Anger is a valid aspect of our human experience, but how we can we respond to it?
People can vary in the extent to which they acknowledge their own anger. Anger can also manifest itself in varying shades of severity, from mild irritation, annoyance, or frustration all the way up to major rage, fury, indignation, or wrath. Let's not forget that there are also sneaky forms of anger in disguise, such as sarcasm, contempt, disdain, mocking, or derision. These tend to indicate that anger is lurking just beneath the surface, trying to express itself in ways that seem socially slick but are still potentially dangerous.
A Stranger Danger
Danger is an interesting word to associate with anger. At a common sense level, anger seems instrumental—that is, it serves a purpose, from an evolutionary standpoint. When people feel angry, they sometimes notice that their heart rate rises, blood rushes to their face or limbs, or they clench their fists or teeth. These physiological responses signal that we are preparing to fight or flee.
These are survival responses in the face of a threat. They signal that our nervous system is priming us to protect ourselves and those we care about. These are normal, healthy bodily experiences of anger in the short-term. In the long-term, however, we can experience physical or mental health problems when our anger does not resolve in a way that is constructive.
The Legitimacy of Anger
One of the classic books about anger was written by Dr. Harriet Lerner (2014). One of the most clear-eyed points she makes in the book is that anger is always legitimate as an emotion—it just is. It's not necessarily good or bad, helpful or unhelpful; it's an emotion that is present that we can become aware of.
Anger is valid. It is what we are subjectively experiencing. To paraphrase Dr. Lerner, asking "Is my anger legitimate?" is like asking "Is my thirst legitimate?" We become thirsty because our body is wired to send us this signal regarding our hydration status. We can see the absurdity of asking "Is my thirst warranted? Is it legitimate?" but it's harder for us to see the absurdity of asking these same questions regarding anger.
I would add that it's our response to anger that makes the key difference. If we peer into the ancient wisdom of the biblical scriptures, one related verse is "Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger…" (Ephesians 4:26-31; ESV). Scripture does not advise us to ignore, deny, or suppress our anger; in fact it says "be angry"! The difference is in how we respond to anger, our choices that flow out of that anger. Anger is like fire—it can be used for constructive purposes (cleansing food, clearing decay, fueling a process, providing warmth) or destructive purposes (burning people, destroying property). Its up to us to direct the fire of our anger.
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Anger in the Image of God
In the biblical scriptures, God is depicted as experiencing a range of emotions such as sorrow, joy, and… yes, anger. This may seem surprising or unacceptable to some people, but certain scripture passages clearly indicate this aspect of God's experience. For example, Psalm 7:11 reads "God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day" (ESV). Interesting that God's righteousness and anger are mentioned in the same breath here. In 2 Kings 17:18 we see that "God was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight" (ESV). These are just a few examples from the Old Testament, but this thread of God's anger can be traced through the Old and New Testament.
Though a full biblical trace of that theme is beyond the scope of this blog post, I will say that from a psychological perspective, I find it interesting that God experiences anger. In my view, human beings are created in the image of God with a body, soul, and spirit. The soul houses the heart (emotions), mind (thoughts), and will (capacity to choose). Our capacity to feel emotions—including anger—mirrors how God has a heart and experiences various emotions as well. I've puzzled over whether God experiences the emotions of fear or surprise, but that's a mystery for another day!
Righteous versus Unrighteous Anger
If we start with the assumption that God is holy and righteous, it follows that God's anger is inherently righteous. This is where God's anger and our human anger start to part ways. I believe that we experience righteous anger as well as unrighteous anger; it's also possible for us to experience a mix of both at the same time.
Righteous anger is usually an emotional experience that arises in the face of injustice or wrongdoing. Things are not as they should be; the center cannot hold; the fallenness of this world is breaking through; depravity abounds; we suffer harm from other people's broken edges; and anger can result.
Unrighteous anger usually has roots in our broken pieces as human beings, such as not getting our way, not having our preference honored, not having a goal or expectation met, or running into differences of opinion. While these are all normal aspects of the human experience, they usually stem from the more human rather than divine aspects of ourselves. I would still contend that this anger is valid (legitimate), as it is our honest human experience of emotion. Again, it's how we respond to it that matters.
A key theme of that unrighteous anger is not getting what we want—having a goal and not having it met. In James 4:1-2, we read, "What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask."
Though there are probably many possible roots of anger in our hearts, this is clearly one of them: that we desire or covet something and can't get it. We want what we want, when we want it, how we want to have it. The "it" could be anything—an object or possession, a response from another person, the changing of that other person's mind, approval, affection, status, prestige, money, etc. Sometimes we want people to behave in the way we want them to; we want people to believe as we believe to validate our own "right" perspective; we want a difficult season of life to be over and breezy summer to be here. Our goal could even be a good thing on the surface, such as wanting to care for a loved one, serve a certain population, or complete a semester.
The point is that, when our goal is not met, we can feel angry. This can inspire us to re-evaluate ourselves, what we are truly seeking, and who we are becoming in that process of seeking.
Antidotes to Anger
As I was looking through scripture verses related to anger, there were two main antidotes that stood out to me. I wonder if you can spot them implied in the verses below:
"Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly." (Proverbs 14:29; ESV)
"A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention." (Proverbs 15:18; ESV)
"Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city." (Proverbs 16:32; ESV)
"Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense." (Proverbs 19:11; ESV)
"A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back" (Proverbs 29:11)
"Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God." (James 1:19-20; ESV)
"Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools." (Ecclesiastes 7:9)
Can you guess what two antidotes came to mind?
One easy Sunday school answer is wisdom. All of proverbs is considered wisdom, so it makes sense that as we grow in God's wisdom we will be transformed out of foolishness. This doesn't mean we will feel anger less often, less intensely, or less enduringly; it means we will demonstrate more mature responses to our anger. Clearly, wisdom is one antidote to anger.
What I find really fascinating is that speed is referred to metaphorically in each of the above verses about anger. At least in the ESV translation, the word slow recurs throughout many of these verses about anger. Is it possible that sometimes when we are angry, we are moving too fast and need to slow down?
When I think of slowing down, the fruit of the spirit that comes to mind is patience. When the Holy Spirit transforms someone over time, they bear the collective fruit of the spirit—"love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23; ESV). Though all of these could potentially offset anger, patience is particularly intriguing as an antitode to anger. There are examples in scripture of patience meaning waiting… not even for minutes or days but for years, sometimes decades. This is sometimes referred to as patient endurance (Revelation 13:10; Romans 5:3; Hebrews 10:32; Hebrews 10:36; James 1:3-4).
In Psalm 37, I see anger being set in parallel with patience and waiting:
"Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret nor yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land." (Psalm 37: 7-9; ESV)
Note that this psalm isn't invalidating the realities of anger or denying that there is evil in the universe. It's actually speaking directly into these realities and pointing us to patience and waiting as portals we can enter.
When I point to wisdom and patience as antidotes to anger, I don't mean to imply that these are quick fixes. I also don't mean to imply the logical converse—that people who feel angry are lacking in wisdom or patience—because that simply isn't true. I also don't mean to imply that we should prescribe wisdom and patience to people as pat responses to their own anger. The primary domain of concern for each of us is our own heart. Each of us has the hope available of trusting God to grow within us wisdom and patience over time. This is a mysterious, slow, life-long process of allowing those seeds to be sown, watered, and tended over time within us.
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Lerner, H. (2014). Dance of anger: A woman's guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships. Harper Collins.