When You're Angry

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Ephesians 4:26-27

Have you ever been angry? Really angry? I have. More often than I care to admit. But Scripture has some helpful things to teach us about dealing with our anger.

“Be angry but do not sin.” That’s a striking combination of thoughts, isn’t it? Five brief words about something to be and something to shun, both a command and a prohibition. Nothing unusual about that structure, of course, but the mix is surprising. Apparently it’s possible to do both: to be angry but not in any way to sin.

BE ANGRY

I say that’s surprising because of the widespread notion that anger is in itself sinful. I personally imbibed that idea early in my life. For a number of years, I was under the impression that to be angry represented moral failure, and to be free from it entirely was high virtue. As a result, when I got angry, I felt bad about myself. I felt diminished, lamentably lacking in self-control. As a result, I tried hard not to get angry. I really worked at it. And when I did anyway, when anger just came welling up in me, I often tried to hide it. When I first began to hear that anger was permissible, even healthy, I actually resisted the idea. It took me a long time to accept the fact that it’s okay to be angry.

Maybe that sounds strange, even funny to you because you’ve had a more sensible view about it, or maybe you’ve had something of the same struggle I’ve had. You may find it liberating, as I did, to hear this charge from God’s Word, “Be angry.” It’s not as though we’re told to be constantly hot under the collar, but the apostle is saying that when circumstances arise that get you upset, that rouse your ire – feel free; let it happen; don’t worry about it.

Now that’s not merely a concession to our human infirmity and sinfulness. Anger is a legitimate element in normal, healthy, human life. For convincing proof of that, we need only look at Jesus Christ. Here is the only one who ever lived in total obedience to God, of whom the Father could say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I have been well pleased.” Jesus was altogether without sin. But on more than one occasion, he was very angry. When he was about to heal a man’s withered hand and critics watched him narrowly because it happened to be the Sabbath Day, Mark tells us that he “looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” When he saw their cold legalism, heard their pitiless carping, he was furious. On another occasion, eyes blazing, he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and drove the profiteers out of the temple. That was certainly an evidence of what the book of Revelation calls “the wrath of the Lamb.” He couldn’t bear it when people made God’s house of prayer into a den of thieves, exploiting the needy in the name of religion. Learn from Jesus that it’s not only permissible to be angry at heartless cruelty; it’s altogether right. No other reaction is appropriate for a caring person.

Now it’s true that much of our anger is not of that sort. Righteous indignation doesn’t come along for us as often as flare-ups when we personally are slighted, insulted, or taken advantage of. Sometimes anger can be touched off in us by a seeming trifle.

But even that “short fuse,” that quickness of temper, is not to be looked on as a moral evil. It may be related more to our digestion, our lack of sleep, our overcrowded schedule than to some evil inclination. The point to remember is that anger in itself is something that happens to us, an emotional reaction to what’s going on around us. In that sense, it’s neither good nor bad. It doesn’t call for credit or for blame. It’s simply a part of life, an inescapable element in your humanness, and you don’t need to be ashamed of it. Listen to the apostle again: “Be angry.”

DO NOT SIN

But the second charge follows hard upon that. “Do not sin.” Paul, of course, is not talking here about evil in general but about the particular form of sin to which anger can lead. And it surely can bring on things that are painful, ugly, even tragic. Perhaps that’s why anger frightens us so, why we shrink from facing it in ourselves. We’ve seen the suffering and destruction to which it can sometimes lead.

There are two dangers involved here. The first, the obvious one, is loss of control. We not only experience anger as a feeling; we’re carried away by it. We become so blinded by rage that we lash out destructively, heedless of the consequences of what we’re doing. Uncontrolled anger, anger that overrides all concern for other persons, all sense of responsibility, can be terribly hurtful.

But there’s an even greater evil of which we may be less aware – that of holding on to our anger. The apostle Paul, here in Ephesians, chapter 4, is especially concerned to warn us against that. After his counsel, “Be angry but do not sin,” he adds this, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” It’s one thing, apparently, to experience a flash of anger. It’s another thing to feed the flame, to nurse the grievance.

“Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath,” or as we might paraphrase it, “Don’t go to sleep mad.” What eminently wise advice that is! How much misery and alienation would be avoided in our lives if we listened to it! Everyone who has ever been a pastor or a counselor knows that well. When we deal with family members who are estranged, marriage partners that divorce, we meet again and again the sad fruits of sustained anger. People get angry with each other, perhaps over something that seems insignificant, but they don’t resolve the issue. There’s no communication about it, no clearing of the air, no forgiveness, no healing. They cling to the hurt. They bury it deep inside. It festers and spreads. Then another grievance is added, and another. The deadly game of saving up anger, hoarding hostility, goes on. One day, two people who once loved each other wake up miserably, and perhaps permanently, alienated.

