Sometimes you read an article and it strikes you as extremely important for your walk with Christ – what follows is one of those. This essay was written by my friend Dr. Daniel Napier, professor at Austin Graduate School of Theology, and explores anger in a way you rarely see anywhere. We all know how easy it is to become angry, and we are well aware of “anger management” classes that some say help. But Jesus has something very different in mind for us. Instead of just managing anger, we need to deal with it at the source. That’s how we finally move beyond anger. I hope you will take this essay to heart and think deeply about where God wants us to change.
Now, enter Daniel…
Why does Jesus, in his ethical teaching, consistently start with anger and its manifestations? It’s probably because more wrongdoing, in human affairs, stems from anger than any other state of heart. Think about it. Why do husbands beat wives? Why do sisters stop talking to each other? Why do churches split? Why must children grow up deprived of one parent or another? According to FBI statistics, about 15,000 people were murdered in the US last year. Roughly 725,000 aggravated assaults were reported. How many of those would have happened without anger? Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:21-26 begins with anger, because so much damage in human lives begins precisely there.
The truth is that anger itself wounds, even apart from the deeds that follow from it. You know this experientially. If you found out that I was angry with you, you would already be hurt. Indeed, you would likely become angry with me in response. Anger itself evokes hurt and anger in others. Why? Anger has built into it a readiness to harm another. There is an inclination to hurtful action wrapped up in the emotion itself. You can see this even in anger toward inanimate objects. Have you ever slammed your toe against a piece of furniture as you wandered toward your bathroom in the middle of the night? Anger flares. Your first impulse is to destroy the object that inflicted pain. Of course, you thought through it enough to stop yourself. But it’s built into anger to desire harm upon its object. That’s why anger hurts others.
Nonetheless, basic anger is not yet morally wrong. Rather, basic anger is a natural response to injury or the frustration of one’s will. Think about it as psychic pain. (There is nothing sinful about a headache, but who needs it?) In its basic or natural form, anger would naturally blow over rather quickly. The interpersonal damage would be minimal, if anger were allowed to subside quickly and naturally. You could think of such basic anger as anger the sun doesn’t go down on – its not there long enough for the sunset catch it (Eph. 4:26).
This is why Jesus’ moral teaching begins one step past ‘basic anger’. When he traces the first distorted movement of the heart toward murder, Jesus begins with ‘retained anger’. ‘But I say to you that everyone who goes on being angry with his brother shall be culpable before the court …’ (Matthew 5:22). Your translation probably just says ‘everyone who is angry’, but the grammar implies continuing action. (For my fellow Greek-geeks, orgizomenos is a present participle, which has durative aspect.)
Thus Jesus begins his moral evaluation with anger that one chooses, holds onto, keeps fresh and ready to use. This is both a brilliant insight and new in the history of ethical thought. (The ancient Greeks thought of anger as a madness or insanity that overtakes a person.) Jesus sees clearly that this sort of anger – retained anger – is something I choose. In an important way, anger is not just something that happens to me. Anger is something I do.
The truth is that people strategically use anger. In our world, many use anger like caffeine. It is a strategy for energizing oneself. As the ‘to do list’ piles up, we use a bit of anger as a stimulant to keep ourselves moving. If I weren’t a little angry, my blood pressure might drop too low and I’d just fall asleep.
Others strategically retain anger as a way to feel momentarily powerful and right. Have you noticed that anger is a totalizing emotion? When I am angry at another wronging me, I cannot at the same moment entertain the idea that I too might be mistaken or in the wrong. Paradoxically, those who struggle with guilt and self-condemnation often employ a sense of ‘righteous indignation’ against others as a temporary release from personal guilt.
For another retained anger might simply be a strategy for getting one’s way. Early in life some learn that a red face, flaring eyes, and impassioned voice cause most people to back down. Often simply displaying anger is enough to cause others to yield to our desire. So retaining anger – nurturing a sense of having suffered injustice – becomes part of our toolkit for making our way in the world by our own power.
A Common Misconception:
Before we move to the next step in Jesus’ analysis, we need to clarify a common (post-Fruedian) misconception that might otherwise block us from thinking through Jesus’ teaching fully. The misconception is what I call the ‘Hydraulic Model’ of emotion. We might also call it the ‘vent or explode model’.
