Anger is perceived as the root of many psychological, inter-personal, physical and spiritual problems. Henry Brandt, an American psychologist, has suggested that anger is involved in 80-90 percent of all counseling. Along with hostility, anger has been called “the saboteur of mind” and the leading cause of misery, depression, inefficiency, sickness, accidents, loss of work time and financial loss in industry. Since anger is an emotion of such great implications, a proper understanding of it is essential. Is there a legitimate use of anger? What causes anger in a person? Can anger be really controlled? These questions need answers. Moreover, Christians and non-Christians are equally concerned about handling anger. The purpose of this paper is to explore the complexity and dynamics of anger, biblically and psychologically, and present practical implications for counseling.
1.ANGER: TOWARDS A DEFINITION
Anger is a fact of life. All of us experience this emotion time to time. However, despite its prevalence, psychology has not yet found a satisfying answer to the problem of anger. Christian psychologist, Neil Clark Warren calls anger as the “out most baffling emotion.” There are two basic reasons for the difficulty in understanding anger. First, anger, like all emotions is never alone. Not only does it cluster with other emotions but it also is a secondary emotion, following fear or frustration, disappointment or sadness. Therefore, it is not easily isolated. Second, anger shows itself in many forms and often runs below the surface of detection in people. Hence, not all anger is easily identified. A perfect definition for this baffling emotion is almost impossible. The New international Cambridge Dictionary defines anger as, “A strong feeling against someone or a situation which makes you want to hurt someone, be unpleasant, shout at someone, etc.” This is only a lay person’s understanding of anger and it lacks psychological insights. In a counseling context, anger is usually understood as a reaction rather than pro-action. Baker Encyclopaedia of Psychology and counseling defines anger as, “An intense emotional reaction sometimes directly expressed in overt behaviour and sometimes remaining a largely unexpressed feeling.” Further study of the subject will yield more clarity and help to define anger more appropriately.
2. BIBLICAL UNDERSTANDING OF ANGER
The Bible contains many references to anger. Anger is attributed both to God and people. Gary Collins comments, “An understanding of the divine wrath of God is important if we are to comprehend the biblical teachings about human anger.” Since anger is attributed to God, to call all anger sinful is contrary to the teaching of the Scripture. Therefore, it is important to understand anger from a moral dimension.
Anger is a Morally Neutral Emotion
Eph.4:26 is a crucial verse in understanding the nature of anger biblically. The admonition, “When you are angry do not sin,” is followed by “Do not let the sun go down while you are angry.” Paul clearly differentiates the emotion from its behaviour. Archibald D. Hart argues, “The need to differentiate between anger (feeling) and hostility / aggression (action) is important to the New Testament approach to the problem of anger.” Therefore, anger in itself is neither good nor bad. It is just anger. It is an emotion. In other words, human anger is normal and not necessarily sinful. The direction we allow anger to take will determine whether it is sinful or not.
God’s Anger Revealed in the Bible
A clear understanding of God’s anger as revealed in the Bible is imperative. In the Old Testament, God’s anger came upon His people and other nations as a judgement on sin. His anger was shown in various ways. However, many a time, God limited Himself from releasing His full vent (Ps.78:38, 103:8-9), and turned aside His anger in response to people’s obedience (Isa.12:1, Jonah 4:2, Mic.7:18). Similarly, in the New Testament, the Lord Jesus’ earthly expressions of anger is consistent with what we see of God’s anger in the Old Testament. Jesus became angry while reacting to their hardness of heart and abuses found in the temple (Mk.3:5, Matt.21:12-13, Jn.2:14-16).
The Nature of God’s Anger
God’s anger is always directed at sin and sinners. This reflects His holiness. God’s anger is controlled, unselfish, just and purposeful. Collins captures the concept of God’s anger beautifully. He writes, “Divine anger is vigourous, intense, controlled and consistent with God’s love and mercy.” If our human anger reflects God’s character, it is righteous. This kind of human anger is called as “constructive anger” or “holy anger” by Bible scholars. Warren W. Wiersbe, in his book, Angry People, lists out some of the characteristics of holy anger. We need to rediscover the importance of holy anger as we live in a world torn apart by sin and injustice.
