Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Advice on Dealing with Anger"

Ephesians 4:26-27, 31-32

Mark 11:11-12, 15-19

      “How could you do that!?!” Cindy screeched at her husband Al.  “You make me furious!”  With that, Cindy slammed the kitchen cabinet door with such force that all the spice jars jumped out of the rack on the side of the cabinet and crashed into the sink.  Without so much as a word, Al did one of those quiet storm things out of the kitchen.  He went straightaway to his shed where he began working on his lawn tractor.  Like most guys, Al often released his anger through physical exertion.  That made him a standout linebacker in high school, and a very productive mechanic in his adult life.  Meanwhile, Cindy remained in the kitchen simmering her beef stew, and simmering her feelings.  Al’s anger dissipated.  Feeling guilty, and being the Christian woman she was, Cindy changed the label for her emotions from anger to hurt.

      An hour or so later, Al came back into the house with a sheepish grin on his face and asked Cindy, “You still mad?”  “I don’t wanna talk about it,”  “See that, I try to be nice, but I knew you’d still be mad.”  “I’m not mad.  I’m hurt.”  “Same thing,” “It’s not the same think Al!”  “It is so!”  With voices rising and faces reddening, the anger surfaced again.  So back to the shed and back to the stew.  And on it goes……

      Anger.  To reapply an old adage, it seems we can’t live with it, and we can’t live without it.  Yet we use all kinds of labels to mask our anger:  irritation, exasperation, uptightness, out of sorts, bad hair day.  Typically, Christian folk will admit to being frustrated, or cranky, or whatever; but not so easily to being angry.  After all, many of us have been taught that a good Christian doesn’t get angry.  We may deny the emotion of anger by changing its name, but it’s still there.  Even if we explode with a tirade of expletives [and yes, even Christian folk sometimes let go with a cuss word or two], we tend to deny or bury our anger by blaming other people  or situations for our losing it.  But anger is real, and being a Christian doesn’t give us a pass on this emotion.  So the question under consideration this morning is:  How are we as Christians to deal with anger in a Christ-like way?  And I submit that to deal with anger in a Christ-like way is to deal with it in a healthy way.

    Cindy and Al demonstrate two common ways to react to anger: an outburst of rage, or silent displacement. Most of us tend to react in one way or the other to varying degrees, depending on our temperament, our mood, our psychological makeup, the examples we saw in our families of origin, and/or the particular situa-tion.  Either of these ways we deal with our anger – by spontaneous combustion or simmering silence – risks hurting ourselves and our relationships with others.  In either case, communication breaks down, and that which set off the anger remains unresolved. 

      In the early 1970’s when I was studying clinical psychology, experts in the field suggested that it was most healthy to just go ahead and explode; to let it all hang out.  The popularity of therapies such as primal scream therapy and no holds barred encounter groups reflected this belief.  We were assured that it was far healthier to vent our anger than to hold it inside.  That advice made and, to many, makes good sense.  But what the experts failed to take into account was how those near the epicenter or even within range of the explosion were severely impacted; taking the shrapnel in a manner of speaking.  These days, most mental health theories claim that when we allow ourselves to erupt with neither restraint nor forethought, it often has the effect of intensifying the anger and creating more explosions, sometime worse than the initial blast.  Medical professionals recognize that anger improperly dealt with – whether turned outward or inward – can have negative physical consequences ranging from high blood pressure, to headaches, to anxiety and depression, to ulcers, and may even lead to the development of certain types of cancer. 

      Yet we learn the hard way that when we explode in anger, we can lose a job; destroy a friendship; shatter a marriage; crush a child’s fragile self-esteem, and even far worse.  Common sense should warn us that ranting and raving, and slamming doors, and punching holes in walls, only directs our attention away from solutions.  Take it from someone who’s slammed a few doors and even put a few holes in walls himself.  It’s hard to communicate constructively when we’re having a conniption. 

