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From a Biblical Perspective
The word normally used in the Bible to refer to an emotion considered sinful. Psalm 37:8, for example, commands: “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!” Jesus paralleled anger with murder when he said that “every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:22) just as if he had actually committed the murder he felt in his angry heart. Ephesians 4:31 and Colossians 3:8 both list anger, along with bitterness, wrath, malice, and slander, as attitudes which Christians must rid themselves of once and for all. In his list of attributes for a bishop or pastor of a church, the apostle Paul said that a Christian leader should not be prone to anger, that is, easily provoked (Ti 1:7).
Anger of a good sort is also spoken of in the Bible. “Righteous indignation” refers to the extreme displeasure of a holy heart unable to tolerate sin of any kind. The anger of God contains this element: man should be good, yet he sins—and God is angry “because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them” (Dt 29:25, 26). It was in that sense also that Moses’ anger burned on Mt Sinai and caused him to smash the tablets of the Law on the ground when he saw the golden calf and Israel’s idolatry (Ex 32:19).
In the NT, Mark says that Jesus looked with anger at the Pharisees, who were hoping to catch him breaking their law (Mk 3:5). Jesus’ anger was also shown in his cleansing of the temple (Jn 2:13–22); it should have been a place of prayer but was being used as a place of business—Jesus “drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons” (Mt 21:12). His holy indignation was neither a weakness nor a sin. Such anger is an appropriate response to iniquity and injustice, especially when they are apparently unpunished.
The apostle Paul encouraged that kind of anger with a direct command: “Be angry but do not sin” (Eph 4:26a). Evidently, he felt that righteous indignation could easily turn into unholy anger and sinful wrath, so he added some explanatory prohibitions: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph 4:26b, 27a). The longer a person allows permissible anger to continue, the greater the danger that it will develop sinful qualities, giving Satan a foothold for attack. James cautions, “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (Jas 1:19).
The proper kind of anger on the human plane is related to the anger sometimes spoken of as “the wrath of God.” In the OT, God’s anger is usually directed against sin and sinners. For example, “Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses” because of his excuses (Ex 4:14); and “so the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” because of their idolatry (Jgs 2:14). God cannot sin or even be tempted with sin of any kind (Jas 1:13); hence he cannot tolerate sin in his people. God’s anger is not an unreasonable, unwarranted, or arbitrary passion but a result of the conflict between his holiness and sin.
The believer should understand that there is appropriate and inappropriate anger and attempt to insure that his anger, like God’s, is proper to the situation.
by Wesley L. Gerig
From the Christian or Biblical
Anger is an intense emotional reaction, sometimes directly expressed in overt behavior and sometimes remaining a largely unexpressed feeling. Anger is not a disease but rather a social event that has meaning in terms of the implicit social contract between persons. There is little debate about whether anger has the potential to be harmful to oneself. Far greater concern, however, is expressed about aggression, the destructive behavior that is one kind of response to angry feelings. Finding effective ways to help others deal with anger requires careful diagnostic considerations and knowledge of a wide variety of alternative coping strategies (see Miller & Jackson, 1995).
There is a large body of lay and professional literature related to anger and anger management. This literature clearly reflects our society’s ambivalence and confusion about angry feelings. Growing awareness of the problems of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse has contributed to heightened sensitivity and an improved knowledge base about this often misunderstood emotion (see Lerner, 1985; Cosgrove, 1988). This article will present three major theories about anger and will discuss appropriate ways to effectively deal with angry feelings.
Especially prominent in the popular literature is the assumption that anger can best be understood using a hydraulic model (Lorenz, 1966). Lorenz suggests that anger is instinctual. If it is not discharged it will accumulate from within like water behind a dam. In other words, anger must be viewed internally rather than examined contextually. Although there is evidence to suggest that aggression may be influenced by heredity, chemical imbalances, and brain diseases (see Myers, 1983), this position probably represents a distortion of the relationship between repressed anger and certain psychophysiological disorders (see Meyer & Deitsch, 1996). Careful work by Tavris (1982), a social psychologist, has seriously challenged the assumptions related to the hydraulic model. Warren (1983) is not as quick to dismiss such thinking, nor are other Christian authors like Cerling (1974) or Pederson (1974). Perhaps this reflects their convictions that there is an appropriate place for the healthy expression of anger, an ethical question that is especially important in conservative Christian circles, where it is often taught that anger is a sin and that its direct expression should be avoided at all costs. The far more common assumption is that expressing one’s anger is an inherent right (i.e., it is usually related to a strong sense of entitlement and possessive power).
A second broad theory about anger contends that frustration creates anger (see Berkowitz, 1978). This theory holds that when appropriate aggressive cues are present, anger may be released as aggression (verbal or physical) or turned inward against oneself. Frustration is inevitable in the human experience, and the greater the gap between one’s expectations and one’s achievements, the more likely one is to become angry. Especially vulnerable to such frustrations are those persons who drive themselves hard and set increasingly high expectations for themselves and others and who by nature are intensely competitive. Since the 1980s this theory has been more directly applied to larger groups of individuals who feel invisible, ignored, or marginalized in an affluent and materialistic society (see Kotlowitz, 1991). Much of the research on cognitive strategies in psychotherapy (see Ellis & Harper, 1975) tends to support this theory. Hart (1979) presents a popular Christian version of this position.
