At its heart anger is a problem of the heart. We often look at our circumstances as those things which generate our outbursts, annoyance, and rage, but the Bible speaks of the source and origin of anger as something more internal. To properly address anger, then, we must look at our hearts.
Jesus establishes anger as an issue of the heart in several key passages in the New Testament. He states:
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. (Matthew 15:19)
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery (Mark 7:21)
The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)
Jesus teaches his disciples that those things which defile a man do not come from without, but from within, from his own sinful heart (Matt. 15:10-20). The words we speak and the thoughts we think have their origin in the desires of our hearts. So, as we seek to think about our own experiences of anger we must ask: what is going on in my heart.
Anger does not just come out of the blue. While some of us struggle with anger on a regular, even daily basis, others of us can acknowledge specific events that seem to have sparked our anger – to have set it off and from that moment forward seems to have been its starter. Before that event I wasn’t angry, after that event I am. How do we account for this experience? How should we think about our own personal struggles with anger? These are important questions. We want to consider where our anger comes from and what drives it, this means looking carefully and critically at our desires.
So, for example, consider a mom who has constant outbursts towards her children. Her general practice of discipline is to yell and scream at her kids when they don’t obey. Sometimes, she yells even before she gives instruction, not giving her children the chance to obey. She knows it’s wrong but she also sees that at some level it works. When she yells and screams the kids react, generally they stop doing what she hates, or start doing what she wants. Her anger works to achieve its end. So it has become her default practice. But it is rooted in a desire. What is the desire. The desire is for obedience, but it’s deeper than that. Our desires too have a history, where does this desire come from? Perhaps this mom is reflecting the practices and habits of her mom. Perhaps she has a very critical mom who was constantly putting her down and berating her as a child. She was never good enough as a child and now, as a mom, she senses her own, natural, insecurity as a mother. Whenever her kids disobey it feels like a reminder of her own incompetence as a parent. In their disobedience she hears her mom’s disapproval. She needs them to obey, not for their sake, not because it’s right, but because when they don’t she feels threatened. So, she lashes out. She responds from a place of anger because she responds from a place of insecurity.
Think about your anger. What drives it? What is the story behind the desires in your own heart? Anger does not arise first from our circumstances, but from our hearts. The origin of our sinful emotional responses can be tricky and difficult to navigate. Unearthing my desires and their own history can be scary and upsetting, but we must be prepared to learn about ourselves in this way if we hope to address our anger. We must be prepared to confront sinful desires that we love, some of which may be hard to accept as sinful.
As we seek to work through our desires and their part in our anger there are several key areas of our lives that we need to consider. Brad Hambrick helpfully lists three categories we should consider as we seek to unpack the origin and history of our anger, I will borrow from him below.
First, we need to consider our personality and temperament. Consider your personality type. Many of us have taken some sort of personality quiz or evaluation. They tell us that we are type-A personalities or we’re Golden Retrievers, etc. But, as Hambrick points out, these personality quizzes do not establish our essence, they merely relate to us what we already value. So, some of us may value order, others may value peace. Some of us like to be the center of attention, others of us want to work behind the scenes. This does not mean that this is who I am, at my core nature, and that if I become angry it’s really someone else’s fault for challenging my personality. Rather, it means I need to consider carefully my values and how God would have me relate to those and relate to others. Are my values right? Does God bless those values? Can those values be abused or misapplied? How? When?
Second, we ought to consider our family history. How did you learn to deal with conflict, to address emotions?Think about the ways your parents fought or didn’t fight growing up. We have a perception of “normal” and “natural,” and we learn how to deal with conflict and disappointment from our families. We need to turn a critical eye towards our family history, not to blame our parents but to evaluate our responses. Am I responding rightly to conflict? Are my learned behaviors healthy behaviors? Just because we perceive our responses as “normal” or “natural” does not mean they are godly.
Thirdly, I need to consider my life circumstances. How am I handling my time, money, and health? These are all things that can contribute to my exasperation and frustration. They are not the causes of my anger, but they may set me up to react strongly to life’s situations. Do you get enough sleep? Do you take care of your body? Are you constantly running late and getting behind on projects? Am I spread too thin or overworked? It’s important to consider how these issues may be contributing to your frustrations. As Hambrick says, “You will not have healthy emotions in an unhealthy life.”
We must carefully consider our desires. They drive our anger and motivate it. Paul Tripp explains the journey to anger in a very helpful way. He says: our desires battle for control until they become a demand, the demand is then expressed and usually experienced as a need, my sense of need sets up my expectation, expectation when unfulfilled leads to disappointment, disappointment leads to some kind of punishment. If we can get into the middle of this journey and try to take some critical evaluative work we can begin to change the outcome. The heart of our anger problem is a problem of the heart. So, we begin there to address our problems.