The Warnings Against Human Anger
The Bible repeatedly warns of human anger both in the Old Testament and New Testament. Human anger is usually depicted as a loss of self-control. Orge and Thumos are two Greek words widely used in the New Testament to describe anger and wrath respectively. Both anger and wrath in human beings are condemned. The fact that the Bible criticises human anger and approves God’s anger should not be misunderstood as a double standard. Human anger is capable of becoming destructive, and therefore, Scripture gives warnings.
3. THE ORIGIN AND CAUSES OF ANGER
Psychologists offer various theories regarding the origin and causes of Anger. A number of factors including biological, psychological and environmental factors have been suggested for the formation of anger.
There is a biological dimension to the problem of anger. Specific parts of the brain and nerves have been identified as being responsible for this emotion. Building on this theory, Hart argues, “Anger is one of the primary emotions present in all right from the birth. Recent researches have confirmed this view. Since, biological factor is involved, certain physical disorders can cause anger.
The primary cause for anger in normal adults remains psychological rather than physical. Frustration and hurt are identified as two prominent reasons for anger. When a person desires something strongly but in the process faces someone or a circumstance blocking his or her way, that leads to frustration. This has the potential for creating anger. Similarly, anger is aroused when a person feels that he or she is rejected, put down, ignored, humiliated, unjustly criticised or threatened. Similarly, a proper psychological cause that leads to anger is injustice. Anger that arises because of injustice is justified by the Scripture. However, people usually get angry only when injustices is done to them. This is a selfish act rather than a righteous one.
Conditioned and Instinctive Responses
A major cause for anger is the conditioned responses that people learn early in their lives. Anthropological studies have shown that people from different cultures get angry over different issues and express their anger in different ways. Moreover, anger is triggered instinctively. In primitive cultures where instinct plays an important role, anger gives power to overcome dangers and acts as a survival emotion. However, instinctive anger can also cause massive destruction.
Though several reasons are put forth for the formation of anger, it should be noted that our sinful nature (Rom.3:11-18), and our warped understanding of life, play an important role in feeding the emotion of uncontrolled anger.
4.THE EXPRESSIONS OF ANGER
The most important factor in the problem of anger is the way it is resolved or handled. Various factors ascertain how a person deal with anger. Carroll Saussy observes, “Gender, race, class, religion, and social location have strong determining influences on the way anger is experienced and expressed.” There are four major ways by which people resolve their anger.
The first mode of expression is called “Repression.” Collins calls it as “Holding Back” or “Turning Inward.” Some people deny the existence of anger in their lives. They tend to ignore the emotion by suppressing it. This is the least effective method of handling anger because the emotion cannot be easily ignored. It can only lead to other harmful ways of expression. It is psychologically and physically damaging. The second mode of expression is termed as “Scapegoating” or “Redirected aggression.” It refers to the tendency of some people who take anger that belongs in one place and dump it on another. Most of the times, an innocent person suffers and this way of resolving anger destroys relationships.
The third mode of anger expression is called as “Ventilation.” This resolution is also referred as “Acting Out” or “Aggression.” Some people “let out” all anger and hostility, irrespective of its effect on others or circumstances. This involves some form of aggression which inflicts pain on others. It may be direct or passive. Although this expression of anger in open and emotionally satisfying, it neither removes the cause for the anger nor drains away the angry feelings. Moreover, Collins observes, “All of these acting-out approaches are ultimately destructive. They are forms of get-even philosophy that Jesus so clearly condemned.”
The fourth mode of anger expression is termed as, “Facing the sources of anger.” A few people after admitting anger look for the reasons. It helps the individual to take constructive steps in dealing with anger-producing situations. However, this approach is seldom practised. Though this approach is close to the biblical model, it falls short of the solution offered in the Bible for dealing with anger.
5. THE CONSEQUENCES OF UNCONTROLLED ANGER
Anger is a wonderful gift from God but it can be highly destructive in the life of an individual when it is not controlled and properly expressed. Unhealthy anger can affect a person emotionally, socially, physically and spiritually. Since many of our emotions have an anger component to them, rightly dealing with anger is an imperative. Suppressed anger can make a person emotionally upset to an extent that he or she becomes ineffective in facing real life situations.
