Good and Angry: Four Anger Myths

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 and of whether we throw a fit (Prov. 16:32, Eph. 4:26). But we are capable of truly provoking anger in others, just as surely as we can “provoke” pain by kicking them 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 sometimes feel 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 human beings due the way it increased our odds of survival against the attacks saber tooth tigers—or hostile cave mates. The truth is that 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, or a mugger, or an enemy army) or to move us to 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. It’s true that we don’t all experience the same temptations. I’ve never been tempted 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 does have 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

I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to be angry and passionately thankful at the same time. At the very least, 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).

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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There are 8 Comments

JG's picture

#1 Venting our anger is abandoning self-control, in violation of many Scriptural commands. Very well stated.

#2 Not so obvious to me. Ephesians 6 is closely linked to Colossians 3, and Colossians 3:21 has similar wording to Ephesians 6:4. Yet, Colossians 3:21 uses a word that is also used in II Cor. 9:2, where those who are being "provoked" are obviously making a choice (a positive one, but still a choice). I don't believe that we can use this caution to fathers as indicating the children have no choice in their response. Nor do I think the other passages necessarily imply a lack of choice in whether or not there is anger in response to the wrongdoing being described. I would say that you may be correct about this, but I am doubtful that the Scriptures cited prove it.

Dick Dayton's picture

Paul quotes from two psalms when he wrote, "Be angry, and do not sin." Anger is an emotion with a tremendous amount of energy. Instead of using that energy for selfish or destructive purposes, we need to let the Lord direct our energies toward a Biblical response to what angers us.
I am reminded of God's challenge to Jonah, "Do you do well to be angry ?" When I think of that, I must ask myself, "Why am I angry ?" Is it because my personal space has been invaded, my personal plans are interrupted, and my personal desires are thwarted, or is because the honor of God is besmirched and other people are being treated unjustly.
In Philippi, Paul and Silas were treated badly, and their civil rights as Roman citizens were violated. At midnight, they sang praises to God and prayed. The net result was a strengthening of the new church plant.
Paul wrote that same church to say the things that had happened in his life, rather than restricting the spread of the gospel, had been used of the Lord to increase its effectiveness.
Anger is emotional dynamite. Let us use it under the Lord's control for His glory and for constructive work, not to destroy.
Remember that "The wrath of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God"

Dick Dayton

dmicah's picture

thoughtful and pastoral. thanks Aaron.
Paul Tripp has some good thoughts on this topic as well.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

JG, I think you might be seeing a broader assertion than I intended there.
The Ephesian warning that fathers should not provoke their children is solid evidence of two things:
1) Anger is provokable (this should be kind of obvious anyway)
2) That provokers can be responsible for provoking anger.

Proverbs 15:1 and 20:2 corroborate. Grievous words provoke anger. A person who provokes the anger of the king is responsible for doing so.

So there are three propositions here. The two above and a third: that we sometimes feel anger we did not choose to feel.
This idea is one I believe mostly by experience but also by reasoning from common knowledge.

Second argument first: I think it's probably common knowledge that when we see something sad, we spontaneously feel sadness without making any choice to feel that way. Similarly, when someone tells us a joke or something funny happens, we don't decide to feel mirth. When we have a close call in traffic and nearly get creamed, we don't decide to feel fear.
Notice a pattern here? My argument, explicitly, is this:
- Emotions commonly come upon us unbidden
- Anger is an emotion
- Anger sometimes comes upon us unbidden

(Of course, what's also common knowledge--probably--is that things we think produce emotional responses. I can call up a memory of some sad event and soon feel sadness. I can remember something funny and feel mirth. Etc. I expect that this is also true of anger--and certainly, in my own experience brooding on what I've called "angry thoughts" here produced feelings of anger.)

First argument: in my own experience, I've often felt anger I did not want to feel or choose to feel--indeed had to wrestle a great deal to stop feeling.

The idea that anger is sometimes not a choice is certainly consistent with passages I referred to. (I think the fact that these verses put the responsibility where they do makes them more than merely "consistent with" the idea.)

JG's picture

Let's put aside the question of anger, and look at "causing a brother to offend/stumble."

