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

Welcome back to my fourth of five blogs on anger. 

In my previous blogs I've said it's easy to sin when we're angry. Therefore, we're taking a close look at Psalm 4:4–5 which says, "Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord" (ESV). That's our goal throughout this series. We're learning four steps in searching our hearts when we're angry so we can offer right sacrifices as we trust in the Lord.

We said the first step in searching our hearts is called, "Cool Down." When we're hot with anger, adrenaline and cortisol surge through our bodies urging us to fight, flee, or freeze. Consequently, we're not thinking or acting rationally. We commit many sins. Step one is to cool down so we can think reasonably and redemptively. 

I also said the second step in searching our hearts is called, "Look Inside."  James 4:1–2 says, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight."

We tend to think difficult people or frustrating circumstances make us mad. But James says the source of our anger and quarrels are the desires that battle within us. The root cause of our anger comes from inside of us not outside. We want something from people.

What do we want from people? At the core of our hearts, we all want to be treated with respect. We want to be loved and accepted. Those are legitimates desires. When people disappoint those desires we understandably hurt. God wants us to bring our hurt to him so he can be our refuge and comfort. But we typically forget and forsake God when we're hurt and angry. We go south and react in self-serving ways. Instead of trusting our needs to the Lord, as Psalm 4 urges us to do, we covet (demand) people treat us with love and respect and we kill with our anger when they disappoint us (James 4:1–2). This is idolatry (James 4:4); we're depending more on people than on God for our deepest needs for love and respect. Therefore, it's important to learn to look inside our own hearts and ask, What did I want that I didn't get? so we can turn to and depend on the Lord for our emotional needs.

Once we've cooled down and looked inside and turned to God, we can take our third step in searching our hearts which we call, "Yield." 

Step Three: Yield

This step is represented by a yield sign.


Listening to God is at the heart of this third step called "Yield." James says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires" (James 1:19–20).

Angry people are not good listeners. The angrier people become the less they want to listen and the more they want to speak. That's because angry people want to control by talking. They want to win or wound with their words. Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent.” And James says, "'God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.' Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you" (James 4:6–8).

What might God say to us if we humbled ourselves, yielded to him and truly listened? Here's something God speaks to me every time I'm angry at someone and I think I'm justified in staying mad: "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God's example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God: (Eph. 4:31—5:1–2, emphasis added). That's the kind of "right sacrifice" Psalm 4 is talking about. 

No one has ever sinned against me as much as I have sinned against a holy God. Every day I deserve his wrath and condemnation for the ways I forsake him, refuse to yield to him, and live self-centeredly. Yet God, through Christ, chooses to forgive me. He chooses to be kind and compassionate toward me. God never holds my sins against me. So who do I think I am that I have the right to condemn someone else when God forgives me?

To forgive someone doesn't mean I automatically trust them or reconcile with them. Forgiveness is unconditional but depending on the severity of the offense, trust must be earned. And reconciliation is a two-way street. But a couple questions I must ask myself are Do I forgive the person who has harmed me and do I want God's best for him or her? In light of the Lord's mercy toward me, am I willing to submit to God and let him use me to offer such a sacrifice to the one who hurt me? Such a sacrifice could be prayer, confrontation, inviting them to my house for their favorite meal or baking them a cake for their birthday. Offering a right sacrifice can mean many different things. I will examine that more closely in the next blog.

We all agree that forgiveness is a wonderful idea until we have someone to forgive. Then I can find lot's of reasons why I don't have to. No doubt about it, forgiveness isn't easy. There's much that could be said about it but let me say that forgiveness is more often a process than a one time decision. For example, I may sincerely forgive someone who has betrayed me, then I see them at the grocery store. They look happy and unconcerned about the harm they did to me. The sting of their betrayal rises up again in my memory with deep emotion. Again I must face my anger, acknowledge the pain and sorrow of a friend who hurt me and turn afresh to God with my longing for love and to remember how he forgives my thousands of betrayals toward him. I am humbled. My heart softens. Because of my Father's unfailing love I can forgive my friend again.

