[CCEF] Anger Part 2: Three Lies About Anger and the Transforming Truth
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Anger Part 2:
Three Lies About
Anger and the
by David Powlison
What is anger? How should we handle it? Part 1 ofthis article1 sought to provide biblical anchors forunderstanding this volatile experience. We saw thatthe Bible treats anger in rich detail. We saw that angerinvolves the whole person: body, emotions, mind,motives, and behavior. It has an interpersonal focus,always having to do with God and usually having todo with other people. It is both natural and learned,for good and ill. It is a moral matter. God gives us aworldview from which to think about anger, andwithin which to wrestle with the varied expressions ofanger that we encounter.
In Part 2 we will critique three of the most perni-cious misconceptions about anger that dominate ourculture. As Christian counselors, we can offer the bib-lical alternative with all its depth, hope, and power topeople enmeshed in lies. The truth provides a path-way out of anger and out of the confusion that sur-rounds anger. This part of the article will concludewith a set of eight questions that aid in assessing andovercoming anger in a godly way.
Lie #1: Anger is Something Inside Me
One crucial implication of all we’ve discussed isthat anger is not a “thing.” It is a moral act of thewhole person, not a “substance” or a “something”inside you. That might sound obvious, but most pop-ular understandings of anger don’t see it. Is anger ahot, emotional fluid that builds up pressure inside? Oris anger a demon that takes up residency? These com-mon ideas—opposed to each other in every otherway!—both agree that anger is a something.
In Western culture at large, many theories of angersee it as an emotional fluid that builds up pressureinside and must be released. This “hydraulic” theoryof anger contributes to the pop wisdom that anger
“just is, neither good nor bad.” Things are neutral;moral agents aren’t. Why does this theory seem plau-sible? Because images such as the following capturesomething of what anger can feel like: A person’sanger can be “pent up”; “his pump is primed.” Peoplecan be “boiling mad,” “filled” with anger, waiting to“explode.” They “blow off steam.” Old, unresolvedanger can be “stored up inside,” “harbored” fordecades. If you “get it off your chest” until your angeris “spent,” you feel better. All these metaphors per-suasively depict anger as a pressurized substanceinside us.
No doubt, these colorful descriptions do capturehow anger feels. But a metaphor is not meant to over-power the thing it intends to illustrate. The writers ofthe Old and New Testaments, for example, didn’t real-ly believe that an inner furnace got stoked up to makeyou hot when you “burn” with anger. The “burning”metaphor graphically captures the sensation of angerand its effects, but it’s not intended to cancel out thefact that anger is something people do. Anger feelsfiery, but it’s not a fire. The solution to sinful anger isnot to surgically remove the furnace or to drinkenough water to quench the fire! The solution is amoral one: to “turn” from sin to God’s grace in repen-tant faith.
What do I mean if I say, “My angry neighborgrowls, barks, snarls, and snaps at her kids; she chewsand bites their heads off; she gets rabid and foams atthe mouth”? Those are illuminating word pictures.But certainly I don’t mean that she has an innerhydrophobic watchdog, and that the rabid caninewithin has taken over! In that case, the only solutionswould be to muzzle her or to put her out of her mis-ery. A mad dog is a “thing” that talking can’t fix. ButI’ve known snarlers who, by hearing God, repenting,believing, and obeying, grow peaceable.
When people believe that anger is a pressurizedsubstance, something inside, not something they do,the idea points to a solution other than repentance.The need for some kind of catharsis seems logical.Counseling will seek to release pressure by “lancingthe boil” (another metaphor!). “You have this hot stuffsimmering inside you that needs to get out. Here’s apillow. Call it your Mom. Take this baseball bat andwallop the pillow, cursing her out for everything shedid. You’ll get the anger out of your system. You’ll feelbetter, and you’ll be fixed.” The scenario sounds logi-cal only if anger is a thing inside. But because anger is
1“Understanding Anger,” Journal of Biblical Counseling, 14:1(Fall 1995), pp. 40-53.
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not a thing, but a moral act of the whole person, thescenario is sinful.2 Anger is not a thing, so the truesolution is self-understanding, an acknowledgment ofwrong, repentance, faith, and new obedience by thepower of God’s grace.