Romans 14:13-15 says you can destroy your brother -- yet verse 12 says we all give account of ourselves. In I Corinthians 8:13 it suggests that we can "make" our brother "offend." Yet, the clear teaching of Scripture is that our brother is responsible for his own actions. Thus, I view these as referring to sharing in the guilt of our brother's fall if we have put a stumbling-block in his way. In other words, we've strongly tempted him, and while he is responsible, and makes his own decision to sin, we share the guilt as well. In fact, if he responds rightly and doesn't stumble, we are just as guilty in our own wrongdoing as if he did.

I would suggest that the "provoke" verses are no different. I don't think they say anything about the response of the person who is being tempted, whether he is choosing or a helpless recipient of an emotion which has been imposed upon him. Those verses are talking about the actions of the tempter, no more and no less.

Therefore, I don't think they are saying what you are suggesting. That is not to say I think your conclusion on #2 is wrong, and your argument from personal experience, which most of us will have shared to some degree, is actually quite strong. I can think of no Scripture that really speaks to this question clearly. When you have nearly universal common experience, with emotions generally and with anger specifically, I believe you are looking at general revelation.

The only real hesitation I have is that we can train ourselves to respond in certain ways. In other words, you may not choose to be angry this time, but perhaps you've chosen a lifetime of thought patterns that exalt emotions, that yields to them rather than controls them, you've chosen a continual mindset of proud thoughts which results in frequent "offenses" against you, etc. It's like the person who looks at pornography and engages in all kinds of perversions, and he begans to have homosexual desires, and then says, "But I didn't choose to feel this way." Well, no, maybe you didn't, but look at what you DID choose, and this is where it led.

I think we are probably a lot more responsible for "choosing" our emotions (all of them) than we like to admit. That is not to dispute your point #2, but rather to temper it. I think the point probably is sound (even if I don't think your Scriptural basis for it is).

Thoughts?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

JG wrote:
The only real hesitation I have is that we can train ourselves to respond in certain ways. In other words, you may not choose to be angry this time, but perhaps you've chosen a lifetime of thought patterns that exalt emotions, that yields to them rather than controls them, you've chosen a continual mindset of proud thoughts which results in frequent "offenses" against you, etc.

Yes... and an important point I wish I'd thought of in the article.
Though I may not have chosen to feel angry, sad, etc. in response to a particular event, there's no question that things I do between "events" put me in a place to be more likely to respond one way or another. Some lose the normal sense of empathy due to exposure to a great deal of suffering (or vicarious exposure in the form of graphically violent forms of entertainment.)

And I agree as well that assigning responsibility to provokers does not necessarily reduce the responsibility of responders.

I remain convinced that anger is not all that special as far as emotions go... and works like the others. There are two sets of triggers: thoughts we are choosing to ponder and experiences that trigger the emotions spontaneously.
But it's probably true that for all of the "emotions" (whatever exactly they are), there's a third factor that is not exactly a "trigger" -- what sort of condition of heart/soul/affections we've nurtured in ourselves.

JG's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
I remain convinced that anger is not all that special as far as emotions go... and works like the others. There are two sets of triggers: thoughts we are choosing to ponder and experiences that trigger the emotions spontaneously.

But it's probably true that for all of the "emotions" (whatever exactly they are), there's a third factor that is not exactly a "trigger" -- what sort of condition of heart/soul/affections we've nurtured in ourselves.


I suppose you'd have to answer that "whatever exactly they are" to decide whether anger is different from other emotions, or whether is an emotion, or is only an emotion. If we look at love, as defined Biblically, it is more what you do than what you feel, but most people would say love is an emotion. And they are probably right -- it is an emotion as well as other things.

I don't have any good answers on that, so I'll quit rambling.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

We do suffer from a lot of language ambiguity when we talk about "emotions." Love is probably the worst case of language deficit. We need about ten different words for what we call "love" in normal discourse. We've actually got several of those words but people do not have a shared understanding of the value of using them precisely so... lots of ambiguity.
I love my dog.
I love the sound of a toddler laughing.
I love tea in the morning.
I love my wife and children.
I'd love to have a vacation about now.
I love you; I can't live without you.
... and those are just some of the affectional ideas. Then you have "love in deed and not in word" etc.

Some are pretty insistent that we have to understand emotions by the Greek model... so they want to call some of these things "appetites." I'm not sure they're wrong, but I'm not yet convinced that this solves anything. You still have to figure out what criteria you are going to use to classify a set of strong feelings as "appetite."

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