Defusing Anger

Flying home from a ministry trip I once sat next to a woman on the plane who gave me a vivid illustration of the damage anger can do. Her brother and his wife had an argument a few weeks previous and when he turned to walk away, his wife angrily hit him with a metal crutch. The unsuspected blow caused internal injuries that almost cost him his life. Now his liver is not functioning; he needs a transplant to recover.

Harmful Anger

Oh the damage anger can do! We all regret the times it has dominated our emotions, resulting in words and actions we regret afterward. On the other hand, what a difference a temperate attitude would have in our own heart and in our relationships. Defusing anger will do wonders to restore marriages and reconcile parents with their children.

At the outset we should acknowledge that the emotion itself need not be sinful; it is a natural response to a perceived threat. “Be angry, and do not sin … (Eph. 4:26). So the emotion is somewhat automatic, but the way we deal with it is definitely a moral problem–and a big one for many.

It’s common to attempt to rationalize having a bad temper: “That’s just my personality.” “I inherited it from my parents.” “I’m Irish” (as in Notre Dame University’s ‘Fighting Irish’). “I’m a redhead; what do you expect?!” “It’s not my fault; everyone around me just makes me lose my temper!” Such statements are just excuses.

If it were just an unchangeable trait like freckles, Scripture wouldn’t exhort us to avoid selfish displays of temper: “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth” (Col. 3:8). “For the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

Living wisely includes cultivating a peaceful disposition. Proverbs declares “[The one] slow to anger [is] better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prov. 16:32 Cf. 14:17; 27:4; 19:11)

The past is littered with negative examples of the damage caused by human wrath. It deprived Moses of entrance into the Promised Land (Num. 20:10); it caused King Asa to be stricken with leprosy (2 Chron. 16:10); and it drove proud Haman to persecute the Jews until he himself was condemned and executed (Esther 3:5). [1]

Righteous Anger

But what about God’s anger? When expressed, His anger springs from a zeal to defend justice (Psalm 90:7,9,11). God’s holy anger never contradicts His nature of unfailing love (1 John 4:8-12).

And some have questioned episodes in the life of Jesus that reveal anger. Yes, Christ had anger when He cursed the fig tree, yet this act was a parabolic warning [2]. Christ also used the miraculous withering of the tree to teach the value of faith in prayer.

The most obvious case of wrath in Christ’s ministry is the cleansing of the temple (John 2:13-17). Here we have a case of righteous indignation. The Court of the Gentiles should have been treated with respect. Although it was the special place of prayer for non-Jewish believers in God, it had become a marketplace. The religious leaders ripped off worshipers who had to pay exorbitant prices for the required sacrifices and Temple currency. The Sadducees were raking in a huge profit and causing financial strain on Jerusalem’s pilgrims.

But we should resist the temptation to say, “My angry episodes are due to righteous indignation”! I like W.E. Sangster’s answer to that excuse:

“We shall call anger ‘righteous indignation’ when pure concern for the suffering of others leads a man to bold and costly action, and we shall call it something else (however natural it may be!) when their blazing indignation has been provoked by some set-back to themselves. It may still seem ‘righteous’ in their own eyes, but we are not the best judges of our own ‘righteousness.’ In any case, Christ’s example is clear. Nothing that ever happened in this universe was more unrighteous than the Cross. But they did not crucify an angry man.” [3]

Sangster also commented on the unique qualities of Jesus’ anger:

“Anger is natural at one level and supernatural at another. The natural man blazes with anger at personal injury and injustice, but bears with shocking composure the greater iniquities and injustices of others. Christ bore with sublime serenity the heaped up indignities and injustices heaped upon Himself, and burned with anger at the foul exploitation of the truly pious and the poor. The difference is clear, clean and enormous. Hate at its most venomous nails Him to two pieces of wood and provokes Him to nothing but prayers for His murderers’ pardon.” [4]

How can we defuse unrighteous anger?
1. Relinquish your rights.

