LEARNING FROM ANGER
About twenty years ago Kay and I were driving along and I asked a question that got an answer I had not expected. We had just been with a friend who was struggling with anger that was harmful to him and to those close to him. Musingly I asked Kay, “Do you think I’m an angry person?” There was a long silence and I knew I was in trouble! Eventually she said something to the effect that I had a core of anger and by discipline I kept it under control so most people never saw it. It only came out with her and our sons. Very painful to hear, but it set me on a journey to let God deal with this in my life.
One of the first things we did was ask God to heal this in my life. Next we signed up for a weekend seminar on anger. There were many new ideas from that weekend. The one that was the most helpful was for me to follow the pain trail back to the source of anger. Later my study brought the same idea from Dallas Willard:
“Anger indulged, instead of simply waved off, always has in it an element of self-righteousness and vanity. The importance of the self and the real or imaginary wound received is blown out of all proportion by those who indulge anger.” The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
And this also led to the idea that anger is an emotion that hides the true emotion in the situation. It is a masking emotion. The key to dealing with anger is to recognize the emotion underneath the anger. All of these emotions have in common, pain that has us focused on ourselves rather than on Jesus and others.
Some of the roots of anger
- Pain and abuse in our lives that has not been healed by forgiveness and leaves us with resentment and bitterness.
- Shame and guilt for the wrong things we have done that hurt others and ourselves.
- Fear of failure that can only be resolved by trusting in the life of Jesus lived in us in the fearful situation.
- Loneliness with the accompanying feelings of not being esteemed or of being unworthy.
- Feelings of inferiority that arise from any of the four ideas just mentioned.
In some people anger is hidden behind other emotions. If we grow up being taught that anger is always wrong than our anger remains hidden from us. This is often true for those of us who are forthright followers of Jesus. We control or bury our anger so we will not dishonor Jesus. We think of being disappointed in people or feeling low or some other emotion that explains our discomfort rather than admitting we are angry and learning to deal with it in a positive way.
C.S. Lewis helped me see the tyranny of my anger in our home when he wrote:
“Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause? Did we pretend to be “hurt” in our sensitive and tender feelings when envy, ungratified vanity, or thwarted self-will was our real trouble? Such tactics often succeed. The other parties give in. They give in not because they don’t know what is really wrong with us but because they have known it only too well, and that sleeping dog can be roused only at the cost of imperiling their whole relationship with us. It needs surgery, which they know we will never face. And so we win: by cheating. Indeed what is commonly called “sensitiveness” is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny, sometimes a lifelong tyranny. How we should deal with it in others I am not sure; but we should be merciless at its first appearance in ourselves. C.S. Lewis in Reflections on the Psalms
Weapons employed by anger
- Shouting and physical violence
- Holding in contempt; devaluing; name calling
- Depression which is anger turned inward
- Manipulation and control to dominate the person
- Righteous reasonableness that overwhelms the other
- The silent treatment
- Playing the martyr
The Apostle Paul is very clear that we have the choice on whether or not we use these weapons. In letters to the fellowship in Ephesus he writes: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger.” I can choose to be angry or I can choose to lay down my weapons and “be kind and compassionate and forgiving.” Thomas Merton writes, “A temperamentally angry man may be more inclined to anger than another. But as long as he remains sane he is still free not to be angry.” Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton
Anger is not evil
A very helpful insight was to discover that anger was an emotion that is part of God’s nature and therefore not wrong in itself. Paul wrote, “In your anger do not sin.” Anger is not always sin. Lewis B. Smedes wrote it this way:
“I think that anger and forgiving can live together in the same heart. You are not a failure at forgiving just because you are still angry that a painful wrong was done to you. Anger is the executive power of human decency. If you do not get angry and stay angry when a bad thing happens, you lose a piece of your humanity.” Forgive and Forget by Lewis B. Smedes
Anger becomes sin when it is indulged and that is why we are to deal with it in a positive way before the sun goes down. If it is buried – it is buried alive and when it resurfaces it inflicts the pain that has been festering on all those near us. So Smedes adds these thoughts:
“Express your malice, but you need to express it to somebody who can help you get rid of it. You can express it secretly to God, or to someone who represents God to you. Then, you can let God handle those people you would like to manhandle in your hate. If they need teaching, let God teach them. If they need rescuing from their own stupidity, let God rescue them. If they need saving from their own crazy wickedness, let God save them. Malice is a misery that needs healing. Anger is energy that needs direction. After malice, let anger do its reforming work. Forgiving and anger can be partners in a good cause.”
What is the reforming work that anger can do? First of all it can focus for us our need to stay on the journey with Jesus in which he is moving us from self-centeredness to being centered in him. As this is happening it can also produce in us a desire to right the wrongs that have stirred us to anger. But in this reforming work we have to be on guard against the seductiveness of “self-righteous anger”. Willard writes.
“Anger and condemnation, like vengeance, are safely left to God. We must beware of believing that it is okay for us to condemn as long as we are condemning the right things. It is not so simple as all that. I can trust Jesus to go into the temple and drive out those who were profiting from religion, beating them with a rope. I cannot trust myself to do so.”
And Willard adds another caution and some counsel in this matter of anger doing its reforming work.
“Feelings are, with a few exceptions, good servants. But they are disastrous masters. The proper course of action is to replace destructive feelings with others that are good, or to subordinate them—anger and sexual desire, for example—in a way that makes them constructive and transforms their effects. The process of spiritual formation in Christ will do this by grace—effectively and intelligently received, and put into constant practice.” Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard
What am I learning about the positive benefits of anger in my life.
- I am learning the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness frees me to care about the person who angers me and to care about the people they have hurt.
- I am learning to follow the trail of pain in my life to expose the places where I have been wounded; the things for which I am ashamed; and the ways I have become fearful. And I am discovering healing from the Lord and from my friendships with others.
- I am learning to use the energy of anger to pray for people and situations in Africa and other parts of the world where my natural inclination is to “beat tyrants with a rope.” In fact, as anger is less a destructive force in my life it is giving me greater passion for the work of the Kingdom in all the things God gives me to do.
Kent Hotaling — November 2006