The second way in which anger is visualized as athing is seen in animistic cultures—and in some seg-
ments of contemporary Christian culture. In these set-tings, many people treat anger as a “demon.” Thelogic is identical to the secular hydraulic model.Again, anger is something inside you. You will be fixedby getting the “thing” out of you, in this case by cast-ing it out. Again, the theory seems plausible. Just asangry people boil, so anger, as much as any sin, makesus exactly like the devil. He is the accuser who usurpsthe throne of judgment, spouts half-truths and lies,and brings wrath against God and other people. Thewhole angry world lies in his power, and the devilseeks to mold us into his image. When you see (or are)a sinfully angry person, voilà, the devil’s image is dis-played. But the devil’s hand in anger is no differentfrom his involvement in any other sin. He does notdemonize us into sin; he rules us. He tempts and liesin his attempt to control and destroy us. The solutionlies not in exorcism from supposed demons of rage,anger, pride, and rebellion; it lies in repentance fromrage, anger, pride, and rebellion, turning to the Lordof grace. Anger is a moral act, not an indwelling thing,and its solution is a moral act, too.3
Because anger is something that people do asmoral agents, there’s no reason that anger must bevented or exorcised to be truly resolved. Theories thatliquify or demonize anger sound plausible becausethey draw on a vivid metaphor or on the arch-accuserlurking in the neighborhood. But they misconstrue
what they see and lead people astray.
Lie #2: It’s Okay to be Angry at God
We’ve seen earlier that anger at God is common-place. The Bible speaks of it scores of times.4 It’s one ofthe most logical human reactions, given the nature ofsin, but it’s a deadly wickedness. What Job’s wife saidwas terrible advice, but at least she had her factsstraight: “Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9).
Many popular psychologies discuss anger at Godin a very unhelpful way. The standard advice runssomething like this: “If you are angry at God you needto do four things. First, remember anger just is, it’sneither good nor bad. It’s okay to feel angry at God.He made us with angry emotions. Second, God oftenlets us down and disappoints us. How else can weexplain being abused, and crying out to Him for deliv-erance, yet the abuse continued? If He’s supposed tobe in control, then He could have stopped it, and Hedidn’t. Third, you need to ventilate your anger at God.He’s a mature lover, and mature love can absorb thehonest anger of the beloved. So don’t be afraid to tellHim exactly what you feel and think. Many Psalmsportray anger at God, so if other godly people have letout their rage at Him, you can too. Don’t censor yourfeelings and language; say it like you feel it so youwon’t be a hypocrite. Fourth, you need to forgive God.Forgiveness is the opposite of anger, and you need tolet go of the hostility to be at peace in yourself and tobuild a trusting relationship with God. Forgive Himfor the ways He let you down.” Plausible? Many findit so. Coherent? It does hang together. True? No way.
Anger at God is profitably examined by asking,“What do you want and believe?”—just as you wouldwith any other instance of anger. What you willinvariably find is that your heart is controlled by par-ticular cravings and lies that have been substituted forthe living and true God. For example, if I crave mar-riage and believe that God will reward my devotion toHim with a wife, my heart sets itself up for anger atGod. Anger will come when the desire is not satisfiedand the belief proves unwarranted.
Anger at God of the sort that is frequently seen incounseling is—virtually without exception (we’ll dis-cuss those “anger” Psalms in a moment)—sinful
There’s no reason that anger must bevented or exorcised to be truly resolved.
2This is not to say that catharsis may not make people “feelbetter.” Many things make angry people feel temporarilybetter that provide no real solution to moral problems: e.g.,calming medication, eating junk food, orgasm, sleeping,watching TV, gossiping your story to get people on yourside, screaming and hitting things, working out in the gym,getting away to Bermuda. Such things often do take theedge off, but they don’t change the heart.
3See my Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995) for a more extensive cri-tique of the notion of demons of anger.
4Perhaps most vividly in the sustained hostility towardsJesus Christ the Son of God, and towards those forerunnersand messengers of God who preceded and followed Him(especially David, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Paul). Inthe wilderness, grumbling expressed angry displeasurewith God. In Proverbs 19:3 a foolish man “rages” against theLord. In Revelation 16 it says three times that men “blas-phemed God” rather than repenting.
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anger. It overflows with malice and mistrust towardsGod. It firmly embraces (and proclaims) lies aboutwhat He is like. It rationalizes any number of self-destructive and sinful behaviors. Anger at God pre-sents a wonderful counseling opportunity. Handledrightly, it is the royal road into the evil disorder of thehuman heart. By the grace of God, those who are
own expectations upon God? Have they then becomeangry at a “disappointing” God, even confusing Hisactions and motives with Satan’s and with evil peoplewho imitate the devil’s cruelty? It is curious how peo-ple who don’t really believe in the sovereignty of Godbecome hyper-Calvinists (“He could have changedthings and didn’t”) when they are angry at Him. Toreally believe in God’s sovereignty is to gain anunshakable foundation for trust in the midst of evenhellish torments, let alone the milder pains.
