I grew up in a family that understood anger as a threat to relationship. As such, raised voices or certain vocal tones got us a ticket to our bedrooms where we were supposed to magically get over it. Only we didn’t.
When I began following Jesus as a college freshman, I received two conflicting messages about anger. The Bible seemed to validate it. Scripture recounts numerous stories of God’s anger as well as His wrath, some of it directed toward sinful humanity and some toward evil. Jesus freely expressed His anger when He overturned the money changers’ tables.
But in the present tense, the only time anger was an approved expression within the Church was when a fiery preacher took the pulpit. Much like my family of origin, most Christians covered over their anger with a veneer of niceness.
The unfortunate conundrum is that unless humans pathologically detach, we cannot avoid anger. If you are awake and paying attention, there’s actually a lot going on around the globe to inspire this threatening emotion. Just turn on the news and you’ll see what I mean: terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 Nigerian school girls, most of whom remain unaccounted for. Last month, 210 passengers drowned (and 92 are still missing) when a South Korean ferry capsized due to human failure. Three American doctors, volunteering in Afghanistan, were shot and killed. The number of dead from the Syrian conflict now tops 150,000.
God does not call us to be emotional agnostics. Anger is one of many appropriate responses to atrocities, particularly those that end in premature death. When Lazarus died and Jesus faced his grieving sister, Scripture tells us “a deep anger welled up within Him, and He was deeply troubled” (John 11:33). Because of His divinity, Jesus didn’t have to worry about sinning in His anger. As Paul notes in Ephesians, we, unfortunately, do.
How are we to respond well and authentically when the inevitable anger rises up within us?
1. Learn to Recognize Anger.
Those of us who have been taught to avoid or ignore anger have become so skilled that we automatically redirect these feelings as soon as they appear on the periphery of our emotional radar. Without becoming obsessively analytical, pay attention to over-eating, sarcasm, aggressive driving, or other potential masked expressions of anger.
2. Admit You’re Angry Even if it Terrifies You.
I would rather crush grubs between my fingers than admit that I am angry in real time. I often resist being honest because I’m afraid I’ll shred someone with my words or that the person on the other end of my anger will decide the relationship is not worth the trouble. When asked if everything is OK, it’s easier to say, “I’m fine” rather than, “Actually, I’m really angry about that condescending remark you just made.” But by blatantly lying (the former option), I am disregarding God’s mandate to speak the truth.
Obviously, it’s not always wise to be that transparent, but based on my experiences, relationships become deeper and more secure when we take appropriate risks.
3. Avoid Blaming Others For Your Anger.
This gets tricky as it’s typically another’s words, actions or lack of words and actions that triggered our anger. Regardless of what someone else does or doesn’t do, we are responsible for our own feelings and the actions which emerge as a result of them. Blaming others renders us impotent to bring about change.
4. Discern Anger’s Message.
Despite the elevated blood pressure that accompanies anger, we must become still enough to learn what it is trying to communicate. According to author Harriet Goldhor Lerner, “Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated … or that our beliefs are being compromised.” Because God created us to be empathetic, we also feel anger on behalf of others, particularly the oppressed and marginalized, when they experience pain or injustice. (Just to note, sometimes, anger is simply trying to tell us that we need more sleep!)
5. Constructively Express Your Anger.
Years ago when I was mired waist-deep in anger, I bought two dozen cheap glasses and hurled them against a rock ledge. While I wouldn’t recommend this for everyone, it worked for me. Some of us will prefer to express anger through exercise, playing the piano or baking bread (pounding dough is very therapeutic). For others, words loosen the anger knot. King David often went that route (see Psalm 3.) Learning how to express our anger well will help us to avoid feeling helpless or powerless.
6. Prayerfully Explore Whether You Have Any Pockets of Unforgiveness.
Anger and its evil cousin rage can flourish when we fail to forgive others.
7. Discern What God is Asking of You in the Midst of Your Anger.
If you routinely feel agitated when you drive by strip clubs or XXX movie houses, explore whether God is trying to inspire you to bring an end to the exploitation of women and children. If you feel angry about serving on the greeting team at church, perhaps it’s time to take a break. Let anger motivate you to pray. Much intercessory prayer rises to God’s throne on the wings of anger.
Learning how to recognize, express and move through anger takes time and intentionality. It’s absolutely worth the effort! It’s worth learning to walk through these steps when you feel angry, recognizing it for what it is and allowing God to use you through it.
Dorothy Littell Greco is a writer, author, and photographer who lives and works outside Boston. You can find more of her work on Twitter (@DorothyGreco) or Facebook (Words&Images by Dorothy Greco).