Another area of life where uncontrolled anger spoils an individual is in his or her social life. Lahaye observes, “An angry person is not pleasant to be around. Consequently, those who are angry, grumpy or disgruntled are gradually weeded out of the social list or excluded from the fun times of life.” Unhealthy anger certainly destroys intimate relationships and sometimes terminates people from society. This is explicitly seen in the life of Cain in the Old Testament.
Physical health too gets affected by anger. Doctors and medical associations have released various statistics showing that from sixty to as high as ninety percent of human bodily illness is emotionally induced, and anger and fear are the main culprits. The suppression of anger can cause psychosomatic disorders as high blood pressure, tension, head ache, muscular fatigue and gastric disturbances.
The highest price of all paid for an angry, bitter disposition is in the spiritual realm. The Scripture in Eph.4:29-32 clearly points out that anger and wrath grieves the Holy Spirit who is within us. There are specific commandments in the Bible, which exhort us to lead a life devoid of anger in order to please God. Giving a foothold for Satan through anger can lead to a complete catastrophe of one’s spiritual life.
6. DEALING WITH ANGER: A COUNSELING PERSPECTIVE
A variety of theories and techniques have been suggested in managing anger. We will discuss some of the essential steps which need to be considered in counseling people who struggle with the emotion of anger.
Help People to Admit Anger
The first and foremost step is to help people admit anger. For some admitting anger is a difficult thing to do. People who have learned to see anger only as evil or sin find it difficult to admit anger. They will try to act defensively. Such people have to be assured that anger is a normal emotion and they have to be shown the symptoms of anger in their lives. Sensitivity and honesty are essential elements in anger recognition. Counselors can help counselees to develop these in their lives.
Help People to Rightly Express Anger
The next step a counselor can do is to help the counselees find the right way to express their anger. There are many healthy ways to express the emotion of anger. For instance, Hart suggests, “If someone has angered you or continues to anger you, it may be necessary for you to reflect this anger directly to the person concerned and talk about it.” Nevertheless, there are some people who explode first and think later. They may have learned to take out their anger on others physically. In cases like that counselors need to offer some harmless strategies. Carroll Saussy in her book, The Gift of Anger, suggests a variety of novel methods to express anger.
Help People to Understand the Cause of Anger
Counselors should help the counselees to see the cause and magnitude of anger. Collins observes, “Counselees can be taught to ask themselves some basic questions whenever they feel angry.” This will help them to acknowledge and evaluate anger. Anger evaluation aids a person to see whether the problem is real or falsely perceived or displaced. Meanwhile, it will also provide the person enough time to get more information before he or she can respond.
Encourage People to Confess and Forgive
The most important step in counseling is to show the counselee the biblical way of confession and forgiveness. Confession becomes extremely difficult when the major reason for anger is usually a hurt or injustice caused by someone or society. Unless one has humility, he or she would never come forward to confess. Therefore, it is the work of the counselor to convince the counselee that confession to God and others alone can bring healing to the wounded soul.
Moreover, anger is most often accompanied by the intense feeling to take revenge. This makes forgiveness a difficult choice. However, the Scripture clearly points out the importance of forgiveness. Jesus Christ is set as the model for this great virtue and He taught us to pray, “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The greatest motivation for forgiving others is the fact that God forgave all our sins and failures. Counselors should be able to point out from the Scripture that a permanent solution to the problem of anger can be achieved only through offering forgiveness to the offended party. Since a genuinely hurt or affected person would find it difficult to forgive, the counselor should help them to seek divine help.
Help People to Develop Healthy Perspectives
Another imperative task in helping those who struggle with anger is to help them develop a healthy perspective about the realities of life. There are people who have a low esteem and feel insecure. Such people are often sensitive and have an unrealistic expectation about life. Therefore, they are easily hurt by people and situations, which in turn lead to provocations. Counselors should identify this weakness in counselees and help them to face the realities of life. People with low esteem should be taught that life is full of potential for hurt and one cannot be happy and free if all hurt would create anger. Their self-Esteem should be build up.
