Understanding Anger

“I’m not angry I’m just frustrated.” Have you ever made that statement? Maybe you haven’t made that statement but you have said, “Sure I was angry, but I had a right to be.” Or in your anger have you avoided saying ugly things but kept judgmental negative thoughts about another person who has displeased you?

Question: What makes you angry? We all have anger. It’s not “if” we get angry it’s a matter of how often. Sadly, many Christians live in denial about their anger and many have bought into the lie that anger is something inside of them that needs to be managed. But Scripture does not support that popular thought. The Bible does not teach anger management. Anger is a moral act of the whole person. We all experience sinful anger and we all need help. We need help because anger is confusing, seductive and deceptive.

Anger is something people do, not something people manage.

Anger is deceptive, confusing, seductive

Anger is deceptive. Without realizing it our anger easily focuses on another’s wrong and justifies, rationalizes, and deems acceptable our own reactions. We fool ourselves by labeling our anger as hurt, troubled or irritable. We can easily give someone the cold shoulder, clam up, stew or avoid without thinking twice that it’s anger. Tragically, our anger is often directed at those we should love the most: our spouse, children, parents, siblings and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Anger feels like we are in control. But who is in control when we are sinfully angry? The angry person is out of control and controlled by the other person. Anger toward someone submits your thoughts, emotions, and behavior to that person. Anger is a craving for something we can’t control (James 4:1–2).

Anger seduces by feeling so powerful and so right…at the time. But like all seductions, the promises are never delivered. Anger hurts others and never accomplishes the righteous living God desires (James 1:20). That is good news! As David Powlison states it is very good news because we can stop doing what doesn’t work. Anger does not work.

Anger’s deception means we need more than insight to overcome anger. We are deceived into believing when we choose to be angry we have righteous anger. It feels so righteous but it is so self-righteous. It puffs us up. It cries, “I’m right and you are wrong.” When I am angry it doesn’t occur to me to doubt myself. Anger is a heart craving for things we can’t control so we use our anger to manipulate until we get what we want.

If you are on the receiving end (this post is not addressing physical abuse here) of someone’s anger (like a spouse) you need to guard your own heart or you will be tempted to respond sinfully to their sin (angry response, wanting out, withdrawal, self-righteousness). Anger is war in a heart: a heart that is only interested in what it wants, when it wants it. Guard your heart because sinful anger is not about you. It is an idol of the heart that must be exposed to the light.

The purpose in anger for which God designed

Anger doesn’t make sense outside of God’s story. We begin with God if we are to put away anger (Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8).

The Bible unashamedly speaks of God’s anger. It reveals His righteous anger which is always holy and pure. God made us in His image therefore, like God, our anger can hate wrong and give love to those who do wrong.

  • Anger is natural because we were created in God’s image

  • Sinful anger is natural because of the Fall

  • In our anger we can emulate God’s anger and it will be righteous

Anger, given to us by God says, “That is wrong and that matters.”

If something doesn’t matter much, or you don’t notice it, are you angry?

What is my anger saying?

When you get angry, your wrong reaction reveals you are living as if you are in charge of the world and other people. You are taking God’s place and judging others. James tells us there is only one Lawgiver and Judge: Who are you to judge your neighbor? Only God alone has the right to pass judgement (James 4:12).

Be warned, our sinful anger has to do with our relationship with God.

Throughout the Bible God invites us to look at His righteous anger and emulate it. Can we have righteous anger? Yes, but rarely is our anger righteous. We will unpack righteous anger and what it looks like in the next post.

Anger says, “That is wrong.” “That matters…” “I am displeased and I disapprove.” Anger perceives a wrong, takes a stance of disapproval and then it acts in some way.

Sinful anger is when we get angry about things that do not matter to anyone but us. We get angry because of what we want, desire, expect or believe we need in a certain situation or from a certain person. The Bible calls theses wants, “the desires of the flesh.” It is not wrong to want a husband who is attentive and caring but when you don’t get what you want your want can morph into an “I need” and  anger can flare up (James 4:1–2).

We also have sinful anger when we respond to a true wrong sinfully. This broken world gives us good reasons to be angry but when we express that anger sinfully by venting or clamming up we are acting as if we are God.

Anger is always a moral matter

Be sure to chew on that. Anger is the attitude of judgment. It always makes a value judgment. Our underlying desires and beliefs are at work in our anger and we judge (rightly or wrongly). But God evaluates both our criterion for judgment and our response. Our criterion may be correct, but our response sinful. Or our criterion and our response can be God-honoring. Made in His image, He has given us the capacity to rightly respond in anger to wrongs committed.

For example, let’s say my teenage daughter has been disobedient and because that matters to me I will take a stance of disapproval and feel displeasure. “That matters….and it is not right she disobeyed my authority. That is wrong.” So far so good. My sinful anger happens when I am moved to action. Do I lash out, yell, attack? Do I argue or heap guilt upon her for being so rude as to disobey me? Maybe I react by clamming up and giving her the cold shoulder or becoming indifferent to what she did (sin of omission). If I sin in my response, I have judged and rendered a verdict against the guilty (my daughter). I am judge, jury and prosecutor. My judgement comes from my perception that her behavior was unjust and wrong. What she did mattered to me and to God (children obey your parents) but if I have sinful anger in response I have taken a stance in judgement.

In Robert Jones, excellent book Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem, he says, “Anger is our whole-personed active response of negative moral judgment against a perceived evil.”

  1. Our moral judgment arises from personal perception and desires

  2. We perceive something (someone) to be unjust or evil

  3. Our perceptions may be accurate or inaccurate

  4. These perceptions come out of our value system

  5. Anger expresses our beliefs and motives

  6. Anger consists in thoughts, mental words, attitudes, judgements

Our sinful anger begins with wayward desires or good desires that move from a desire (want) to a need. Matthew 15:18 says that the things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart. Good or evil is brought forth from the good or evil treasure of the heart (Matthew 12:35).

Ask yourself if you want something (affirmation, respect, obedience, comfort) so much that you choose anger when you don’t get it. Realize it is a choice. When you are sinfully angry you are saying that what you’re not getting is more important than pleasing the Lord. You desire but don’t get. You want but don’t have. A good desire is not bad unless we sin to get it. Anger becomes sinful when we are concerned about our own desires ahead of God’s desires. The real cause of anger is the heart (James 1:14–15).

In the next post we will seek to understand righteous anger.

About the author

Karen McMahon is passionate about helping others apply biblical truth to every situation in life. She is the Director of Discipleship Counseling at First Evangelical Free Church in Maplewood, Minnesota and a certified biblical counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). She has a MA in Theology from the University of Northwestern – St. Paul and is completing her MA in Biblical Counseling from Faith Bible Seminary-Lafayette, Indiana. Karen loves Jesus Christ, her three children and their 12 year old yellow lab…and sushi too.

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