Recently, anger overtook me. It wasn’t directed toward a driver who cut me off or an increase in my cable bill. It was much deeper than that, so cavernous I didn’t recognize its depths.
Like an erupting volcano, my anger was not unexpected. The volatile rumblings had been present for months. I had just ignored them.
When my frustration finally reached a critical mass, it came spewing out like a Mount Saint Helen’s ash cloud.
I cried. I screamed. I couldn’t sleep. I pleaded with people and with God. I felt guilty for being angry at all. It was tumultuous.
I thought I could stuff down my own needs. “Keep loving,” I told my people-pleasing self. “This will turn around.” It didn’t.
And so began my search to understand anger—its causes, what the Bible says about anger, and what I should do with it.
During this time, I noticed a playful children’s book at the library, penned by I. M. Angry. I chuckled. Then it got me thinking: How does a child show his anger? He cries, stomps his feet, turns red-faced, or hides in his room. The child’s anger comes out, somehow. It can’t not. It is visceral.
Most adults don’t do that. Somewhere along the line, we have learned that expressions of anger are sinful or inappropriate.
Curious, I Googled Christian advice about anger. I saw it all, like: “Important verses to help you get your anger under control” and “Although there is such a thing as ‘righteous anger,’ most of our anger is unrighteous.” One article offers “love is patient” advice, while another says that “left unresolved, anger creates an intense desire to destroy something.”
So what is the Christian to do?
Turning Over Tables
I decided to look at Jesus. Did he ever get angry? What did he say or do?
The first Bible story that popped to mind is how Jesus braided a whip and drove the money changers out of the temple. He turned over tables, scattering animals and coins. “To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market’” (John 2:16, New International Version).
Imagine behaving this way in a restaurant.
But Jesus didn’t sin. I repeat: Jesus never sinned. So what was this outburst?
It’s called righteous anger. It arises from a conviction of the Holy Spirit, showing us that something is gravely unjust or against God’s perfect will.
Righteous anger poured forth when Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7).
On another occasion, Pharisees criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. He freed a woman from 18 years of suffering. Her back straightened and she praised God!
Yet the synagogue leader chided, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath” (Luke 13:14).
Jesus was incensed. “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:15-16).
At times, anger is necessary to express the intensity of a wrong. It is the voice of a lawyer arguing against abortion in court; the daughter demanding proper nursing home care for her father; or the child who has been bullied by a coach, teacher, or playmate.
The downtrodden need a voice—and it is called righteous anger.
Anger can also arise from unmet needs, such as:
- respect for our feelings and choices
- regard for our possessions
- physical safety
- supportive relationships
The psalmist David had unmet needs. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” he probed in Psalm 43:5.
I asked my soul that question. The answer helped to explain my deep-seated anger. But I knew the anger couldn’t stay—or else it might escalate into resentment, depression, and anxiety.
I started by expressing the anger. That included crying, screaming, and talking with safe people—especially God.
This step is critical. We need to be heard. And if we lack the capacity to deal with our emotions, anger can only escalate.
Jesus said: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matthew 18:15).
I learned this: Telling someone that I am angry with them is not unloving. Holding anger in to spare others from pain or suffering can hurt myself—and deny that other person the opportunity to grow and change.
I used to teach third graders. “I messages” were a pivotal part of the curriculum. Children learned to advocate for themselves, including when they were angry. It went like this:
“I feel ___________ when you ________________________. I need ______________________________.”
This isn’t a bad opening line for angry adults either.
Own it or Let it Go?
I asked God to show me my responsibility in this situation…and repent for it. (I had not valued myself enough, and I was fearful about many things.) I knew I had to change.
I also needed to recognize what was not my fault (such as others’ behaviors or expectations of me). Some of my anger was “righteous anger.” I asked God to work on the issues in people around me.
Next, I had to let go of the anger through forgiveness. God helped me to forgive the offense, bless those involved, and repeat as often as necessary. I also forgave myself. (For more on the forgiveness process, see Recovering from a Broken Romance.)
Let the Dust Settle
The initial steps were exhausting. I needed to rest. It took me three days just to feel like a normal human being again.
Scientists acknowledge that anger causes biochemical changes in the body. Fight or flight responses take over. Cortisol rises. An angry person might have outbursts or totally withdraw.
Through healthy eating, sleep, exercise, counseling, and other self-care methods, the body needs a “reset.” God actually led me on a 10-day “fast”–not from food, but from the situations that triggered my anger–so that I could reset.
Relationships need to reset too. I participated with God as he began to mend the rift caused by anger. This took vulnerability and time for all parties involved. I am happy to say that healing and growth have taken place! It is now four months later, and the things that used to spark anger in me do not push those buttons so readily anymore. I speak up for myself before things get too uncomfortable. I forgive more easily, and I have more compassion for others. God did that.
There is always something to learn following an outburst of anger—and it’s not all about the person we’re angry at. It’s also about ourselves.
Here are my take-aways:
- Forgive as soon as you’re able. Don’t harbor offense against anyone. It’s rotten to the core.
- Address issues with people promptly. Use discernment about the proper way and timing, but don’t hold on to anger, guilt, grudges, or fear.
- When your emotions are too intense to release to other people, release them to God. Let Him come on strong with healing.
- Refrain from addressing what you perceive as character flaws in others. This can seem judgmental and preachy. Instead, address their behaviors.
- Go to the person in love. Think: Where is he/she coming from? (If you’re not ready for this, go back to step 1.)
- Ask, “Did we have a misunderstanding?” Conflict can arise from competing expectations.
- Realize that significant change (in yourself and others) will take time. Be consistent in your expectations from one another. Keep communicating.
- Know your hot buttons. Ask God for more grace when someone pushes them.
- Don’t take responsibility for other people’s moods or poor behavior. Walk away, disengage, and leave them to the Lord.
- Through it all, praise God, “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
Photos (in order, from volcano picture) courtesy of Kaspars Upmanis, Bill Oxford, Christian Erfurt, Stanislav Kondratiev, and Gus Moretta on Unsplash.