A man is about as big as the things that make him angry – Winston Churchill
On the afternoon that Lisa left home to quietly meditate on the day’s events, things had gotten out of hand enough to terrify her. She had always had trouble managing her anger. But she had never thrown a plate at anyone before, not until that moment when, during an argument with her husband, the heavy plate she had been washing in the sink suddenly flew towards his head. Luckily, it missed its target and broke the painted window behind him. The building manager was already on his way when John, Lisa’s husband, calmly told her that he would not lie when asked about how the window had become a pile of shards. The deafening silence that settled over them forced Lisa from the room. She was sitting in her car wondering if the incident would reach the newspaper, frightened both by what she had done, and what her husband’s parishioners would think. They were unfamiliar with a pastor’s wife hurling plates as if she was a skilled discus thrower.
Stories like the one told by Lisa Bevere might confuse those who believe that an ‘angry Christian’ is simply an oxymoron. However, it can be used as a way to start a discussion on how anger affects us when we fail to manage it. Such a discussion can also touch on how anger can sometimes be legitimate within the cluster of emotions, feelings, and reactions that Christians experience.
Is there a good kind of anger?
“In its uncorrupted origin, anger is actually a form of love”, says Pastor Timothy Keller, explaining that anger can be active love that responds to a threat to the people we love. We get angry at drunk drivers who get behind the wheel because we know that our families or friends may suffer because of such reckless behaviour.
According to the Bible, anger is a natural human emotion, counsellor Karen Green observes, quoting Paul the Apostle: “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26). When we manage to control it, anger has a number of positive aspects, says Green: it signals our need to solve an annoying problem, and motivates us to take a stand against injustices in society. Expressing anger protects us from the adverse effects of keeping anger inside.
Anger “is a proof of our nobility, not of our depravity”, it points to our concern for justice, and therefore, for morality.
The Bible says that God is love. However, the word ‘anger’ is found 455 times in the Old Testament, 375 of those times referring to God’s wrath. The New Testament records several occasions when Jesus was angry. Divine anger and love are not mutually exclusive attributes, argues marriage counsellor Gary Chapman. Love is the reason why God is angry with everything that affects the well-being of His creatures.
When it comes to human anger, it too is far from being a sinful or wrong feeling. It proves that we were created in the image and likeness of God, Chapman argues. We have a pretty clear picture of what is right and wrong, and anger usually erupts in situations where we think that someone has wronged us. Therefore, while our perception of injustice may or may not be valid, anger itself is “proof of our nobility, not of our depravity”, revealing our need for justice, and therefore our morality.
Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), one of the most popular and influential non-governmental organisations in the United States, was founded by a grieving, angry mother. On May 3, 1980, Cari Lightner, a 13-year-old girl from California, was killed by a driver who lost control of his car. Her mother, Candy Lightner, learned from local policemen that the driver had been arrested for drunk driving and was liable to a fairly easy sentence, even though he had fled the scene of the accident (eventually, he was jailed for 21 months). A few months later, Candy Lightner founded an organisation to fight what she called “the only form of socially acceptable homicide” and over the next two decades, drunk driving laws became much tougher, leading to a 40% decrease in deaths by this type of accident.
Anger’s incandescent side
If we are honest, we should admit that very often our anger is not ignited by the injustice we see around us (abusive relationships, cruelty to animals, violation of someone’s rights). In fact, too often we express a distorted, tainted anger, caused by unfulfilled expectations, false assumptions, mere discomfort, and other things that have nothing to do with an unfair situation, Chapman points out.
Explosive, uncontrolled anger, whether justified or not, comes with a series of negative consequences: it distorts our thoughts, can lead to physical or emotional injuries of others, and can lead to regrettable actions, even deeds condemned by law. It turns family members and friends against each other. And, finally, it impacts our health.
Chronic anger leads to increased anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and can reduce the immune system’s ability to fend off threats, leading to an increased risk of infection, and even of cancer, says cardiologist Cynthia Thaik.