The real God is the deliverer from tyrants, not thetyrant. He is the only hope of the “poor, afflicted,needy, unfortunate, and oppressed” who find them-selves attacked in a world “filled with violence.”And—a truth so profound that we can only say it withtrembling—when we are honest with ourselves werealize that we are more like the tyrants than unlikethem. The line between good and evil runs throughevery heart, except the heart of the Lamb of God. It’snot that we deserved from others what they did to us.That was simply evil, and it will be repaid fully withthe wrath of God (poured out either on tyrants or onChrist for those who repent). But that does not meanthat we are thereby innocents. We also deserve wrathfor our own sins. Jesus suffered the tortures we fairlydeserve.
The anger at God that counselors often see invari-ably masks a deep self-righteousness and expressesblatant unbelief. Nowhere does the world’s therapeu-tic formula challenge that self-righteousness andunbelief. Instead, it reinforces it (which is why somany find the therapeutic model so plausible andattractive!). Because it never talks about the sinfulnesswithin anger at God, the therapeutic formula nevercan offer the only true hope for such strugglers: thesin-bearing Savior who will deliver His people fromthe condemnation and corruption of their own sins,and from the pain of other people’s sins.
The Bible challenges the third point in the thera-peutic formula, too. You do not need to ventilate yoursinful anger at God in order to deal with it. You needto repent of it, like Job. You need to understand thedemands, the false beliefs, the self-righteousness thatproduces and drives it. There is no psalm that encour-ages the kind of ventilation of hostile anger that thetherapists encourage. In the “anger” psalms, withoutexception, what breathes through is an attitude offaith. Yes, there is true upset, complaint, hurt, and dis-may. We can reverently call it righteous anger becauseit yearns for God’s glory and the well-being of Hispeople. Such loving anger yearns to have God, ouronly hope, eliminate the sufferings we currently expe-rience. The intensity of the complaint arises from the
Nowhere in the Bible
angry at Him can often discover for the first time whoHe actually is, and who they are as well.
Let’s examine the therapeutic formula point bypoint. First, we’ve dealt with the fact that anger is notneutral. Anger towards God will either maliciouslyaccuse Him or express living faith in Him. Thoseangry emotions with which we are “made” may beeither godly or devilish. In contrast, the first piece oftherapeutic advice entirely avoids the moral dilemmainherent in anger.
Second, does God let us down when we suffer?Nowhere in the Bible do we find a shred of evidencethat God ever truly betrays us. The Bible discussessuffering constantly, but it always shows us that anyapparent “betrayal” by God must be seen in the con-text of His larger purposes. Certainly, people maytruly and seriously let us down. Abusers betray trustin such a heinous way that if hell has gradations, theymerit the deepest pit.5 Certainly the devil torments us.That’s what he’s about. Certainly suffering hurts—bydefinition. Anger towards tyrants and the arch-tyrantis heartily warranted. And groaning (to God, in faithand hope) about our sufferings is heartily warranted.But God has never promised freedom from tears, mourning,crying, and pain—or from the evils that cause them—untilthe great day when life and joy triumph forever over deathand misery. The interweaving of God’s glory and ourwell-being is far bigger than people imagine. HaveGod-ragers believed false promises or overlaid their
5I’m citing a worst case scenario. Many people who areangry at God have suffered more mild hardships: disap-pointment in love, a financial reverse, the death of an agedparent, a proposal rejected at a church committee meeting.I’ve been struck that people who are angry at God have typ-ically suffered the exact same hardships as people who loveGod!
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intensity of the faith. It contains no cursing, no hatefulbitterness, no lies, no scorn or hostile belittling, noblasphemies. Psalmists are dismayed because theyknow and trust that God is good, because they loveHim, and because they struggle to reconcile Hispromises with current affliction.6 Psalmists movetowards God in honest faith, wrestling with their cir-cumstances. But people angry at God shove Himaway. Psalmists want God’s glory and want evil to goaway; they groan and complain in their faith. Andtypically (also ignored by the therapeutic counterfeit),they manifest an awareness of guilt and sin; they rec-
the book is about. The Psalms, when read in theirentirety, don’t say what they are alleged to say bythose who take verses out of context to support a falseidea.
Every step in the world’s therapeutic formula isbent to one end: keeping man on the throne of pride.This therapeutic counterfeit justifies anger as neutral,blames God for being bad, ventilates hostility, andfinally “forgives” the great Offender. It exhibits a shal-lowness of moral reasoning, a shallowness in evenformulating the problem of evil (let alone wrestlingwith it), and a shallowness in engaging the Scriptures.It ought to make Christian people angry!7
The person who is honest about his or her anger atGod—and gets to the truth about it—will walk a verydifferent route from the one prescribed by the popularformula. The repentant and believing heart will notsettle for some uneasy truce between my past suffer-ings and my current willingness to tolerate some sortof relationship with a God who let me down. Thebelieving heart will find truth, joy, hope, and loveunspeakable. The believing heart will find God.