Lead People to a life of Submission to God
Above all, counseling should focus more on the work of the Holy Spirit rather than human efforts to change a person’s behaviour. The Bible clearly lists uncontrolled anger as the work of the flesh (Gal.5:20). The perfect antidote to the work of the flesh is the fruit of the Holy Spirit which is given to a Spirit filled person. A person who struggles with anger needs more self-control which God alone can give. Therefore, people should be encouraged to yield to the Holy Spirit on a daily basis. Moreover, the Bible, without ambiguity teaches that uncontrolled anger is sin (Matt.5:21-24, I Tim.2:8, Jam.1:19-20). This exhortation needs to be given regularly. Finally, counselors should encourage counselees to trust God and His righteous action (Rom.12:19).
Anger is a powerful emotion given by God. The inappropriate expression of anger is condemned in the Bible, but anger itself is not. Therefore, it is acceptable for persons to become angry if they can express it in a biblical manner for a righteous cause. However, anger has the potential for destruction of self and others when not properly handled. Christian counseling should help people to identify ways to overcome the problem of uncontrolled anger. Although, there are several techniques available for anger management, the Spirit-filled Christian life is the key to continuos victory over uncontrolled anger.
Archibald D. Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1979), 11.
Gary R. Collins, Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1988), 120.
Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 42.
Collins, Christian Counseling, 120.
Carroll Saussy, The Gift of Anger: A Call to Faithful Action (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 14.
Tim Lahaye, Spirit Controlled Temperament (Illinois: Tyndale House, 1976), 72.
Paul Procter, ed. The New International Cambridge Dictionary, Low priced ed. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 45.
R. E. Butman. “Anger,” in Baker Encyclopaedia of Psychology and counseling, 2d ed. eds. David G. Benner and Peter C. Hill (Michigan: Baker Books, 1999), 80.
In the old Testament alone there are almost six hundred references to wrath or anger, and this theme continues in the New Testament. Collins, Christian counseling, 120.
Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 55.
Tim Lahaye and Bob Phillips, Anger is a Choice (Michigan: Zondervan, 1982), 14.
Collins, Christian counseling, 121.
On occasions when His people rejected Him to serve other gods (Deut.7:4, 9:19, 29:20, I Kings 14:9-11,15), He allowed them to be taken as captives by other nations. He sometimes removed His presence from them as a sign of His anger (Num.12:9, 31:17, Deut.32:16,21-22, Josh.23:16).
Jesus also justified the king’s anger in the parables (Mt.22:7, Lk.14:21). All the evidences show that Jesus was passionate for justice and He used anger to fulfil His righteous task.
God’s anger acts against injustice and wilful disobedience. It acts not with hatred, malice or resentment but to correct or curtail destructive behaviour. Therefore, it is an expression of concern and care. Lahaye and Phillips, Anger is a Choice, 105.
Collins, Christian counseling, 121.
Holy anger is always directed towards sin and it is controlled by God. Holy anger is concerned with defending and building up others rather than protecting its own pride and self esteem. Moreover, Holy anger produces righteousness rather than sinfulness. Warren W. Wiersbe, Angry People: Understanding and Overcoming Anger (Nebraska: Back to the Bible, 1987), 8-10.
Some of the passages that warn about unrighteous human anger are: Eccl.7:9, Ps.37:8, Pro.15:17, 17:1, 21:19, 15:18, 25:28, Col.3:8, Jam.1:19-20, Gal.5:20, I Tim.2:8.
Refer Gen.49:6-7, Ps.37:8, Job 36:13, Pro.15:1. Leland Ryken and others, eds., Dictionary of biblical Imagery (Illinois: Inter Vasity Press, 1998), 25-26.
Lahaye and Phillips, Anger is a Choice, 164.
Because God is wise, sovereign, powerful, perfect, and all knowing, He never misinterprets a situation, never feels threatened, never loses control, and is always angered by sin and injustice. In contrast, humans are sinful, limited in knowledge, vulnerable of misinterpreting circumstances and making judgements, quickly get hurt and react, and mostly vindictive and vengeful in nature. Collins, Christian counseling, 121.
