Cutting Down Anger at the Root

January 17, 2017

by William Edgar

Several kinds of struggle involve what we might call our temperament. Obviously sin can be found emanating from every part of our personality. There are sins of the intellect, as well as more emotional sins. The category of temperament includes our basic nature and character. Temperamental besetting sins cover some of our most prevalent failings as fallen human beings. Our first candidate is anger. Some people have a ‘short fuse.’ Of course, there are varieties of anger: frustration, deep-seated resentment, lashing-out, withdrawal, seething, and so forth. Almost everyone has been angry, and at times anger can actually be appropriate. It is a besetting sin, however, when it cannot be easily controlled. Psychologists tend to see anger as a good thing until it gets out of control. For example, Sheila Videbeck describes anger as a normal emotion that involves a strong, uncomfortable and emotional response to a perceived provocation.

Interestingly, the Bible, while it describes anger in a quite different way from the psychologists, agrees that it can be a good thing. Paul tells the Ephesians to ‘Be angry and do not sin’ (4:26). How can he tell Christians to be angry? Because righteous anger is not just a possibility, it is a necessity. Righteous anger reflects God’s own character. God is angry! His wrath is revealed from heaven against ungodliness (Rom. 1:18). The wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience, who practice such things as filthiness and crude joking, today considered trivial, but not before a holy God (Eph. 5:6). We tend to think of God as a soft, sweet grandfather in the sky. Nothing of it. Because of his attributes of justice and holiness when looking upon sinful behavior he is an angry God, or, as ancient theology put it, he is a God of wrath. What provokes him? Injustice. What is he angry against? Evil.

Anger and Image-Bearing

If this connection is true for God, then what about us, his image-bearers? What should provoke us? Injustice, evil. When we learn of an abused child or a greedy bank or an unfaithful husband or racist oppression, our reaction should be  . . . anger. The attitude that says, ‘I mustn’t boil over’ or ‘I shouldn’t give in to my rage,’ while sounding spiritual, is actually quite sub-Christian when righteous anger is called for. This is why Paul can tell us to ‘be angry’. He is actually quoting from a psalm here (Ps. 4:4). The Psalms come from deep inside the spiritual lives of the ancient Israelites, and so they are reliable guides for our own. So there are occasions when anger is not only admissible but required. Anyone who stands by, unmoved, when witnessing an unfair business practice or the abuse of migrant workers, and the like, is not a Christian but a Stoic.

There are occasions when anger is not only admissible but required.

But catch the qualifier here. Yes, be angry . . . And do not sin! To which Paul adds: ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger’ (Eph. 4:26), adding, ‘and give no opportunity to the devil’ (v. 27). Anger becomes wrong when it takes control. How many people have let many suns go down but many moons as well, on their anger? Unmanageable anger is a problem for many people, Christians and non-Christians alike. Some societies have centers for anger management. There one learns all kinds of techniques such as holding the tongue, walking away, and so forth. An article on the website of the American Psychological Association recommends three techniques: expressing, suppressing, and calming. Expressing your anger is ‘assertive’ it says, not ‘aggressive.’ One must simply make one’s needs known without being ‘pushy.’ Suppressing anger is in order to ‘convert’ or ‘redirect’ it into more constructive behavior. But this must not lead to unexpressed anger, since that can come back to bite one. At the same time one must calm down by controlling both one’s outward behavior and one’s internal responses. Just wait until the anger subsides.

Some of this counsel is helpful, to a point. But notice how very different Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians is. The entire paragraph (vv. 25–32) is a practical outworking of what came before. Paul has been telling the readers how, now that they are in Christ, they have new life, and no longer need to walk in the way of the unbelievers (v. 17). Believers have put off the old self and put on the new self. They are now being renewed into God’s likeness (vv. 22–24). He then says, ‘Therefore, having put away falsehood . . .’ and proceeds to give examples. One is to speak the truth (v. 25). The next is to be angry but not sin (vv. 26–7). Then the thief must stop stealing but work with his hands in order to become generous to those in need (vv. 27–8). And the list goes on. Anger management techniques miss the most important factor in properly handling the emotion of anger: the power of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Being new persons in Christ, while it does not lead to perfection, is the proper way to walk as Christians, which includes handling anger.

Grace for the Angry

Uncontrolled anger is a serious problem. The Bible is most realistic about the reality of this emotion gone unchecked. Moses, the great man of God, the most significant leader in the Old Testament, was prevented from going into the Promised Land because he did not fully trust in God’s provision, and twice struck the rock he had been told simply to address verbally. His words were addressed instead to the people, words that were not fully respectful of God (Num. 20:11–12). Paul himself admits being covetous, which is surely one of the factors leading him to his overzealous fight for ‘truth,’ as he persecuted the church. He tells his readers in Romans 7:7 that he had not been aware of his jealous heart until the tenth commandment, ‘You shall not covet’, came bearing down on him. It is possible that his awakening to this sin came as he listened to the eloquent Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 8:1). Both Moses and Paul, and anyone else struggling with uncontrolled resentment, were forgiven, and readjusted their lives.

Because we are new persons, walking with Christ, we may move from being enslaved by these emotions to controlling them.

When I was in youth work I encountered a number of cases of young people prone to anger. While in most cases there was temperament involved, a predisposition to anger, there usually were secondary causes as well. One young man I remember grew up with divorced parents. He was furious with them for the effects he believed the divorce had on him. He saw them competing for his attention, not providing the kind of tranquility he imagined normal parents did, and generally embarrassing him. He vented his wrath on other people, particularly adults, but also on his peers. When he came to one of our summer camps he became a Christian. He was now a new man, walking in faith. Yet his anger often still got the better of him. Eventually, with a great deal of love and patient counseling by the leaders, and by constant prayer for grace, he was more and more able to control his anger. At the urging of one counselor he went and met with both parents, and asked their forgiveness for his having used their divorce as an excuse to blow his fuse all the time. He had to do this in such a way as not to drive them to deeper guilt than they already had. Today as an adult, while there are still the occasional bouts with anger, he is a more cheerful, balanced person.

Is Christianity practical with the besetting sin of anger? Yes, indeed. The same can be said of any number of other sins of the emotions. Fear, depression, shame, and many others are both real and curable. While each one is different and requires special understanding, the basic answer for their management is the same: through the power of the gospel, because we are new persons, walking with Christ, we may move from being enslaved by these emotions to controlling them, and redirecting them for more fruitful purposes.

This piece is adapted from William Edgar, Does Christianity Really Work? (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2016), 153–158. Used with permission of the publisher.

William Edgar

Dr. Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at WTS.

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