Anger rises when we feel that our rights have been violated. This reminds me of the time years ago when a wayward cyclist ran into the fender of my parked car. After he rode away I realized what had happened and went out to the road side to inspect my car. There was a sizable dent! Was I thinking about the dazed cyclist (who by then was out of sight)? No, I was mad that my car was dented! What right of mine was violated? The assumed right to have an undented car! Think about your last angry episode (a long time ago, right?!) To what right can you trace back the anger?

There is a radical solution to cure most inappropriate anger: give up your rights! That’s not an easy or popular solution, but it’s a biblical and effective one. Paul testified that he was a bondservant (Greek–‘doulos’) of the Lord Jesus (Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10) and so are we (1 Cor. 7:22). Even Christ adopted this attitude for his earthly ministry–He took the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7). And how many rights does a bond servant have? None!

This doesn’t mean that we are to be doormats. [5] However, when we yield our rights to God, those around us are still responsible to obey God’s commandment to treat us with love (Matt. 22:39) and will be held accountable if they don’t (Rom. 12:19; Gal 6:7). This frees us up to humble ourselves when mistreated, knowing that God will give us more grace (the desire and power to do His will with joy – James 4:6). However, the laws of the land should be used to gain protection from illegal mistreatment (Rom. 13:1-7).

2. Reduce selfish anger by maintaining a clear conscience. Tension from unresolved guilt “shortens our fuse” in our relationships with others. “He who sows iniquity will reap sorrow, And the rod of his anger will fail” (Prov. 22:8). Our defense against guilt is the righteousness freely given us when we take refuge in Christ (1 Cor. 1:30). And as we walk in the light, we enjoy unhindered communion with God and the ongoing cleansing that is maintained by confessing known sin (1 John 1:3-9).

In the legend of Sinbad, he and his sailors landed on a tropical island where they needed food and drink. High in the trees, beyond their reach, were coconuts. But how could they get them? There were apes perched high in the trees, oblivious to their plight. So, the sailors threw stones and sticks up at the apes. Instead of swinging away, the apes grew mad and picked the closest objects to throw back at the men on the ground — the coconuts! But that is just what the men wanted; their plan was successful! Even so, our anger may incite us to act out of the flesh and so play into the hands of the Enemy (and we don’t want him to make a ‘monkey’ out of us …).

3. Take back ground from the Enemy. “‘Be angry, and do not sin’: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil” (Eph. 4:26,27). If we hold on to selfish anger, it gives the devil “ground.” Spiritual enemies attack our mind with deceptions and our will with temptations (1 Peter 5:8,9).

As we depend upon the Holy Spirit’s strength, we have an effective strategy for dealing with conflicts. James advises us to, “be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19). And Proverbs counsels us that, “A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). Someone has said, “Swallowing angry words before you say them is better than having to eat them afterwards.”

We can defuse selfish anger when Christ is living in and through us (Gal. 2:20). As we abide in Him, the fruit of His supernatural life is expressed, including “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22,23). May we seek His grace to replace anger with supernatural patience!


Notes:

[1] At the dawn of history Cain murdered his brother Abel due to unresolved anger. The LORD had warned him, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire [is] for you, but you should rule over it” (Gen 3:6-7). This sin “crouches at our door” too, but it can be mastered by the power of the indwelling Christ! (Phil. 4:13).

[2] As the fig tree in leaf should have had early figs at that time of year (although it wasn’t yet the season of fully ripened ones), so Israel appeared eager to celebrate their Messiah, but in reality had no “fruit” of repentance and faith in Him – Matt. 21:18-22. Cf. Isaiah 5:1-7 which uses similar imagery.

[3] W.E. Sangster, The Secret of Radiant Life, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, p 143.

[4] Ibid., p.142.

[5] Injustice is not ignored. When the high priest ordered Christ to be struck (unlawfully), “Jesus answered him, ‘If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike Me?'” (John 18:23).

Copyright 2000 by John Woodward. 3rd edition. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Please credit the author and GraceNotebook.com. Scripture quotations (unless indicated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.  Emailed 10/18/19

Copyright, John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint this article for non-commercial use. Scripture quotations (unless indicated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

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