Lie #3: My Big Problem is Anger at Myself
Many of the problems just discussed reappear incurrent notions of self-forgiveness. If I’m angry atmyself—and the phenomenon is a common one—cur-rent wisdom argues that I chiefly need to forgivemyself.8 Two truths typically are thought to motivatethe self-angry to self-forgive. First, “God did not cre-ate junk, and since He created me I must be worthsomething.” Second, “Jesus thought I was so valuablethat He loved me and came to die for me.” On thefoundation of these affirmations I can feel good aboutmyself, and view my failings more tolerantly. Endresult? I “forgive myself” instead of being angry atmyself.9 It sounds plausible to many people. But it’s
Psalmists move towards God
ognize that suffering in general is somehow deserved.This is an awareness that coexists with hating the evilintents of those who afflict. When the Bible teaches ushow to voice distress to God, it teaches a cry of faith,not a roar of blasphemous rage. The therapeutic alter-native is too distorted ever to teach troubled peoplehow and why to complain to a God they love.
Fourth, the notion of forgiving God is a final blas-phemy in a string of blasphemies. Granted, the personwho really deals with anger at God by repentance andfaith will no longer feel angry at God. He feels over-whelming gratitude (another thing missing in thecounterfeit) because he has found forgiveness, notbecause he has granted it. God is good. He does notneed our forgiveness. He never stands in the dock asthe accused, no matter how much our sinful angerseeks to put Him there. With whom does forgivenessbegin, so that a trusting relationship between man andGod can be rebuilt? Is it with us? Impossible. The ther-apeutic counterfeit gets this point, like the others,dead wrong.
The Psalms and Job do not provide biblical sup-port for these trivializing and distorted ideas. EvenJob, a godly man of honest faith, repented at the endfor his strand of self-righteousness. To the degree thathe had blamed God and sought to justify himself, hewas brought to admit that he was wrong. That is what
7Certainly passing the first test of righteous anger, beingupset about things that hurt people and defame God. Suchanger will also pass the other tests (see Part 1 of this article)if we love God and love people who are angry at God, want-ing to give them real aid instead of lies.
8See the fine article by Robert Jones, “‘I Just Can’t ForgiveMyself’: A Biblical Alternative to Self-forgiveness” that fol-lows in this issue of the Journal of Biblical Counseling.
6Outside the Psalms, Habakkuk most poignantly does thesame.
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ably they have failed to live up to some standard.That’s what anger is, a judgment against perceivedwrong. That standard may be bogus—needing ahouse that looks like the pages of House Beautiful; get-ting straight As; being able to please an unpleasableparent; having a textbook quiet time. Or the standard
Whose eyes are doing the judgingwhen I am angry at myself?
may be accurate—committing adultery, having anabortion, laziness. In either case, there is something Ibelieve I should live up to. I want to live up to it. ButI fail. That’s the first piece of insight in my self-under-standing.
Second, anger always entails a judge, because theyare the ones who make judgments. In the Old Testa-ment metaphor, something can be displeasing either“in my eyes” or “in your eyes” or “in the eyes of theLord.” Whose eyes are doing the judging when I amangry at myself? My own. I evaluate, and my judg-ment is final. This is why self-haters never get muchsatisfaction out of well-meaning attempts to helpthem believe in God’s forgiveness in Christ. They may“already believe” that God has forgiven them for themessy house or the abortion, but it isn’t enough: “Ican’t forgive myself.” And my eyes are all-important,more significant than God’s.
It is worth noting that frequently people who“can’t forgive themselves” serve both their own eyesand the eyes of others. I want my house to look impec-cable to please myself (thus I displease myself when Ifail) and to please or impress my mother and neigh-bors. When my house is messy, I loathe myself. I havefailed on all counts, failing to please both myself andothers. Or I may have accurate standards (abortion)but the wrong eyes. In my eyes I “can’t forgivemyself” for having had an abortion. How could I havedone that? I must make up for it, or I must suffer forit. That is highly self-righteous on all sides of theintrapersonal transaction: I simultaneously playjudge, criminal, and savior, and know nothing of therighteousness of Christ that makes the New Testa-ment sing for joy. Typically, others’ eyes again play arole parallel to my own eyes: I’m ashamed to haveanyone know about the abortion. They might think illof me. The Bible terms this the fear of man, substitut-
ing social opinion for the fear of the Lord. The eyesthat self-haters live before are often a composite ofwhat the Bible calls pride and the fear of man.
Third, when I set up the standard and the eyes thatjudge me, I also create my definition of a “savior.” