For the first twenty years of my married life, I was the quintessential Christian Nice Guy. Nobody ever saw me get angry, not even my wife. I was even-tempered, imperturbable, patient in the extreme. I was also a secret sex addict.
Confusion About Anger
Back then, I believed that anger is a sin. I had seen the kind of destruction that anger can cause in a family and had resolved never to be angry. So you can imagine my confusion when my wife told me recently that in the early decades of our marriage, she was always afraid I would hit her.
Hit her? I had never raised a hand to Allie and had rarely raised my voice. What in the world made her think I would hit her? Allie replied that she had sensed the repressed anger pulsing beneath my skin and had lived in fear that one day it would burst.
Anger can produce violence, of course. But for men like me, it is more common for repressed anger to turn to depression. It can also serve as a powerful fuel for addiction.
The idea that anger is a sin is simply wrong. After all, the Bible makes it clear that God himself sometimes gets angry. Jesus—whom Christians believe to be the very image of the Father—indulged in a couple of memorable angry outbursts, including the time he overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple and drove them into the streets with a whip. And Jesus did not sin.
Did I think that by not getting angry, I was somehow better than Jesus?
Righteous vs. Unrighteous Anger
We were created in the image of God, and part of that image is our capacity for anger. Anger is an inborn, instinctive reaction to a blocked goal. Whenever we encounter an obstacle of any kind, our pulse automatically quickens in response to a sudden surge of adrenaline. We are primed for action. Anger gives us the fuel to overcome the obstacle and reach our goal. If our goal is righteous, then our anger will be righteous. If our goal is unrighteous (and, to be honest, most of my goals are selfish and self-serving), then our anger will be unrighteous.
We were created in the image of God, and part of that image is our capacity for anger.
But here’s the thing. We humans also have the ability to block unpleasant feelings from our conscious awareness. Since anger is an involuntary response to a blocked goal, and we all encounter obstacles from time to time, anger is inevitable. But we can filter that feeling so effectively that we don’t even know when we are angry. Our body knows we are angry. Our subconscious knows we are angry. And perceptive people around us know it too. But we can remain blissfully unaware of our own heightened emotional state. That unacknowledged anger may come out sideways in sarcastic remarks, cruel humor, or neglect, or we may turn it inward against ourselves. Either way, it is corrosive.
The Gift Of Anger
One of my key spiritual disciplines these days involves monitoring and acknowledging my emotions. When I’m feeling angry, I am learning to examine the source of my frustration. Am I being blocked from a goal that is sinful, selfish or self-serving? If so, my anger is unrighteous, and it will start to dissipate the moment I admit my sin and surrender the goal. On the other hand, if I have encountered injustice or am being blocked from achieving a goal that is loving and good, then my anger is a gift to be used, and I should act quickly with the energy it provides.
The Bible puts it this way: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26 ESV)