Forgiveness may come easier if you were the brunt of a joke but it will take longer if you were sexually abused by a trusted loved one. We must be patient with one another in this process but we must understand that forgiveness is a vital part of listening to and yielding to God. Forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel. It must be at the heart of our relationships too or we won't get far in living a life of love. Getting hurt is part of life in a fallen world.

This is important: we cannot give a right sacrifice (Ps. 4) to someone until we have forgiven them for what they did to us. We will be able to forgive others from our heart only when we realize their sin against us did not take our core security in Christ from us. And we can forgive when we see how much we've been forgiven by God. The one who knows he has been forgiven much loves much. The one who's unaware of how much she has been forgiven loves little (Luke 7:36–50).

Once I have yielded and listened to God and my heart is anchored in Christ's love, I must then yield and listen to the person with whom I've been angry. What does that mean? 

In my last blog I shared the story about painting my garage. Lisa got angry with me for getting paint on her flowers and let me have it. I responded to her in kind. It was ugly. But once I cooled down and began to search my heart, I had to ask myself what I wanted from Lisa that I didn't get. With reflection I was able to say I wanted her to see and affirm the hard work I had done instead of just seeing what I did wrong. I also wanted her to speak to me in a respectful tone of voice instead of just scolding me. And Lisa came to see that her flowers were merely a representation of her. She wanted to know I cared enough about her to look out for the things that mattered to her. 

When we've cooled down, looked inside, and yielded to God we must then yield to the person who hurt or frustrated us. What might have been going on in their heart?  I first needed to get my own heart right with God. Lisa needed to do the same. But then we needed to turn to each other and seek to understand each other. We needed to ask questions and explore one another's pain beneath their anger. We needed to seek to truly understand one another. As we came to realize the longing and desire to be affirmed and loved, our hearts were able to empathize. Sincere apologies were offered and accepted. 

Learn to empathize with others. Put yourself in their shoes. This doesn’t justify what they did but we must try to honestly understand what’s beneath their behavior and emotion.  What did they want? How often do you think and care about that versus thinking only about what you want?  

Remember, you and I can be wrong in what we think caused someone to do what they did to us. It would have been easy to say Lisa was just being mean and self-centered. She could have concluded that I was the same. But when we explored one another's heart and longings, we felt compassion for one another. 

Years ago there was a couple in our church who got a phone call in the middle of the Sunday morning service. They were told that their daughter had just been in a terrible car accident and was being taken to the hospital. I can only imagine that they drove quickly. Perhaps they tailgated someone along the way. I often image what I might have felt and assumed had they tailgated me without knowing what was happening in their lives. I could have looked in my rear view mirror and said, "I can't believe how pushy and self-centered people can be. I feel like slamming on my brakes to tell them to back off." But if in that moment someone told me the news they had just received about their daughter, my anger would have quickly turned to sorrow and compassion. I would have gotten off the road to let them pass. I often think about the story and say to myself when someone is treating me badly, I could be wrong in how I'm perceiving this situation. Do I care enough to cool down, turn to God, and try to understand the other person's inner world?

Once we stop, look inside, yield to God, forgive, and consider things from the offender's perspective we are ready for the next step: "Go." In my next and final installment in this series on anger I will examine how we can move in redemptive ways that have the potential to bring healing in the face of conflict and anger.

Questions for Reflection

1. Recall the last time you were angry with someone. What would it have meant for you to yield to God in that moment? How might it have impacted the situation if you had done so?

2. Is there anyone in your life right now that you need to forgive? How will forgiveness in this situation benefit you as well as the other person? How will it impact your relationship with God?

3. How can you be compassionate or tenderhearted toward the person who hurt or offended you? What might have been going on in their inner world that contributed to the offense?