Biblical Help for the Angry Person: The Gospel and Anger

angry_couple_istock_0000154_620x350There are lots of strategies for dealing with anger. Some are decent methods for helping us to control our responses, things like counting to ten and taking deep breaths. Some simply encourage angry outbursts, but in controlled ways; strategies like screaming into a pillow or assaulting one another with foam bats do such things. But none of these strategies can help us directly address the root of our anger; only the gospel does this thoroughly. To help address our anger at its very root we need to think carefully on the promises of the gospel.

Anger stems from idolatry. James, as we have already seen in this study, makes this point clear. He writes:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 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. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 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. 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”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 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 4:1-10)

James says that the cause of our fights and quarrels, murderous and covetous thoughts stems from “warring passions” within us. He goes on to call us “adulterous people,” meaning we have cheated on God by longing for something more than Him, or instead of Him. Anger stems from idolatrous desires that seek to replace God, or seek to gratify our wants and needs apart from God. So, addressing our anger means uncovering these desires, something we’ve talked about in the past, and seeing more fully all that God promises us in the gospel.

The solution to anger is not simply to grit your teeth and endure disappointment. It is not to give up all desire and just take what you’re given. Rather, the solution to anger arises as we desire better things. We need to cultivate, then, a deep understanding and longing for all that God promises us in the gospel. The gospel is not simply about eternal life after we die. There is far more weight and glory to it than this. The gospel promises us aid now, live more abundant, and the very presence and love of God each day. So, think about how this might apply to a few idols of an angry heart.

Consider the husband who demands respect, who feels insulted and slighted when his wife or children deny him this idol. He has been taught, both by example and actual words that you never tolerate disrespect, especially in your own house. So, when he feels disrespected he responds with outburst of anger, threatening posture, hateful words, loud tones, and red face. But consider the testimony of the Scriptures. The Bible tells us that we are not entitled to respect, we are sinners. To respect someone is to admire them or esteem based on their abilities, qualities, or achievements. It is a works-based acceptance. But the Bible reveals that all our works and qualities are tainted by sin. What do we have to boast in, Paul rightly and rhetorically asks (1 Cor. 4:7). But, in Christ we find we have acceptance apart from works (2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5). I don’t need the respect of others when I have the acceptance and love of God in Christ (Rom. 3:28). The gospel frees me from this idol when I learn to embrace the acceptance I have in Christ.

Or consider the disappointed heart, the one that did not get what it expected to get. Maybe it was a promotion, maybe it was a home, maybe it was a certain kind of life. A person with a disappointed heart may manifest their anger slightly different. Their anger may manifest more as grumbling, as bitterness and resentment. Their idol, in this case their expectations, have not been worshipped. But the gospel offers a better promise than their feeble expectations. Their plans fell through, but God has bigger plans, better plans for their lives. Romans 8:28 is true for them because God is bigger than their expectations and his plans for their joy are bigger than their expectations. When we consider that in Christ God has a whole new life prepared for us it can help us to weigh our disappointments better. We may have been let down, yet Paul says that because of Christ the “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). There may still be some sting, some disappointment, but it’s not worth focusing on because there is a weight of glory awaiting those who are united to Christ. The gospel frees me from this idol too.

Our problem is not that we have desires; it is that our desires are often sinful and pathetic. James even says we have not because we ask not; we have not because we ask for sinful reasons. God does not refuse to give us joy. He is not a cosmic killjoy who refuses to let us have any fun in this life. He simply wants to preserve us from puny joys that we might better taste the fullness of joy at his right hand (Psalm 16:11). C.S. Lewis captured how the gospel seeks to supplant our joys so poetically in this most famous of quotes; he wrote:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses)

So, to fight our anger, to take hold of it and strangle the life out of it we need to do two supplant our feeble desires with gospel truths. We need to meditate on the myriads of promises that God offers us in the gospel. Focus on these and not our losses, slights, offenses, and frustrations. Meditate on the truths of the gospel and believe in them. Combined with some of the practical steps, which we will add and have already begun to outline in previous posts, this meditation will fuel us in the fight against sinful anger.

Meditating on both the idols we hold and the promises that address them can be a great starting place. Begin to write out what kinds of idols you sense behind your angry responses. Brian Hedges has a helpful suggestion for diagnosing those idols. In his book Hit List he writes:

I suggest you chronicle your anger in a journal. Take a month and write down every time you lose your temper, or say something harsh or hurtful to others, or find yourself harboring bitterness. Briefly describe the circumstances, the apparent trigger that “sets you off,” and your response. When the month is finished prayerfully look for patterns. Ask the Lord to show you the root system of idolatrous desires underlying your angry behavior. (57)

As you identify that root system begin to also identify the promises of the gospel that respond to it. Write out and memorize specific passages of Scripture that will fuel your thought life differently. Let the gospel promises hack away at those idolatrous roots.

The gospel gives real hope to the angry person. Real hope that they can change, and real hope that they can find joy. As always, it is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

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