Alexander the Great was one of the few men in history who probably deserved the adjective appended to his name. He was beset, however, with a horrific temper, and though he did manage to rein it in more often than not, he was swept away by his passion on one occasion. At a banquet given for Dionysius, someone disparaged the old Macedonian officers who had fought under Alexander's father, Philip, arousing the ire of one of them present there. His name was Clitus.
An old friend of Alexander, Clitus was now a general in the army. Rising to his feet, he told Alexander, whose life Clitus had once saved, that he had obtained his fame with the blood of the Macedonian officers who were being belittled, then drunkenly insulted Alexander some more. Furious, Alexander hurled a spear at the man, killing him instantly. Remorse followed, as it often does, but it was too late. His friend was dead, slain by his hand.
I understand anger only too well. One hot evening in the summer of 2002, in a severe outburst of drunken rage, I smashed up my house, hurt my wife, roused up half the neighborhood, and created assorted havoc before the cops finally came and took me away. As God finally opened my eyes to the reality of his existence—and his love—in jail, I didn't regret the time I spent behind bars, but I deeply regretted the acts of violence that put me there, and was determined to never again give in to the anger that precipitated it.
It took me a long time to get my anger under control, but I realized that while I might not be breaking anything anymore, be it bottles or bones, I still had a lot of anger within me that was being expressed in other ways. We all do. And we need to deal with it. Newspapers are filled with stories of people killing one another in fits of passion. If we tend to temper tantrums, there is a good chance that we might kill somebody too—in spirit, if not body—if we don't take steps to bring our anger under control because we say things and do things that are extremely damaging.
To do this, we need to understand a couple of things. One: anger is a very grave sin. It may not be the worst of the capital sins, but, like the other "deadly" sins, it opens gates that lead to many other sins.
And two: we can control it. Many people who get angry believe that the force of their emotion is greater than their ability to master it. This is not true, especially not for the Christian: One of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is self-control. Let us first, however, look at the many faces of anger.
We can all recognize passionate anger when we see it, both in ourselves and in others. The snarling face is all too recognizable as belonging to somebody who is furious. But anger has many faces, and we sometimes don't realize how angry we are. Answering these questions honestly might clue us in. Just consider how many times you might have used the particular expression we are considering to make it easier.
Are you disturbed about something?
The highlight of the recently concluded Academy Award ceremony — popularly known as the Oscars — was Will Smith striking presenter Chris Rock on stage. The star slapped Rock before a live audience after the comic made a joke about the actor's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
His mother said Will was one of the calmest persons she had ever known. So what happened to him that night at the Oscars? It turns out that Will's father was very violent toward his mother, and little Will had often spoken about his feelings of helplessness when this happened. When Chris Rock riled his wife, the characters blurred, but he was no longer helpless little Will, unable to defend his mother. He could strike back. And he did.
Smith has since apologized to Rock, and I am sure he would give anything to take back that moment, but unfortunately, he can't, any more than we can reverse the things we have done when disturbed. So, are you disturbed about something?
To make it easier to answer this (and the subsequent questions), consider if you have ever used the expression in question. For instance, have you ever said: "I am disturbed about this (or that)." There's your answer.
Are you irritated?
Irritation often leads to acts of violence. A lot of the road rage that we witness—and, perhaps, engage in—begins with irritation. We let it build until it reaches a point where we no longer can control it and end up abusing a passing driver, making a rude sign at him, or worse.
It isn't only people who can irritate us. Birds can too! Jim Taylor tells the following story about his friend, Ralph Milton. One morning Ralph woke up at five o'clock to a noise that sounded like someone repairing boilers on his roof. Still in his pajamas, he went into the backyard to investigate. He found a woodpecker on the TV antenna, "pounding its little brains out on the metal pole." Angry at the little creature who ruined his sleep, Ralph picked up a rock and threw it. The rock sailed over the house, and he heard a distant crash as it hit the car. In utter disgust, Ralph took a vicious kick at a clod of dirt, only to remember—too late—that he was still in his bare feet. Uncontrolled anger, as Ralph learned, can sometimes be its own reward.
Are you frustrated?
Frustration can kick in when we keep trying to accomplish something but don't succeed. Ditto when people don't listen to us and do what we tell them to do. This is another face of anger. We often take out our frustration on other people. How many men have had a bad day at work and taken it out on the people at home? In August 1996, actress Shannen Doherty smashed a beer bottle on a driver's car window—frustrated because he refused to argue with her! What frustrates you?
Are you outraged?
