I regretted it instantly. As soon as the baseball bat flew out of my hand, I knew I had lost control once again. But to be honest, I did not care. I was angry. I do not even remember why I was angry, but I do remember seeing the hole in the door at the end of the hallway for years to come. A hole that was both a testimony and monument to my quick temper.
I was not a particularly angry child, but much like the Hulk (minus the big muscles) I could transform instantly into a ragging maniac. I broke toys. I broke windows. I broke walls. And I broke relationships. In my family we often joke about the “Willoughby temper” and I used that joke as an excuse for my for my “uncontrollable temper.”
I wish I could say all that changed in the summer of 2000 when I was saved by Jesus Christ. To be sure, I was changed. I did not blow up like I used to. I did not get angry about the same things that used to set me off. My quick temper became much longer. I had more peace and patience than I ever experienced. But the anger was still there and will probably be there as long as I walk on this earth.
However, that does not mean I resigned myself to being angry or to the occasionally angry outburst. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” By God’s grace I believe I – as well as all believers – can begin to put off the anger, wrath, and malice of the old self and put on the kindness, patience, and peace that comes with new life in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:22-32).
So how do believers go about putting off their anger? While I am by no means an expert – in theory or practice – I share my journey of understanding and addressing anger in the hopes of helping others along their own journey.
The first step on my journey was to develop a definition of anger. Robert Jones offers a fairly comprehensive definition of anger in Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem, “Anger is a whole-personed active response of negative moral judgment against perceived evil.” While that may sound like academic gibberish, Root taps into four realities of anger.
- Anger is an action. Anger is not something inside of us. Anger is an action, it is something we do.
- Anger is all-encompassing. Anger is not merely an emotion we feel, but also affects and is affected by our thoughts and beliefs.
- Anger is a response. Anger arises from our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. As a result, anger is not caused by external stimuli (i.e. a car breaking down, a failed project, or comments from a friend), though it may be provoked by external stimuli.
- Anger is a judgement. Anger is our judgement that something is morally wrong.
The second step along my journey was to better understand anger. Is anger always wrong? Can anger be right? After all, the Bible says that both God and Jesus were angry (Zechariah 10:3, Mark 3:5). The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:26, “in your anger do not sin.” So then, this must mean there is both sinful (bad) anger and non-sinful (good) anger, right?
In my search I discovered there is both righteous and unrighteous anger. Throughout Scripture we see that God and Jesus’ anger was always righteous anger, while man’s anger is often unrighteous. This is why the Bible continually warns against anger. But what makes anger righteous or unrighteous?
The dividing line between righteous anger and unrighteous anger is found in the thoughts, beliefs, and actions that accompany anger. In order for anger to be righteous all three must align with Scripture. If just one of those three is out of alignment then our anger has moved from righteous to unrighteous. Let me give you some examples.
If I see someone being abused, I will get angry. I will think about what abuse is and how it affects others which will cause me to believe certain things about abuse, namely that abuse is morally wrong (a judgment). Now, because I believe abuse is bad, I will act by calling the proper authorities and doing what I can before they arrive to stop the abuse. In this scenario, I have right thoughts, beliefs, and actions; therefore, my anger is righteous.
Let’s say, instead of calling the proper authorities, I take a knife and start stabbing the abuser repeatedly. Now, I have still thought about abuse rightly, believed rightly, but the action I took is not right. Therefore, my anger is not righteous anger, but unrighteous anger.
Or imagine if I merely “felt angry” but did not act. Instead, I just watched and “felt angry.” Once again, that anger would be unrighteous because I did not rightly respond.
Let’s look at one more option. Imagine if, instead of being provoked to action because I judged abuse to be wrong, I responded to the abuse because it was ruining my night. Even if I thought about abuse rightly and even acted rightly, my belief or judgment about abuse was wrong. A pleasant evening was a greater wrong than abuse; therefore, my anger would still be unrighteous.
The righteousness or unrighteousness of anger is determined by thinking Biblically, believing Biblically, and acting Biblically. While anger can be righteous, we need to realize there are many off-ramps from righteous anger to unrighteous anger. So, we must never underestimate our ability to be unrighteously angry. It is always tempting to think our anger is righteous. The truth is that because we are human our anger will always have a hint of unrighteousness within it. Therefore, a key element in dealing with anger is acknowledging that, most of the time, our anger is unrighteous anger.
THE SOURCE OF ANGER
The third step along my journey was to discover the source of anger. If anger is not caused by some external stimuli, then what is the true cause of anger? To answer this question, I turned to James 4:1-3, What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
In these verses, James identifies four sources of anger.