The basic idea, which we uncritically accept and parrot, is that emotions are like fluids under pressure within us. If we don’t release the pressure, by acting on them regularly, then eventually the pressure will exceed capacity and we will ‘blow’ – act out in extreme, destructive, and erratic ways. I believe this model of emotion is fundamentally false as can be seen by two problems with this account.
First, we don’t actually think about emotions this way. Upon reflection, we only speak of two emotions or feelings this way – anger and sexual desire. Yet, the myth of ‘vent or explode’ provides us with a sense of justification in acting out when we want to in these two areas of life.
It’s easy to see that we don’t really think of emotion this way. Just try transferring the description to another emotion. Take gratitude, for example. Imagine an intervention by friends. ‘I’m really concerned about you, Joe. I know this is going to be hard to hear, but we’ve been talking and you have a problem with repressing gratitude. For years people have been helping you out and doing kind things for you. But you’ve plugged up all the gratitude inside. It’s growing in there… the pressure’s rising, my friend. If you don’t start letting some of it out, one day someone will do you a favor and it will just blow… It’ll be like a gratitude bomb. It’s gonna be messy.’ Doesn’t that sound outlandish? We just don’t experience emotion in that way.
Second, the truth is that ‘venting’ is not releasing but rehearsing. When we begin ‘venting’, by recounting our gripes against another, we engrain the sense of injury and injustice so as to keep it fresh. Repeatedly running the script does not reduce anger but amplifies and sustains it over time. In fact, ‘venting’ is the primary means of retaining anger.
Within the kingdom, Jesus says this sort of retained anger isn’t needed. We can simply set it down. It’s a tool we can live without when we are co-working with God.
The second step, in Jesus’ progressive analysis, is the emergence of contempt. The transition from anger to contempt is a natural progression. Jesus says, ‘… and whoever shall say to his brother, “Raca,” shall be culpable before the Sanhedrin …’ (Matthew 5:22). ‘Raca’ is untranslatable because it is a sound more than a word. It mimics the sound that one makes when hacking up something to spit in another’s face. Fundamentally, ‘raca’ is a sign of contempt.
Contempt is more damaging, and thus more severely culpable, than mere anger because contempt depersonalizes in a way that anger does not. If in anger I want to oppose or harm you, in contempt I would say, ‘He’s not even worth the effort… He’s beneath me.’ This sense of being ‘blown off’ or utterly disregarded wounds other persons more deeply than anger alone.
Again, you can see this understanding in the instinctive reactions of people to being held in contempt. For instance, children intuitively know that contempt is worse than anger. That is why when a child feels he or she is being held in contempt, the natural response is to do something to evoke anger from the person who withholds regard. Why? Through angering another, he has achieved a social promotion. Although the opposition inherent to anger hurts, it hurts less than being completely ignored and disregarded.
The Fusion of Anger and Contempt:
The third step Jesus traces within the human heart is a fusion of anger and contempt. Jesus’ final description states, ‘… and whoever shall say, “You fool,” shall be culpable enough for the Gehenna of fire’ (Matthew 5:22). We are apt to miss the severity of identifying another as a fool, for we don’t think of fools as especially malicious or perverse. Rather, the word might evoke in our imaginations a loveable but goofy sort of person.
To get the meaning of the ‘fool’ for Jesus’ world, we need to read Proverbs. The fool is so twisted and malignant a figure, that he destroys the very fabric of community everywhere he goes. He is barely human anymore. He’s so stupid, arrogant, and perverse that the best thing one could do for him is simply beat him. But even that probably won’t work (Prov. 27:22).
When anger, with its built in impulse to harm, and contempt, with its depersonalization of another, fuse, all that is lacking for physical violence to follow is the convenient circumstance. Indeed, most cases of assault and murder are rooted in this precise fusion. Thus Jesus has traced, within the human heart, the movements of intention leading up to the threshold of ‘thou shalt not murder.’
A Glimpse of the Way beyond Anger:
So what is Jesus’ way beyond a life of anger and contempt? In Matthew 5:23-26, Jesus offers two illustrations of how a new heart might look in motion. Please do not imagine these are ‘new laws’, rather they are stark examples intended to evoke the question, ‘What sort of person would do this?’ The answer to that question is the point of the illustration. These illustrations are meant to be pondered and meditated upon until they yield insight.
In the first illustration (Matthew 5:23-24) one is presenting an offering at the altar, an act of reconciliation with God, and there remembers that his brother holds something against him. One with a new heart might leave the sacrifice on the altar, seek out his brother to be reconciled first, and then return to complete reconciliation with God. Specifically, what sort of person would do that?