A final major view contends that anger is a socially learned behavior (Bandura, 1979). Like other emotions, anger occurs according to lawful principles. This position is well documented in the research literature (see Miller & Jackson, 1995). Albert Bandura, for example, has observed that socialization of angry feelings is affected by experience and by observing others’ success with aggressive behavior. Anger is understood as a state of arousal that can be experienced differently depending on how the model’s success is perceived.
In contrast to the instinctual theorizing of the hydraulic model, the social learning model asserts that we internalize behaviors that we have seen effectively utilized in the external environment (see Learning, Social). Such theorizing is certainly not incompatible with contemporary psychodynamic formulations of anger (see Lerner, 1985) that focus on the social-relational milieu rather than reinforcing contingencies of the environment. If anger is a particular response to arousal, one can learn to redirect it into affection, Humor, or compassion. Humans have the capacity to rechannel unacceptable impulses (e.g., the desire to aggress) into acceptable, even creative actions (see Jones & Butman, 1991). Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are two frequently cited examples of individuals who put anger to such socially constructive uses.
Implicit in the professional literature on anger is the assumption that a frequent source of anger is the sense of demand or obligation. Some persons feel unloved, unworthy, and often angry, and their unrealistic expectations for self and others contribute to diminished self-esteem and frustration (see Ellison, 1983). Fearful and anxious, such individuals are more likely to lash out at those who do not give them what they feel is rightly owed. Self-protective strategies develop lest others discover their anger and punish them or reject them. In this dance, anger may be disowned but indirectly expressed in cynicism, sarcasm, projection, or more directly in explosive episodes. Destructive repressive mechanisms develop and become firmly entrenched, keeping these individuals from experiencing and owning their anger and denying them the opportunity to explore it, seek to understand it, confess it when necessary, experience healing, and seek reconciliation whenever possible. Lerner’s (1985) discussion of these dynamics is especially insightful and helpful.
There are many possible sources of anger and aggression. The skilled and sensitive agent of change would be wise to look closely at possible situational variables (e.g., obstacles to goal attainment), thought patterns (e.g., a tendency to misinterpret life events), organic variables (e.g., alcohol or substance abuse), responses to anger (e.g., a pattern of responding when overaroused), and consequences of anger-related behavior (e.g., what needs or wants are met in responding this way). Miller and Jackson (1995) offer many practical suggestions for sharpening one’s diagnostic skills in this area.
Anger is a complex emotional reaction, and clinicians must be cautioned against implementing techniques that fail to reflect an appreciation for the many factors that can cause or maintain it. Explosive outbursts may have an initial calming effect on the individual, but in the long run they tend to reduce inhibition and may even facilitate the expression of aggressive behaviors (see Intermittent Explosive Disorder). Such outbursts are often imitated by others if the results obtained by such behaviors are deemed successful. In contrast, there is a need in all societies to acknowledge and affirm role models who exhibit nonaggressive ways of expressing their feelings. The tremendous emphasis being placed on assertiveness training seems directly related to the need to teach and reinforce incompatible and competing behaviors (see Augsburger, 1973). Learning to recognize one’s own feelings and those of others can be helpful, but knowing how best to respond to anger and aggression requires a good repertoire of communication and conflict-management skills (see Cosgrove, 1988). Minimizing aversive stimulation, rewarding nonaggressive behavior, and eliciting reactions that are incompatible with anger are the major strategies that have been suggested in the literature for several decades (see Myers, 1983). Learning to constructively deal with anger is a peacemaking process that can require great patience, reflective listening, and knowledge of the major alternative strategies.
For the Christian, self-control is an important fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps anger can best be understood as a sign or symbol that something has gone awry internally and/or interpersonally. Honest Christianity calls us to reckon with truth about ourselves and each other and with God (McLemore, 1984). When we learn to deal effectively with our own anger or assist others in finding healthy ways to express their own ambivalent and confusing feelings, perhaps we are helping each other to develop a growing capacity to accept God’s love for us and to experience that love in ways that will allow us to more truthfully respond to each other with greater compassion and sensitivity.
by E. Butman
- Augsburger, D. (1973). Caring enough to confront. Scottdale, PA: Herald.
Bandura, A. (1979). The social learning perspective: Mechanisms of aggression. In H. Toch (Ed.), Psychology of crime and criminal justice. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
- Berkowitz, L. (1978). Whatever happened to the frustration-aggression hypothesis? American Behavioral Scientist, 21, 691–708.
- Cerling, C. E. (1974). Anger: Musing of a theologian/psychologist. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 2 (1), 12–17.
- Cosgrove, M. (1988). Counseling for anger. Dallas: Word.
- Ellis, A., & Harper, H. (1975). A new guide to rational living (Rev. ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Ellison, C. W. (1983). Your better self. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
- Hart, A. (1979). Feeling free. Old Tappan, NJ: Revell.
- Jones, S., & Butman, R. (1991). Modern psychotherapies. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Kotlowitz, A. (1991). There are no children here. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
- Lerner, H. G. (1985). The dance of anger. New York: Harper & Row.
- Lorenz, K. (1966). On aggression. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World.
- McLemore, C. (1984). Honest Christianity. Philadelphia: Westminster.
- Miller, W., & Jackson, K. (1995). Practical psychology for pastors (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Meyer, R., & Deitsch, S. (1996). The clinician’s handbook (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Myers, D. (1983). Social psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Pederson, J. E. (1974). Some thoughts on the biblical view of anger. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 2 (3), 210–215.
- Tavris, C. (1982). Anger: The misunderstood emotion. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Warren, N. C. (1983). Make anger be your ally. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
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