Some studies have suggested that there is a link between anger and the onset of coronary heart disease. In fact, an analysis published in 2000, which collected data from nearly 13,000 subjects, showed that a high level of anger doubles the risk of coronary heart disease, and increases the risk of a heart attack almost threefold, even in the case of normal blood pressure.
“If the anger is sustained and the blood pressure is affected and the heart rate is affected, that, indirectly, can lead to coronary disease or disease of the heart muscle”, says cardiologist Michael Kutcher of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
“Either end of the continuum is problematic”, says Laura Kubzansky, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, explaining that both explosive and unexpressed anger harms the body, keeping it stressed and on guard to deal with a crisis.
In addition, people who fuel negative emotions tend to make poor choices about their lifestyles. “We know that anxious, depressed, angry people are more likely to smoke, less likely to engage in physical activity, have poor nutritional habits, and drink to excess”, Kuzbansky concludes.
How do we control our anger?
We are the ones responsible for how we perceive a negative experience, but we also have the power to adjust the intensity of our responses. Many people apologise for their outbursts by claiming that they cannot control themselves. However, “ninety-nine percent of the time that’s not the case. What they really ought to be saying is: ‘I’m not putting enough time and effort into controlling my emotions'”, says psychologist and anger management expert Grant Brecht.
Experts recommend different methods of managing anger. If anger often escalates, or becomes a permanent feeling, it may be necessary to seek specialised help.
Anger has many sides – sometimes it hides behind fear, other times it disguises itself as sadness. Unresolved anger can be transferred to other people, and unrelated situations.
Self-awareness is an important step in the process of extinguishing anger correctly. Often, we are not aware of our anger. Christians may have additional reasons for not revealing their anger when they equate this natural emotion with sin. Anger has many facets that can make it difficult to recognise. Sometimes it hides behind fear, other times it disguises itself in sadness and, not infrequently, unresolved anger is transferred to other people and situations, says counsellor Karen Green.
Controlling our initial reactions protects us from the danger of expressing our anger in a destructive way, either verbally or physically. We have all heard of counting to 10 before reacting, but we may often need to count to 100 or more. We should use this pause to reflect on the cause of our anger, to clarify the seriousness of the problem, and to pray for the wisdom to manage the incident.
Analyse the many options that are clouding our judgement. When it comes to Christians, the range of reactions to an injustice we have suffered is reduced to two, Chapman points out: to confront the person, in an appropriate manner, with the mistake he has committed, and to accept that the wrong has already been done, ceding to God the right to judge and to solve this problem. Each option has its advantages, and the second option does not amount to the internalisation of anger, but simply the renunciation of the right to take revenge according to biblical counsel (“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay’, says the Lord” – Romans 12:19).
Expressing anger must take place in a non-confrontational way, clearly stating concerns and needs, without hurting or manipulating others. Specialists from Mayo Clinic point out that it is preferable to use first-person singular verbs (“I’m upset because housework is always my responsibility”, instead of “You’ve never been interested in household chores”). Anger will only make things worse if the discussion does not cover both the things that sparked anger, and possible solutions.
Physical activity is a great way to relax and relieve stress, and as an intervention in anger management. If you know you’re going to be in a situation that could irritate you, it’s a good idea to go running for a bit beforehand, advises stress psychologist Nathaniel Thom, who says that “exercise, even a single bout of it, can have a robust prophylactic effect”.
When anger gets out of control and makes someone do things they regret, it is time for that person to seek specialised help to guide them on regaining control of their emotions.
Anger’s milestone, and how to go beyond it
Forgiveness involves focusing on God rather than on the one who has wronged us.
A genuine Christian should be “slow to become angry” (James 1:19), because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Citing this text in James, Lisa Bevere argues, in a book that explores her own struggle with anger, that anger is not the best way to react, even if we are treated unfairly.
To free ourselves from anger, we will need to forgive the offenses that have been inflicted on us. Forgiveness involves focusing on God rather than the one who has wronged us. This does not change the situation, but substantially changes our perspective.
The alternative is by no means preferable, remarks the writer and theologian Frederick Beuchner: “To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come (…) is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.