Dn. Michael Hyatt · February 21, 2011
Using personal experiences, the Bible and teachings of the Church, Dn. Michael discusses the importance of handling our anger appropriately.
At our last session together, we talked about overcoming fear. And I wanted to move on today to the topic of anger. I think this is also an emotion that derails a lot of us and is poisonous to our spiritual health. I’ve certainly had a lot of experience with anger—both being the recipient of it and dishing it out.
I remember in junior high school, which is always a particularly vulnerable age, my family moved from Nebraska to Texas. And I was in the ninth grade, and it was in the middle of the semester. So it was at that time when all the other students had already settled into their cliques and their associations. And so here I come into what was really for me a very foreign culture. I could barely understand the dialect. No offense to Southerners.
But it was challenging. I remember the first day in class, going through the cafeteria and being very self-conscious. And everybody already had their place to sit and there I was with no place to sit and nobody really inviting me into their circle of friends so I kind of just slid into the nearest place I could and kind of kept my head down and eat my food and mind my own business.
And all the kids at the table kind of giggled and looked at me. That was kind of embarrassing, because when you’re a kid you just assume it has got to be about you. There’s something wrong with you. And finally one kid spoke up and said, “Man, you really have a big nose!” Well, that sounds like some kind of little thing you sluff off and really wouldn’t think about.
But that kind of became a defining moment, sadly, for my life. I was very angry. I hated this kid, as a result of that. I didn’t even know him, but just that one comment elicited such anger and hatred on my part. Any my whole life ended up revolving around that. I would look in the mirror every day and all I would see is this giant nose. And I eventually came to think that my whole body was a life support system for a nose. That is true for my dog Nelson. He’s all nostril, and he’s got four legs that move the nostril, but he’s genuinely all nose. But it took a couple days for that to subside. I’m still not sure I’m over the kid that said it.
I also had an experience, where I was in my mid-30s. A client suddenly and abruptly fired me, via fax no less and unwarranted—I thought. And it turns out, as I ended up learning more about later, it had nothing to do with me. But it created enormous anger which led to depression, which was really a tailspin for me for several months.
But we live in a culture also driven not only by fear, as I pointed out in our last session, but also by anger. Just witness the demonstrations that have been going on in Wisconsin with the teacher walkout and the verbal exchanges by both sides. And regardless of which side you come down, there’s an enormous amount of energy and anger that’s being shared.
All the partisan exchanges that we hear on television and the anger, it just seems like civil discourse has disappeared. And we have a lot of uncivil discourse—people talking to one another in hateful tones; attacking one another personally. And then of course, there’s the thing that if we’re honest we all experience, and that is road rage.
It just happened to me this week—in fact, Friday. I was coming home from work, and I turned right to get onto the onramp on the interstate on I-40, and somebody in the lane left of me turned right in front of me! And it’s a miracle I didn’t have a wreck. And just almost immediately, I had this flash of anger. I kept my hands on the wheel and didn’t gesture or say anything, but it was a little bit scary.
I read this week also that there was this survey of Christian counselors in which they reported that 50% of the people who come in for counseling are dealing with problems of anger. Fifty percent! I was saying this to Gail and she said, “Well, I’ll bet you a lot of the other problems like depression (where anger is turned inward) make up the other 50%.”
So anger is the cause of a lot of pain. Anger can destroy communication. It can tear apart relationships, steal our joy, and if not dealt with it can even destroy our health. There is a psychosomatic relationship between what we’re experiencing emotionally and how it affects us physically.
Not surprisingly, anger is one of the dominant themes of the Bible. It’s used about 230 times in the Bible. By comparison, fear is used 455 times. So at least, it’s half as big a problem, by simple word count, as fear, which always still amazes me about fear. But anger is right up there.
There’re three different Greek words that are translated anger in the New Testament, and I think it might be helpful. I’m going to give you some principles about anger in a minute, but I thought I’d get into the Greek a little bit. I normally don’t like to do this. And by the way, if the people listening to me on this podcast are of Greek descent, cut me some slack and grant me some grace. Because even though I had five semesters of Greek in college, we didn’t learn modern Greek pronunciations, so I may butcher this.
The first word is orge. It’s used 34 times in the New Testament. It is often translated anger but it means, “deliberate, intentional action toward another,” and usually not a good one. But this is the word that is translated in Ephesians 4:26-27 where St. Paul says, “Be angry and do not sin,” which is a direct quotation from Psalm 4:4. So in your Bibles, you’ll see that that’s in quotes, and it’s because St. Paul, being a good Jew who knew his Scriptures, was quoting from the Old Testament. And he says, “Be angry and do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil”—more about that in a minute. So that is orge.
