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

Welcome back to my third blog of this five part series on anger.

In my first blog I said it’s a good thing we can experience anger; it's part of being created in God's image. God experiences righteous anger. Moreover, the Bible commands us to hate what is evil and cling to what is good.

But most of what the Bible says about human anger involves warning and caution. Because we're fallen people, 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.” And note the warning and caution in 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 put your trust in the Lord" (ESV). If our goal is to be wholehearted followers of Jesus Christ, it’s vitally important we learn to search our hearts when we’re angry so we can offer right sacrifices. Otherwise, we will "commit many sins."

Furthermore, in my last blog I looked at the first of four steps in searching our hearts. The first step I call “Cool Down.” When we're aware of anger powering up inside of us we must stop any expression of that anger so we can cool down. We need to cool down because when we’re hot with anger, adrenaline and cortisol surge through our bodies urging us to fight (verbally attack) flee (emotionally withdraw), or freeze (mentally shut down). Those are self-serving reactions. Therefore, we need to take the first step in searching our hearts by cooling down so we can pray for God's help to enable us to think reasonably and redemptively. 

In this blog we'll take a close look at the second step in searching our hearts called, "Look Inside."

Step Two: Look Inside

A manhole represents the second step.


When we look into our souls, it can seem dark and confusing. It's often hard to see what's fueling our chaotic anger. In the book of James we find the help we need. In James 4:1 we're invited to take the second step in searching our hearts by asking a vital question we must ask ourselves when we're angry: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” In other words, what’s the source or the root cause of our anger and quarreling?

Lance was always in an angry mood when he thought about his dad: Nothing's ever good enough for him! The lawn, the garden, his workshop—nothing makes that man happy. Lance tried to earn his father’s love and respect, but nothing worked. Last week Lance mowed the lawn carefully, trimmed all the bushes, and edged along the driveway and sidewalks. He hoped his dad would notice when he came home. But as usual, his dad just grumbled on his way into the house, “Lance! Why in the heck don’t you ever remember to put the rake and lawn mower away? How many times do I have to tell you? You need to respect me by doing what I say! Get out there and get it done!”

And let’s tune into Ashley’s self-talk as she paces the floor. Her frustration is about to turn into rage. She’s waiting for Jake. He’s thirty minutes late to pick her up for their date . . . again. I should just call him and tell him the date's off! I don’t think I mean very much to him if he can’t be on time or call to let me know what's going on.

If James had asked these three people what the source of their anger was, Lance would've said, "My dad." His dad would've said, "Lance." And Ashley would've said, "Jake." When we're angry we naturally point outside of ourselves and blame others for “making us mad.”

How about you? When you're angry and quarreling with someone, how would you answer the question—"What causes fights and quarrels among you?" It’s as natural as breathing to assume that difficult people or frustrating circumstances like slow traffic and flooded toilets “make us mad.” But James doesn't agree. He says people and frustrating circumstances are not the source of our anger. But before we correct the mistaken idea that “people and circumstances make us mad” I want to make two important points. 

First, though people don’t make us mad, they do hurt and disappoint us and sometimes deeply. People betray and abuse us. They lie to us. They disrespect and reject us, just as we can do to others. Our pain is real. The Psalms are filled with godly people who expressed their pain honestly to God. It’s not immature or selfish to hurt when someone betrays or disappoints us. We live in a fallen world with fallen, finite people. We all get hurt. No exceptions. It's important we face, feel, and name our pain. Why? Because if we don’t face the pain that fuels our anger and bring it to God for healing now, our anger will find expression later. We will "commit many sins." Guaranteed.

Second and most important, God cares about our pain. Lance, his dad, and Ashley felt unloved, disrespected, and unimportant. That matters to God. They needed to acknowledge their desires and the hurt in their hearts and cry out to God for help. 

