You don't have to be an "angry person" to have a problem with anger.
My second year of marriage was a mess.
I had bottled up discontent from a lack of emotional intimacy with my wife from the first year. In immaturity and a gross lack of understanding, I exploded in episodes of anger. Shouting, name-calling, and T-shirt ripping. Yeah, I would grab the collar of my t-shirt with two hands and pull down in angst, ripping the shirt in two. My wife had no idea she was marrying the Incredible Hulk when she said "I do."
And here is the weird thing; I wasn't even an "angry person" before I got married.
Garden Variety Anger
You don't have to be an "angry person" to have a problem with anger. There's an anger of the garden variety that's often expressed through complaining, grumpiness, a cutting remark, sulking self-pity, and turbulent frustration.
Take commonplace complaints about the weather. Complaints about the excessive heat or cold can either be a form of small talk or a form of unbelief in God's good providence. We don't typically think of complaining as anger, but when framed with the providence of God we are pressed to consider our motives.
Subtle complaining characterizes our culture. According to one statistic, most people in America are exposed to some 3,000 advertisements a day, most of which appeal to a lifestyle grounded in self-comfort. It comes as no surprise, then, that when our comfort is overturned ... we complain. If someone cuts us off in traffic, we curse under our breath and complain for the next five miles. If a fast-food attendant is slow in taking our order, they are subjected to our cutting remarks. If work or school becomes demanding, we wallow in self-pity, a weak form of anger.
Under the surface of all the "happy shiny people" called Christians lurks an enemy of our soul — sinful anger.
Complaining and anger are often perceived as kind of cool, against the grain, rebel without a cause attitude. Anger is almost perceived as a personal strength. If you're opinionated enough to rant, then you must have something to say. But Proverbs 16:32 tells us:
Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.
Contrary to our subtle belief that anger is a display of strength, it is actually patience that is strong and anger that's a sign of weakness. Instead of buying into cultural notions regarding the "virtue" of anger, we need to better understand a biblical view of anger.
In order to understand our anger it must be compared and contrasted with God's anger. We must see our anger through His eyes. David Powlison describes our anger in Satanic, warlike features:
Warmaking is a prime trait of sinners. It's the image of Satan: liar, murder, divider, aggressor.
Speaking of the judgmental and contentious person he writes:
He becomes, in fact, Satanic. He acts in the image of the accuser of the brethren, an adversary of the well-being of others, an unlawful bringer of destruction, a tyrant and vigilante.
By identifying our sinful anger with the image of Satan, Powlison drives a wedge between the desires of the Spirit and the desires of the flesh, the image of Christ and the image of Satan.
It is horrifying to think of bearing the image of Satan, but that's exactly what we do when we insist on our own way instead of submitting to God's way. Our complaining, aggressive, demanding spirit has more in common with Satan than it does with Christ.
Idols Beneath the Anger
The Accuser is driven by the desire to stir up strife and envy. What are we driven by? Where are we conforming to the image of Satan? Where have we refused to trust in God's sovereign will to do us good?
I remember a conflict I was having with my wife a few years ago. At one point, frustrated with her proclivity to self-defense, I said, "You never apologize ..." and catching my words we both paused. I tried to qualify my stinging statement but it was too late to retract it; the damage was done. My tongue had betrayed my heart and injured my wife. In angry frustration I demanded reciprocity. I tried to force my wife to respond on my terms.
Is it good to apologize? Sure. Is it godly to demand apologies? Not at all. That's self-righteous, pharisaical ... and maybe even satanic.
What happened here? My potentially good desire for genuine resolution became my idol. My anger was the symptom of an idolatry of "resolution" or vindication. I held up the law instead of grace, a lamp instead of a mirror. Instead of laying down any perceived rights and confessing my own failures, I was demanding and I was selfish.
Anger bubbled to the top in marital disagreement. Why? Because I wasn't getting my own way. Because I was believing the lie that quick resolution, personal rights, and spousal failures were the root problem in our conflict. I was idolizing my desire to be right, to be apologized to, instead of searching my own heart for wrong-doing, repenting, and seeking forgiveness from God and my wife. I wanted resolution on my terms, not gospel terms.
