Anger can come in many forms, but all anger will destroy relationships. As a destructive theme in our hearts anger targets people, dominates a person’s thoughts, and fuels sinful patterns of destructive behavior. It can manifest in different ways, sometimes as a concealing anger (grumbling, bitterness, isolation), and sometimes as an outburst (fits of rage and violence). Regardless of its form, however, it is always destructive. In particular anger destroys relationships because of its idolatrous conviction of entitlement.
James spells out from where anger arises. Anger is fueled by unmet expectations. 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. (4:1-3)
It is our unmet desires that fuel us to quarrels, fights, and even murder. Sinful anger comes from feeling slighted, being denied, losing out on what we feel we are owed. In fact in the angry heart, anger becomes a weapon used to try to get what I want. If we are denied our anger tells us, use your words or body to get what you want. Leslie Vernick notes:
Angry hearts believe they are entitled to use anger as a weapon to get what they want, especially if they believe that what they want is a good thing and they’re entitled to it. (The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, 94)
Often anger can be very effective. There’s a sense in which anger may even be said to “work.” If I yell at my kids to stop running through the house they may do it. They may comply and stop running, but what I don’t see is the way in which my outburst has harmed my relationship with them. I may get what I want, but I have damaged my relationships.
Understanding the root of our anger is crucial for appropriately dealing with the problem. Addressing an angry heart requires more than just controlling our temper. If anger arises from a sense of entitlement then it is not enough just to stop yelling at people. A person may control their temper and still be an incredibly angry person. Jesus tell us that anger comes from our hearts (Matt. 15:19). Fundamentally the issue is one of treasures. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). So, in order to appropriately address anger we need to reevaluate our treasures. We need to dig into our hearts.
To uproot this destructive theme we need to consider carefully what we most love. Picking up on James’s teaching on anger, Counselor Robert Jones says, “James’s answer for angry hearts is not ‘how-to’ but “Whom-to’: we must go to God himself” (Uprooting Anger, 64). Sinful anger is selfish. It puts myself, my demands, my desires, and my expectations at the top of the priority list, and not just my list. It puts myself, my demands, my desires, and my expectations at the top of everyone’s priority list. But the true believer understands that he no longer lives for himself, but rather for “him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). Addressing this heart issues begins, then, by repenting to God for our idolatrous love of self over Him.
This is followed, and evidenced, then by seeking to replace sinful treasures with godly ones. Since the focus of an angry heart is self, one of the best things we can do to address anger is take up service projects. Take up the inconvenience of serving others. The goal is to follow Paul’s admonition to “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4); and to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). I will sometimes, then, assign people to do good deeds of service and report back to me. Nothing threatens to expose and ruin an angry heart like consistent humble service of another.
Anger destroys people. As a weapon it will seek to control, manipulate, and use people to achieve the angry person’s own ends. As a ruling master it changes the angry person. It becomes the dominate lens through which we look at the world. It will eventually lead a person to complete isolation as they ruin every relationship they have ever had. It will compel them to harbor all kinds of bitterness and resentment that will eat away at their own soul. Frederick Buechner has keenly and poetically said:
Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you. (Quoted in Hedges, Hit List, 55)
Anger destroys not just others, but the angry person himself.
Anger also destroys our relationship with God. You cannot be an angry, entitled person, and be at peace with God. Ultimately the angry person is playing God. They are dealing out punishments for offenses, they are making people pay. Godly anger does seek justice. It responds to unrighteousness, immorality, and offense. Godly anger says “something is wrong,” and it says, “this matters.” Sinful anger says, “this matters more than you do.” Sinful anger turns from justice to vengeance. Sinful anger doesn’t seek repentance and resolution it seeks punishment. Sinful anger delights to see others “get what’s coming to them.” We cannot stand before the God of grace, knowing what we deserve, and think wrathful thoughts towards others (Matt. 18:21-35). The angry person is destroying their own relationship with the Lord too.
Anger is always destructive. Serving God and serving others is the most practical way we can begin to address the entitled attitude behind such a destructive theme of the heart.