We experience anger because we are made in God’s image. The Scriptures give us instances in the Old Testament of God’s anger with his people when they were disobedient (Exodus 32:9–14). However, his anger is always righteous and appropriate to the situation.
Our anger, by contrast, often falls far short of that standard. Because we are members of a fallen race, our natures tainted by sin, our anger at times may be explosive, hurtful, even punitive. If we are sensitive and aware our expressions of anger may leave us with deep feelings of sorrow and perhaps helplessness. But, as Christians we should not allow ourselves to say, “That’s just the way I am so take me or leave me.” There is hope in the Gospel.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church about standards of conduct for Christians. He exhorted them to “Put away all falsehood (Ephesians 4:25a NLT). And, “If you are a thief, stop stealing.” (Ephesians 4:28a NLT). These practices were sinful and were to have absolutely no place in the Christian life.
But he spoke differently about anger, “And don’t sin by letting anger gain control over you” (Ephesians 4:26 NLT).
Apparently anger was not forbidden in the way lying and stealing were. It was nevertheless identified as a human emotion that, if not managed, could do great damage and could be the source of grievous sin.
I can see at least five ways we can display hurtful anger.
Sullen anger. This is not displayed by slamming doors or talking in a loud voice. But sullen anger puts a dark cloud over those against whom it is directed. Nothing is said but much is felt. Sulking, tense silence, or seething beneath the surface may be devices for sullen anger.
“Nice guy” anger. My wife and I boarded a narrow-gauge open platform train in California to ride up a mountainside to the site of an early mining effort. A couple with two children got on and took a generous amount of space. Then another family of four boarded and sat next to the first couple. They were crowded and the first couple made no effort to sit closer together as a courtesy.
There were a few words. Then the woman of the second family turned with her back to the first but sat with a frozen smile on her face for the rest of the ride. I believed her message to those who saw the exchange was, “See, I’m not angry. I’m too nice to be angry.”
Transferred anger. I once saw a cartoon divided into four frames. In the first frame a boss was chewing out his employee. In the second the employee was at home and his words to his wife were drawn as loud black lines. In the third frame, the wife was scolding her little girl harshly. In the fourth, the little girl held her ragdoll by one arm, spanking it with her free hand. Anger’s target often shifts.
Abusive anger. This may be marked by shouting, even screaming, or quiet but psychologically violent abuse. It’s out-of-control anger – like road rage or air rage.
Finally, there’s unrecognized anger. Once, when preaching to a large congregation, I referred to a category called “adult children of alcoholics”. I noted that they often seemed to live under three imperatives: Don’t talk / Don’t trust / Don’t feel.
After the service, a minister came to see me. He had written the imperatives on his hand. With energy he said “That’s me!” As the grown son of an alcoholic father he explained in detail how each of those orders fit his tended ways of functioning. He did not trust anyone – including me, he said. He had never seen his self-directed techniques before. All this denial was a heavy burden to carry. He needed and received professional help.
What can we do so that anger does not dominate us in sinful ways? A story from Doctor Ben Carson’s life leads us to the Gospel. When he was a teenager, in a burst of anger he stabbed at another boy and only the boy’s big belt buckle saved him. Ben Carson went to a nearby room of seclusion and spent a long time calling on God to deliver him from such anger. He reports that God answered that prayer.
Just as for Dr. Carson, the Gospel holds before us the means for curbing or directing our anger for Jesus’ sake, and enables us to live in freedom as redeemed men and women. But there are techniques to be learned. More on them, next week….
Photo credit: Indi Samarajiva (via flickr.com)