(First appeared at SI, Jan. 2012)
They may not be many in number, but they do exist: Christians who are thoroughly confused about anger. During counseling, reading, and sermon-listening, four myths have come to my attention repeatedly. Here’s a brief, non-expert—but hopefully thought-provoking—response.
Myth 1: If you don’t let it out, anger will drive you crazy.
This popular notion probably has its roots in Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud’s million-dollar idea (or at least the pop-psych version of it) was that the human subconscious sort of reroutes “repressed” emotions into psychoses that seem unrelated to their causes. Pent up anger can eventually make you think you’ve been abducted by aliens or that people you know and love are afflicted by a strange disease only you know about and that you have to shoot them to cure them. So, to be healthy, we must express not repress.
This kind of thinking about anger is common in popular film and television. If only the serial killer had openly expressed his anger, he would never have become such a monster. Cue commercial.
Sometimes Christians view anger this way as well. “I just need to vent,” they say.
But if we remove the Freudian assumptions, the idea that it’s healthy to openly express anger looks highly questionable. Is there really a place anger goes to lurk when we’re not feeling it? Certainly our thoughts and beliefs live in memory, but what if anger—and other emotions—really exist only when we’re feeling them?
In any case, if we take an honest, careful look at our own experiences of anger, we find that letting anger loose physically or verbally usually produces more anger, and then more, until an explosion leaves us physically and emotionally exhausted—and not angry anymore. People who indulge anger in this way often believe they’ve done something healthy when, in reality, if they had confronted the angry thoughts earlier in the process, they would have found that the emotion evaporated without any outward expression at all (easier to say than to do, but true, nonetheless).
Some advocates of “venting” nuance the term a bit and recommend physical exercise, etc., as opposed to expressing angry thoughts verbally. In my experience this works, not because anger goes somewhere to be stored, and exercise vents it, but rather because anger exists only as long as angry thoughts are happening to sustain it. Eventually, doing something unrelated breaks our thinking out of the revving-up cycle and the anger fades. This isn’t venting. It’s distraction, and doing crossword puzzles works about as well as beating fists on a punching bag—probably better.
So far, getting ridding of anger by getting rid of angry thoughts has worked far better for me than saying angry thoughts out loud. Sometimes writing angry thoughts helps: putting them down systematically tends to expose how ridiculous most of them are! Before verbalizing angry thoughts, consider Proverbs 12:23 and 18:2.
Myth 2: Anger is always a choice.
One of the sins we sinners are especially good at committing is that of judging others by tough standards and ourselves by far more generous ones. I’ve seen this play out more than once in relationships that aren’t going well. One blames the other for the sin of being angry but takes no responsibility at all for the behavior that provoked the anger. Occasionally the “anger victim” will claim that anger is always “a choice” and, therefore, always a sin.
For this one, I have an authoritative answer. Consider the reasoning evident in Ephesians 6:4.
And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord. (NKJV)
Fathers are instructed here to avoid doing something they are in very real danger of doing: provoking children to wrath. Apparently, anger can be provoked. (See also Prov. 15:1 and 20:2.)
I doubt most of us really need a Bible verse to prove that. We know people “tick us off.” It’s just that sometimes we develop selective amnesia when we’re finding fault with someone for his or her anger, and we fail to take an honest look at what we might be doing to provoke it.
Don’t get me wrong—we’re always in control of whether we stay angry as well as whether we express it (Prov. 16:32, Eph. 4:26). And we are able to choose attitudes that fuel sinful anger or fortify us against it. But others are capable of provoking anger within us that we did not choose, just as surely as they can provoke pain by kicking us in the shins.
So when someone’s angry toward me, my first question shouldn’t be “Why doesn’t he repent of his anger problem?” My first question should be “Have I provoked this anger in some way?” Then I need to take an honest look at my own behavior.
Myth 3: Anger is an evil emotion.
Though few would actually say, “Anger is an evil emotion,” I’ve heard sermons, read pamphlets and listened to conversations that clearly assumed this to be the case. And it isn’t hard to see why some might take this view.
Scripture is full of negative statements about anger. The first recorded case of human anger results in murder (Gen. 4:5-6). Psalm 37:8 tells us plainly to “cease from anger and forsake wrath” (NKJV). And James (1:20) tells us plainly that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
But we know that isn’t the whole story. The Bible is also clear that God Himself is angry “every day” (Psalm 7:11) and that this rage toward sin and sinners is a vital part of His moral excellence. He is “a just judge” (also Psalm 7:11). If godliness consists of being God-like in character, it follows that a person who is never angry is not godly.
Don’t we all feel some anger that we believe is not only defensible but also virtuous? Sometimes we’re right about that. Surely, Moses wasn’t wrong to be angry in response to his people’s idolatry (Exod. 32:19). Who would fault Jacob for being angry when Laban swindled him (Gen. 31:6)? It seems to be Nehemiah’s moral compass that produced his outrage toward the actions and attitudes of the Jerusalem nobles (Neh. 5:6). Jesus Himself was angry in Mark 3:5, and probably on several other occasions (perhaps John 2:15-17, Luke 4:8, Matt. 23:13-36).
On one occasion the Holy Spirit stirred up someone’s anger (Saul: 1 Samuel 11:6).
Christians rightly reject the idea that anger evolved in humans because it increased our odds of survival against saber tooth tigers or hostile cave mates. Rather, God gave us the capacity for anger because it serves an important purpose. Though anger often arises from a false sense that our rights have been violated, and often leads to foolish actions, it’s also God’s gift to help us overcome fear and put up a fight (as when we’re attacked by a dog, thief, or enemy army) or take action in response to injustice.
Myth 4: I don’t have anger problems.
Occasionally, I encounter a believer who absolutely never throws things, shakes his or her fist in rage or even shouts. Because these saints never let loose outwardly, they tend to assume that they have no anger problems.
Perhaps they have a point. Surely we do not all experience the same temptations. I’ve never been tempted (so far) to get drunk or gamble. But it’s a bit hasty to conclude that if we never throw fits we don’t have anger problems. For some, anger is a constant, slow simmer. Though they don’t boil over, they are continually thinking angry thoughts, feeling the attendant emotion, and expressing that anger in subtle ways—a quickness to take offense, a continual flow of criticism, a haste to make harsh judgments. Anyone who constantly broods on others’ offenses against him or her has anger problems.
Naomi comes to mind as a possible biblical example (Ruth 1:19-20).
Now the two of them went until they came to Bethlehem. And it happened, when they had come to Bethlehem, that all the city was excited because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”
Perhaps Naomi was just a damaged woman struggling with a deeply painful series of losses. Perhaps she was an angry woman “quietly” lashing out at those around her. The point is that sinful anger can be a problem even for those who never lose their tempers.
An enduring truth
Is it possible to be angry and intensely thankful at the same time? At best, it seems one of the two has to swap briefly to the back burner. The truth that most consistently rebukes me when I’m wrongfully angry is this:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess. 5:16–18).