Anger and arrogance go hand-in-hand. I have never met a humble person who was angry. Therefore one of the best ways to uproot anger is to be humble, or rather to be humiliated. That is to say, we can’t simply make ourselves humble; we need God to humble us. To uproot anger, then, we need to seek to put ourselves in places where God may humble us.
Apologies are not the same thing as genuine repentance. One might say they are sorry, one might even have a general sense of regret for their behavior, and yet real repentance may still elude them. Repentance is accompanied by brokenness and sorrow for sin. The Puritan Thomas Watson defined repentance helpfully when he wrote:
Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed. For a further amplification, know that repentance is a spiritual medicine made up of six special ingredients: sight of sin, sorrow for sin, confession of sin, shame for sin, hatred for sin, turning from sin. If any one is left out it loses its virtue. (The Doctrine of Repentance, 18)
The Scriptures echo these ideas, particularly of brokenness and sorrow for sin. So the Psalmist declares that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit” (Ps. 51:17). It is a “broken and contrite heart” that God desires to see in His people. The prophet Joel describes what “returning to the Lord” looks like for the people of Israel. He says:
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12-13)
It involves “weeping” and “rending of the heart.” These are qualities that we cannot naturally generate in ourselves. We love sin. We desperately need for God to humble us before Him that we might feel the weight of our sin and be broken over it. So, how do we put ourselves in the place where God may yet humble us?
The apostle James helps us to understand what we can do to “humble ourselves.” Ultimately we must wait on God’s Spirit, but that does not leave us sitting on our hands. No, James has counsel to offer. He writes:
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:1-9)
The apostle begins by explaining the origin of anger: our own sinful desires. Then he spells out the serious consequences of pursuing these selfish demands: enmity with God. He calls us adulterous people, because we pursue these things against God’s desire and will for us. Finally, James spells out what we must do: humble yourselves before God. In practical terms it looks like this: submitting ourselves to God.
The idea here is one of surrendering our rights, our demands, our wants before God’s plan. It means repenting before Him and acknowledging that we have no rights to our anger. If God chooses to take or give that is up to Him. Speaking of this James passage, Robert Jones has written:
We must humble ourselves before God. The repetition of “humble” in the beginning and end forms a literary inclusion – a pair of bookends – that bracket this section. We must forsake the “my rights, my kingdom, my will” type of pride that spawns anger. (Uprooting Anger, 66)
We can put ourselves in a place to be humbled when we confess honestly and completely to God about these desires and leave them behind. What is it that I want? What is it that I didn’t get that is making me angry? Why do I get angry when I don’t get these things? Confess these desires to God, confess these sinful demands to Him. If anger is driven by my unmet expectations, that humbling myself before God happens as I let go of those unmet expectations. Submitting myself to God’s will might mean that I don’t get what I really want, but it will also mean that I can begin the path to freedom from enslaving anger.
In addition to confessing and humbling ourselves before God, we must also confess and submit ourselves to others. Any one who says they have confessed to God, but is unwilling to confess to man has not really repented. For humbling ourselves before God often has a human face to it. Often we can’t confess before men because we are too consumed by what they think, what they will say, what the immediate consequences will be. As such we are often not thinking about the real danger and damage of our sin. We care more about our reputation, our position, our ministries than about our relationship with the Lord. So, putting ourselves in a place to be humbled means exposing our sin to others. I know I am broken over my sin when I am ready to truly confess it and take the consequences that it has earned.
Practically speaking, then, I have urged people to do several things to put themselves in a place to be humbled.
First, write out a prayer to God that lists in specific detail why you get angry, what your anger looks like, how your anger has hurt others, and how your anger has sinned against Him. Confess it all and ask for forgiveness. Writing out a prayer is helpful because it gives us time to consider carefully the words we use and what they mean. It generally causes us to pause and give more thought to the crafting of our confession.
Second, confess your sins to another key individual. There will be a time and a place for confession and repentance before those against whom we have sinned. It is not at this stage. At this stage we need someone with some more authority and weight in our lives to know about the specific nature of our anger. I need to confess them all the ugly details. The words I have used, the violence I have displayed, the aggression I have manifested, etc. Whatever my anger looks like needs to be spelled out so they get the full picture. I need to give them permission too to speak with those against whom I have sinned. They need the freedom to hear from others who have seen this anger on display.
Confession is humiliating. It should be. But confession is, as Gregory of Nazinzus called it, a “salve to a wounded soul. It will prepare us to be humbled by God that we might find true brokenness over our sin and start the path towards repentance and true change.
We will never uproot anger so long as we hold onto our own arrogance and pride. Confession will help us to remove those road blocks. Humbling ourselves before the Lord and before others will prepare us to change. Uprooting your anger starts with humiliation. Humble yourselves, friends.