Gospel terms call me to confession and repentance, not blame-shifting and accusation. I should have trusted that God was working in her heart, just as He was working in mine, allowing the Holy Spirit to do the convicting and for me to do the repenting.
How does the gospel address such issues? What can we do when we feel discontent and anger rising inside?
Anger and Unbelief
When I grow angry I find myself losing belief. I lose faith in God's goodness amid my circumstances. I lose belief in his promises, that "he works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose" (Rom 8:28).
This unbelief arises from sinful discontent with God's wise providence, a failure to trust in His perfect will to do me good, whether through bad weather or good, emotional intimacy or none, apology or no apology. From emotional outbursts to weather complaints, anger arises from a failure to believe the truth, and belief that God owes me something: better weather or better marital intimacy or whatever.
Belief in this false promise is unbelief in God's promises.
Powlison points out that we express our anger towards God in three main ways. First, anger either ignores or rejects the sovereign freedom of God. Second, it's a refusal to believe God's promise to work for our good in all things, even drastic changes in climate. Third, it enthrones our will for comfort over God's will, effectively assuming personal supremacy over God. It puts God in the dock.
We've seen these three elements from my personal struggles with anger, noting their Satanic, not Christlike character. At the root of anger is an enthronement of our will, an idolatry of our way, and a refusal to exercise a contented trust in God's providence.
By now you're probably wondering about so-called "righteous anger," often supported by Ephesians 4:26: "Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger." I've heard some people argue that the command to be angry and not sin actually permits righteous anger and restricts sinful anger.
To be sure, there's a place for righteous anger (Ps 4:4); the thing is, Paul is not making a case for righteous anger in this particular text. Instead, he's describing the behavior fitting of the new humanity created in Christ. Therefore, this text should be read, not as a license for righteous anger, but as a warning against sinful anger, the anger we've been discussing in this article.
We must be careful that we not seek to justify our anger on the grounds of "righteous" while at the same time judging the anger of others as evil.
If anger is war-making, contented trust leads to peace-making. Peaceable people lay aside warlike tendencies in order to promote whole resolution that rests on the gospel not our idols of resolution, vindication or reciprocity. How then, does the anger of God and the cross of Christ figure into this?
The Anger of God and the Cross of Christ
God's anger is not capricious or unjust. Instead, His anger is purposeful, resulting in a thoughtful plan and process to reconcile all injustices. In short, God's anger is good.
His ultimate aim in displaying His anger is the demonstration of the glory of His justice. He delights in being a righteous and just God. Through and through God is fully righteous; therefore, any unrighteousness provokes His wrath.
However, God is not simply an "angry god."
God is also love, and God's love demands His wrath. As David Powlison has noted:
You can't understand God's love if you don't understand his anger.
Understanding God's anger inevitably leads us to the cross where God's justice and mercy meet in perfect, soul-wrenching, Christ-crushing, sin-forgiving, life-giving harmony. The anger of God against our sinful anger was mercifully diverted from us onto His beloved Son. As a result, God preserved and promoted both His justice and humanity's forgiveness through the cross.
Thus, God's penultimate aim in His anger is the good of His people. His ultimate aim is to magnify the riches of His grace, love and patience. At the cross our good and God's glory converge. Angry sinners are forgiven and God's righteous anger is preserved. At the cross we witness Jesus bearing the brunt of God's righteous anger for our unrighteous anger, cutting remarks and constant complaining.
This is love. Forgiveness for faith. His death for our life, a life lived in the power of the resurrection to trust in the promises of God's good providence in every circumstance.
The gospel confronts the idol beneath our anger, calls us to soul-sweetening repentance and faith in God's unwavering commitment to love us and make us new. The gospel of Christ reminds us that Jesus is sufficient for our failures and strong for our successes, promising us the power to change, to bear the image of Christ not the image of Satan.
Copyright 2009 Jonathan Dodson. All rights reserved.