There is much to ponder. Minimally, this would be a person who considers reconciliation to God as best achieved through reconciliation with his neighbor. Moreover, he must have a grand vision of human worth (enough for one’s neighbor to be the primary altar for rendering service to God) and a sense of the ruinous damage anger would cause his brother’s soul. Even as he suffers the brother’s wrath, this person empathizes with the twisted hurt balled up inside his brother. That certainly would be a different sort of human person. Within God’s kingdom, it could be you.
In the second illustration (Matthew 5:25-26) one is journeying to a court date at which another is suing him. We’re not told about the validity of the litigation. In Jesus’ world, expecting to lose the case does not necessarily imply guilt. Courts were often corrupt. Nonetheless, on the way to court one interacts with the person suing in a ‘kindly minded’ or ‘well-disposed’ manner.
Contrast this with one’s normal reaction to another seeking to harm or dispossess you of goods. The common human response is to harden oneself against another. But this person is kind and personable (one might even say emotionally vulnerable) toward the one set against him. What sort of person would do this? Again, there is plenty to ponder and I will offer only a starting point for meditation. Minimally, this would be a person who carries, in his heart, a readiness to forgive. The inclination to forgive now fills the heart-space once occupied by retained anger and a readiness to explode. Just imagine being so secure within God’s project that your unbidden thoughts ran in this direction. Here is a very different way to be human. This could be you.
Within the atmosphere of God’s activity, or Kingdom, this new sort of heart is available to you and me. As we lay down anger and contempt, in order to co-work with God, we find new forms of motivation – vastly different thoughts filling our minds. The joy and drama of participation in God’s project of redemption provides more abundant energy than an anger-jolt, and a sense of goodness is deeper and more real than self-righteous indignation. The wonder of God’s invitation and the security of his embrace more than replace the sham significance we manufacture for ourselves through contempt of others. Moreover, intimidation has no use when co-working with God. He has other, reliable ways of getting things done. Evil is overcome with good – pure and simple – not with more strategic use of evil. Nothing is lost by leaving anger and contempt at the door as you enter God’s kingdom. This is a life for everyday apprentices like you and me.
Let’s build on Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5:21-26 and look more closely at what is involved in anger. We need to consider the different ways anger can manifest in different personalities (a.k.a., ‘anger styles’) and think about how to move beyond anger. We will gain some clarity by considering the experience of anger from the inside and from the outside.
What’s Going on Inside:
We may begin by elaborating upon Jesus’ core insight – Retained Anger is a Choice. The reason anger is a choice, is that anger is not a primary emotion.
Here’s what I mean. Do you remember in grade school when your art teacher explained that only yellow, red, and blue are primary colors? Other colors are secondary. We get them by combining the primary colors in various mixtures. So if I want green, I need to mix yellow and blue. If you want purple, then you need to blend red and blue.
In an analogous way, anger is not a primary emotion. Anger is always built onto something else. Hence it involves some degree of choice. We choose anger, at least initially, to communicate or fix something else. The choice may have been made so long ago that I am no longer aware of it. Now the shift to anger may be purely habitual and unconscious.
Nonetheless, underneath my anger, there will be at least one of three things going on:
- I might be frightened.
- I might be hurt.
- I might be frustrated.
The reason we choose anger is that it usually feels safer than dealing directly with the underlying issue. For instance, let’s say I’m afraid that I’m going to lose my job. The company has not been turning a sufficient profit margin. Rumors of impending layoffs circulate. In this environment, imagine that a co-worker makes a public joke about some mistake I made. I might become enraged at him. (At this point, it’s habitual. I’m not aware of choosing to become anger.)
What’s really going on inside? Fear! But fear doesn’t feel safe to express, so I get angry. I don’t feel as vulnerable with anger as I do in approaching my co-worker with the real issue. It’s too hard to say, ‘I’m worried about keeping my job. If somebody took your joke seriously, it could damage my capacity to work. Please be considerate.’
This is going to be very important when we talk about how to grow beyond anger. Anger is always about something. (This is part of what’s lost in the ‘hydraulic model’ we discussed in the last post.) Anger can only be resolved by dealing with what anger is really about. Taking ten deep breaths before reacting, while a good basic practice, isn’t going to do much in the long run if I don’t deal with the fear, or the hurt, or the frustration beneath my anger.
