Controlling Anger

In our study of the book of Ephesians we move now to a subject that has touched most every life in one way or another. We have all been bruised by the angry words of others and we likely have bruised a few people along the way by our own angry words. Anger is a powerful emotion and how we deal with this emotion will impact our relationships, our attitude toward life, and even our witness before a watching world.

The Book of Proverbs has much to say about anger.

  • Psalm 37:8 “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.
  • Proverbs 12:16 A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.
  • Proverbs 12:18 Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
  • Proverbs 16:32 Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.
  • Proverbs 19:19 A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again.

The New Testament tells us to get rid of anger. It says true love is not “easily angered”. James tells us to be slow to anger. With all these commands in mind we may be surprised at this command from the Apostle Paul,

“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.

Good Anger

What makes this passage especially interesting is the fact that it begins with this quote from Psalm 4:4 “In your anger, do not sin.” Paul does not say we should never get angry. Anger is an emotion that has its proper place (like all emotions). Anger in and of itself is not bad. Anger is like a river that is only bad when it escapes its banks or becomes contaminated by poison.

There are times we should be angry. Moses was angry at the sin of the people; the prophets were angry at the obstinacy of the people; Jesus became angry at those who victimized or mislead others; and we are told that God will reveal His just wrath (which is a type of anger). Proper anger is directed at wrong behavior and those who facilitate or encourage wrong behavior. We should be angry at that which destroys others or offends the character or Kingdom of God.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes,

It is a sad reality that we have chosen to simply ignore wrong and sin. In fact, the whole category of “sinful behavior” is being attacked. The only “evil” is that which stands in the way of what I want in my life! This should anger us because it is an offense to God and it is destroying us and those around us! A failure to feel angry at such things is a sign of a pagan society.

Even the former chairman of the Chrysler Corporation, Lee Iacocca, understood this fact. When addressing the graduating class at the University of Michigan, ins 1983 he said:

 I want you to get mad about the current state of affairs. I want you to get so mad that you kick your elders in their figurative posteriors and move America off dead center. Our nation was born when 56 patriots got mad enough to sign the Declaration of Independence. We put a man on the moon because Sputnik made us mad at being No. 2 in space. Getting mad in a constructive way is good for the soul—and the country.[1]

I can hear Paul saying similar words to the church: It is time to get mad enough at the current state of affairs that we actually begin to DO something

Anger is a valuable emotion because it alerts us to a problem that needs to be addressed. We become angry when we feel pushed aside, taken advantage of, or when we see that someone is being inconsiderate or self-absorbed. We get angry when we see destructive things happening in the life of another. We get angry when others are being treated unfairly.

But it is important to note something. Jesus got angry when others were victimized or pushed aside. He was angry when people trampled on the law of God. He was angry in defense of truth. However, He did not get angry when people attacked Him personally. He recognized those attacks as the result of a sinful nature and instead sought to point those people to the Lord.

We have turned that around. We quickly become offended when we believe we have not been treated fairly but have little response when we see evil toward others or disrespect toward God.

Bad Anger

Anger however is a powerful emotion. It is easy for anger to turn sinful. Sinful anger is mean, personally hurtful, or abusive. Sinful anger often results in rage or a loss of control. When anger (or any emotion) controls our life, we are in trouble. Godly anger is always a controlled anger.

People handle anger in several inappropriate ways. First, we suppress anger. We conclude all anger is wrong so we stuff our angry feelings. Unfortunately, the problem not only does not get resolved (so it continues to grind and wear on us), but  anger can only be stuffed for so long before it either explodes (often over something minor), eats us up and destroys us physically or emotionally, or expresses itself in bitterness, a contentious spirit, or a negative attitude.

Others do just the opposite and explode in anger. These people are always “getting things off their chest”. They spew and then they feel better but they give little thought to the collateral damage they do. They assault others with their words and actions and excuse themselves by saying, “this is just the way I am”. They tend to rely on intimidation to get their way. These people do great harm to others and excuse it by saying that they are only being honest.

Alexander the Great was one of the few men in history who seemed to deserve his descriptive title. He was energetic, versatile, and intelligent. Although hatred was not generally part of his nature, several times in his life he was tragically defeated by anger. The story is told of one of these occasions, when a dear friend of Alexander, a general in his army, became intoxicated and began to ridicule the emperor in front of his men. Blinded by anger and quick as lightning, Alexander snatched a spear from the hand of a soldier and hurled it at his friend. Although he had only intended to scare the drunken general, his aim was true and the spear took the life of his childhood friend.

Deep remorse followed his anger. Overcome with guilt, Alexander attempted to take his own life with the same spear, but he was stopped by his men. For days he lay sick, calling for his friend and chiding himself as a murderer.  He had conquered many cities and vanquished many countries, but he had failed miserably to control his own spirit.[2]

Will Rogers said it well: “People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing”.[3]

The third inappropriate way to handle anger is to be passive-aggressive. In this case we find ways to express our anger in more subtle ways that make us feel we are “controlling our anger”. This often comes out through gossip, manipulation, sarcasm, snide comments, a negative outlook or even silence. Passive Aggressive behavior leads us to “punish people” rather than pursue understanding. We snip at each other rather than actually addressing the issue at hand. We feel we are under control but in reality our anger tends to impact every relationship like a poison.

The Reasons We Must Control Anger

Nothing good comes from unproductive anger. Frederick Buechner writes,

Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontation still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back; in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.6

Paul says when we allow anger to control us we are actually inviting the devil into our lives. Anger will give the Devil a foothold. The Devil will use anger to destroy relationships, families, and churches. Someone has said, holding on to anger and bitterness makes as much sense as drinking poison in the hope that it will kill your enemy! Even if you keep your anger hidden from others . . . it will still destroy you!