Listen to David’s lament in Psalm 142:1–6: “I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy. I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble. . . . In the path where I walk people have hidden a snare for me. Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life. I cry to you, Lord; I say, 'You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.' Listen to my cry for I am in desperate need." David faced and named his pain and expressed it honestly to God. So don’t sanitize your prayers. Don't say, "God, I'm sorry I'm angry. I will try harder to be nice." No. God wants us to come respectfully but honestly to him with our pain so he can speak into it and heal our wounds in his time and way. 

Back to our main point—though our pain is real, people and difficult circumstances don’t make us mad. Truth be told, we make ourselves mad. Why is that true? Listen to James's next question: “Don’t they (our anger, fights, and quarrels) come from your desires that battle within you?” Our anger comes from desires within us. We want or desire something and don't get it so we get mad. 

So this second step of looking inside our hearts requires us to face and name the "desires that battle within us." What are we wanting when we get angry? As we said earlier, Lance wanted his dad's approval. His dad wanted his son's respect. Ashley wanted to feel valued by Jake. Those are legitimate desires! Their pain was real. But they allowed the pain of their unmet desires to fuel their unrighteous anger. Here's how James says it, "You desire but do not have, so you kill" (4:2). 

After we've cooled down we need to take the second step in searching our hearts by asking, "What did I want?" We need to face our desires and name them. That takes time and honest reflection. 

When Lisa and I were first married we bought our first house. It was a “fixer-upper.” Painting our one-stall garage was the first thing I decided to do. For three weekends I scraped off old paint and put on new. Lisa had a flower pot hanging by the garage door. I lifted the flowers off the hook and sat them on the ground. I didn’t realize I was getting blotches of paint on her flowers as I continued to paint. But Lisa noticed as she looked out the kitchen window. She came out to me and said, “Look what you’re doing! You’re getting paint all over my flowers! You never pay attention to what you’re doing!!” She grabbed the pot, glared at me and marched off in a huff. That moment presented me with an excellent opportunity to practice what I’m preaching in this blog series. I had a wonderful opportunity to cool down and pray so I could begin to search my heart in order to offer a right sacrifice to my dear wife as I trusted my needs to God. I didn’t do that. In my hot anger I forgot God. I went south and literally yelled at her, “I can’t believe that for three stinking weekends I paint this garage! I don’t hear one word of encouragement from you but as soon as I make a mistake you’re out here telling me about it!”

Now, if James had stepped around the corner of the garage and asked, “Gary and Lisa, what’s the source of your anger right now?” I would've pointed at Lisa and said, "She made me mad!” And Lisa would have pointed to me. But as we cooled down, we both realized we were wrong for how we reacted to one another. We sinned and failed to offer right sacrifices.

In order for Lisa and I to take our next step in searching our hearts we had to shift from blaming each other to facing ourselves. We had to "look inside" and admit that the source of the fight we had with each other came from the desires that battled within our own hearts. I needed to ask myself, “What did I want from Lisa that I didn’t get from her?” And Lisa needed to ask what she wanted from me. 

As I said, this takes time and honest reflection to face and name what we want. It's not easy to name the tender longings we all have for love and meaning, beauty and respect. Deep down we’re all asking painfully deep questions like these: Do you love me? Am I desirable? Do you think I'm beautiful? Do I have what it takes to gain your love and respect? Am I anybody who matters to anybody?

As I searched my heart I faced what I wanted from Lisa that day at the garage: I wanted Lisa to first tell me she appreciated my hard work instead of just putting the spotlight on what I did wrong. But there was something else I wanted. I wanted her to talk to me about the paint on her flowers in a respectful way instead of just “letting me have it” for what I did. 

What did Lisa want? 

It would be easy to think, “What’s the big deal? I just got some paint on her flowers.” Her pain wasn't primarily about flowers. The problem is never the problem. The flowers were just an extension of who she was. She longed for me to care about her; to take care of her by caring for the things that mattered to her. She longed to know that she was important to me.

We’re rarely aware of these deep desires in the moment. When we get hurt we quickly go to anger and react in hurtful ways. All that takes less than a second. It's as fast as throwing a match on gasoline—wham! 

