Dealing With Your Anger
Chances are, almost everyone here was angry at least once this past week. It may have been minor frustration with another driver or being irritated with your kids for not putting away their toys. It could have been a situation at work. Some husbands and wives live with daily anger and hurt feelings. Some parents and their children are in a constant battle of outbursts of anger and abusive words. Many adults have hurts from childhood that keep bubbling to the surface. Every time they think about them, they seethe with anger.
Don't be thinking you don't get angry or downplay it. In The Christian Counsellor's Manual ([Baker], p. 359), Jay Adams states, “Anger is a problem for every Christian; sinful anger is probably involved in 90 percent of all counselling problems.”
Think of what would happen if everyone learned to deal with their anger! Child abuse and divorce would be eradicated. Murder, terrorism, and war would stop. And many health problems would clear up. Doctors believe that anger can harm the heart as much as smoking and high blood pressure do. The number one predictor in cardiovascular disease—more important than cholesterol—is mismanaged anger. Besides high blood pressure and heart disease, anger can result in many other serious health problems. So our text is very practical. Paul says, Christians must put aside all sinful anger and abusive speech.
Col 3:8 But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.
If you’re honest, your reaction to this verse is probably, “I agree! But, really, how do you do it?” It’s easy to say, “Put all your anger and abusive speech aside.” But it’s another thing to do it!
Paul’s advice here reminds me of the hilarious Bob Newhart routine where he is a psychologist and a woman comes for counsel because she is afraid of being buried alive in a box. (Watch it on You Tube when you need a good laugh.) Newhart’s counsel for her phobia, plus several other problems, consists of two words: “Stop it!” He screams it at her over and over, “Just stop it!” She tries to bring up how her mother treated her as a child, but Newhart says, “No, we don’t go there. Just stop it!”
Well, here Paul seems to say, “You’re angry? Just stop it!” “But, Paul, when I was a child, my parents abused me. So now I seethe with anger.” “Put it all aside!”
“But, Paul, my wife nags me constantly until I explode with anger.” “Put it all aside!”
“But Paul, my husband is a workaholic who leaves all the housework and dealing with the kids to me. He’s so inconsiderate! I’m so angry with him!” “Put it all aside!”
“But, Paul, my kids don’t do what I say, no matter how many times I ask them to do it. The only way I can get them to obey is to yell at them!” “Put it all aside!”
“But, Paul, you don’t understand. My boss at work favours his daughter who works for the company and he treats me unfairly. I get so angry. I just hate him!” “Put it all aside!”
It’s as if Paul had taken lessons from Bob Newhart! He doesn’t say that it will take years of psychotherapy to work through your anger issues. He doesn’t tell these new believers to sign up for an anger management class. He simply tells them, “Put it all aside.”
I wonder if we’ve made things more complicated than they need to be. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul writes to people from pagan backgrounds who had been involved in some pretty serious sins which undoubtedly left them wounded and scarred (Col. 3:5-7). They didn’t have study Bibles and Christian books on how to deal with anger. There were no video series by famous Christian counsellors. In fact, there were no Christian counsellors! There were no magazines offering self-help articles on anger management. And all Paul says is, “Put it all aside.” That’s amazing! What can we learn from this verse in the context of this letter?
1. Honestly analyze your anger to determine whether it is righteous, sinful, or mixed.
It is striking that in verse 6 Paul mentions the wrath of God, but then in verse 8 he tells us to put aside all anger and wrath (“anger” in v. 8 is the same Greek word as “wrath” in v. 6). But if God has wrath and He gets angry (Exod. 34:6; Ps. 7:6) and we are to be godly, then why do we need to put aside all wrath and anger?
In Colossians 4:16, Paul tells his readers to swap letters with the church in Laodicea. Many scholars think that Ephesians was a circular letter sent to all the churches in Asia Minor and that it’s the one he refers to as coming from Laodicea. If so, the Colossians also read it. In Ephesians 4:26 (quoting Psalm 4:4) Paul wrote, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Then, a few verses later (Eph. 4:31), he told his readers to put aside all anger. These and other Scriptures show that anger can be either righteous or sinful. What’s the difference?
