The first time Dean (not his real name) came to see me it was pretty obvious that he had a temper. The cast cover his right hand was part of the evidence. He had tried to break a car window and found it rather resistant. Over five months we worked through many issues and I was delighted to discover that he was learning to control his responses better. I was excited until I realized that while he wasn’t punching windows any more, he wasn’t any less of an angry person. To truly help angry people we have understand the variety of manifestations of anger.
We tend to reduce anger to the sort of classic aggression which manifests a temper with dramatic physical demonstrations (i.e. things like punching car windows). When we think of anger we tend to think of people who yell and scream, or who throw things, punch and kick, and are generally violent – either verbally or physically. But anger comes in many forms and wise counselors must be willing to see the varied manifestations of anger if they are going to be truly helpful.
We can help people learn to control their responses but never really find transformation in their hearts. Dean was learning to express himself in more socially acceptable ways but he was still very angry. He grumbled and complained about everything, he hated others and avoided them, and he kept a mental log of every wrong that his spouse committed against him. He wasn’t punching windows, but he wasn’t really addressing his anger either. At that time I needed to see the ways in which his anger had simply shifted, become more hidden, and I needed to help Dean see it too.
The Bible tells us that anger comes out of the desires of our heart (James 4:1), and since every heart desire is uniquely crafted we should expect the manifestations of anger to be somewhat unique too. There are a number of different expressions of anger; it is worth discussing some of the most common expressions. I am grateful to Brad Hambrick for his helpful description of many of these categories.
- Grumbling – this is a general dissatisfaction with life and/or people. This sort of behavior creates a negative lens through which we view everything and everyone. It is often accompanied by self-focus and self-pity, blame of others for our problems and frustrations (often it places that blame at God’s feet, even if subconsciously), and a distorted perception. Brad calls it a “low-grade pervasive …criticism of God’s sovereignty” (Overcoming Anger, 10) It is a dissatisfaction with what God is doing in my life.
- Active Aggression – This is the sort of “classic anger” that we usually think of. It is the dramatic and intense physical and verbal manifestation of our anger. It is the most obvious and easily identifiable form of anger.
- Distance – This is a type of anger that responds to others by means of avoidance, intentional isolation, or the creation of physical and/or emotional space between two or more parties. In this case our anger allows us to dissolve relationships or damage them in order to self-protect. Brad points out that where safety is not an issue, distance is a neglect of our duty to strive for unity in our relationships (Matt. 5:23-26).
- Control – This is the kind of intentional use of power or position to exploit the weaknesses of others for personal gain. It is not the sort of anger that is easy to spot, as it often strategically covers itself with supposed good intentions and respectable motives. Refuse to give into this control, however, and you will pay dearly.
- Passive Aggression – In this category the angry person seeks to punish others through covert means. Brad notes, “The end game is to make the other person feel guilty without risking vulnerability or participating in an opportunity for restoration.”
Under these five categories you will find all sorts of other unique expressions of anger. Bitterness is common form of grumbling. Threats of suicide are a form of control. The cold-shoulder is a form of distance. Many of us are familiar with these concepts. We have received them or used them ourselves. It’s important that we all recognize them as forms of anger that need to be addressed uniquely. If we train our eyes only to look for certain kinds of anger we will fail to be helpful and offer correction to those we counsel. If we treat all anger the same we will fail to help individuals address the heart level issues.
A few examples may be helpful. If we treat control the same way we treat active aggression we will train abusers to be more careful in their demonstrations of control. They will simply become more polite abusers. If we speak to people with bitterness the same way we speak to people with passive aggressive tendencies we will simply encourage them to internalize more of their anger as opposed to actually responding to it rightly. Most importantly, if we don’t help people get to the heart of their anger, each of which will be different depending upon the individual and the manifestation, then they will learn to control their behavior, but they won’t really change. Good counselors and friends want change, not behavior modification.
The solution to all types of anger is nothing less than the gospel of Jesus Christ. And yet, it will apply differently to each manifestation. So, the person struggling with bitterness may need the emphasis of forgiveness, and the gospel’s call to forgive as we have been forgiven (Eph. 4:13; Matt. 18:21-35). The person tempted to be entitled and demanding needs the reminder that they deserve hell and that gospel gives them what they do not deserve: mercy (Eph. 2:1-5). The gospel always applies as the cure for anger, but the varying dynamics and manifestations require uniquely tailored application. A flat presentation will ignore the nuances and distinctions of both anger and the gospel and will fail to promote real change. Use the gospel, then, but use it uniquely in each situation.
Anger is exceedingly destructive. As you counsel others consider how their anger manifests and how that unique expression needs to be addressed Scripturally. Not all anger is the same, and so counseling always needs to be person-specific. As you train yourself to understand the diversity of anger’s manifestations you will be better equipped to help those who are struggling with it.