Lisa and I committed spiritual adultery against God and each other (see James 4:4–10) that day. That may sound a bit strong but it's true. We were depending on each other (false gods) for our deepest emotional needs instead of believing the truth that God's love was enough to sustain us in the face of one another's failures. Had we remembered God in the moment we were hurt, acknowledged what we longed for and believed the truth that those desires were met through the love of Jesus Christ who was with us and in us, we could have offered a right sacrifice to each other (next two blogs). We could have spoken to each other with the dignity and respect image bearers of God deserve.

Anger is always a secondary response to pain. We first get hurt and then we go to anger and then we react in sinful ways (if we forget God). That's the chosen sequence, whether we're aware of it or not. Because this all happens so quick, we often don’t realize the sequence. Only with honest reflection do we come to face and feel and name the desires and pain that fueled our anger and the hurtful reactions we made in response to our pain. Growing in this kind of self-awareness is a process. But with sooner detection comes sooner resolution.

Some people refuse to face and feel these desires for a number of reasons. Here’s a few:

We’ve never been invited to think about the deep desires of our souls.

We assume our desires are selfish and try to ignore them. But the desires of our hearts are not selfish. Reacting in hurtful ways when we don’t get what we want is selfish.

We resist facing our pain because it sounds weak. But Jesus wept over Jerusalem. He wept at the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus, and he acknowledged his weakness as he wept and prayed for strength in the garden of Gethsemane. When we face all the brokenness of life, it’s normal to feel sad. The gospel gives great hope but it doesn’t erase reality. Life hurts. 

Sometimes we just want to feel good now. In so doing, we refuse to allow the pain of this fallen world to stir our longing for a better world that’s yet to come. 

Lack of sorrow and feeling is not a mark of maturity. It often comes from a determination to be in control. It’s our way of managing the pain of life on our own instead of learning to trust in the Lord with the deep things of our hearts as Psalm 4:5 calls us to do. 

Here’s the most important reason for facing and feeling the pain that often surrounds the deep desires of our hearts: Such awareness makes us keenly aware of how needy and vulnerable we are in this world. That’s a good thing if we want to know God. Only as we face and feel these deep desires can we see how desperately we need to depend on the Lord, who alone loves us with unfailing love.

See anger as a signal. Just as a smoke alarm alerts us to the danger of fire, anger alters us to the fact that we are believing lies about who meets our needs. Do we trust in God or are we demanding a false god meet our needs like Lance, his dad, and Ashley were doing? Like Lisa and I did with each other. When we're going north and depending on God to meet our deepest needs, the pain people cause us can help us go deeper with God. But if we're depending on people to meet our needs we will go south to anger when they fail to come through for us.

Anger is the first signal that we're going south and depending on a false god to meet our needs. Don’t blow past anger when you're aware of it rising up inside of you. Catch it. Stop. Cool down. Pray. Reflect. Ask this question, "What do I want that I didn’t get?" Face it and name it, but don’t minimize it. Then bring it to God. Surrender your desires to him. Let his love be your refuge whether you feel his love in the moment or not. Let him be your God. The only other option is to forget God, take matters into your own hands, go south, and "commit many sins."

In our next blog we'll take a close look at what a right sacrifice can look like as we trust in the Lord for our deep emotional needs. 

Questions for Reflection

1. Can you see that something deeper is at the root of your anger such as shame, hurt, or rejection (not an exhaustive list)? What steps can you take to slow down and reflect on these desires so you can face them, feel them, name them, and talk honestly to God about them so he can comfort you (2 Cor. 1:3–5)?

2. How convinced are you that God deeply cares about your pain and that he longs to care for you? Why do you think that is true?

3. Do you see the sequence of hurt then anger then sinful reactions when you forget God? Can you see the idolatry that drives the sequence? What do you think is the impact of your sin on others? Do you come humbly to God for grace and forgiveness or do you tend to justify what you did based on what others did?

4. What can help you experience God's grace when you come honestly to him?