What do basketball star Ron Artest, rock singer Tommy Lee, and Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold have in common? All of them were involved in highly publicized acts of physical violence. And all of them committed these crimes after going through a court-mandated course on anger management.
Do these programs really work? Not always, it would seem. But to be fair, the people who participate aren't always committed to dealing with their inner rage. The dropout rate is high, and those who are forced to attend aren't always very happy about going. Before one session Lee shocked a studio audience with a profanity-laced tirade about having to go to class. He was angry, he shouted, about having to go to anger management [John Cloud, “Classroom for Hotheads,” Time (April 10, 2000), 54].
Such classes are increasingly popular in the legal system and with major corporations. People who are guilty of domestic violence or of treating people abusively in the workplace are routinely assigned to attend a course on anger management. The Inquirer estimates that in Philadelphia participants number in the tens of thousands [Philadelphia Inquirer, “Tempering Tempers” (December 7, 2004)].
What these courses are able to offer is practical advice for reducing rage and resolving conflicts. Specialists focus on getting people to count to ten before responding to something that makes them angry, to practice meditation with deep breathing, to think through the consequences of their words and actions, and to walk away from volatile situations before they get out of control. There is a place for this kind of practical advice. I know for myself that it is much better for me not to respond to certain situations until after I am finished being angry about them. However, what these classes are unable to do is to get to the root spiritual causes of anger or to bring any real or lasting spiritual change. For this to happen, there needs to be an inward transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
The Bible teaches that there is a righteous anger, such as the response that God has to injustice, or the anger that Jesus displayed against people who were buying and selling in the house of God. “Be angry,” the Scripture says, “and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26), implying that there is a way to be angry without sinning. However, since most of our anger is unrighteous, it seems more important to focus on the times when our anger is out of all proportion to the things we say are making us mad.
What are some of the things that make you angry? Most people would say that what makes them mad is someone or something outside of themselves. It is their work situation that makes them angry, or their physical disability, or the trouble that God has allowed to come into their lives, or the difficult people in their families, or maybe just the little irritations of daily life, like getting stuck in bad traffic. To look at anger this way is to locate the problem somewhere outside of our own sinful hearts. But the Scripture says that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34), and this is as true for our angry words as it is for anything else that we say. The truth is that nothing makes us angry. Rather, the frustrations of life simply give our anger the opportunity to express itself.
What are some godly ways to deal with our anger?
First, we need to see how destructive it is, both to ourselves and to others. Unrighteous rage destroys the intimacy between a husband and wife, the friendship between a parent and child, the effectiveness of a work force, or the ministry of any Christian who cannot control his or her temper. People who have what the Bible calls “fits of rage” (Gal. 5:20; NIV) are usually sorry afterwards, but they tend to minimize the real harm that has been done. If we are going to make any progress in this area of our sanctification, we need to see how serious a sin it really is.
Second, we need to take full responsibility for our angry words and actions. The problem is not somewhere outside of us, no matter how often we say that it is. The problem lies inside, where anger first boils in our hearts. The angry father who rages at his children, the caustic wife who berates her husband with angry criticism, the troubled child who scorns his parents, the Little League parent who yells at the ump, the bitter employee who tears down management, the church member who badmouths someone else in the congregation—these angry people always say that someone else is the problem. But the Bible says that their anger itself is the problem: “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires” (James 1:20). And the thing to do with anger, or with any other form of unrighteousness, is to confess it as sin, asking God to forgive us for Jesus’ sake.
Third, we need to examine our hearts to see what underlying idolatries are driving our unpredictable and uncontrollable rage. Typically, when we get angry it is because one of our cherished idols is threatened or has been defeated. Ask yourself, Why am I so unreasonably angry about this? What am I struggling so hard to protect? Then ask yourself if your motivations match God's purposes for your life. Are you truly angry because God is not glorified, or because you are afraid that your money, your comfort, your reputation, or your security will be taken away? Examining our anger can help us to identify the more deeply rooted sins that are keeping us from bearing good spiritual fruit.
Finally, we need to pray for a more powerful work of God's Spirit in our minds and hearts—the Spirit of patience, peace, and self control (Gal. 5:2223). God wants to do a more complete work of grace than simply to manage our anger. He wants to master it, and then replace it with kindness, meekness, and forgiveness.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org