There’s another Greek word pronounced thumos. It’s used 18 times in the New Testament, and it’s often translated wrath. And it means to boil up, and it refers to an outburst of anger. And maybe you’ve been there. I’ve heard about it. I’ve actually had outbursts of anger myself. I remember one time when we lived in Brentwood (I think I was in my early 30s); I got so frustrated. I don’t even remember what the situation was, but I slammed the wall and put my fist through the sheetrock. That’s what we’re talking about here—an outburst of anger.
It often dissipates as quickly as it comes up. I was in Orlando this week. There they often in the summer have thundershowers, where you wake up to a sunny day and in the middle of the afternoon the clouds roll in and you get rain and then it dissipates to a beautiful sunset. Well, this is kind of that outburst of anger idea. It’s used, for example, in Colossians 3:8, “But now, you yourselves are to put off these anger (orge) and wrath (thumos), malice blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.” We’re to put off these things as Christians. And we’re to put on the character of Christ, and St. Paul talks about that in Colossians 3.
There’s another word. This one is the toughest one to pronounce—aganaketsis. It’s used one time in the New Testament, interestingly. And it’s in 2 Corinthians 7:11, often translated in that verse as indignation. And this is where we kind of get the idea of righteous indignation, but let me read that verse to you in the New King James version.
Now just recall the context. There had been a man in Corinth who had been sleeping with his father’s wife. And so in the previous epistle, St. Paul had told them to put this man out of the Church. Actually, he said to turn him over to Satan so that ultimately he would be redeemed, which is a fascinating discussion all by itself. But the man repents, and so St. Paul says:
For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.
So there are two kinds of repentance. “Sorry for what I did. I got caught.” That’s not the kind of Godly sorrow that leads somebody to God.
For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner.
They were sorrowful for this man that they had to put out of their Church.
What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation (aganaketsis), what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.
So difficult though it was, this righteous indignation that they demonstrated on behalf of Christ, in putting this man out of the Church for a time, actually led to his salvation. And St. Paul is commending this in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11.
So three Greek words, and what I’d like to share with you this morning is three different principles about anger and some of what the Fathers have to say and some of what the Scriptures have to say about these.
First of all, I think we have to acknowledge that anger is a legitimate emotion. Anger is a legitimate emotion. It can be like a warning signal on the dashboard of our soul that tells us that something is wrong and needs to be made right. It’s not really different than a meter or gauge on your car that tells you that you’re dangerously low on oil or that your oil pressure is out of whack. It’s a signal that something needs to be addressed; that something is wrong.
Anger can be a God-given energy designed to help us solve problems. So it’s not always bad. This is what we often term righteous indignation. It’s in this sense that the Bible speaks of God’s anger. For example, Psalm 7:11 says, “God is a just judge and God is angry with the wicked every day.” Something is not right on the part of the wicked, and God is angry as a result of it. But it is a righteous indignation.
Then, we also have this passage: “Then, he said to them, ‘But is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil? To save life or to kill?’ ” (Because the Pharisees were prohibiting him from healing someone on the Sabbath or at least not happy with the fact that he was doing this.)
And when he had looked around at them, with anger (orge), being grieved by the hardness of their hearts he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other.
So here, our Lord himself, becomes angry with the Pharisees—a righteous indignation—because they were more concerned with the letter of the law than the spirit of the law and some man who had been crippled.
We’re even commanded to be angry. Interestingly, that passage I read from Ephesians 4:26 says to be angry. Honestly, there’re some things in this world that we ought to be angry at. They should elicit anger within us. Here is an example of legitimate anger. King David, you’ll recall, was upset when the prophet Nathan shares an injustice.
“Then, the Lord sent Nathan to David.” You remember that this was right after Bathsheba. That story. And so Nathan comes to David and he says to him:
“There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”
So there was a righteous indignation that David felt for this man, whose only ewe lamb had been taken from him. And then Nathan cleverly turns it on him and says, “You are the man!” And God used that in the life of David to bring about a profound repentance in his heart.
St. Paul also confronts St. Peter over his apparent double standard, and this is in the book of Galatians 2:11-14. St. Paul says:
Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.
But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?”
So here St. Paul, seeing the hypocrisy of Peter, who was eating with the Gentiles just fine until some more Jews showed up, and then he withdrew and wouldn’t eat with them. He separated himself from them. St. Paul confronts him with that. Again we see a righteous indignation.
And then of course, we have the story of Jesus confronting the money changers in the temple.
Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple.
We kind of forget that verse sometimes. We have that picture in our mind of gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Here, He is. It says:
He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” Then His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up.”
That’s John 2:13-17. But notice that none of these examples of anger involve self-defense, but instead a defense of others based on principle. This is a key thing that we have to understand. This is what separates righteous indignation from unwarranted and unrighteous wrath. And we’re probably more guilty of the latter than the former.
