Listen: LifeWords Q&A Podcast, Episode 82
Anger is an emotion we all deal with – but one that’s easy to mishandle. Sometimes we let our anger get out of hand; other times we try and suppress it or pretend it’s not there. In this episode of LifeWords Q&A, David Reay and Clare Bruce explore which kinds of anger are good and bad, and what the Bible has to say about handling anger well.
CB: This is LifeWords Q&A, the podcast where we tackle some of the trickier questions around life and the Christian faith. I am Clare Bruce, your host, and with me in COVID-safe form on the phone is the guy who brings the answers, David Reay.
DR: Hi Clare, good to be with you again.
CB: Good to have you. And when I say he brings the answers, of course David doesn’t purport to be God or his official communications officer. But he does do his best to bring answers based on years of theological training, thinking, wrestling and pastoral experience. Does that sound about right David?
DR: Well, it sounds about right. But the more the more I go on in Christian living in my general life, the more you realise just how much you don’t understand. True wisdom is knowing what we don’t know, I think, rather than pretending we know everything. So all we’re doing on these things is trying to offer some perspectives and angles and approaches, rather than saying, “You’ve got a problem, here’s the answer, think nothing more of it”. It’s designed to stimulate us a bit, and perhaps correct some, perhaps unhelpful approaches to some of these problems.
CB: Yeah. Love that.
Well, let’s get started on this week’s question, which is this: “When is anger wrong, and when is it right?” And I think this is such a common one that we wrestle with, particularly for people of faith, because you’d probably find in your pastoral experience and I know from my own experience, David, that often we struggle with feeling angry at all. And sometimes we think, “Oh, I terrible Christian, I’m feeling angry at that person or at that situation, shouldn’t I be more calm and collected?”
DR: Yes, we can sometimes confuse personality and temperament with being angry. Some people, you know, are much more temperamental than others, but that’s just a personality thing. I think that we have to realise – the Bible in one passage does say “Be angry, but without sinning”.
So in other words, the implication, well, not all anger is sinful.
Let me try to answer that very basic question that you posed at the beginning. Let me summarise it this way: good anger is that which is directed against things that make God angry. If you’re angry at injustice, corruption and arrogance, well, chances are that’s good anger because God’s angry at that too. Many people in history, Martin Luther King, Martin Luther himself, William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury, many, many people got angry at the state of affairs and did something about it.
So anger can be very constructive. If it, number one, is directed at the right thing – or the wrong thing – the injustice and so on – and also, if it is expressed constructively.
Now, conversely, bad anger, wrong anger is more a case of frustration of not getting our own way. You know, and let’s face it, let’s be honest, sometimes we are righteously angry; many more times we’re just jolly well fed up, and we haven’t got our own way. And we just get upset at people or upset at ourselves.
So we differentiate between good anger and bad anger in two ways. One is, what’s the object, and is it something that God is also angry at? And how we express that anger.
Another example of bad anger is what the counselors and psychologists called displaced anger. For example, I might be angry at my boss at work, but I take it out on my partner and my children when I get home. And so that’s another case of wrongful anger – when it’s directed at the wrong thing or the wrong person.
Now, the differentiation is between the object of the anger, but also the differentiation is between how we express it. I think some Christians, you touched on this before, that Christians sometimes think, “Oh, I should never be angry”. Well, I don’t think that’s quite right. But some Christians try to resolve anger by saying, “I mustn’t be angry, so I’ll just sort of ‘clam up’”, as it were. You know, I bury it. And it causes you great psychological and even physical harm. Because anger, the experts tell us, is a very physical, strong emotion. So if I push down my anger inside me, it’s still there, it’s not gone away. And it’ll either come out in an explosive way, or just do a lot of hidden inner damage to me physically and psychologically.
So burying anger is not a good way of handling it at all. And some Christians, sadly, will do that, thinking they’re getting rid of it. And all they’re doing is just simply pushing it down or just doing damage.
But of course the opposite is just as harmful. Some people clam up; some people blow up! And some people just think, “Oh, well, I’ve got to get everything off my chest. I shouldn’t bury it. I should just face up to my feelings”. Well, that’s all very fine, but it’s a bit like an artillery shell going off. Shrapnel goes off in all directions. And getting something off my chest might make me feel a bit better, but it’s certainly not making anyone else feel better. And if I just blow up whenever I’m angry without some sort of self-control, well then, I damage other people and it’s a very selfish sort of thing to do.
