ANGER HAS BEEN MY go-to emotion for most of my life. At times my anger is focused inward, upset that I cannot let things go. Too often it’s focused outward. Although I have little patience for incidents of road rage, I seem to cave to it far too often when behind the wheel. Just today, I was driving my mother’s car when I came to an intersection where two other cars had stopped. When the person who had the right of way didn’t go, but just sat there, I began cursing at them. After they went, I tried going and the car to my right (who had just arrived) pulled out in front of me. They saw the anger on my face and flipped me off. I put the driver’s side window down and yelled an un-Christian expletive. Serius XM’s 63 The Message was playing on the stereo. As always happens, I immediately regretted what I said and asked for God’s forgiveness.
I always do. But I keep getting angry behind the wheel.
Many people, including me, believe it’s not spiritual or Christ-like to be angry, and they feel guilty when they are. Anger, however, is a normal human emotion. I recall a night at work last year when I was beginning to boil over the way my boss was treatment me. While still steaming, I took two annoying phone calls. After hanging up, I turned quickly and spilled soda onto the pages of a $321 college text book. That’s it! I picked up the book and threw it across the office floor. My pulse was racing and I felt out of control. Not a very comfortable feeling.
After calming down, I picked up my cell phone and called one of my buddies at church. When I finished telling him what happened, he paused, took a breath, and said, “Well, brother, I hate to tell you this, but you’re afflicted with a little thing I like to call being human.” None of my “yeah, but” comments won him over. He said there were no buts. It is a fact of living in the flesh. Today, when I got home, my mother played a voice mail message from me I did not know I left. I had somehow called my mother’s cell phone while snapping out at that intersection. When she got home, we talked about how things have been bothering me and that I keep getting angry. She played the message. I didn’t want to hear it, but it was necessary. My brother said the family has begun to see me as a Jekyll and Hyde. As you can imagine, that didn’t set to well with me.
When We Let Our Emotions Control Us
We are quite easily ruled by our emotions; especially when we don’t realize it is occurring. Naturally, we all have days when we feel more emotional than others, and there may be a good reason why. It’s hard to simply tell ourselves, “This too shall pass.” However, some of us have a long history of out-of-balance emotional behavior. Many are facing long-standing problems that might go back to childhood or adolescence. But without confrontation of painful issues from the past, it is impossible to move forward with a healthy soul.
forIt is critical that we don’t waste today or put our future in jeopardy because we keep living in the past. If we are constantly looking back with regret, sadness, and resentment, and forward with fear, we will fail to realize that each day is a new beginning. Holding on to our past cost us our future.
If we cling on to the past and keep on using it as an excuse for why our lives are crappy, we can’t move forward. Our future will be very similar to our past. This is known by the colloquial expression emotional baggage. Whenever we bring up past hurts, continually rehearsing our failures and agonizing over things we should have done but didn’t, we’re tying ourselves to our past. We’re risking the chance that our present and future will not be different. In reality, our past isn’t the past. William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” How can it die if we keep reliving it? I read sometime ago that our thoughts affect our emotions, our emotions affect our actions, our actions affect our habits, our habits affect our lifestyle, and our lifestyle becomes our destiny. Please take a minute and read that again.
So What About All These Emotions?
Our emotions tend to ebb and flow like the tide at the beach. Joyce Meyer wrote, “It would be so nice if they would just ask permission to come or go, but they don’t.” Obviously, wishing our emotions were different won’t change a thing, so we need to do more than daydream about “better times, better feelings.” I spent my childhood years in a bad relationship with my father. I could not seem to behave, and dad couldn’t seem to control me. He’d ask, “Why do you keep doing these things?” I’d simply respond with the truth: “I don’t know.” He tried everything: lectures from the pastor, loss of privileges, corporal punishment. He even tried to predict where I’d end up if I didn’t change. I’d end up in prison. He was right.
My first mode of escape was writing. I also listened to a lot of music. It seemed the song lyrics of many hits from the 70s were telling my story. One song that stands out is The Logical Song by Supertramp from the Breakfast Over America album. The words still haunt me.
