Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. – Psalm 4:4
Anger is one of the most powerful emotions you feel. It can overwhelm your reason and hijack your integrity if you allow it to. You may look back on a moment of anger and wonder, “Why did I act that way?”Feelings of shame often follow in the wake of behaviors motivated or triggered by anger. It can even feel as though anger has the ability to transform you into a fundamentally different person, as in The Incredible Hulk. In the story, Bruce Banner’s character famously warns, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” When activated, anger completely takes control and causes an involuntary identity shift (portrayed vividly as Banner becomes The Hulk). This transformation produces the superhuman strength, overpowering rage, and destructive habits of The Hulk, all of which are completely uncharacteristic of the calm, emotionally-reserved Banner. Does anger ever seem to hold a similar transformational power over you?
What Does God Expect?
Christians may wonder, “Why did God make me this way?” In other words, if followers of Christ are supposed to avoid falling into sin through anger, then why does God allow me to feel anger at all?
Should I feel guilty whenever I experience anger? Can anger be controlled or dealt with in a God-honoring way? How you answer these questions will have a profound effect on how you view yourself and how you live out the Christian life.
In this article, I want to look at how to deal with anger from a Christian counseling perspective. Scripture does not teach that emotions are evil in and of themselves or that they must be suppressed at all cost. However, the biblical text clearly teaches that we are not to be ruled by our emotions.
Our enemy will certainly attempt to exploit potent emotions such as anger as opportunities to “gain a foothold” in our lives (Ephesians 4:27). The good news is that we do not have to become victims of anger or other emotions.
I believe that through the wisdom and power of the Spirit, we can notice our anger, identify the reasons behind it, learn from this insight, and respond in obedience to God’s holy and perfect will.
What is Anger?
It will be helpful first of all to define clearly what we mean by anger. The American Psychological Association describes it in the following way:
“Anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion. But when it gets out of control and turns destructive, it can lead to problems—problems at work, in your personal relationships, and in the overall quality of your life. And it can make you feel as though you’re at the mercy of an unpredictable and powerful emotion.”
It is interesting to note that this description seeks to normalize the experience of anger as a non-pathological phenomenon, while also warning about the negative consequences of allowing this phenomenon to get “out of control.” This implies that although anger is a “powerful emotion,” it can be controlled.
Anger as a Signal
Kyle Benson of The Gottman Institute agrees, noting that “According to Paul Ekman’s research, anger is one of the six ‘basic emotions’ identified in the Atlas of Emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise). Anger is felt by everyone at one point or another and it’s completely valid as its own emotion. However, there are times when other emotions are spurring the anger and we use anger to protect the raw feelings that lie beneath it.”
Benson goes on to describe how the “raw feelings” that are often protected by anger can provide valuable insights into ourselves and our deepest felt needs. He argues that in this way, anger actually serves a positive purpose. He describes anger as a “signal for a need,” explaining that once the need is identified and addressed, anger becomes unnecessary as a protective mechanism.
Furthermore, Benson highlights the space between anger and actions, pointing out that once we discover the reason underlying our anger, we have both the ability and the responsibility to choose our response.
This is a crucial insight when we realize that as Christians we are not commanded to determine our feelings, but rather to take our thoughts captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:15) and to offer our bodies as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13).
You might not be able to choose your feelings, but you can choose how to direct your thoughts and behaviors. Eventually, your emotions will be purified as your heart is transformed through godly choices and behaviors, which bring you more under the loving influence and care of the Holy Spirit.
Turning anger into an opportunity for insight and positive change is especially important within the context of romantic relationships. As Benson writes, “The bottom line is that beneath everyone’s anger lies a reason. Although it’s a valid emotion on its own, remember that anger can also indicate other emotions that need to be addressed or validated. It’s your job to understand and sit with your partner in it. By doing so, you will not only help them to understand their anger, but you will become closer to them in the process.”
In His Image
As a Christian counselor, I believe that as humans we were designed in the image of God . . . and that includes our emotions! God didn’t create us to be stoic robots who only experience pleasant, calm states of mind. After all, He is a God who experiences grief, compassion, anger, disgust, and jubilation. We need look no further than the life of Christ (God incarnate) to see how God experiences anger.
In his great masterpiece, Orthodoxy, British journalist G.K. Chesterton wrote that “[Christ] never restrained his anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell.”
We can read about real anger experienced and expressed by the sinless person of Christ in the biographical accounts of his life we call the Gospels. While this is not a license to practice unrestrained expression of anger (we must submit our anger to God), it does allow for the existence of anger without the presence of sin.
Denial of Anger
I have found in my counseling work with Christian believers that a common response to anger among the body of Christ is to suppress or deny it out of shame, pushing the emotion deep down so as not to let it show.