      So is the answer to dealing with our anger without destroying ourselves and our relationships to bury it and harbor resentment?  Proverbs 29:11 says this:  “A fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back.”  Let us not misread this to say “holds it ininstead of “holds it back.”  Some believe that if they bury their anger- stuff their anger down - no one will get hurt.  But they hurt themselves.  Anger turned inward can lead, among other things, to chronic fatigue, low self-esteem, and clinical depression.  Suppressed anger which hides itself in silence, sulking or seething  can be every bit as destructive as explosive anger.  Again, communication is short-circuited.  Resentment grows deep inside us, and it grows inside those trying to relate to us.  In the long view, it affects all other parts of an individual’s emotional constellation.  In an arti-cle entitled “What, Me Angry?” in the New York Times, Maggie Scarf wrote:  “As most clinicians will attest, squelching or denying the level of one’s anger involves lowering the overall intensity of other powerful feelings such as joy, passion, pride, and contentment.”  So as Christians, we might find ourselves at an impasse regard-ing what to do with our anger.  Is it better to choke and churn?  Is it better to rant and rave?  Or is there some balance which at once deals with a very real emotion yet sets healthy boundaries for its expression and resolution?  How do we “hold (anger) back” without holding anger in?

      As we’d alluded, Christians have somehow gotten the idea that Christians aren’t supposed to ever be angry; that it is somehow sinful to be angry.  I am not a fan of Dr. James Dobson, and I disagree with him on many points.  But I give him credit where credit is due.  In his thoughtful and well-written book Emotions Can We Trust Them?, Dr. Dobson defends his belief that it is not necessarily sinful for a Christian to be angry;  even outraged at times.  He points to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which ____________ read a little earlier when Paul counsels, “Be angry, but do not sin,” and explains there’s a difference between being angry, and reacting in a sinful way to the emotion of anger, such as “do not let the sun go down on your an-ger, and do not make room for the devil….. let no evil talk come out of your mouths….. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander together with all malice.”  

    The emotion of anger is not sinful in itself, Dobson explains, any more than any emotion is sinful.  It is what it is.  Consider Jesus who was sinless.  He had human emotions just like all of us.  Jesus had times He was happy; times He was not so happy.  And Jesus had times He was angry, such as recorded in this morning’s familiar lesson from Mark’s Gospel.  We read that Jesus became angry, outraged even, at the vendors and money-changers for their abuse, dishonesty and desecration of God’s house.  In Dobson’s analysis, Jesus’ anger was not only without sin, but was even appropriate for at least three reasons.  First, His motives were unselfish Jesus became angry when He saw others being abused and taken advantage of by unscrupulous men in the name of His Father in heaven, and in the most sacred of settings.  Second, Jesus anger – albeit intense – was under control.  Unlike how some film versions portray Him, I don’t think Jesus turned into a raving lunatic.  In the account we read from Mark, it is evident that Jesus had witnessed these temple abuses many times before, and again that very day “he entered Jerusalem.”  But rather than act impulsively, Jesus thought overnight about what He had seen.  His actions, triggered by His very real anger, grew out of fore-thought, reflection, and, no doubt, prayer.  Third, Jesus’ anger was non-violent toward persons.  Although I’m sure Jesus threw the fear of God into the merchants and money changers with His passion, He never directed His anger toward their persons, but toward the evil they were perpetrating.  His expression of anger sought truth and justice, not revenge and retribution.  I credit Dr. Dobson for this keen analysis.

      So we can look at the story of Jesus cleansing the temple that day and gain two important insights for our living.  We see that anger in and of itself is not sinful and unChristlike when it is handled in a manner which, in the best sense, hates the wrong action while loving the perpetrator.  And we can learn from Jesus’ example some practical steps for our own dealing with anger.

