We live in an angry world.
The age of outrage.
We who lead are not immune from this unfortunate trend. How we handle anger has a huge impact on our emotional health. In Ephesians 4:26 the apostle Paul wrote: “In your anger do not sin.” Six simple words, that if followed, would drastically improve our lives both individually and collectively.
Unfortunately, anger can be a tricky emotion. Some of us have been taught it’s wrong to feel anger. In reality, anger is a neutral emotion. It’s what we do with anger that matters. Experience teaches us it’s easier to misbehave when we’re ticked off. We often say something we shouldn’t say or do something we shouldn’t do when we’re upset.
Anger can be expressed outwardly or submerged inwardly. It’s fairly easy to identify the outward variety. Anger submerged inwardly is more subtle—but it’s corrosive to our health. Repression often results in depression. Some experts have even described depression as anger turned inward. If that’s true, we need to get a handle on this emotion because life presents numerous opportunities for anger to occur.
The struggle to process anger in a healthy way is one reason devoted Christians suffer from depression in significant numbers. Many Jesus-followers are afraid to even admit they occasionally get mad. The idea that Christians are exempt from normal human emotions is ridiculous. We get angry. Denying it is not an appropriate response. Neither is blowing our top. Expressing anger without hurting others or ourselves is a more mature reaction.
The question is: how do we accomplish that? How do we manage our temper? It starts with understanding five basics:
Anger is part of the human experience
Anger happens when someone violates you or crosses a healthy boundary you’ve established. In these situations, anger is simply part of being human. It’s important to remember that when you become a Christian, you don’t trade in your humanity. You still deal with the full range of human emotion, including anger.
Anger often involves emotional residue
Several years ago, I experienced severe pain in the middle of my back. After consulting with a chiropractor, I learned the source of my back pain was a compressed vertebra in my neck. Once the chiropractor addressed the neck issue, the back pain subsided.
Likewise, the presenting occasion for our anger is often not be the real reason we are annoyed, frustrated, or outraged. Usually something is brewing beneath the surface, fueling these emotions. Emotional residue can include leftover feelings we have carried from a negative event in our past. It can center around a rough day at work which sometimes translates to over-the-top reactions toward your spouse and children at home. Sometimes jealousy or fear fuel our rage.
Discovering what is percolating beneath the surface helps us to more accurately process our anger.
Anger can sometimes be the right response
Appropriate occasions for anger can include, for example, when someone you love betrays you. If a person abuses you physically, it’s normal to get mad. (And you should put physical distance between you and the one physically abusing you, until they get the help they need to change their misbehavior.) If he or she takes advantage of you emotionally, verbally, or even spiritually, you should expect to feel negative emotions about it eventually. Anger is an appropriate response when you see injustice inflicted on others.
Anger often brings attention to root issues we need to address
I remember one summer morning when I was about twelve years old, my dad assigned one of my least favorite jobs—weeding his flower garden. Ugh. I wanted to hang out with friends, play baseball, ring a few doorbells and run away. Pulling weeds was not my idea of a good time.
While in the garage reluctantly gathering the weed-pulling tools, I spotted a stack of eight fifty-pound bags of peat moss . . . and suddenly had an idea. I could accelerate the completion of the dreaded assignment. I took all eight bags of peat moss, poured them on top of the weeds and smoothed out the pile. Dad’s flower garden never looked better. And within thirty minutes I was off to cause neighborhood mischief with my friends.
When dad returned in the evening, he glanced at my work and commended me on a job well-done. “Looks great, John.” (Somehow, he forgot about those bags in the garage). What I didn’t realize was the peat moss was actually feeding the weeds. My cover-up made the problem worse.
I don’t know what your “peat moss” is when it comes to anger. Maybe it’s simply denying your irritable feelings instead of acknowledging them as a God-given signal something in your life needs attention. Can I encourage you to stop throwing dirt over your anger in an unwise attempt to cover it up? Let God show you the root so you can deal with it and get healthy. It’s likely you’ll need to talk to another human as well about your anger. A trusted, safe friend can be a good start, or working with a skilled mentor.
Anger can alert us to our limitations
If you find yourself increasingly irritable—pay attention. Could it be due to overscheduling? Maybe it’s the result of encountering a string of emotionally-draining events with little-to-no-time-in-between for recuperation. Consider your anger as a possible indicator you’re overcommitting time and emotional resources.
Dr. Paul Meier, a respected and nationally-known psychiatrist, believes that mishandled anger is the most common cause of major depression. If he’s right, figuring out what to do with our anger is critical. Processing it starts with acknowledging our humanity, identifying any emotional residue, understanding that on occasion it’s right to feel anger, becoming aware of root issues, and admitting our limitations.
Understanding these foundational anger issues positions us to better work through this tricky emotion. If we get anger right, everybody in our relational circle wins. If we don’t . . . well, you know what happens.
Rooting and praying for you,