Anger: What It Is and What to Do about It—Part Two

Welcome back to this second of five blogs in my series on anger. 

In my first blog I said experiencing anger and conflict in life is inevitable, but responding to those situations in helpful ways is not. In fact, research tells us that the number one reason relationships fail is due to unresolved conflict. That's because it’s easy to sin when we’re angry. Proverbs 29:22 says, “An angry person stirs up conflict, and a hot-tempered person commits many sins.” It’s as natural as breathing to “go south” and react in hurtful and self-serving ways when our friends, spouse, kids, and others frustrate, disrespect, and offend us.

We also said that experiencing anger is good; it's part of what it means to be created in the image of God. But most of what the Bible says about human anger involves warning and caution: “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the laps of fools" (Eccl. 7:9). And the apostle Paul warns, “'In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold" (Eph. 4:26–27). When we nurture anger we're inviting the devil to have a conversation with us in our self-talk. In light of all this, we looked at our key verses, Psalm 4:4–5, “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord” (ESV).

In this second blog we want to explore the first of four steps in the process of searching our hearts when we’re angry so we can offer right sacrifices instead of reacting in self-serving ways. I realize anger can be a very difficult and confusing emotion to process. Working through it can't always be boiled down to four steps. But to unpack this process, I’m going to talk through four steps that have been quite helpful to me and many others I've mentored and counseled.

Step One: Cool Down

A stop sign represents this first step

We've heard the term “Cool it!” When we're aware of hot anger rising up inside of us we need to stop any expression of that anger so we can cool down. Another way to say that is we need to go through a form of anger-detox before we can be capable of discerning what we should do or say (a right sacrifice) to someone who has hurt or offended us. Why is this true? Proverbs 14:17 says, “A quick-tempered person does foolish things.” And as we mentioned earlier, Proverbs 29:22 says, “An angry person stirs up conflict; and a hot-tempered person commits many sins” (emphasis added). Because it’s easy to sin when we’re angry we must learn to stop, be silent (as Psalm 4 commands) and cool down or we’ll likely "commit many sins." 

Research supports these truths. When we’re angry we go through a temporary form of mild insanity. When someone’s hot-tempered we say they're mad. Why is this true? When we’re angry, adrenaline and cortisol surges and urges. That is, when we’re angry adrenaline and cortisol surge through our bodies and urge us to react to the perceived threat/offense in self-defensive ways. We react in one of three ways: fight, flee, or freeze. When we fight we tend to verbally attack the person who threatened or offended us. When we flee we stuff our emotions and avoid the situation due to fear of conflict. When we freeze we clam up and and shut down due to shock. Whether we fight, flee, or freeze, it’s important to realize our brain is hijacked by adrenaline and cortisol that are putting us in a hyperfocused survival mode. Consequently our thinking is narrowed and skewed. We’re in a temporary form of irrationality. Therefore, we're less prone to reflect and think reasonably. The result—we say and do foolish and sinful things. 

Therefore, the first step in searching our hearts when we’re angry is to stop so we can cool down and pray. It's important to acknowledge God when we're angry. Most people forget God in those moments and just "go south." I say something like, “Father, I’m furious right now. I’m aware of wanting to react and say something that's anything but redemptive. God help me to shut my mouth so I can cool down and remember that what I most need right now is to lean into you so I can search my heart and learn what it might mean to trust you with my emotional needs so I can honor and reflect your character in this situation.”

Choosing to be silent when we’re hot with anger isn't easy. When we’re powering up inside we “justify” our anger and blow past God and say and do foolish and sinful things: "Okay. Maybe I shouldn't have screamed at him but do you realize how disrespectfully he talked to me?" Someone's sin never justifies our sin but we do it anyway. I've done this more times than I can count. This all happens in less than a second but it's a chosen process we must become aware of. So for most of us it’s going to be after we’ve gone south and said and done foolish things that we'll “catch ourselves” and realize, Oh no. I was furious. I didn’t think of God or pray for help. I didn’t cool down. I reacted in a way that didn't honor God. Remember: it’s never too late to come back and learn from our mistakes. As we grow in self-awareness (this is a process) we can catch ourselves sooner. Sooner detection, sooner resolution. 

