Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. – Ephesians 4:26
This is the final article in a short series on how to manage anger in a way that honors God. In the previous article, we explored the legitimacy of anger, emphasizing the fact that it is possible to be angry without committing a sin. We also looked at how not to deal with anger.We highlighted the dangers of either internalizing anger, which can lead to resentment and numerous health problems, or expressing unchecked anger, which can lead to abusive and hurtful behavior. Each of these flawed responses to anger damages relationships.
The previous article closed with an admonition that when facing anger, we ought to pursue the “more excellent way” that Paul the Apostle described in his first letter to the Corinthian church (see 1 Corinthians 13). That more excellent way is love. If we want to rightly respond to anger, you and I need to pursue what Jon Bloom calls an “anger governed and directed by love.”
Anger Directed by Love
Can anger and love actually work together? It might sound strange to link two ideas that sound so opposed to one another. However, as Timothy and Kathy Keller note in their devotional book God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life, “The final defeat of inordinate anger is not merely to refrain from payback but to positively love and do good to people who have wronged you.” To succeed at this, you will need what singer/songwriter Steve Winwood called “a higher love.”
Our culture seems captivated by the portrayal of love as a nurturing, affectionate embrace produced by positive feelings. On Facebook, “love” is merely a higher degree of “like,” and can be distributed at the touch of a button to whatever post or picture makes you smile. Absorbing this message over time could potentially reduce your idea of love to a pleasant feeling toward someone or something.
However, Jesus pointed out the “even the tax collectors” demonstrate this type of love, calling his disciples to love in much more radical ways (Matthew 5:43-48).
As a Christian counselor, I regularly work with hurt and broken people who experience legitimate anger and frustration. I’m interested in how they can practically love those who’ve hurt and betrayed them, those who actively engage in wicked and destructive behaviors or those who treat them with malice and contempt.
God-honoring anger is anger that arises out of prior love, is controlled and directed by simultaneous love, and in the end yields to compassionate love. For example, if your spouse starts neglecting his family due to a sinful habit, your love for him will often lead to anger – at him for his choices and at the situation. This is normal and absolutely appropriate! The anger, in this case, is the result of prior love for your spouse and the desire for him to be physically and spiritually whole.
However, the next step is where people often fall off the God-honoring path regarding their anger. If you were to allow your anger to lead to self-righteousness, desire for retribution, expressions of contempt, and attempts to humiliate, you will only end up damaging the one you love rather than helping him.
Similarly, if you suppress your anger and enable his irresponsible behaviors rather than intervening, you will end up hurting him in the end by allowing him to destroy himself. Unless you invite love to control and direct your anger, you are not dealing with anger in a God-honoring way.
Imagine finding yourself in the above scenario and allowing God to harness your anger and channel it into motivation to confront your spouse and speak the truth in love, helping him take responsibility for his choices and reach out for help to overcome his habit.
Imagine fiercely and steadfastly encouraging him through the long journey toward recovery and redemption. Imagine the compassion you would feel to see him struggling for your sake and for the sake of your marriage.
Your anger must be controlled and directed by love in order to serve its intended purpose. But the love of just anything won’t suffice. It matters a great deal where your love initially rests because loves that are disordered (or wrongly directed) will lead to anger that burns out of control. As Timothy and Kathy Keller write,
“Anger is energy released to defend something you love. God is angry toward the evil that dishonors him and ruins that which he loves. But the problem with human anger is this—we tend to overlove the wrong things…Because our loves are confused and out of order, our anger—basically a good thing—so often does evil. We need to look to the one whose anger was always guided by love not for himself but for us.”
I like employing metaphors in my work with clients. The right image can bring a concept to life in helpful and insightful ways. I like to think of anger like a fire. It has enormous power to devastate a landscape and destroy homes, but only when it burns out of control. A controlled fire can be an incredibly useful tool providing warmth, food, sanitation, energy, and countless other goods to humankind.
The types of fires that are beneficial and positive have three main characteristics: They are contained (think of a fireplace, campfire, or grill), purposeful (for warmth cooking, etc.), and temporary (after their purpose is served, these fires are extinguished safely). Let’s now look at how you can apply these traits to your anger in order to keep it from swelling from a campfire into a wildfire.
The first step toward containing your anger is to recognize it. You cannot contain what you aren’t aware of. Sometimes it feels like anger can sneak up on you unexpectedly, catching you off guard and whipping you into a frenzy before you even have a chance to control it. However, anger does have warning signs.In an article on the HelpGuide website, authors Segal and Smith describe the importance of noticing how your body reacts when you get angry:
“While you might feel that you just explode into anger without warning, in fact, there are physical warning signs in your body. Anger is a normal physical response. It fuels the ‘fight or flight’ system of the body, and the angrier you get, the more your body goes into overdrive. Becoming aware of your own personal signs that your temper is starting to boil allows you to take steps to manage your anger before it gets out of control.”