      We can acknowledge our anger rather than denying or relabeling itWhen we feel that physical and emotional surge of anger, instead of either giving into it or pretending it’s not there, we can go immediately to the time-tested and proven count to ten method.  Take slow, deep breaths and try to relax that tension.  Then we can talk slowly and calmly, or not talk at all until our faculty of reason has had time to catch up with our emotions, or remove ourselves from the situation entirely; not to sulk and seethe, but to center and reflect.  I believe that’s precisely what Jesus did when “he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”

        Then the first positive thing we do after we acknowledge our anger is to pray – praying for self-control,  and praying for God’s guidance to help us decide if we should express our anger, or perhaps correct our own irrational beliefs and expectations.  I suspect Jesus spent significant time in prayer that night at Bethany.   William Backus writes in his book Finding the Freedom of Self-Control“On those occasions when you believe it is not God’s will for you to express your anger to the other person, you must work very hard to deal with your own emotion so that those emotions will not damage your body or your relationship with others and  with God.  Even when you believe God wants you to express your anger, your anger must be under control so that it doesn’t control you.”  Clearly, Jesus’ centering, reflection and prayer led Him to discern that it was God’s will for Him to express His anger.  And Jesus did so, but neither from selfish motives, nor with intent  toward harm and malice.  So it was that Jesus was angry, but did not sin.

      Next piece of practical advice:  We should control our thoughts.  A rural philosopher once said that cognition and emotion – the head and the heart – are like soil and crop.  That is to say, our thoughts plant the  seeds of our behavior.  Nursing negative thoughts [and some of us are very skilled at that] tends to intensify our anger.  If possible, we should retreat from the environment where our anger was stoked, the way Jesus did when He left Jerusalem and retreated to Bethany.  Then, if we’re so inclined, we can do something to  relieve the stress of our anger, the way Al did when he left the kitchen and retreated to his workshop.  After the adrenaline drains, we can look at things rationally and ask: “What’s the real issue behind my anger?  Is it  valid?  Who’s responsible for what?  What can I change, or can I change anything?  Should I blow it off, or do I  need to state my position.”

      When it all shakes out and we discern that we do need to express our anger, there are constructive ways to do it.  Eliminate words like “always” and “never” which puts the other person on the defense.  We should express our feelings, and not presume to express the other person’s feelings for them.  What made Cindy
most angry?  When Al tried to tell her how she felt:  “See that…… I knew you’d still be mad.”  [Al, if Cindy’s mad, let her tell you.]  And by all means, we must resist the temptation to march off on a mission to enlist everyone to be on the side of our own anger.  We have no right to make our anger someone else’s.  That’s manipulation.  Finally, we should stick to the issue and stay in the present.  It does only harm and solidifies resentment when we drag in debris from the past, or predict the future.  It’s always right to stay focused on the issue which has angered us, and to state that clearly without digressing into insults, name-calling, maliciousness, and worst of all, physical violence against another.

      A last practical step we can learn from Jesus in the way He both lived and died:  Let forgiveness be the final curtain on our anger.  We can agree to disagree.  We might even be convinced after reasoned and constructive communication that the other person is flat wrong.  Yet even so, Paul urges us to not let the sun set on our anger.  For in so doing, we allow sin an opportunity.  Instead of operating from a position of seething bitterness, wrath and resentment which causes us to turn sleepless upon our beds, Paul admonishes us to imitate Jesus by being tenderhearted and forgiving, even in the tempest of our anger.  Consider this.  After all which was done to Jesus – the injustice, malice and slander which hurt, exasperated and outraged Him –among Jesus’ final words were “Father, forgive them….” 

      Anger will always be a part of the Christian experience because anger will always be a part of the human experience.  As it is written in the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus in all things was like us, but did not sin.  Sure, in Jesus’ full humanity, He became angry.  And we as Jesus’ disciples will, at times become angry.  But there’s a productive way and a counter-productive way to deal with our anger.  The productive way is the Christlike way.  Let’s always look to Jesus as our exemplar of how to productively and rightly deal with anger:  unselfish-ly, non-violently, thoughtfully, under control, and with forgiveness and restoration as the desired outcome. As Paul writes for all of us:  “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”  Sounds like pretty good advice.  Amen.