What’s Going on Outside:
Having clarified what anger is doing within me, we need to consider how anger acts or manifests itself in my relations. We could talk about three different anger styles. Most people gravitate toward one or the other.
Before we list the anger types, may I ask you to focus on identifying yourself? Our impulse is always to look around and start pegging others. Let your spouse, family members, and others think about which one they gravitate toward. Feel free to forward this post if you want to have a conversation about each other’s styles later. But for now, please read in order to make sense of your own anger mode.
I like to refer to the three anger types as ‘exploders’, ‘stuffers’, and ‘leakers’. Let’s consider each approach in turn:
If I’m an ‘exploder’, then my basic style leans toward straightforward assault. When angry I become straightforwardly aggressive and hostile – whether in word or deed. Here’s what that might look like. Let’s say my teenage daughter comes home an hour late, without calling. One of several things might be going on in my interpretation.
- This is disrespect and I’m hurt that she doesn’t respect me.
- I am frightened that something may have happened to her. My last hour was spent trying to push images from my mind of a car-accident and her mangled, lifeless body on the side of the road.
- Or, perhaps, I am frustrated at the whole situation. I’m tired, overworked, and thinking of my early start tomorrow. I imagine dragging myself through the day sleep deprived when I need to be quick and productive. This isn’t working out how I wanted it too.
With one or more of those experiences in the background, my teenage daughter walks through the door. I let her have it. I say everything I can to make her feel bad. It is a no-holds barred assault.
Of course, there are other styles. If I’m a ‘stuffer’, then I tend to turn my anger inward. I might not even acknowledge it to myself, but I express it nonetheless through withdrawal. Typically, ‘stuffers’ are afraid that if they let it rip, something very bad will happen. Sometimes ‘stuffers’ are people who grew up in households with a few exploders, and in order to cope learned to hide, keep their heads down, and withdraw. What they often don’t recognize is the personal damage inflicted through their withdrawal.
So if a ‘stuffer’ experiences fear, hurt, or frustration and doesn’t deal with it directly, his anger would look different. He would get really cool and distant – freeze the other person out. When a ‘stuffer’ is angry, you might overhear this sort of interaction.
Wife: ‘What’s wrong? Did I do something?’
Husband: ‘Nothings wrong.’
Wife: ‘Well, could I help? Maybe you’re stressed. What can I do?’
Husband [curtly]: ‘Nope. Got it under control.’
Then a long awkward silence ensues. He’s fuming angry, but can’t find an appropriate way to deal with the underlying issue. So he pretends, poorly, that nothing is wrong.
If you imagine ‘exploders’ and ‘stuffers’ as two ends of a continuum, ‘leakers’ are in the middle. This style is often referred to as ‘passive aggressive’. They have a hybrid approach. ‘Leakers’ utilize a mixture of withdrawal and attack. It’s like emotional guerrilla warfare. If I’m an enraged ‘leaker’, I’m not going to pitch an open battle. But I’ll poison the wells and quietly undermine the efforts of anyone who has angered me.
Usually the attacks come sideways. ‘Leakers’ maintain a smiley, composed exterior, but their humor is poisonous. They may commit intentional, though plausibly innocent, failures to help. So perhaps I hear the dryer go off, but I’m not going to get the clothes out. I just pretend I didn’t hear it.
At this point, you’ve probably located yourself as tending toward one style or other. This is helpful to recognize, but doesn’t yet do much to help you grow beyond it.
How to Grow beyond Anger — Four Practical Strategies:
We’ve already seen that ‘venting’ isn’t helpful. It rehearses rather than releases. But the healthy alternative isn’t denial. Stuffing anger down and freezing the other person out also hurts. So how do we grow beyond anger? May I suggest four concrete practices?
First, especially if you are an ‘exploder’, you need to think ahead and buy time. When you begin to feel anger – buy some time. Breathe. Get a drink of cold water. Step out of the room for a moment. There is value in these temporary measures.
But it’s even more important to think ahead. Specifically, most people have a set of predictable triggers. If you don’t know yours, ask your family. They will know.
- Are there specific times of day in which you are especially prone to outbursts? If so, you will need to make realistic arrangements in advance. For many people, times when they’re very tired or very hungry are especially dangerous. Save that sensitive conversation until after you’ve eaten.