No wonder Paul says in this connection, “Give no opportunity to the devil!” To cling to your resentment, to cherish a grudge, is to throw the doors of your life wide open to the evil one. He can move right in then to plant all kinds of bitter thoughts and vengeful plans. If you let anger turn to hate, if you let it chill and harden into malice, you’re playing the devil’s game. He’ll be right at home in your heart. And even if you don’t injure someone as a result, your own life will be shriveled, poisoned, and – unless something happens to change it – ruined.

A pastor told me of a husband and wife who are literally sick with buried anger. They are angry with doctors, angry with lawyers, angry with businessmen, with ministers, angry with God. They can’t seem to let go of their fury and resentment. Their children now are being deeply affected by it. The whole family seems to be backing into a corner away from the rest of the world, bristling with hostility and mistrust. Somewhere buried resentment gave entrance to the powers of evil. What a chilling instance of the devil’s work!

If that were the whole story, the outlook for many of us would be gloomy indeed. We’re aware, perhaps, that we don’t handle anger very well, that we’re in danger of either flying off the handle or holding on to anger in an unhealthy way. What are we to do? Is there any light for people like us? Any hope for those who struggle with anger?

DEALING WITH ANGER

Let me offer two suggestions, two approaches to anger that have been helpful and healing for me. The first is this: Let it be expressed. We need to come to terms with the fact that anger is a real part of our experience. We need to recognize when we’re angry that that’s what’s going on, to admit it to ourselves. And in the light of what we’ve said today, we need to accept those angry feelings as legitimate, as okay. Then we need to let that anger find appropriate expression.

Sometimes we labor under the impression that the only way to express anger is by flying off the handle, throwing things, launching into a temper tantrum. Well, if nobody’s around to get hurt and if what we throw isn’t too valuable, all that carrying on may not be too bad. But it’s not the only way. You don’t have to get vociferous or violent to express your anger. But you do need to express it somehow.

I didn’t always believe that. I used to think that if I sat on my anger, if I held it in, if I didn’t let it show, it would somehow go away. But do you know what I discovered? It didn’t cease to exist. My anger went underground, as it were. Then, when I least expected it, it would surface again, not perhaps in overt attack on someone but in more sneaky, nasty ways: a cold critical attitude, perhaps, a cutting remark, or maybe dull apathy. I think that camouflaging my anger was an attempt on my part to project an image of all-loving perfection, but it sadly flopped. Sometimes it almost killed what warm, positive feelings I had. There had to be a better way!

Well, there is. It’s a good thing, friends, when you’re angry, to say so. It’s probably best if you can tell the person involved. Of course, there are various ways to do that. You can announce your anger as an assault on someone else’s character. “You make me angry! You are one miserable pain in the neck! I’m fed up with your obnoxiousness!” That will get your anger out, but it will probably build it into your victim! What I’m talking about mainly is making a statement about you, not about them, saying, “This is the way I feel.” So you say to your friend, “As we talk about these things, I can feel myself getting hot under the collar.” Or, “when that happens, my stomach starts churning and I get angry inside.” When put that way, it’s not an attack on another person, but important feedback for them about what’s going on inside of you. If you’re a parent and you tell your unruly children, “I’m beginning to feel angry,” you give them valuable information that may save the whole family pain and trouble.

It may not always be feasible or possible to express your anger directly to the person most concerned. It may be directed at someone who refuses to see you or who has moved away or has even died. But that doesn’t mean that you have to hold all that feeling in. If you do, you’ll probably get depressed as well as bitter. Talk it out with someone. Tell them just how you feel. Tell God you’re angry with this person. That will be no shocking revelation to him; he knows you altogether. But it will ease the inner pressure for you. And if some of your anger is directed against God, as may well be the case, dare to tell him that. Believe me, he won’t condemn you for it, and he can probably handle whatever you have to say to him!

Expressing your anger to someone is always risky. When you do that, you’re testing the relationship. You may be afraid that it will break into little pieces if you reveal how upset you really are. But when you try it, when you take the venture, you discover that that doesn’t usually happen. You tell out your anger. Maybe the other person gets defensive. You argue; your struggle to communicate gets tough. But on the other side of that, there may be real closeness. Burying anger, on the other hand, makes for distance; expressing it frankly as your feeling can clear the air and open the way for love.

But there’s one more thing I want to say. This is the best. Let your anger be expressed, yes, but in the whole process, look to Jesus Christ. Paul is talking in this whole passage of Scripture about what it is to “learn Christ.” That means, of course, listening to his Word and noting his example. But it means most of all, learning him, entering into relationship with him, putting our whole trust in him. To deal with anger constructively, to keep it within bounds, and to prevent its burrowing into us, we need more than advice, more than a perfect pattern. We need God’s power to forgive us, to release us, to make us new. We need Jesus Christ, the living Savior, present by his Spirit, in our hearts. Look to him!

Learning of him can give you the right outlook on anger. Living in him can help you to deal with it. As one alive in Christ, you can begin to discover the invigorating freedom to “be angry” and yet “not sin”!