What makes you angry? Are they small things, like traffic jams, lines at the grocery store, not being able to find a shoe, a waiter’s mistake, or a friend’s inattention?
Are they big things, like when someone betrays you? Experiences of injustice, meanness, violence, oppression, selfishness, or lying?
How do you deal with your anger? Do you explode? Does everyone around you know when and why you are angry? Or are you more subtle?
Do you get irritated and short with those around you? Do you gossip and complain about your spouse, children, co-workers, and friends? Or maybe you just turn your anger in on yourself and become depressed and bitter.
You might have noticed that you can’t avoid dealing with your anger. Anger is an inevitable response to living in a troubled world where things can and do go wrong all the time.
But if you don’t learn how to deal with your anger, you will constantly hurt others. You will poison your own heart. You will estrange yourself from God. God cares about what makes you angry, and God cares about how you express anger.
Some counselors notice that people get tied up in knots when they hide or stuff their anger. They will tell you to deal with your anger by getting in touch with how you feel and then expressing it. “Get it off your chest. Say exactly what you think. Give ’em a piece of your mind.”
Other counselors have noticed how destructive people become when they express anger. They will counsel you to control your anger. Psychotherapy, medication, exercise, and meditation are just some of the different ways they recommend for defusing your anger and calming yourself down.
So which is it, venting or calming?
Actually, God has a different way for you to deal with your anger. He knows well that stuffing your anger deep inside is destructive. And just learning tricks for keeping calm never discovers the purpose for which God designed anger. Anger needs to be acknowledged and expressed in a positive way, as a form of doing what is good and right.
At the same time, God knows well that venting your anger is destructive. Instead of expressing your anger in ways that hurt those around you, it is possible to express your anger in a way that actually redeems difficult situations and relationships.
How does this happen? It starts with understanding what anger is, where it comes from, and how a right relationship with God will actually change the way you view and express your anger.
What is anger?
Anger is your God-given capacity to respond to a wrong that you think is important. It always expresses two things:
- It identifies something in your world that matters to you.
- It proclaims that you believe that something is wrong.
This could be something as minor as being served a cold cup of coffee at a restaurant. Or it could be something as major as your spouse running off with your best friend.
God also gets angry at things that are wrong in this world. Your capacity to be angry is an expression of being made in His image. So when you get angry, you are not necessarily wrong. But often anger does go wrong.
Wanting a good thing more than God
Sometimes you want good things. It’s not wrong to want your husband to love and listen to you. It’s not wrong to want your children to respect and obey you. It’s not wrong to want your boss to be honest with you. It’s not wrong to want a warm meal and a hot cup of coffee, or to get to your appointment rather than getting stuck in traffic.
But when fulfilling your desires, even for a good thing, becomes more important than anything else, that’s when it changes into a “desire of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). You want it too much.
James, in the letter he wrote to the early church, said this about where wrong anger comes from: “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” (James 4:1-2). When you want anything, even a good thing more than God, you will get angry when you don’t get it or it’s taken away from you.
Responding to a true wrong in the wrong way
And sometimes you are right to be angry because you are experiencing a true wrong. Then the problem is not the fact of getting angry, but how you express that anger. It’s not right for someone to tailgate you, recklessly and aggressively endangering you and your family. It’s not right when your spouse is indifferent or inconsiderate. It’s not right if your boss treats you unfairly or your child refuses to obey. It’s not right when you are abused or attacked.
Anger has been given to us by God as the way to say, “That’s not right and that matters.” In our broken world, you will have many good reasons to be angry. But, because we are part of the broken world, we express our anger at true wrongs in the wrong way. We blow up. We get irritated. We gossip. We complain. We hold a grudge. We shut people out. We get even. We become embittered, cynical, hostile. Something really wrong happened … and we become really wrong in reaction.
Taking God’s place
What’s behind your wrong anger? When you get angry, aren’t you taking God’s place and judging others–and perhaps even judging God? Whether you are angry about something trivial or something serious, your wrong reaction reveals that you are living as if you are in charge of the world and believe you have the right to judge the people around you and the way God is running the world.
When James 4 talks about anger, it goes on to discuss why it’s wrong to judge and criticize others: “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12). God alone has the right to pass final judgment.
Think about when you get angry. Aren’t you insisting, “My will be done; my kingdom come”? And when things don’t go your way, don’t you judge those (including God) who are not doing what you want, as if you were God? You aren’t, but when you are angry, you often act as if you were.
Because your wrong anger has to do with your relationship with God, you can’t deal with it by learning a few strategies or techniques. Wrong anger creates a big problem between you and God. He doesn’t like upstarts who try to take over His universe.
Your anger is not just about you and all the frustrating things that happen to you. It’s not just about you and your cranky, oppositional personality. And it’s not just about you and all the unreasonable people in your life. It’s about you, those frustrating circumstances, all those unreasonable people … and the living God. It’s about you acting like you are in charge of God’s world and other people. But God is in charge.
Anger is merciless. Anger sees, punishes, and gets rid of all offenders. But God has chosen to be merciful to wrongdoers, including someone like you, who struggles with taking God’s place in the world (Ephesians 2:1-5).
God’s mercy brings life to you. If you struggle with bitterness, if you grumble, if you yell and argue, then you need God’s mercy. You will receive mercy and help when you confess to God your struggle with trying to control everything, with wanting to be God, and with judging those around you. God’s just anger toward sinners like you was poured out on his Son on the cross. Because Jesus died, you can be forgiven and have a whole new life.
When you honestly confess your sins to God and ask Him to forgive you for Jesus’ sake, you will receive forgiveness and the gift of God’s Spirit. The Spirit will give you the power to express your anger, not your way, but God’s way.