I have to admit there are times I’ve just chosen to be mad and let the person have it with my words. But something I’ve come to believe is that God loves me even when I sin. He's slow to anger and abounding in mercy (Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8). He's never going to shame you or me for blowing past him and messing up. There's no condemnation from God if we are in Christ (Rom. 8:1). He loves us. He's always ready to help us no matter how far south we've gone.

I Could Be Wrong

Here's something else that helps me cool down. When I'm angry I need to humble myself and admit I could be wrong about how I’m perceiving what this person just said or did. That’s hard for most of us to do but research tells us that when we’re angry we tend to believe the worst about the person who offended us. We think we know the ugly, self-serving motives that caused that person to do what they did. But the truth is, as we said earlier, we're thinking irrationally when we’re angry. Therefore, we're often wrong in how we perceive the person and the situation. We need to admit we could be wrong and take time to cool down so we can pray and think reasonably.

Think about yourself. When you've done or said something that ticked someone off, you wouldn’t want them to assume you’re just a self-centered, arrogant, jerk. If we give it a moment of reflection, we know that beneath our anger is something more than mere self-centeredness. There’s hurt, fear, or shame. That doesn’t justify our reactions but we'd all want somebody to care enough about us to take time to try to understand what’s going on beneath our anger. "You seem upset, Gary. Is there something I did that hurt or offended you? I want to understand." When I fail, I long for grace and empathy and so do you. So let’s learn how to be people who offer those kind of right sacrifices to others. Let's become the kind of people who try to understand what might be going on beneath someone’s anger rather than assuming the worst about them (see Part Five of this series). Remember, anger is never a primary (first) emotion. It’s always a secondary response to a primary struggle in our heart such as hurt, rejection, shame, or fear. When we understand the pain behind our anger or someone else's anger, we will feel compassion.

Also, in this process of cooling down, I sometimes need a lot of time to be able to get to a rational place. Depending on what was said or done, I might need an hour or maybe a couple of days to be able to think clearly enough to take the next step in searching my heart. Therefore, we might need to ask for a "time out" from the heated conversation and explain to our spouse or coworker that we're upset and don’t want to say something that could hurt them. Let them know you need time to cool down so you can pray and get to a better place when you talk again. If you do this, be sure to tell them when you'll meet again and follow through.

One final thought about this cool down period: Sometimes we need to talk out our feelings with a trusted friend or with our spouse. Don’t use names. And talk with someone you know is healthy enough to empathize with your pain but will have the courage to speak the truth in love to you. If all we do is rehearse our pain with someone who merely sides with our victimization, we'll only be nurturing our bitterness or we might poison that person we're venting with against the one who hurt you. Moreover, we may be giving the devil a foothold.

So the first step in searching our hearts is to stop so we can cool down and pray

In the next (third) blog of this five part series we’ll look at the second step in searching our hearts which we find in James 4:1. James asks a vital question that we must ask ourselves whenever we’re angry: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” What’s the root or source of your anger when you’re in conflict with someone? How would you typically answer that question? We typically get the answer wrong. It’s very important we get it right. So in our next blog we’ll explore that question in depth.

Questions for Reflection

1. How might these verses be true of you when you've been angry? “A quick-tempered person does foolish things" (Prov. 14:17); “An angry person stirs up conflict, and a hot-tempered person commits many sins” (Prov. 29:22).

2. What can you put in place this week to help you remember to stop so you can cool down and pray when you become aware of anger rising up inside of you?

3. Who in your life would benefit if you learned to deal with your anger in God-honoring ways?

4. What is one thing you can take from this blog post that can help you navigate through anger more redemptively in the future?