“When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical; and all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily, oh joyfully, playfully watching me; but then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, and they showed me a world where I could be so dependable; oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical… there are times when all the world’s asleep, the questions run too deep for such a simple man; won’t you please, please tell me what I’ve learned, I know it sounds absurd, please tell me who I am.”
Another anthem of mine from that era was Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man) by Styx. The song title alone said it all. The older I got, the harder it was for me to grasp the root of my melancholy, moody, angry, bitter, life. I remember loving the beach, swimming at the public pool with friends, eating cherries fresh from the cherry tree in my back yard, rescuing lost and injured animals, going camping on weekends, hiking, photography, drinking from the garden hose. Sadly, by the time I hit high school, nothing made sense anymore.
“You see the world through your cynical eyes, you’re a troubled young man I can tell; you’ve got it all in the palm of your hand, but your hand’s wet with sweat and your head needs a rest… how can you be such an angry young man when your future looks quite bright to me; how can there be such a sinister plan that could hide such a lamb, such a caring young man…”
I had accepted Christ at age 13 and was baptized. Our family regularly attended every church service held at Sunbury Bible Church—Wednesday Bible study, Thursday prayer and worship, Sunday school and worship, and Sunday evening evangelism broadcasts live on a local radio station. None of that seemed to matter any more once my father decided we were quitting church cold-turkey. He said he was tired of the hypocrisy and being constantly asked to give more or serve more. I didn’t realize I could attend church by myself. Shortly after we stopped going to church, I fell out of relationship with Jesus Christ. Things grew exponentially worse after that.
An Epidemic of Violence in America?
Anger is a huge problem in our world. Especially over the past decade. Whether it’s a disgruntled employee or bullied high school student unleashing violence through mass murder, or domestic violence, road rage, terrorism, politics, abortion rights, the economy, or war, we are constantly reminded of the global anger that is a part of the society in which we are living. Violence continues to rise while everyone debates the Second Amendment, mental illness, drug abuse, and bullying. We seem obsessed with a quick fix. Confiscate all guns. It is not an easy topic.
A police officer walks near the scene where at least twelve people were killed during a mass shooting at the Virginia Beach city public works building on May 31, 2019.
PsychCentral calls anger and resentment “relationship killers.” Anger hurts. Naturally. When we don’t handle anger, it can overwhelm us. If we’re in denial about our anger, we cannot hope to accept it or properly deal with it. Difficulty with anger is typically due to poor role models growing up. Learning to manage anger should be taught in childhood, but if our parents lacked skills to handle their own anger maturely, they were unable to pass them on.
Unattended anger can quickly turn into a resentment. It is, unfortunately, a formidable foe. Resentment is often defined as anger and indignation experienced as a result of unfair treatment. The problem with anger is that it’s one of the densest forms of communication. It contains tons of information (including emotion), which tends to spill out all at once. Arguments are more apples-to-oranges than apples-to-apples. Everything that’s been building up—even past hurts and offenses you thought you let go of weeks, months, or years ago. It seems likely that individuals who resort to mass murder have been extremely angry for decades. They feel marginalized. As if they don’t really matter. The past builds, rolls down a hill as the proverbial snowball, growing, growing, then…
“And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 24:10-13, NKJV).”
Consider the Virginia Beach shooting. CNN has confirmed that DeWayne Craddock had resigned earlier in the day before killing 12 coworkers and injuring several others, including one police officer. Mr. Craddock had worked for the city for about 15 years, and had trained as an engineer. He spent time in the Virginia National Guard, and public records did not suggest that he had any history with the criminal justice system other than traffic violations. Initial reports were that he’d just been fired and was disgruntled enough to commit mass murder. A spokesperson for the city said Craddock’s resignation was not connected with any decision that had been made about Craddock’s future position in the government. Begs the question, where did all this anger come from? Unfortunately, we can’t ask Craddock. He was killed in a hail of bullets when he opened fire on police officers.