Righteous anger is the godly reaction to sin or injustice. God’s wrath is His settled opposition against sin. In fact, most biblical references to anger refer to God’s anger, not to human anger. Jesus was angry without sinning when He encountered unbelief and hypocrisy (Mark 3:5; John 2:14-17; Matt. 21:12-13; 23:13-33). If we become like Him, we, too, will be angry and feel hatred toward sin, hypocrisy, and injustice. In fact, when you hear of babies being slaughtered by abortion or of criminals going without proper punishment, it raises a righteous anger!
So the first step in dealing with your anger is to stop and honestly analyze it: Is it righteous anger, sinful anger, or a mixture of both? Think about why you’re angry. God used this approach with Cain when He asked, “Why are you angry?” (Gen. 4:6). God never asks questions to gain information, but rather to help the person think about the situation from God’s perspective. Cain was angry because God had rejected his sacrifice and he was jealous of his brother, whose sacrifice God had accepted. God went on to exhort Cain to do well and to warn him that sin was crouching at the door, ready to devour him. But Cain ignored God’s counsel and murdered his brother.
The prophet Jonah was angry because he wanted God to judge his enemies, but instead God had brought a revival and forgiven them. God specifically asked Jonah more than once, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” (Jon. 4:4, 9) Jonah angrily insisted that he did have good reason to be angry, but it’s obvious that he did not.
So, be careful! The Scottish hymn writer, George Matheson, said, “There are times when I do well to be angry, but I have mistaken the times.” It’s easy to justify sinful anger by claiming that it was righteous. And even legitimately righteous anger is often tainted by sinful anger.
The embarrassing truth is that when I analyze my anger, almost always it is rooted in selfishness: I didn’t get my way and I want my way! I didn’t get my rights and I demand my rights! So the first step in overcoming anger is to analyze it honestly before God by looking at why you were angry. If selfishness had any part in your anger, it was sinful.
But, maybe you’re thinking, “How is that helpful? Admitting that my anger was sinful only makes me feel guilty!” But, the good news is that the Bible has the solution for victory over sin! Thus …
2. You can control your sinful anger.
Christ died both to take away the guilt of our sins and to give us power through the indwelling Holy Spirit to overcome our sins. Paul’s simple command to put aside our anger implies that we can control it. He doesn’t make exceptions for those with short fuses or for those who have been victimized. He just says (Col. 3:8), “Put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.”
You may protest, “But the problem is, I can’t control it! I explode before I think about it. Telling me to stop being angry is like Bob Newhart telling that claustrophobic woman to stop it.” But that’s not true. I offer two proofs:
First, the Bible never commands us to do what we cannot do by the power of God’s indwelling Spirit. Besides Paul’s commands here and in Ephesians, there are many other direct commands in the Bible. The Book of Proverbs has well over a dozen verses about controlling anger (e.g., 12:18; 14:16, 17, 29; 15:1, 18; 16:32; 17:14; 19:11). God told Cain that he must master his sin and temptation (Gen. 4:7). While Cain probably did not have the Holy Spirit indwelling him, if he had cried out, “God, I can’t master my sin! Give me Your strength to obey You,” God graciously would have answered.
But all believers in Jesus Christ have the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 12:13). In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul lists a number of deeds of the flesh, including “enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, and envying,” which all are related to sinful anger. He goes on (Gal. 5:22-23) to list the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control,” most of which are the opposite of sinful anger. The key to moving from the deeds of the flesh to the fruit of the Spirit is (Gal. 5:16): “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”
So while it may be humanly impossible to control your anger, if you’ll confess it as sin and learn to walk in the Spirit in obedience to God, you can control it or else God’s Word is not true. The word “fruit” implies that it is a growth process. These qualities require nurture and attention. But if, the second you feel anger welling up inside of you, you stop long enough to recognize it as sin, yield to the Holy Spirit, and rely on His strength, you will see increasing victories over your anger.