- For others, the triggers are moments of frustration. Traffic jams set some people off. Waiting on the phone for health insurance information, or standing in line at the grocery store can crack people. Kids sporting events have been come proverbial scenes for parental explosion
Think ahead and get off the conveyor belt before you reach the point of explosion.
Dig deep: What is this Anger About?
Second, and more importantly, ask, ‘What’s this really about?’ Because anger is built on underlying hurts, fears or frustrations, it is futile to simply ‘vent’ or deal with being angry directly. Instead, you need to deal with what the anger is about.
To actually overcome anger, we need to think about the underlying issues. What do I fear? Is there an old wound I’m trying to protect with my anger? What sense of injustice, frustration, or impotence really drives my choice for anger?
To move toward resolution, we need to voice these before the Father in ruthlessly honest prayer. It may be helpful to arrange some time to pray and journal, seeking to identify the underlying issues.
If for instance the underlying issue is fear, then you might need to draw on scripture to reframe your thoughts. Memorization and mediation upon God’s word can reshape your perception. I would suggest, for instance, memorizing Hebrews 13:5-6 and running it through your mind meditatively and often. ‘God has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The LORD is my helper. I will not be afraid. What could man do to me?”’ Imaginatively bring that word into the mental image of your fear. Allow God to speak over your fright.
Don’t Let the Sun Set
Third, commit to dealing with the underlying issue promptly. Paul’s language in Ephesians 4:17-32, specifically verses 26-27 is so important and instructive, ‘Be angry and do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Don’t give the devil a place’.
The first line of Paul’s instruction is a direct quote from Psalm 4:5. Consider the whole original statement, ‘Be angry and do not sin. Ponder it on your bed and be silent.’ You might notice a difference in the second line. Why does Paul change, ‘think about it through the night without talking’ to ‘sort it out before the sun sets’? I think the answer comes in the next line, ‘Don’t give the devil a place’.
When we bottle up and store the underlying issues – hurts, fears and frustrations – without sorting through them, the Devil has more room to maneuver in our lives. Those thoughts tend to harden and amplify while we’re lying awake at night and silently rehearsing the litany of wrongs that clod on the other side of the mattress committed. So Paul says, don’t wait! Paul isn’t advocating ‘venting’. Rather he counsels us to promptly resolve the underlying issue. Jesus, as we saw in the last post, says the same thing. ‘Leave your sacrifice at the altar, first be reconciled to your brother…’
Prepare to Forgive
Fourth, clothe yourself with a readiness to forgive. When Paul loops around to anger issues again in Ephesians 4:31-32, he names the ultimate antidote to anger. ‘Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.’
In order to readily forgive, we will need to try on alternative explanatory scripts for others’ actions. Generally, the hurt, fear, and frustration that birth anger stem from assuming the worst motives in others. If we are going to forgive and release the underlying pain, we need to consciously try different explanations for the other person’s action – search for one that doesn’t assume evil intent.
At first these alternative explanations might feel contrived and thus be unconvincing emotionally. (E.g., ‘Perhaps she’s late because she’s counseling a friend who is in a desperate situation.’) But the truth is they are no more artificial than the twisted motives we spontaneously impute to others. At least these provide a God-honoring and neighbor loving placeholder until the other person reveals the actual motive or extenuating circumstances. Moreover, by withholding the judgment that initiates hurt, fear, or frustration, the alternative mental script prepares us to listen and forgive when the time comes.
Of course, forgiveness can be difficult – especially when grievances are old and deep. In fact, it often is beyond my power alone. However, if I take a step or two in that direction, God is faithful to enable genuine forgiveness. Perhaps an analogy will help. Unforgiveness is like a muscle cramp. It hurts terribly and consumes most of my awareness while it lasts. I might wish it would end but cannot release it through pure choice. Yet, I could prolong it – intentionally intensify it by flexing the muscle – if I were twisted enough to choose. Instead, by working around the knot – stretching and kneading – eventually I find the cramp lets go. The release is not against my will, yet my will alone was insufficient to bring the release. Forgiveness works that way. We need God’s help. Power beyond our own wills is required. Yet, if we work around the internal knot and intentionally move toward the person, God is faithful to release us to forgive from the heart.
You’re never in this alone, unless you want to be. Forgiveness – a life beyond anger – is possible for you and me. Just imagine what your life, in God’s Kingdom, without bitterness, hurt, or rage could be!