But it’s right that we should be angry, for example, when we see the rich and powerful exploit the poor. If you’ve travelled abroad and been in the Third World—perhaps Africa—and you wonder how many billions of dollars we’ve poured into that continent. And yet, there are so many that are starving; that are without the basic necessities like clean water. And then you learn about all the political corruption and how so many of those goods never reach the people to whom they were intended.
It’s right that we should be angry when we see young girls sold into sex slavery. There are more people enslaved today than in any other time in history, and much of it is sexual slavery and it is of a kind that it is horrible.
It’s right that we should be angry when we see racism and discrimination. These are the kinds of things for which there is a legitimate anger; an appropriate anger. I would say even a necessary anger. Those things should make us angry. And if they don’t, there’s something wrong with our internal barometer that we can just look at those things and witness those things and not feel compelled to try and do something. Then, we have to ask why?
But behind that anger is a love that’s motivated. And again I just want to say, notice that in none of the examples I cited did anger involve self-defense, but instead a defense of others based on principles. So first point, anger is a legitimate emotion.
Second point I’d make is that anger is a dangerous emotion. This is where we start getting into the dark side of anger. Anger turns to sin when it’s selfishly motivated or it’s allowed to linger. Again St. Paul in Ephesians 4:6-7, “Be angry and do not sin.” So it’s possible to be angry and not sin, but it’s also very possible to be angry and for that to lead to sin. And he says, “Do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” That really should be our touchstone with this. If you’re going to bed angry with unresolved issues with other people that involve you, then that should be a warning sign that you’ve crossed the line. I realize it’s not always possible to settle things before the sun goes down, but that should be always what we try to do.
And there have been times that Gail and I have laid in bed and been angry and not been able to talk and you know what I’m talking about. You’re lying there; your toes aren’t touching; you’re back-to-back; nobody is talking, and there’s just a thick, heavy blanket of anger in the room. And both of us have been pretty good about not going to sleep like that. I hate it, and I know it’s going to take some time when I’d rather be sleeping, but I can’t sleep either so we need to turn on the lights and talk it out. We got to get this resolved.
So don’t let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the Devil. This is interesting, and I’ll have more to say about that last part in a minute.
So instead of using the energy created by anger to solve a problem, it can be used to attack the person. That’s when it becomes bad. That’s when it becomes dangerous. That’s when it becomes toxic. As long as we’re focused on solving the problem, then we’re good. That anger can be the motivation that makes us do that. But when we start attacking the other person, that’s when we’ve slipped over to the dark side.
St. Paul says that we’re to speak the truth in love. How do you do that? That’s impossible apart from the grace of the Holy Spirit. To speak the truth in love. Now we have a temptation to do one or the other. We want to be all lovey-dovey and never really speak the truth. We don’t want to rock the boat. We want to keep everything okay.
Or we get on the truth kick, and it’s like a sword. Proverbs says, “There’s one who speaks like the thrusting of a sword.” And it’s like, I’m going to slay you with the truth. This is the truth about you, and this is the truth about the situation, and Boom! Boom! Boom! But to do both takes extraordinary grace, and I would say is impossible apart from the grace of the Holy Spirit.
And it can be, as Ephesians 4:27 reminds us, a doorway to the Devil. This is especially true when the anger boils over to verbal abuse, to emotional abuse, and to—God help us—physical abuse. When it boils over to one of those, it’s a tool of the Devil.
I remember, years ago, we had an author who got really angry with one of the guys in our office. And instead of just replying to the individual; calling him up on the phone; even better yet going and talking in person, they did a Reply All and chewed him out. And there were probably twenty people on the email. And it wasn’t helpful. It was extremely hurtful. It was a dangerous emotion. It hurt him. It hurt the person he attacked. And it really spread to everyone else. And I just replied privately to him, and asked if he was aware of the fact that he replied to all. And of course he was mortified and he had to ask that person’s forgiveness and everybody else’s, that was on the email chain, forgiveness.
But once it happens, it’s tough to take it back in. Those hurts, particularly when they are children, can last a lifetime. God help us all! So anger is a dangerous emotion.
The third point I would make is that anger can poison our soul. It can lead to malice where there is a considered intent to do someone else wrong. The Bible tells us specifically not to return evil for evil. And when we are plotting evil, that is wrong. St. Paul said “Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is the Gospel. This is how we are to respond to evil.
We don’t live in Heaven, yet. We don’t live in a world where there is no evil. We live in a world where we’re confronted with evil daily. But notice that the strategy is to overcome it with good (Romans 12:21).
St. John of the Ladder says this in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, “Anger is an indication of concealed hatred, of grievance nursed. Anger is the wish to harm someone who has provoked you.” That’s what I’m really defining as malice.
It could also lead to bitterness. I think this is one of the most dangerous, toxic emotions that you can ever experience. This has derailed more people in their Christian life. It’s derailed and destroyed more marriages, more relationships with children, and children with parents, even relationships in the marketplace. Bitterness! But this happens when we fail to forgive a wrong that is committed against us.
