Summary: Anger is a two-edged sword: our disciplined responses to conflict can reflect spiritual wisdom and bear witness to the transforming power of grace. How well we control anger can reveal a lot about our spiritual health.
An OR nurse in Georgia tells the story of a couple arriving at the hospital, both of them with gunshot wounds. The husband had overslept on his first day on the job because his wife forgot to set the alarm, and he expressed his displeasure by shooting her in the arm. Not to be outdone, she retreated to another room and returned with a different gun, with which she returned the favor by also shooting him in the arm. An eye for an eye, as it were.
As the nurse was gathering their paperwork in the pre-op unit, he overheard them making up. Handcuffed to their respective gurneys and separated by a deputy sheriff, the husband began, “I love you, baby, and I’m sorry I shot you.” To which his wife responded, “I love you, too, baby, and I’m sorry I shot you back.”
It’s fair to say that our society has a real and growing problem with anger. Road rage; rising numbers of incidents involving unruly passengers on airplanes; parents brawling at their children’s sporting events; more domestic violence, and the list goes on. There’s a reason why Anger Management is a burgeoning field of psychology in these stressed and contentious times, and as more people forsake religious wisdom.
Anger is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and a subject the scriptures have a lot to say about. God knows we need a lot of help to handle this potentially destructive emotion. ‘Anger Management’ is really nothing new for those who read the Bible.
Anger isn’t all bad, of course. It has its legitimate place in our palette of emotions, especially in the form of righteous anger. When Jesus cleansed the Temple, for example, he was acting in righteous indignation at the greed and corruption of the religious leadership in Jerusalem. But our problem isn’t righteous anger; it’s undisciplined anger, a lack of wisdom and self-control, that causes us to sin and do harm to ourselves and others. The Apostle James writes about this: (Read James 1:19-21).
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Each of those behaviors require self-control, don’t they? To listen well before speaking doesn’t come naturally, nor does moderating our anger when we’re provoked. Self-control is included as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23), although it’s one we probably don’t emphasize enough. It’s a virtue that’s acquired through intentional discipline of our emotional impulses.
Being “slow to anger” is like working with high explosives. Dynamite comes with a warning, ‘Handle With Care,” for good reason. Explosives have important and constructive uses, but they require close attention and careful handling, or there are dire consequences. The same is true of how we should deal with anger: very carefully.
Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was angered by an officer who accused him of favoritism. Stanton complained about it to Lincoln, who suggested he write the officer a letter. Stanton did so, and then showed it to the president.
“What are you going to do with it?” Lincoln asked him.
Surprised by the question, Stanton replied, “Send it.”
Lincoln shook his head. “You don’t want to send that letter, “ he said. “Put it in the stove. It’s a good letter and you feel better after writing it. Now burn it and write another.”
In fact, it was Lincoln's own practice to sometimes vent his anger in writing letters he never sent. He had a drawer in his desk where those letters went after he’d written them and had time to cool down. It was his way of releasing those initial feelings so he could then act more wisely and thoughtfully, without the risk of his anger ruining a relationship. Lincoln was “slow to anger” by acting with wisdom and discipline.
James continues, “Be slow to anger, because human anger doesn’t produce the righteousness God desires.” Venting our anger works against our pursuit of righteousness and godliness. If we aren’t very careful, we can easily harm our spiritual walk and damage our Christian witness when we’re angry. Most of us have probably learned that lesson the hard way. I know I have.
“Don’t get so angry that you sin,” as Paul writes to the Ephesians. “(And) don’t let the sun go down while you’re still angry or give the devil a foothold” (4:26-27). This is a warning to us not to let our anger fester, like an untreated wound. Resentment is defined as “bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly,” and it can be just as dangerous and destructive to relationships as explosive anger. In fact, resentment is probably a bigger issue for many Christians, who try to suppress their feelings. We need to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:14) when we feel mistreated or misunderstood. No one likes confrontation, but it’s better than stuffing our feelings and having them silently poison relationships or otherwise bear bad fruit.