A few days ago, the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, the landmark legislation that gave women the right to murder their unborn babies. Everyone who wanted to retain this right to kill their kids was outraged by the Supreme Court's decision. Their fury could be seen in their faces as they bellowed their rage. What are you outraged at that makes the vein in your temple throb?
Are you exasperated?
Any parent would probably relate to being exasperated with their children when they don't tidy up their messy rooms or do their homework on time or one of another hundred reasons. We can get exasperated with our spouses for similar reasons. Exasperation is an expression of anger that can often result in violence.
Do you feel used?
We often feel that people use us for their own needs or to accomplish their own purposes. This can be in personal relationships, our workplaces, our communities, and even our churches. Do you feel exploited?
Do you feel disappointed?
Have you said, "I'm disappointed," lately? Why are you disappointed? Because things haven't gone your way. So how does that make you feel? Angry, right? People disappoint us a lot. This is because we have expectations of them, which they are seldom able to meet. This leads to hurt, which leads to anger.
The many expressions of anger
As you can see, we all get angry, and we can find evidence of this in our behavior. Not everybody takes a gun and starts shooting people when they get angry or engage in fisticuffs. Some of us don't even raise our voices or break things. We express our anger in other ways, not realizing that we are angry! Sadness, bitterness, unforgiveness, abuse, rudeness, disagreement, sarcasm, nitpicking, retaliation, stubbornness, and withdrawal are all expressions of anger.
It was when going through this list that I realized I was still an angry person, taking to express my anger in sarcasm. At the time, I had been involved in discussions with a leader from my church about working together. This plan wasn't panning out in the manner either of us wanted. We could have sorted out our differences quickly enough in a meeting, but we began writing to each other instead. He began getting increasingly nasty with each mail. For my part, I began getting increasingly sarcastic, though it was cloaked in such politeness, it was barely recognizable as such until a friend pointed it out to me. Of course, I took immediate steps to rectify the mistake, though it shook me to realize how easily sin could be concealed in ignorance.
An angry Jesus
Let us be aware at this point, however, that anger, in itself, is not sinful. As Dr. David Seamands writes, "Anger is a divinely implanted emotion. Closely allied to our instinct for right, it is designed to be used for constructive spiritual purposes. The person who cannot feel anger at evil is a person who lacks enthusiasm for good. If you cannot hate wrong, it's very questionable whether you really love righteousness."
We need to get angry when we see injustice, corruption, and racism; when we read about children being aborted, or people being raped and murdered; when we hear about violence, domestic or otherwise; when we discover people are starving to death in certain parts of the world, simply because there is nobody who cares enough to feed them. We need to feel anger—divine anger—about such things. But how do we determine when anger is divine?
Divine anger is Spirit-led. When our anger is Spirit-led, it is Spirit-controlled as well. Jesus provides demonstrations of Spirit-led and Spirit-controlled anger. Scripture shows Jesus getting angry on two separate occasions. Once was when he found people selling doves and changing money in the temple.
Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, 'It is written, "My house shall be called a house of prayer"; but you are making it a den of robbers'" (Matthew 21:12-13).
People came to the temple from all over the world and needed to change money to buy the doves for the sacrifice. Both businesses were legitimate, but what angered Jesus was that it took place in the temple area, which was holy ground.
On another occasion, Jesus had gone to the synagogue on the Sabbath, and he saw a man with a shriveled hand. Knowing Jesus's penchant for healing the sick, the Pharisees watched closely to see if he would dare do this on the Sabbath. Jesus knew what they were thinking. He made the man stand up and asked the crowd gathered there: "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil?"
They remained silent, and Jesus got mad.
"He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' He stretched it out, and his hand was restored" (Mark 3:5).
As we can see, anger—like any other emotion—is not a sin. It is how we deal with it that decides that.
Paul, writing to the Ephesians, tells them, "In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. (Ephesians 4:26).
So how do we deal with anger?
The Virtues: Patience & Meekness
You may have heard this prayer: "Lord, give me patience, but please hurry!" The prayer might have brought a smile to your face, but the realization that it could very well have been a prayer that we, ourselves, may have made. Many of us lack patience.
What is patience? It is a virtue that helps us calmly bear our tribulations and preserve serenity amid the sufferings of life. Simply put, it means we can be at peace in the middle of a storm.
How does one obtain patience? First, by understanding that God is sovereign and he is in control of human history, not us. Second, by understanding that time has a different significance to the Christian. We will never achieve full satisfaction in this age, but we look forward to the consummation of all things in the age to come. Thirdly, by understanding that God is patient with us, so it becomes obligatory that we be patient with others. The sin of anger is usually a result of impatience with people or situations.