- Competing Desires (v. 1). For example, a dad may get angry when he has a meeting at work and a child’s soccer game scheduled at the same time.
- Unmet Desires (v. 2). A teenage boy who desires to be a starter on the football team may get angry if the coach decides not to start him for the next game.
- Desire Met in Another (v. 2). A recent college graduate who desires to be married, may get angry when her friend becomes engaged.
- Selfish Desires (v. 3). If two friends agreed to go to a concert together, but one friend had to back out at the last minute because of a sick family member; the other friend may become angry because they do not want to go to the concert alone.
The key word in understanding the source of anger is desire. All anger is occasioned because of our desires. Though these desires may be good, if they are acted upon in a wrong way, then our anger is unrighteous and sinful.
HELP WITH ANGER
The last step along my journey was to find practical help in controlling my anger. There are hundreds or maybe even thousands of tips and tricks for controlling anger. Some of these may be helpful and good in helping to control outbursts of anger in the short term, but the majority of these focus solely on the symptoms of anger rather than its roots. This is why the previous three sections are so important (if you skipped them to get to practical nitty-gritty, please go back and read those sections).
To find help, I turned once again to James 4 to see if James had any practical help in confronting and controlling anger. While James 4:1-3 helps us identify the source of our anger, verses 7-12 provides us with four practical steps to help us address our anger.
FOCUS ON GOD (VERSES 7-8)
James writes, “Submit yourselves therefore to God . . . draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” In other words, James instructs us to put our focus on the Lord.
How do we submit to God? We submit through obedience which is only made possible through God’s Word. We need to study what God says about our anger, our situation, and our response. As we read what God has to say about each, we submit to Him through obedience.
How do we draw near to God? We draw near through prayer. When we get angry we need to stop and ask God for His help. Remember, God offers a way of escape in every temptation. Often, if we will stop and ask God for help, He will lead us to the way of escape.
CONFESS AND REPENT OF ANY UNRIGHTEOUS ANGER (VERSE 8)
James goes on to say, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts.” As stated above, there is almost always some aspect of unrighteousness in our anger. Therefore, we need to search our minds, hearts, and actions to discover any unrighteous aspects of our anger. This is a process of both discovery and acknowledgement. If we fail to confess the sinfulness within our anger, then we cannot receive God’s forgiveness and power to overcome anger. This is the first step in cleaning our hands and purifying our hearts.
The second step is to repent. Not only must we acknowledge the sinfulness of our anger, we must also turn from it. If we confess we are angry, but do not give up our anger our hands and heart are still dirty. I cannot say what repentance from anger will look like for you, but I can tell you what it often looks like in my own life. Typically, repentance from anger in my own life involves (1) asking the person with whom I am angry for forgiveness for being angry at them, (2) making a conscience choice to let go of the anger, and (3) doing good to the one with whom I was angry. These actions are never easy, but they have had a powerful effect in addressing my own anger.
RESPOND IN HUMILITY (VERSE 10)
James writes, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Pride often tags along with anger. There has been a real or perceived wrong. A real or perceived wrong that we would never dare commit (or so we believe). Our pride then begins to demand justice and retribution. But, what if we set aside our pride and considered the other person. Did the other person mean to act wrongly? Might we have acted in the same way if we were in the same situation? Are we more angry because we were offended or because God was offended? Often, if we will humble ourselves and consider things from the other person’s perspective, we will find our sinful anger will subside.
RESPOND IN KINDNESS (VERSE 11-12)
James finishes this section by saying, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.” It is easy to lash out at those with whom we are angry. It is easy to slander others. In fact, it feels good. However, it only feels good for a moment. It does not solve any problems. It does not make your anger go away. In fact, it often intensifies the problem and the anger. I have learned that if I respond with a kind word or deed, it often eases my anger and deescalates the problem. That is not to say the other person responds in the way I would like them to, but that cannot be the goal in learning to control my anger. My task is to work to discipline myself through the grace and empowerment of the Holy Spirit to control my anger. Responding with kindness not only helps me learn to control my anger, but it also gives me an opportunity to practice obedience to Christ’s command to “do good to those who hate you (Luke 6:27).”
As you learn more about your anger and walk through each of these four steps, I pray God would give you the grace and wisdom to put off unrighteous anger and walk in the kindness, patience, and peace of the new life found in Jesus Christ alone.
All Scriptures: The Holy Bible : English Standard Version
(Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001).
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