Second, your own experience proves that you can control your anger if you want to do so. Every one of us has controlled our anger—instantly turned it off—when we wanted to. For example, you’re having a heated argument with your spouse when the phone rings. You pick it up and hear my voice on the other end. “Oh, pastor! How nice of you to call!” What are you doing? Yes, you’re being a hypocrite! But, also, you’re controlling your anger! Or, your boss does something that makes your blood boil, but you know that if you explode at him, it will cost you your job. So you keep a lid on it. You’re controlling your anger. (I’m indebted to Adams, ibid., p. 352, note 8, for this basic idea.)
Even non-Christians can control their anger. Magazines like Reader’s Digest often feature self-help articles with tips on how to control your anger. Psychologists offer anger-management classes that must be somewhat effective or they would not continue to get students. Gandhi had a motto on his wall which read, “When you are in the right, you can afford to keep your temper; when you are in the wrong, you cannot afford to lose it.” So if the world without God can control anger, we who have the Holy Spirit living in us need to get rid of the excuse that we just can’t control our anger. That’s not true.
What is it we are to control? “Anger” and “wrath” are often used somewhat synonymously. If there is a difference, “anger” has the nuance of a settled, deep-seated animosity that grows into hatred. “Wrath” comes from the Greek word meaning, “to boil” and refers to outbursts of anger (Luke 4:28; Acts 19:28; Gal. 5:20). “Malice” is a general term for wickedness; here refers to, “Having it in for someone.”
“Slander” is the word used for blasphemy against God, which means to damage God’s honour or reputation. Here it means to speak against someone by tearing down their reputation. You make them look bad and yourself look good. “Abusive speech” means using insults, whether profanity or not, to put down another person. It’s the opposite of words that build up the other person and give him grace (Eph. 4:29). Our anger usually works its way out in angry words that tear into the other person. But Paul’s command shows that we don’t have to yell or use foul language that attacks the one we’re angry at. We can control our tongue, even when we’re angry, to bring grace and healing.
So the first step when you’re angry is to stop long enough to analyze it: Is it righteous, sinful, or mixed. Then, realize that you can control your sinful anger.
3. Recognize and confess your sinful anger and submit to God’s sovereign hand in the situation.
Before I can deal with my anger by putting these things aside, I’ve got to recognize that I am angry, that it’s sin, and that I’m responsible for it. If you’re really brave, ask your wife, “Am I an angry man?” But don’t get angry if she tells you the truth! So many Christians either deny being angry; or, they’ve bought into the psychological hogwash that says, “Feelings aren’t right or wrong; feelings just are.” So rather than confessing their anger as sin and turning from it, they accept it as okay. I’ve known of Christian counsellors who tell angry people that they have a right to be angry because of how they’ve been treated. Some even advise, “Tell God off! He can take it! Tell Him how angry you are with Him!” These are unbiblical, worldly strategies for dealing with anger.
God’s way is not for us to blame the person who wronged us or to justify our anger as right when it is sin. It’s never right to blame God for allowing some difficult situation that came into my life! Rather, when I’m angry I should acknowledge, “I have sinned” (2 Sam. 12:13; Ps. 51:4) Confessing it means accepting responsibility for it and taking appropriate action to turn from it. It means going to the one I was angry with and asking forgiveness. I must believe that God sovereignly out of His goodness allowed whatever happened to me for my good. So I must submit joyfully to His mighty hand (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28; 1 Pet. 5:6-10), asking Him to teach me what I need to learn from this trial.
