“Anyone can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not easy.”Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
By Jasmine Timm
Once upon a time, two angry men lived in the same household, but they were very different. One was a king, and one was an orphan. The orphan grew up watching the king commit injustice toward the orphan’s native people, and as the orphan boy grew in stature, so did his anger. When the orphan grew into a man, the king died, and a new king took his place. But this one was just as angry as the last and continued to oppress the orphan’s people. One day, fed up with seeing another injustice unfold before his eyes, the orphan turned his anger loose, and he killed one of the king’s people. Ashamed of his actions and rejected by the very people he was trying to protect, the grown-up orphan fled far from his home, hoping to leave his temper and shame behind him.
We might recognize this grown orphan as Moses, the Old Testament hall-of-famer. We know him as a prophet, a leader of the people of Israel, a man of great faith, and the meekest man on earth. But he was also a man who struggled with anger and rash impulses. While we can acknowledge Moses’ anger looked different than Pharoah’s, anger still had consequences for the well-meaning Moses, and like him, we are prone to this common feeling.
We are nearly seven weeks deep in a worldwide lockdown, and the fear we initially felt has likely been replaced, at least momentarily, by anger. Call it irritability or being bothered, but anger is its root. We may feel cornered and angry about our limited choices, or we might be angry at God for not allowing X to happen, or for allowing Z to take place. Regardless of its reason, anger is often a confusing emotion for us to respond to as Christians. Should we express it? Should we even feel it at all? Didn’t Jesus display anger? Is this one of God’s attributes that I am allowed to reflect as His image bearer?
As we face our anger, we should remember that God created us as spiritual beings with emotions, which are the body’s feedback to what is happening in and around us. When emotions arise, they give us the opportunity to pursue holiness or to reject it. Christians often mention a category of anger called righteous anger, referring to the examples of God the Father and Jesus getting angry and yet responding without sin. We suppose that because we are made in God’s image we can engage in a type of anger without sinning. But as Concordia Seminary professor Jeffrey Gibbs writes in “OK, So It’s Not Righteous … But What Do I Do with My Anger? Reflections on Anger in the Christian Life,” Christians tend to equate righteous anger with justifiable anger. This means that if we can make a case for our anger and a rationale for what led us to our anger, then it must be justifiable because it did not involve sin, or at least not very much sin. However, this argument collapses when we look at how the New Testament addresses anger.
Gibbs writes that Scripture addresses human anger in two broad categories — sin or something that can quickly lead to spiritual danger if left unattended and unchecked (Ephesians 4:25-27, James 1:19-20). We are not condemned for experiencing the emotion of anger, but anger certainly is not something that we are encouraged to remain in or pursue. Rather, we would do well to identify what might be lying beneath our anger.
Anger is often a mask, popping up to disguise either deeper wounds such as trauma and to protect us from greater pain, or to hide injured pride or lack of control. In the midst of our anger, we will at times direct our anger at God, for we say we trust Him as the ultimate Power who holds all control in the palm of His hand. But we ask questions like, “Couldn’t You have stopped this? Why did You allow this to happen to me?”
As we see our anger and pain and sin emerge, we have hope. Jesus came for the sick and the sinner (Mark 2:17). He understands us and wants to help us. If our anger response is due to a deeper hurt or fear, we can trust that Jesus is our healer. If our anger response involves pride, we can repent, trusting that God receives all who turn to Him through His Son, even if you have to turn to Him over and over again within the same day. Times will come when our anger may be justifiable, such as when we see horrific suffering unfold before us and we desire justice. But we can trust God to deliver the justice rather than harboring anger that will erode us. We can trust God to take care of us and to right the wrongs done against us.
Here are some practical tools to deal with anger as it arises:
- Acknowledge that you are angry, and take time to consider if underlying emotions are driving it. Put a name to the emotion you are feeling, as best you can. The act of naming an emotion, especially aloud to another person, in prayer, or both, helps to regulate anxiety and anger and calms the brain.
- Talk about your anger. It is possible to talk to God about your anger without yelling at Him, and the same is true with people. If we can name and own what we are feeling, we will begin the process of calming ourselves.
- Find someone safe with whom you can process your anger. Check in with them at least once a week for encouragement and accountability.
- Be sure you are eating well. Your irritability might come from a lack of nutritious foods.
- Get some sleep.
- Get some exercise. A lack of movement and feeling confined can cause us to feel cornered and can trigger an anger response.
- Connect with others. Use caution and conviction when deciding what this looks like for you right now, but making connections with others helps us manage our emotions.
- Find a way to laugh. It sounds simplistic, but this releases feel-good hormones that combat fear and anger.
- Practice breathing. As with anxiety, intentional breathing from the belly can calm us down enough to think clearly and make informed choices about what to do with our emotions.
Like Moses, we may struggle to contain our anger, but from his story, we glean encouragement. God does not remember Moses because of his anger, but his faith.
“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.”Hebrews 11:24-26
Moses struggled, but he was looking forward to the reward: Christ. Moses trusted that God would take care of him, and even in the midst of repeated failure to contain his destructive anger, the LORD was a friend to Moses — as He is to us. It may take time for us to heal from the wounds our anger masks, but the Spirit is faithful to finish the work He started in us.