CB: As you’re talking about that, David, I’ve just formed a picture in my mind, I’m gonna describe it to you. I’m imagining the fruits of the Spirit, which is something that we talked about that comes from the Bible, and it’s an expression of Christian character – the fruits of the Holy Spirit being love, joy, peace, patience, and so forth. And I’ve got this image in my mind of a tree with rotten fruit on it, which might be you know, some festering anger. And then, as Christians, if we try to bury that in false, you know, joy and false peace, it’s kind of like taking a good piece of fruit – and just trying to glue it onto the tree. It’s not actually fruit of that tree at all, and it’s going to drop off. The rotten one will still come forth.
DR: It simply won’t work. Clare, I think here’s where we’ve got to deal with the issue of self control. Now all Christians — getting back to the fruit of the spirit, you mentioned one of them is self control. And self control is a good thing. But Christians must not think that self control means “I never get angry”. Self control means I will control and discipline myself to get angry in the right way at the right time.
For example, I know of a friend who got so angry at his teenage son for being late home from a social function. He had to go and pick him up at the station. And my friend was just so angry that what he decided to do was he decided to just get in the car, wind up all the windows, and before he even left the garage, just perhaps have a little bit of a rant and rave to himself and let off steam when no one else was around, so that – when he picked up some from the station (he obviously was concerned about him and so on), all that explosive anger had gone.
In other words, my friend exercised self control. He still expressed these anger, but he chose to express that anger in a particular way, which would not do harm. If he had bottled up all that anger and picked up his son from the station and let fly at him, it would not have been good. So what my friend did was to exercise self control. Self control wasn’t, “I’m going to bury the anger and pretend that’s not there”. Self control was “I’m going to choose when and how I express that anger”, so that, as it were, I can acknowledge it, and yet not have it do harm to me, or to someone else.
CB: That’s really good practical advice. I know that a lot of psychologists also talk about writing your feelings down if you’re dealing with difficult emotions, because that helps you to distance yourself a little from it and express it. Now with anger, one hot tip is to not write your feelings down in a cranky email and hit the send button. It’s always good, you know, if you’re writing it down or expressing it, to do that, perhaps with a safe, trusted friend. Share that with someone that is going to understand and listen and give you perspective, and help you to get a handle on those emotions. And then if you need to address that, later go back when you’ve calmed down a little, and can do it in a constructive and healthy way.
DR: Oh, yes, because that is so true. We all know that there’s a danger of hitting the send button too soon! I’ve been in many situations, when steam’s been coming out of my ears, and I feel “I must send this email, I must make that phone call, and once or twice I’ve done it unwisely and I’ve thought, “Uh-oh, that wasn’t the right thing”. It’s best just to let things, as you say, settle down a bit. But not settle down by denying it – but settle down by just saying “Yes, I’m going to write all this down”.
For example, some people, because anger is so physical, they’ll not just write something down but they will actually go for a walk or play some sport or, I know someone who kicks an empty cardboard carton around the house.
In a counseling training course that I did, we were encouraged to sometimes get a rolled up newspaper and just bash it against the cushion or something. I mean, they all might sound childish, but no, they’re ways of physically getting rid of the energy that anger is generating, in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone else.
Because the obvious terrible consequence of physically expressing anger is when someone hits out quite literally at someone; domestic violence. What we’re saying is, yes, you may need to physically express the anger or verbally express it, as you’ve mentioned, but do it in a safe way that is not going to damage other people, and yet is going to realistically acknowledge the anger.
So in that way, I think we can obey the Bible, which is do not let the sun go down on your anger. And what that means is, it means that we’ve got to deal with it. The Bible doesn’t say pretend it’s not there. No, no, no – don’t let the sun go down. In other words, not to take it too literally, but deal with it decisively. And that can be, writing it down, it can be physically expressing yourself. It can be just prayerfully wrestling with the subject with God. It can be just sorting out just “what I’m angry at”.
Because that’s the other thing clear that we need to learn. If If I’m angry, “What’s really going on here? Why am I angry at that person? Why does this particular situation provide such anger?” That could be a very good learning experience for us.
CB: That’s really, really good. And I just want to finish up with another Bible verse that has popped into my head, which you’ll be very familiar with. And that is the reference that “God is slow to anger”. And, that’s an example that we need to aspire to and to try and follow as well, to be slow to anger.
DR: That’s right. And the Bible does urge us to imitate God in that way. In another text it says “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry”. So anger? Yes, it can be legitimate, but let’s be very careful we’re not classified or pigeon-holed as angry people. That’s not the way we ought to be.
CB: Awesome. Thanks very much for your time once again, David.
DR: Thank you, Clare. It’s been good to share and we’ll do it again.
CB: Do it again next week. This has been LifeWords Q&A, and you’ve been listening to Clare Bruce and David Reay. And do go and share this episode if you found it helpful, and subscribe to the podcast. And if you have a question you want to send to us to tackle in one of our next episodes, send an email to lifewords@hope media.com.au.