How Do We Control Anger

Our real question is: How do we control our anger rather than letting it control us? As a fellow traveler on this road let me make a few suggestions that I hope will help us get a handle on this deadly emotion.

Embrace Your Position in Christ. This may be the most helpful aspect of dealing with anger. Much of our anger comes from feeling that we have been treated as if we were insignificant (think about our annoyance at the waitress who doesn’t seem to notice us). We are insecure and afraid of being rejected. In these times we need to remind ourselves of several things

  1. No matter what the world says or does God sees us, knows us, and loves us. We need to remember that we ARE significant in Christ whether or not the world around us recognizes it.
  2. God calls us to be forgiving and loving. That does not mean we have to be a doormat but it should mean that we are always kind and gracious to others. God has told us to leave “evening the score” to Him.
  3. God calls us to a humility that recognizes that we are sinners saved by grace. We too annoy others. We do things that are selfish and myopic. Just as we are people in need of growth and grace, so it is with those who frustrate us.

Be Aware When Anger Begins to Rise The first key to handling anger is to deal with it before it is out of control. Be aware of when your breathing starts getting faster or you start to feel the warmth of flush. Try to recognize your anger when it is at the stage of mild aggravation rather than full scale irritation. This is when we need to take action.

Stop and Consider the Story you are Telling.  Between a person’s act and our response to that act, there is a story that we tell ourselves. It is so quickly told that we are usually unaware of it. We draw conclusions about

  • What the words of a person really mean
  • What body language is saying
  • What their intentions and motives are
  • How that person feels about us.

Let me give you a simple example. If someone says to you, “Wow, you look nice” you can interpret it as someone saying, “You look very nice I would like to get to know you better” or “You look nice…for a change” or “Wow, you actually look nice . . . who knew?” How you interpret those words has a big impact on how you respond to them.

We are always telling ourselves some story; most of the time it is unconscious. We need to understand the story we are telling ourselves. It is of course possible that all the person was doing was making a casual observation that had no overtones at all!

This is what happens when we react negatively to something someone said. When you sense anger beginning to rise, stop and ask what story you are telling yourself. What wrong assumptions are you making (there are always some wrong assumptions). Go back to what was actually said and calmly ask for clarification rather than prejudging the intentions and feelings of another.

Identify the Source of Your Response. It is helpful to ask, “Why am I angry?” The anger that gets us into trouble is always the result of some kind of pain.

  1. Is it hurt? Do you feel rejected, ignored, or pushed aside?
  2. Is it fear? Do you somehow feel threatened? Do you feel something is threatening your marriage, your well-being, or even your job? Do you feel your spouse is threatening you with divorce?
  3. Is it frustration? Are things going differently than you had hoped, planned for, or expected? Is someone responding differently from what you hopes? Sometimes it is a delay, an illness, weather, car problems. These frustrations can lead to anger because our plans have been impacted.

It is much more productive to deal with the cause of our anger than trying to deal with the outburst itself. Once you understand why you are angry you can deal with the real issue behind the anger.

R.C. Sproul illustrates this well,

Think for a moment how you respond to these two comments. Somebody comes up to you and says, ‘I am angry!’ How do you respond to that? Another person comes up to you and says, ‘I am really hurting!’ How do you respond to that? Are the responses the same? I doubt it. [Sproul, The Purpose of God]

In the first case we would become defensive; ready battle. In the second cases we react with compassion. We want to help alleviate the pain. Focus on the pain not the response to it!

Deal with Anger immediately. Paul tells us not to let the sun go down on our anger. The reason for this is that anger tends to burrow deep. The longer we wait the more bitter we become. The more bitter and resentful we are, the less rational we will be in dealing with the anger. The less rational we are the less chance of dealing with our anger effectively.

We must deal with things as quickly as possible. Bring it first to the Lord. Confess your angry, bitter, and revenge-filled feelings. Commit the “offender” to the Lord who died for him/her just as He did for you. With this new attitude we can then go to the person and try to work things out.

Take Responsibility for your Anger and Choose to Release it. It is easy to blame others for our angry outbursts. However, other people do not make us angry. We choose (however unconsciously) to respond to another in anger. There are times when we have legitimately been wronged. We can choose to respond differently. We can ask ourselves: What kind of person do I want to be? Do I want to be one that quickly flies off the handle or one who listens, learns and tries to treat others with kindness and respect? We can ask: What response will leave me a healthy person?

Believe it or not we can choose to release our anger (though we will likely have to make that choice again and again). Dr. Les Carter lists sings that we have released anger.

  • You show a genuine tolerance for others’ flaws or weaknesses
  • You choose to set aside a critical spirit, becoming fair-minded
  • You giving priority to forgiveness (rather than “victory”)
  • You choose kindness, even if others have not earned it
  • You stay out of fruitless debate or discussion
  • You accept the truth that you cannot expect life to give you everything you want
  • You allow another to make a mistake
  • You drop the requirement that others must do what you would like them to do.[4]

Finally, Look for the positive. We have a choice: we can look for a fight or look for a blessing. We can focus on the faults or the gifts that reside in another. Choose to focus on positive things.

We live in an angry world. If we respond to angry people in kind we will simply stoke the fires of hostility. That fire is already hot enough! Controlling anger will enrich our relationships, will allow our families to grow in a healthy way, will enhance our Christian witness, and will also help us to enjoy the journey of life. And who knows? Maybe we can help lead our society toward respect and kindness rather than to hate and violence.

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