outbursts from her alcoholic father toward her mother, she vows that she will never become like him. So she stuffs her feelings inside and marries a man who is emotionally dead and nonthreatening to her. In later life, this woman may end up depressed because of his lack of meaningful involvement. Her way to try to protect herself fails to bring her the joy she longs for.
Much depression is a result of anger. Many depressed people choose to shut down and no longer engage with their world because they have discovered that all their efforts to make life work on their terms have failed. It seems hopeless.
That’s a description of the prophet Jonah at the end of the Old Testament book bearing his name. He wanted God to destroy the city of Nineveh. Instead, God spared it. Jonah was angry with God. Preoccupied with his own agenda, he completely missed the compassionate heart of God. The prophet’s depression was fueled by his obsession with his own needs, which blinded him to the needs of others (jonah 4:1–10).
Those who stuff their anger inside say that feelings only clutter their lives and make it too messy. So the best way to handle emotions, especially something as volatile as anger, is to pretend. Over time, they end up feeling nothing at all—neither pain nor joy. They may function well but they touch no one deeply.
Shallow Confession. Very close to repression, this mishandling of anger too easily says, “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t feel angry. It’s sin and it’s wrong. Please forgive me.” But the quick-confession mentality doesn’t take the time to understand where our anger comes from or what it is directed toward. We need to explore our anger and expose its roots.
Volcanic Expression. Outbursts of anger are aided by the myth that says, “If you want to be real, you must be honest about your feelings. Don’t hold back.”
While we must learn to express our feelings, it 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 the damage it does.
God alone is in a position to express vengeful judgment. He alone is patient and loving enough to use anger to give people the punishment they deserve. That is why Paul told us, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (romans 12:19). Now that we have seen how not to handle our anger, we can move toward constructive ways of dealing with our anger.
Dealing with Anger
Handling Anger in Godly Ways
Acknowledge Your Anger. 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. Many of the psalms of David begin as a prayer to God expressing his fear and anger.
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. Avoid jumping to conclusions. Listen and ask questions. Second-guess your own reactions. God himself is slow to get angry, and our goal in life is to let him form Christlike characteristics in us.
Use moments of solitude to reflect prayerfully on your anger. Examine your motives. Ask questions like these:
After having wrestled with these questions privately, ask a trusted friend to help you test your thinking. In asking yourself these probing questions, you will be able to discern if your anger was characteristic of Jesus’s example of handling anger. Because Jesus was secure in his relationship with his Father, the anger he expressed did not reflect quick, touchy, self-protective hostility. Rather, he got angry at the evil that opposed his Father’s plan and threatened to do harm to the people he loved.
Change Your Beliefs About God. Most of our feelings are based on 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 according to the New Testament, therefore, is not to change our feelings but to change our thinking. In the awareness of what God has done for us the apostle Paul urged us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (romans 12:2). In time, renewed patterns of thinking will result in changed feelings.
All emotions, including anger, are 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. In the process we can discern if that anger is rooted in our confidence in God or if it is a self-centered response rooted in a selfish spirit demanding that things go our way.
Whether we believe our well-being is in the hands of God, in our circumstances, or in others is a key factor in learning how to deal with anger.
Confession. This is not merely a confession that you had sinful, angry feelings. It goes much deeper, to the faulty belief system that fuels your anger. It means repenting of your stubborn commitment to survive in life on your terms instead of on God’s terms. It means repenting of the angry resentment you have held toward him for not doing things your way. It means repenting of your belief that he really isn’t all that good, and that he can’t be trusted. And it means repenting of all the damage your angry demands have inflicted on God and on others. This will likely involve reaching out to those you’ve harmed with your anger and asking for forgiveness.
But repentance means turning toward something as well. It means a conscious commitment to abandon yourself into the loving arms of your heavenly Father, who delights in giving good gifts to his children. It means choosing to live by the belief that he exists, and that he rewards those who look for 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.
When repentance takes place at that level, our insecurities begin to be replaced with confidence. Angry demands will become repulsive and unnecessary. Anger’s power will weaken as it is replaced with the courage to love the way you have been loved. At that point you can begin to exercise control over your 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 we will find our anger increasingly shaped and restrained by a new kind of self-control.
Because God is slow to anger, we can expect that when our life is under his management we will take on some of the same patient qualities. Because God’s heart was revealed to us in his Son, we can also expect to begin growing in what the Bible calls “the mind of Christ.”
Paul talked about having this mind of Christ when he wrote, “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (philippians 2:3–4). Jesus found his security not in circumstances or strategies of self-protection. Instead, his confidence was in the knowledge that whatever he needed would be provided at just the right moment by his heavenly Father.
Jesus could sacrifice his life for others because he knew his future was not in the hands of those who mocked him and drove spikes into his hands and feet. Their power over him was merely a temporary allowance necessary for him to live and die for those he loved.
Placing our anger under God’s management will not dissolve and evaporate all anger. But it will free us to express a new and godly anger toward the kind of sin in ourselves and others that slowly angers the heart of God.
Trusting our anger and our well-being to 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.
The good news is that by believing the truth about God’s Son and what he did for us on a Roman cross, we can avoid the coming day of God’s judgment. The apostle John wrote, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (john 3:36). The offer is a gift in exchange for belief. It is not a reward for performance. It is pure, undeserved kindness.
How we respond to God determines how we work through the more immediate issues of our anger. But ultimately, how we respond to him will determine our eternal destiny.