In the book of Hebrews 12:14-15, St. Paul says this:
Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled.
If you’ve ever know someone that is bitter, it’s rarely contained. It spills over into all their other relationships. They’re constantly complaining about this person, that person, or the person who wronged them. And sometimes we make this even spiritual by asking for prayer for that person that wronged us, instead of dealing with them directly.
Again St. John of the Ladder in The Ladder of Divine Ascent says, “Remembrance of wrongs comes as the final points of anger.” That’s really what bitterness is. It’s an inability to let it go.
Remembrance of wrongs comes as the final point of anger. It is a keeper of sins. It hates a just way of life. It is the ruin of virtues, the poison of the soul, a worm in the mind. It is the shame of prayer, a cutting off of supplication, a turning away from love, a nail piercing the soul. It is a pleasureless feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness. It is a never-ending sin, an unsleeping wrong, rancor by the hour. A dark and loathsome passion, it comes to be but has no offspring, so that one need not say too much about it.
The man who has put a stop to anger has also wipe out remembrance of wrongs, since offspring can come only from a living parent.
So we don’t have to fall into danger of bitterness, if as Barney Fife used to say, “Nip it in the bud.” If we deal with anger, before it ferments, before it goes sour, and becomes bitterness. And anger if it’s not dealt with could even lead to depression. I’m going to deal with this, God-willing, next week in a whole separate topic by itself.
But just by way of application, what do you do when you’re angry? How do you put off anger? And this is a little bit similar to fear in that in that I think we have to begin by acknowledging it. If we’re not noticing when we’re angry, there’s a problem. And I know that for so many people, this has become a way of relating—especially inside the family or with people at work. They have no idea how they’re coming across. They have no idea what their countenance is saying when they are talking to their children.
And so we have to first acknowledge it; to be alert for it; to wipe the dashboard of our soul so that we can see that gauge so that when it registers anger, we can acknowledge it. Second thing, insert a space between the stimulus and the response. And this is, as I’ve pointed out before, one of the things that separates us from animals. We don’t have to just respond automatically to every stimulus.
This morning I went in to feed Nelson, before church, and when I grabbed the dog food, he was wagging his tail all over and salivating. There was no space between the stimulus and the response. He couldn’t help it. He heard the rustling of the food, and he knew it was that time to be fed, and it was an automatic response. But you’re not a dog.
This is one of the things that makes you distinctly human. You can choose your response. And if we’re going to conquer anger, if we’re going to overcome it, we’ve got to take a deep breath when we feel angry. And we’ve got to ask ourselves, the question. “Is this righteous indignation on behalf of someone else that’s been wronged, that I’m committed to making right? Or is this the dark side of anger and I’m beginning to attack or thinking about attacking the person who delivered it?”
So insert a space between the stimulus and the response. This is important for every aspect of our Christian life. I don’t care what it is or what you’re dealing with—capitalizing or exploiting that space, making it larger, giving yourself time before you respond.
There’s so many times I’ve gotten an email from somebody and written an unbelievably clear, compelling email that I knew would completely eviscerate them, but it wasn’t right to send it. And it’s because I was putting no space between the stimulus and the response. So now, oftentimes, I actually write those, but I make really sure that there is nobody addressed on the ‘To’ line, because I would hate to accidentally hit the ‘Send.’ But more often than not, I write those today, sit on it, and usually just delete it. I really can’t think of a good time when I’ve sent an angry email and something positive has come of it.
There are few times that I’ve responded in anger that good has come of it. I’m much better to take a deep breath, give space between the stimulus and the response, and consider my action. Then third, choose to respond in a Godly way. St. Maximus the Confessor says this:
But I say to you the Lord says, “Love your enemies; do good to those to hate you; pray for those who persecute you.” Why did He command these things? So that He might free you from hatred, sadness, anger, and grudges, and might grant you the greatest possession of all—perfect love, which is impossible to possess except by the one who loves all equally in imitation of God.
It’s not just that God says don’t be angry, but He actually gives us some positive things that we can do. We can pray for those, which spitefully use us and persecute us. We can do good to them. The Sermon on the Mount is very clear and Jesus gives some very specific, concrete actions that we can take towards those who have wronged us. And it doesn’t involve taking off their head or insulting them.
So we can take action to resolve the problem, and then forgive the offender. This is still under responding in a Godly way, but to forgive. And that word in the Greek, as we’ve seen before, means to let go. It means to release someone from prison. You think you’re holding them in prison; the truth is you’re holding yourself in prison. And until you release them, you can’t get out.
The final thing I would say by way of application is just don’t fail to deal with it. The consequences are too significant. It will damage your own soul. It will hurt the people that you love the most. Just don’t let the sun set on your anger.