Medical experts have found that it is possible to activate certain parts of the brain directly by electrical stimulation in the laboratory to evoke anger. Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 46.
Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 46.
Researchers note that even a four month old infant reacts to frustrating confinement with marked anger. British psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s work on a child’s first experiences of separation anxiety and anger illuminates these early processes. See also. Saussy, The Gift of Anger, 28-29.
It has been found that physical injury, loss of health, loss of sleep and general stress can sometimes lead to anger. There is also evidence that allergies, brain disease, disorders of the body’s chemistry and certain genetic abnormalities can cause anger. Lahaye and Phillips, Anger is a Choice, 71.
Collins, Christian counseling, 124.
For instance, right from the beginning human beings learn to have their way by expressing anger in various ways. The temper tantrum of a child is a good example of this development. Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 50.
Collins, Christian counseling, 125.
Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 51.
Lahaye and Phillips, Anger is a Choice, 71.
Parental influence affects one’s attitude towards expressing anger. Most children are required to control anger which results in their denial of some of their anger. Educational system relies more on right answer and thereby looks down on all emotions including anger. Most of the religious groups identify anger as a great sin and this certainly influences religious minds. All these factors will determine anger expression. It is also interesting to note that girls are often expected not to show their anger while boys of the same age are allowed to freely express. Similarly, one’s race also determines anger expressions. For instance, psychologists have found out that middle class African Americans in America were expected to suppress their anger because of their low background in the society. Saussy, The Gift of Anger, 3.
Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 51.
Collins, Christian counseling, 126.
Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 52.
Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 53.
Collins, Christian counseling, 126-127.
Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 53.
Collins, Christian counseling, 127.
Human beings are all very complex when it comes to emotions. Each emotion is chained to other emotions. For instance, if we allow anger to dominate us it can destroy the richer emotions of love and compassion. Lahaye and Phillips, Anger is a Choice, 51.
One may develop psychological reactions such as anxiety, fear, self-pity, vengeance, tension or depression. Extreme cases even lead to accident proneness and suicide. Collins, Christian counseling, 126.
Lahaye, Spirit Controlled Temperament, 72.
Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 51-52.
Lahaye, Spirit Controlled Temperament, 77.
Collins, Christian counseling, 128.
Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 61.
Collins, Christian counseling, 128.
Hart gives certain rules to be followed in expressing anger directly to a person. They are as follows: a) Try to deal with your hurts and anger as they arise, one at a time. b) Accept responsibility for your anger. c) Acknowledge the right of the other person to have feelings also. d) Listen, receive, and accept any explanation of apology that may be offered. e) Make a goal of trying to get understanding between the two of you, not necessarily agreement. Hart mentions that to do this one needs a measure of assertiveness. Hart, Unlocking the Mystery of your Emotions, 67.
There are several options suggested: a) Physical activity can create a pause or break in the anger build up, therefore, engage in bodily exercise. b) Audiotape a conversation with yourself about how you feel and hear it four times. Listen carefully to how you feel and try to analyse the experience. c) Rewrite a psalm of lament from the Scripture (ex. Ps.77), or involve in writing words at random on a paper – Gabriele Rico’s clustering exercise. d) Dialogue with your anger. e) Begin a anger diary and share your thoughts with a trusted friend. Saussy, The Gift of Anger, 120-133.
The questions may include, what is making me feel angry? Why am I feeling anger and not some other emotion? Am I jumping to conclusions? Is there another way to look at the situation? Are there things I can change to reduce my anger? Collins, Christian counseling, 129.
David Augsburger explains how forgiveness can bring healing. He observes three things. a) The grease of forgiving love can reduce the friction and salve irritation. b) Forgiveness is not holy amnesia which erases the past, instead it is the experience of healing that draws the poison out. You may recall that hurt but you will not relive the hurt. c) The hornet of memory may fly again but forgiveness has drawn out the sting. Lahaye and Phillips, Anger is a Choice, 122.
By Sam K John