When I first started meeting with Erin and Calvin (not their real names), I was convinced they had simply grown apart over years and that I could help them with some basic marriage counseling. They needed to do some more spiritual growth exercises together and improve their communication skills. It wasn’t fifteen minutes into our first meeting, however, before Calvin was on his feet towering over his wife and yelling at the top of his lungs. His face turned red and his hand gestures were fast and exaggerated. When things finally settled again I began to ask him about his temper. I discovered that he got angry often, and in loads of different scenarios. His issues were bigger than his marital discord. There was a real conflict occurring between he and Erin, but there was no use in trying to resolve this conflict while Calvin had no control over his temper. His responses would always make resolution impossible. Our anger is often more of a personal problem than an interpersonal problem.
It might be important clarify first what we mean by the word “anger.” Dr. David Powlison says that anger is a “moral emotion.” It says “this thing is wrong.” It says not simply that it is wrong, it says it is wrong and “it matters.” Sinful anger adds to this statement with the additional phrase, “it matters more than you do.” Anger is making judgments and it always arises out of what we value. Where are values are aligned with God’s then our anger can be righteous, but where it is not it will be bent towards sinful and selfish ends. Our experience of anger, however, often leads us to draw different conclusions than Dr. Powlison.
From a young age we learn to think that anger is something that is thrust upon us by outside forces. “You made me angry,” seems like a logical expression and becomes a means of justifying my behavior. “If you hadn’t made me angry…” indicates the real crux of responsibility lies outside of myself, and usually with the victim of my anger. The assumption on our part is that anger is a natural response stirred up by the incitement of others. As such it is always interpersonal in nature.
The Bible sees sinful anger differently. Within Scripture we are told that anger arises out of our own internal desires. The apostle James says it this way:
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 (James 4:1-2)
Anger is about me. It is about what I desire and demand. It is about my passions, expectations, wants, needs, cravings, and lusts. When I don’t get my way I become angry. When you impede my desires, I become angry with you. The interpersonal dynamic of our anger is evident in how we respond to one another, but its origin is inside myself. Jesus says clearly, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Our hearts drive what we do.
There are, of course, many types of counseling where conflict resolution is a valuable tool. The presence of a pattern of explosive and volatile anger, however, signals that the issues are more personal than interpersonal. In such scenarios attempting to navigate conflict resolution usually leads to more outbursts, more destruction, which can actually ruin all attempts at reconciliation.
As counselors and pastors learn to see anger rightly, Biblically, we can intervene in appropriate ways. An angry person can’t learn to resolve conflict until they’ve learned not to escalate it. Where patterns of anger are found, individuals need personal counseling before any relational counseling can be navigated. Often anger is more about what’s in our heart than who is our enemy. So, we start with the heart of anger.