Patience has the power to change people, as evidenced by this story I read in a very ancient book of true stories edited by Priscilla Wakefield. I loved the flavor of the original text, so I have left it unedited.
A married couple were once playing cards with each other. Luck was against the woman, who became steadily angrier and angrier until finally, forgetting the delicacy of her sex and the affectionate respect she owed her husband, rose and boxed his ear. The man was astonished, but rather than box her back, threw the cards into the fire with the declaration that they should never again disrupt their harmony, gathered his wife into his arms, and with a look of infinite tenderness, gave her a kiss.
The woman was overwhelmed with confusion, and falling to her knees, begged him to forgive her. A reconciliation soon followed. Had he resented the insult she had offered him and repaid her with equal warmth, it is very likely that much damage would have resulted.
As it is, love increased.
Another virtue that goes in parallel with patience is meekness, which this man possessed. Some of us believe that meekness is weakness. On the contrary, meekness is strength that refuses to be exercised in the wrong way. Another brief story, this one a little more modern, might help to illustrate this.
I had a friend in my growing years who often was the butt of jokes. One day we were with a group of people, and they took off on him as usual, except this time they crossed all sensible boundaries of teasing. I looked at my friend with a bit of trepidation, knowing something about him that the others didn't. He had a black belt in Karate and a body like steel. He was a lethal weapon, and he could have left all of them writhing on the ground without breaking a sweat. But he only smiled and moved away.
"Why did you stay quiet?" I asked him.
He shrugged. "They were being stupid," he said. "They didn't know what they were doing."
I don't think my friend, who was not a Christian, knew that he was echoing the words that Jesus had said 2,000 years earlier as he was dying on the cross, but I think he understood the principle behind the words. People who hurt us don't quite realize what they are doing; if they did, they wouldn't do it. They are spiritually challenged people. While this does not condone their actions, it should make us sympathetic enough towards them to make a few allowances, just like we would make allowances for a mentally or physically challenged person.
My friend was meek. He had the power to hurt the people who hurt him but refused to exercise it wrongly. Jesus, too, had the power, but he refused to exercise it either. In the garden of Gethsemane, when Peter struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear, Jesus scolded him.
"Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:52-53).
We, too, need to be like that. It's difficult, but not impossible, especially with the grace of God.
Some practical steps
There are some practical steps that we can take when we find ourselves getting angry.
One. Count to ten! I know this advice sounds very clichéd, but giving ourselves a little time before reacting can help change our reaction, so take a little time out before you say or do anything. Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end (Proverbs 29:11). When Jesus lost his temper at the temple, it wasn't a sudden bout of rage; he took time to make a whip of cords! (see John 2:15).
Two. Change the scene. Leave the room where you are having your argument, and if that doesn't work, leave the premises entirely. A brisk walk will help to cool you down. Think about what James said as you walk: My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19‑20).
Three. Vent. You can't bottle anger. Like an expanding gas, it will eventually explode. Speak to a friend you trust (and who has patience!) about how you are feeling. If you can't speak to anyone, speak to God. Journaling (different from keeping a diary) is an excellent way.
Four. Release rage. Boxing a punching bag is probably the best remedy when we deal with a great deal of anger, but you might have to substitute the bag with a pillow! However, if you aren't the boxing type, try running around the block as fast as you can.
Five: Manage expectations. We get disappointed when we have expectations. As stated earlier, disappointment leads to anger. Lower your expectations or change your mental framework, so you don't set yourself up for disappointment when things don't happen as you wanted them to or people don't behave as you wished them to.
Six: Seek help. You might have deep-rooted emotional trauma if you have severe anger issues. Don't be ashamed to seek professional counseling, even if it is to be found in the secular world. It will save you (and others) a great deal of grief.
The Gift: Fear of the Lord
I recently watched an excellent program on the cosmos titled How Great is Our God by Louie Giglio. I couldn't help but be awed at the realization that if the universe was so great, how much greater is our God. And, despite our own insignificance—if we look at ourselves in relation to the canvas of the universe, we're just a minute speck—we seem to think of ourselves as masters of this universe. We're not. God is. And it helps to have a healthy fear of him because, as Scripture says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalms 111:10).
How does a fear of the Lord help us deal with anger? If anyone in this universe has reason to be angry, it is probably God. If we were in God's place, we would have probably vaporized the entire planet several times over. However, as the psalmist tells us: The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. (Psalm 103:8‑10).
He goes on to say: As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:13-14). The key words there are "has compassion on those who fear him."
If we fear him justly, we will rein in our tempers and exhibit as much patience with others as God exhibits with us. Needless to say, we can't do much without him, but his Holy Spirit is available to all who know him
May the Spirit be with you.