Once you notice that anger is present, the next step in containing anger is to think. Your mind is a powerful part of you created by God for good purposes.
After an angry outburst, you may reflect back and notice that you were thinking very simplistic and irrational thoughts in the midst of your rage. “You always do this to me!” “Why is everyone out to get me?!” “You did it on purpose!” And the list goes on. These overblown, irrational thoughts only fuel your anger into an uncontrollable blaze. You may even forget the fact that you love this person.
One way to counter these simplistic ideas is to focus and modify your thinking. You may not be able to control every thought that pops into your head, but you can choose to think in focused ways. This takes a certain amount of self-awareness and self-control, but it is possible with God’s help.
Peter exhorts us, “Be alert and of sober mind,” warning that “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
Thinking can moderate and soften the effect anger has on you, allowing you to channel it in more positive ways. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes this activity, known as “cognitive restructuring,” this way:
“Simply put, this means changing the way you think…Logic defeats anger, because anger, even when it’s justified, can quickly become irrational. So use cold hard logic on yourself. Remind yourself that the world is “not out to get you,” you’re just experiencing some of the rough spots of daily life. Do this each time you feel anger getting the best of you, and it’ll help you get a more balanced perspective.”
A third element of containing your anger is to pray. Prayer invites God into the situation, allowing His healing presence and sovereign will to rule within you. Prayer stops anger in its tracks and places it within the able hands of God.
For example, the next time you feel anger rising against someone who wronged you, try praying Christ’s prayer from the cross for that individual: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34a).
Purposeful AngerThe next trait of God-honoring anger is that it is purposeful. It burns for a good purpose and serves a good end, much like a fire in your fireplace, which adds to the ambiance, warmth, and coziness of your home. The crackle and flicker bring you joy and contentment.
You control the fire, it doesn’t control you. You can add logs and stir it to make it grow, or let it burn down to embers when you wish. Anger controlled by simultaneous love is similarly transformed into a blessing.
Because of our sin nature following the fall, this is incredibly difficult for us. However, one example is when anger about injustice or suffering motivates someone to help, serve, give to a cause, or otherwise reach out to those in need.
Another example of purposeful anger is anger against sin and evil itself. This type of anger can be channeled into holy pursuits such as resisting temptation, honoring God with your whole life, and rooting out hidden idols in your heart.
In fact, Scripture tells us that God himself experiences this purposeful anger against evil. As Jon Bloom writes, “what makes God angry is the perversion of his goodness; the turning wrong of what he made right. God calls this perversion evil. Evil twists and disfigures God’s glory, vandalizing what is most valuable, and profaning what is most holy. Evil poisons and distorts reality, resulting in the destruction of joy for every creature that chooses the perversion over God’s good. God’s righteousness demands his anger over such destructive perversion and that he mete out commensurate justice against those who commit such evil. So our anger is righteous when we are angered over evil that profanes God’s holiness and perverts his goodness.”
Finally, God-honoring anger is temporary. I’ll never forget in Boy Scouts how strongly we were urged to “Make sure the campfire is completely extinguished before leaving camp!” We would wait for all the logs to burn down, pour water on them until they were drenched, and then dump dry sand on top of the soggy mess. We were taught that a fire which looked dormant could flare back to life later on, and this kept us vigilant in snuffing out every last trace of heat or smoke.
In the same way, Paul urges us, “don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). That is, don’t let your anger smolder as you carry on with life. Do whatever is necessary to make things right, forgive, reconcile, and restore compassionate love. The Bible tells us that even God’s anger is temporary. “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime” (Psalm 30:5a).
We should not allow our anger to endure any longer than necessary. Anger is not something that is safe for us to hold on to or dwell on, it is best surrendered to God, where He can see to it that it is contained, purposeful, and temporary.
Hope for the Angry
If you or someone you love struggles with uncontrolled anger, please reach out to a counselor on this site who can guide and walk with you on the path to freedom.
American Psychological Association. Controlling Anger before it Controls You. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control
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
Keller, T. Keller, K. (2017). God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs. New York, NY: Viking.
Segal, Jeanne & Smith, Melinda (2018). Anger Management: Tips and Techniques for Getting Anger under Control. Retrieved from: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships-communication/anger-management.htm/
“Winter is Coming”, Courtesy of Stephane Juban, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Bible on Table”, Courtesy of Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Open Hands”, Courtesy of Milada Vigerova, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fireplace”, Courtesy of John-Mark Smith, Unsplash.com, CC0 License