How to Be Angry without Blowing Your Stack
by Pastor Dan White
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Be angry, and sin not...do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26,28).
My mother used to tell me about her grandfather and the way he handled his anger without blowing his stack. She said that he would grab his axe, go out, and chop up a stump until he was exhausted and the anger dissipated.
That’s certainly a good, old time way to get it out of your system. No harsh words. No cursing or hitting. No hurting anyone. No hurting yourself. No regret. And, it was a good way to get rid of an unwanted stump!
But what if you don’t have a stump to chop. What then?
There is a way to be angry and sin not. Anger in and of itself is not a sin. It is an emotion common to all of us. It is what we do with our anger and how we express it that causes pain, creates hard feelings, and destroys relationships.
When Joyce and I went to Hawaii several years ago, we were taken on a guided tour of an old lava field. Everything in the red-hot lava’s path had been burnt up. Not one speck of green was to be seen. There was nothing to indicate life from the side of the volcano all the way to the ocean.
That’s the picture of fiery rage that has erupted and incinerated everyone in its path. Not a pretty sight for sure!
Maybe you, like me, can look back and see blackened lava fields where you’ve blown your stack.
Over the last few years, I’ve worked on learning how to appropriately express my anger instead of blowing my top. In other words, to “be angry and sin not.”
Where does anger come from? Well, it comes from God. We are created in the image of God.
Our God has feelings. You can say perhaps that He is emotional. The emotions we have are a reflection of His image.
The Scriptures are replete on how God reveals His emotions. He grieves, loves, and rejoices.
God has wrath and anger too.
There are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God than there are to his love and tenderness. According to Hebrews 12:29, “Our God is a consuming fire."
Psalm 76:7 states, “You alone are to be feared.
Who can stand before you when you are angry?”
God has anger and since we are created in His image, He has created us with the emotion of anger.
The difference of course is that God’s anger is not a blemish or defect in His character like it can be in ours. His anger is a righteous anger and therefore justified when directed against us.
God’s engages His wrath against us because of his detestation of sin. Sin is heinous to Him, and we are sinful by nature.
“We started out bad, being born with evil natures, and were under God's anger just like everyone else” (Ephesians 2:3). When we sin by blowing our stacks, we suffer pain. That pain is from God’s wrath telling us something is wrong, and we need to get right.
But you may think, “I thought God was a God of love, and that He doesn’t hurt us.”
The truth is that God’s wrath and love are two sides of the same coin. There is no contradiction in his manifestation of these two attributes. His anger against us is born out of His love for us. Thus, God’s wrath is consistent with His goodness and love.
Because God is righteous, his desire for us to be righteous and holy too. “He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy" (1 Peter 1:15-16).
When we act unholy as in expressions of anger gone wild, God sends emotional pain into our soul and emotions to tell us something is out of whack like our bodies send pain messages to the brain to tell us something is wrong. He sends this pain not because he hates us but because He loves us and wants us to live an abundant, joy-filled life which is the life of righteousness and peace through Christ.
If your anger is out of control, you are in pain. Relationships are strained and broken. Your uncontrolled temper makes others fear you, and makes you lonely. It loads you up with guilt and shame.
Look over the landscape. Do you see blackened lava fields caused by molten anger that flowed down the volcano killing life everywhere it went? If so, the gift of anger that God gave you has been perverted, and God is sending pain to tell you something is bad wrong and needs fixing. And, you are not alone. I’ve suffered from explosive anger. Almost everyone has.
Anger is the common lot of our humanity. But, it can destroy us and hurt those around us unless it is vented in a positive, godly way.
If you are tired, worn out, and in emotional pain from being trapped in anger, you don’t have to let it continue to ruin your life. The truths in this short article can be the beginning of learning how your anger can be redeemed by the mercy, love, and grace of Christ. It’s not going to be easy. There is no “quick fix” to bring us to the goal where we can “be angry and sin not.” It’s a process with Christ helping us each step of the way even when we take two steps forward and one step backward.
These truths are presented in a question and answer format.
Truth 1: Why did God give us the emotion of anger?
Emotions are absolutely critical to our existence as human beings1 including the emotion of anger.
Anger is a gift of grace from God to us. “God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” including anger. (1 Timothy 6:17).
Anger is a response to a perceived threat or invalidation to our self-worth. It was given to preserve our personal worth, perceived needs, and heartfelt convictions. Anger flares when people feel disrespected. They are distressed that others will not or cannot address them in a way that reinforces personal significance. At the heart of anger is a cry for respect.2
Anger rises when a threat is either perceived or is real. The heart quickens. Blood pressure rises. The brain automatically activates, and in seconds, it sends adrenalin and other hormones into the body to prepare for a fight.
One example is road rage which has become too common. One incident in Augusta involved a hammer and a gun. A driver opened his window and shouted and cursed another driver accusing him of almost causing an accident. The angry man tail-gated him to a convenience store. The poor guy tried to walk into the store but couldn’t. The rager ran up to him, kicked him in the groin, and punched him in the throat. This made the victim go off. He went back to his truck and got a hammer. The rager pulled out a gun. Fortunately, he came to his senses before firing his weapon and angrily drove away.3
Both men felt threatened, and anger came to the defense. However, it was expressed in a dangerous way.
Unfortunately, road rage has become common because people can’t control their anger and ignore rude and inconsiderate people.
Even many Christians live on the boiling edge of eruption.
Truth 2: What went wrong? Why do I respond to threats to my sense of worth and erupt in a fiery explosion? I feel like I’m ready to blow my top especially when I’m around someone, even my spouse or children, who know how to push my buttons. Why do I get so agitated when things don’t go my way?
The misuse of God’s gift of anger could possible stem from a generational curse. The Bible, ancient proverbs, and psychiatrists refer to the generational curse. The Bible states, "Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne (been punished for) their iniquities" (Lamentations 5:7).
There is also an old Jewish proverb that can be traced back all the way to Old Testament times that is cited by Jeremiah. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:29).
Psychiatrist Ronald T. Potter-Efron writes, “Raging parents can sneak into the minds of children at unconscious levels. Later, years later, these children who are now adults may suddenly snap just like mommy or daddy did.”4
Parents or families who threw stuff, screamed, yelled, cursed, and even beat their defenseless child can pass that curse on to their children. I can cite numerous examples. But, I will use a fictitious one to protect confidences. The illustration is based on an actual case study written by Dr. Ronald T. Potter-Efron from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.5 I changed parts of it to make it fiction.
Lyle almost died when he was only thirteen years old. His dad almost killed him when he went into a rage because his son didn’t follow his order to cut the grass before he came home from work.
His dad cursed Lyle and called him lazy, stupid, and irresponsible. His dad sizzled, “You’ll never amount to a hill of beans!”
When Lyle ‘talked back to him.’ His father’s anger quickly ignited into a rage, and he beat him severely.
His father blamed Lyle. He told the boy’s mother, “All I asked him to do was cut the grass. If he had cut the grass, everything would have been fine.”
His mother rushed her son to the hospital and made up lies about the injuries that her husband had inflicted on their son to protect her husband from arrest.
The doctors patched him up, but Lyle was never the same. He got mean. He hated his dad whom he could never please. He had lived in fear of his dad long before the worst beating that his father had ever given him. Finally at age 16, he had had enough after his father hit him again.
His sister recalls that Lyle went crazy that night. He started screaming at his father and charged toward him. He knocked his dad down and beat the mess out of him.
Lyle is a thirty year old man now who can’t control his emotions. He gets angry a lot. He hates himself after he blows his stack. He looks back over his life and sees those blackened lava fields where his molten magma destroyed friendships and is now destroying his marriage and son.
When Lyle was growing up, he had to walk on egg shells to try and prevent the rain of fire coming down upon him from his father. Now, it’s his wife and child who are walking on egg shells. They are afraid of him, and his son is fast losing all respect for him.
Lyle is even in danger of losing his employment because of a blow-up that he had with his supervisor. It was an ugly scene, but the boss decided to give him one more chance because he is a good worker.
Lyle doesn’t know where his anger comes from or what to do about it. All he knows is that he is hurting and mad at the world. He feels mistreated and blames others, as his father did, for setting him off.
But, thank God for his pain, guilt, and shame. It is God’s wrath of telling him that something is wrong and needs fixing.
There are many other causes of abrasive forms of anger. It could be a medical issue like I have. As a diabetic, I have to manage my blood glucose and try and keep it within a normal range. If my blood sugar is too high or too low, I become a different person. I get mean and angry. There are many other medically related issues that can cause anger. You may need to see a physician for treatment.
But, the chances are high that adult children of angry parents will themselves become a rager.
Truth 3: How can I overcome explosive anger?
The Bible, psychologists, and even folk wisdom teach that a person must take personal responsibility for unhealthy anger before a change for the better can begin to take place.
Jeremiah negates that old Jewish proverb about the generational curse. Inspired by the Lord, he says, “Everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes — his own teeth will be set on edge.”
Dr. Potter-Efron counsels personal responsibility too, “I have to take responsibility now. I won’t blame my present on my past any more. I have a big problem. I admit it. I accept it. I’ve got to do something about it.”6
An old American spiritual tells it like it is. “It’s not my brother or my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”
In other words, we can’t blame our parents or anyone else for anger gone wild.
Step back and look at the blackened lava fields in your life. Come outside of yourself so to speak and objectively see what others see about you. Have those who love you and are concerned about you said that you need to do something about that temper? Maybe they’re right.
Life is about choices. Believe it or not, volatile expressions of anger is a learned, conscious choice that has become so ingrained in our psyche, that it becomes a controlling bad habit.
Habits are formed by repetition over a long period of time. Professional golfers, for example, take countless practice swings over long periods of time to develop their swing. When it comes down to crunch time on the 18th hole of the final round and a million dollar first place prize is at stake, a golfer needs the habit he developed to overcome emotions and an adrenaline rush that could cause him to shank a drive. Swinging the club correctly needs to be as much a part of him as walking.
Anger eruptions are learned habits too. They have been formed and developed over many years. The habit has become so imbedded that when a threat is sensed, the fiery response is automatic and unconscious. That’s why someone may say after losing control, “I didn’t mean to lose my temper. I don’t know why I act that way.” These persistent dark moods hold the spirit captive.
Getting rid of an unconscious habit is a conscious choice that takes time to eliminate. This is the second step. Make a choice to change, and through God’s redeeming grace, counseling, study, a support group, or medical treatment if needed, you can “be angry and sin not.”
There will be some setbacks for sure. I have heard recovering alcoholics who have a relapse say, “I fell off the wagon.” Recovering ragers can relapse too and fall off the wagon.
Explosive anger didn’t develop over night. It took a long time, perhaps years, to become entrenched into our emotional make-up. It’s going to take a while to purge it from our self defense arsenal and replace it with a better way. The Apostle Paul noted, “By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I've got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward — to Jesus. I'm off and running, and I'm not turning back!” (Philippians 3:13-14 The Message Bible).
We either take control of anger, or we let anger’s fury run the show. Fire out of control destroys. Fire under control is useful. Which do we want it to be?
Truth 4: What is the better way?
The better way is to let go of your anger in a positive verses a negative, explosive way.
My great-grandfather had the right idea. Take the axe, get away, and chop up a stump. The anger and adrenalin dissipated with every swing and accomplished a constructive task - getting the stump out of the way!
But what if you don’t have an axe or a stump nearby?
One solution is from the advice from the gambler in an old Kenny Rogers song.
You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, Know when to walk away and know when to run. Now ev'ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin' Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep. And somewhere in the darkness the gambler, he broke even. But in his final words I found an ace that I could keep. You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.
Hold ‘em. When someone offends you with caustic words or actions, being a Christian doesn’t mean that you act like a doormat and let him/her wipe their feet on you. You’re holding what you believe is the winning hand. Play your cards with assertiveness and kindness remembering that anger is a gift from God meant to protect your self-worth in confrontations and conflict.
Jesus certainly controlled his anger when threatened and criticized again and again by the Pharisees.
Jesus, our model for living, confronted them with calm assertiveness. One time among many, the Pharisees tried to rile him and trick him with a question about paying taxes. Had Jesus exploded in anger, His message of love and forgiveness would have been lost in a moment of rage. He would have lost some, if not all, of his credibility.
No, Jesus didn’t fly off the handle. He made the choice to remain calm and at the same time not to be their doormat. I can imagine that the human nature of Jesus - He was both human and divine, the God-man - wanted to explode. The Pharisees were constantly provoking him, needling him, and criticizing him. They wanted to embarrass him in front of the crowds in order to discredit him and to find a cause to arrest him and have him executed.
Jesus used what today is called assertiveness to express his anger in a positive way. Jesus turned the tables on the Pharisees by asking them a question. “Why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax...Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?"
"Caesar's," they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away (Matthew 22:15-22).
Jesus knew when to “hold ‘em.” He held the winning hand and didn’t fold.
Jesus also knew that he couldn’t change anybody apart from his/her willingness to choose to change. The Pharisees still seethed with rage against him and eventually succeeded in having him arrested and executed. Jesus couldn’t change them because of their hard hearts. We certainly can’t change people who are not willing to make the choice to change.
The point here is we can’t control anyone to make them see our point of view or do what we want them to do. This is especially true when we lose control in an angry fit and assassinate the character of the other person. It causes a loss of respect from others and a loss of self-respect leading to shame, guilt, and regret for being out of control even if only for a few moments.
But the other point is that confrontation and assertiveness are positive ways to deal with conflict. The goal is not to conquer the other person but to be true to what you believe in a manner that respects the other person. You can defend attacks on your self-worth in a positive way without exploding by stating your position or feelings in an assertive, calm, respectful manner like Jesus did.
Then, you need to know when to “fold ‘em. Know when to walk away. The other person may want to continue the fight after you’ve said your peace. When your anger has run its course in a reasonable manner, and there is nothing more you can say, fold ‘em. If you don’t, you could lose control and add gasoline to the fire. You have to know when to leave it and then move on.
I’m not talking about leaving in a huff and getting in the last word as you slam the door on the way out. I’m referring to something like this. “I think I better leave. I feel my heart racing and my face flushing. I need to leave and calm down before I say or do something I’ll regret. I’m going to drop it. We may never see eye-to-eye, but I’m not going to lose my cool over this. I’ll be back shortly. I’ve got to think and pray.”7
Still, that’s no guarantee that the conflict will be resolved, but it at least keeps you from an angry explosion. It gives both time to think and calm down. If the issue comes up again, there is a chance that after everyone has calmed down giving an opportunity for the issue to be resolved peacefully with understanding and mutual respect. That’s the ideal, but who lives in a perfect world?
Even after your attempt to clean-up your anger, others may not show self-restraint or respect towards you. It’s at such a time that you can choose to protect your dignity by remaining respectful. Otherwise, you can get pulled off track and crash in a fiery explosion.
You can’t make people respect or like you. Unjust criticism is part of life, but it doesn’t have to derail you. Jesus continued on with his life and ministry not allowing the Pharisees to get under his skin.
Unhealthy anger destroys the ability to enjoy life. It robs us of peace and causes regret, guilt, shame, and fractured relationships.
There is a way to “be angry and sin not.” There is a way to healing, self-control, peace, self-respect, and dignity. There is a way to break the habit of aggressive open anger and learn new habits of expressing anger in an assertive, positive way.
You can choose to stop the generational curse and learn another way from Jesus, the Master teacher. “Learn from me,” Jesus said, “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for you souls” (Matthew11:29-30).
It’s not going to be easy. With the models Christ left us on how to properly express the gift of anger, the Holy Spirit living in us, study, a support system of true friends, and medical treatment if needed, a transformation can and will happen.
And you will find that indeed, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
The truth shall set you free! O sinner, don’t be fooled. The soul the Son has truly freed by sin no more is ruled.†
1Potter-Efron, Rage, (Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, 2007) 81.
2Carter, Les, The Anger Trap, (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2003) 6.
3Cain, Bianca. “Man pulls gun in Wheeler road rage incident.” Augusta Chronicle on the Internet. 2011. Morris Publishing Company. 6 Jan. 2011
Rev. Dan White is a free-lance writer and founder and pastor of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Thanks for this very comprehensive but clear article. I know from personal experience that everything you say is true,especially the part about anger becoming an habitual reaction that can be changed. You may enjoy reading my article, HOW TO DEAL WITH ANGER, 5/24/10. Thanks again for sharlng.