4. Deal radically and decisively with all of your sinful anger.
The command of verse 8 parallels that of verse 5, where Paul said to put these sins to death. “Put them aside,” was used of taking off a garment. In Colossians 3:12-14, Paul commands us to put on many godly behaviours, summarized by love. “Putting off” and “putting on” are decisive actions that we can and must do. The Holy Spirit produces His fruit of self-control in us, but we are responsible to walk in the Spirit so that we do not fulfil the deeds of the flesh, such as anger. A passive approach to anger doesn’t work. You’ve got to confront it head on; it won’t go away by itself.
To deal radically and decisively with anger, you’ve got to develop a biblical strategy. First (and foremost!), make sure that you’ve trusted in Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and give you eternal life. The minute you believe in Jesus, you receive the Holy Spirit who takes up permanent residence in your heart. Then you need to learn to walk in moment by moment dependence on the Spirit, yielding control of your life to Him.
Also, memorize key Scriptures that relate to anger. Proverbs 12:18 states, “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” You can use your tongue like a sword to destroy or like a scalpel to heal. God has brought that verse to my mind many times just as I was ready to start swinging my “sword”! Another helpful verse is James 1:19-20, “But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” There are many other helpful verses that God can use, but only if you’ve committed them to memory. You won’t have a Bible and concordance available when you’re tempted to be angry!
If you have sinned by being angry, go to the person and humbly ask forgiveness for your wrong. If as husband and wife, you’ve argued angrily in the presence of your kids, call the family together. Men, take the initiative by telling your kids, “When I yelled at your mom, I sinned. I’ve asked God to forgive me and I asked your mother to forgive me. I want to learn how to please God by not getting angry in the future.” Ask your kids’ forgiveness when you get angry with them. Otherwise, they will smell hypocrisy: Dad claims to be a Christian and he puts on a good front at church, but he doesn’t act like a Christian at home!” Our homes should be permeated with the love of Christ, not with sinful anger.
Also, to conquer your anger, spend time daily meditating on God’s mercy to you at the cross. Paul goes on to say (Col. 3:12-13), “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” How did He forgive us? Paul already told us (Col. 2:13): “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.” Now we are totally identified with Christ, who is our life (Col. 3:1-4)! Meditate on these wonderful truths daily!
Another way to deal decisively with anger is, pray for and with those you’re angry with. If a quarrel erupts in the family, husbands, take the initiative to say, “Hold on! Let’s stop and ask God for wisdom on how to resolve this His way.” Don’t preach at your mate or at your kids with your prayer: “Lord, please help my wife and kids not to be so angry!” Confess your own anger and ask the Lord to help you show His love to your family.
The point is, your anger won’t get better by itself if you don’t take radical, decisive action to put it aside. You’ve got to recognize that all sinful anger and abusive speech are not pleasing to the Lord. They’re old, dirty clothes, but they should be cast aside by the person who has died to the old life and has been raised up to new life with Christ. Don’t accept it or excuse it as normal. Anger can be controlled if you analyze it as to its source, recognize and confess it as sin, and deal decisively with it as you walk in the Spirit.
In the Sermon on the Mount, after speaking about how anger makes us guilty of murder in God's sight, deserving of hell, Jesus applied it by saying (Matt. 5:23-24), “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” To paraphrase, “If you’re at church and you remember that you’re at odds with someone, God is more concerned about your being reconciled to that person than He is with your worship while you’re still at odds.”
Our relationships, especially in our families, are very important to the Lord! Don’t live in anger all week long and then put on a veneer of worshiping God on Sundays. He wants us to put aside the old, dirty clothes of sinful anger and abusive speech and to put on the new, clean clothes of love, kindness, and forgiveness in Christ. The Lord’s Supper is a frequent reminder of how He forgave us. Even so, we are to forgive and love one another.
Is Paul’s command to put aside all anger simplistic? How much do we need to probe the past to resolve our anger issues?
What has been the most difficult aspect for you in controlling your anger? How can you deal with it?
Since anger is largely a feeling, how can God command us not to be angry? Can we control our feelings? At what point do our angry feelings become sin?
God asks Cain (Gen. 4:6), “Why are you angry?” How can asking yourself that question help you deal with your anger?