The Sin of Offense
Our natural reaction in conflict is to blame others and focus on what they did to us. There is a known moral imperative that fairness and justice means “you get what you deserve.” This is a difficult concept to grasp in the middle of being hurt or offended. In this manner, our “feelings” often get in the way of conflict resolution. We feel absolutely justified or indignant about our anger. After all, look what he or she did to me! Often when we are offended we see ourselves as victims and blame those who have hurt us. We justify our anger, resentment, bitterness, and unforgiveness. Sometimes we resent those who remind us of others who have hurt us. Just because we are offended or mistreated, we do not have the right to hold onto offense.
“Then he said to the disciples, ‘It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come'” (Luke 17:1, NKJV).
The Greek word for “offend” in Luke 17:1 comes from the word skandalon. This word initially referred to the part of the trap to which the bait was attached. Accordingly, the word signifies laying a trap in someone’s way. John Bevere (2004) says no matter what the situation, offended people can be divided into two major categories: (1) those who have been treated unjustly, or (2) those who believe they have been treated unjustly. I have spent a great deal of time in the second category. My pride keeps me from admitting my part—my true condition—in the matter. Pride keeps us from dealing with truth. It distorts our vision. We cannot change when we think either everything is fine, or we’ve done nothing wrong to anger someone. Pride can actually harden our hearts despite God having given us a heart of flesh at conversion.
We construct walls when we are hurt to safeguard our hearts and prevent any future wounds. We become quite picky about who we will let in. No one knows how long, but eventually these walls of protection become an emotional prison. The angrier we get, the more likely we will continue to get angry. Whenever we expend energy defending ourselves, isolating, withholding love and good will, we forget about forgiveness, grace, and the love of God. Here’s a great point from Bevere: “If we don’t risk being hurt, we cannot give unconditional love. [Unfortunately], unconditional love gives others the right to hurt us.” For me, he means love does not seek its own. He is suggesting that if we wallow in our hurts and offenses, we become increasingly self-seeking and self-contained. When we filter everything through past hurts, rejections, and offenses, we find it impossible to believe God.
So Now What?
When we are hurt or offended and in unforgiveness—and when we refuse to repent of this sin—we have not arrived at the truth. We are deceived, and our hypocrisy confuses those we could otherwise lead to Christ. This is unfortunately true for me more times than I’d like to admit, but we’re only as sick as our secrets. My mantra was, “If it weren’t for my father, I would have had a normal life.” For too long I hung on to the idea that I can’t forgive others, and I am globally angry, because that’s what dad taught me. To the degree that this is even somewhat true, at some point it becomes irrelevant. It’s sort of like knowing what is causing us to suffer a physical ailment but not stopping the activity causing us to be sick.
If we stay free from offense, we are better able to stay in God’s will. When offended, we are taken hostage by Satan to fulfill his own purpose and will. Not God’s and not ours. First Corinthians 13 (often called the “Love Chapter”) defines unconditional (Greek, agape) love. One of my favorite interpretations of this critical biblical principle is described in Eugene Peterson’s (2006) The Message//Remix. He writes, “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what is doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end” [italics mine].
“This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men” (Acts 24:16).
Reaching this seemingly lofty and elusive goal cannot be accomplished on our power alone. We are simply incapable of unconditional love and acceptance. It takes spiritual growth and a reliance on the Holy Spirit to lead us down the paths we are to take as Christians who have been redeemed from the power and the wages of sin. We can, however, start by making an effort to stay free from offense. It’s a lot like working out at the gym. When we regularly exercise our forgiveness and work toward God’s ideal for love (1 Corinthians 13), we slowly get better at it. We drastically increase the odds that we will become less and less offended and instead begin to let go and forgive.
I will be praying that you are able to break the bondage of hurt, offense, anger, resentment, and unforgiveness. I would ask that you pray for me as well. Now, let’s go forth in grace and kindness. May we forgive ourselves and see ourselves as God sees us. This is critical if we are ever to curb our anger and express our love and acceptance of others and our situation.
Bevere, J. (2004). The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House.
Peterson, E. The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.