This is an unfortunate result of being taught to “put on a happy face” at church or in the presence of other believers, regardless of how you really feel. Some go so far as to deny themselves even the experience of their emotions, maintaining that they are “fine” as a way of demonstrating their spiritual maturity or depth of faith.
This response is dangerous, however, because repressed anger can actually become more powerful and harder to control. Anger that is always denied and never felt or expressed (in healthy ways) can actually surface as other psychological problems such as shame, self-doubt, contempt, anxiety, depression, fear, bitterness, unforgiveness, and resentment.
As Bill Gaultiere writes:
“Many people have a problem with denying their emotions. Perhaps they internalize anger, converting it into self-condemnation, depression, and shame. Or they stay in their heads all the time, detached from all emotion, just keeping busy so as not to be overwhelmed with feelings that are vulnerable or unruly. People who internalize anger are prone to be taken advantage of by other people, even abused by the anger of other people. “Denying angry emotions is not good or helpful. Many times in psychotherapy we have worked with people who have been denying their anger for decades. They grew up in a home where they were punished for feeling angry. Or they saw anger damage people. So when they feel angry they keep shoving it back inside. They implode with anger and it harms them. Usually, they also explode with their anger at times, or react to their anger in other ways that are unkind. “Internalizers need help getting in touch with their angry emotions and expressing them in a safe place. They need to learn to accept their value as a person, how to trust someone who can care for them, and how to set boundaries. They need to learn how to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15).”
Sometimes suppressing anger is used as an attempt to control it. This feels like a noble act of willpower that the “strong” use to conquer or control their emotions. However, it often amounts to ignoring the reality of your anger by burying your head in the sand, locking away your anger deep in the vault of your subconscious, and dishonestly putting on a happy, tranquil mask for the sake of your reputation.
The American Psychological Association describes the danger of unexpressed anger, explaining that “Anger can be suppressed, and then converted or redirected. This happens when you hold in your anger, stop thinking about it, and focus on something positive. The aim is to inhibit or suppress your anger and convert it into more constructive behavior. The danger in this type of response is that if it isn’t allowed outward expression, your anger can turn inward—on yourself. Anger turned inward may cause hypertension, high blood pressure, or depression. Unexpressed anger can create other problems. It can lead to pathological expressions of anger, such as passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on) or a personality that seems perpetually cynical and hostile.”
A More Excellent Way
Now that we have considered the risks of denying or internalizing anger, it needs to be stated how dangerous open and unguarded expression of anger can be as well. Unchecked anger can lead to abusive treatment of others, hostile verbal attacks, a heart full of hatred, destructive behavior, and even self-harm or suicide.
Part of the danger of anger is how justified it feels at the moment of its greatest intensity. As Gaultiere writes, “Whenever you or I are angry we believe it is righteous anger! It is only later that we may realize that our anger was ungodly.”
Imagine that you are walking on a narrow bridge across the Grand Canyon with no guardrails. In order to avoid falling to your death, you will need to carefully focus on each step you take. Now imagine that you have a guide who has traversed the bridge many times. He walks directly in front of you and leads the way. He assures you that if you step where he steps, you won’t fall into the canyon on either side.
Living the Christian life is like that, except that any time you slip or miss a step, your perfect guide (Christ) will catch you and set you back on the path. As you walk, He takes hold of your right hand and gently calms your fears (Isaiah 41:13).
If you hope to avoid falling off the bridge in either direction (simmering with internalized anger or exploding in unchecked anger), you will have to walk in what the Apostle Paul calls “a more excellent way” when dealing with this potent emotion.
For help with this as we’re dealing with anger, we as Christians should look first to our Savior, “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). What is the “more excellent way” that Paul goes on to elucidate in 1 Corinthians 13? Love.
You and I need what Jon Bloom calls an “anger governed and directed by love.” Bloom urges, “If you want to see love-governed anger in operation, look at Jesus.” We will explore the God-honoring way for dealing with anger in the next article.
American Psychological Association. Controlling Anger before it Controls You. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control
Benson, Kyle (2016). The Anger Iceberg. Retrieved from: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-anger-iceberg/
Bloom, John (2016). How Can We Be Angry and Not Sin? Retrieved from: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-can-we-be-angry-and-not-sin
Chesterton, G. K. (1908) (1959). Orthodoxy. Garden City, N.Y: Image Books.
Gaultiere, Bill. Be Angry and Sin Not. Retrieved from: https://www.soulshepherding.org/be-angry-and-sin-not/
“Order of Caos VII”, Courtesy of Joel Filipe, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Nature’s Way”, Courtesy of Victor Rodriguez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Lightning Flash”, Courtesy of Johannes Plenio, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Campfire”, Courtesy of Volha Krayeva, Unsplash.com, CC0 License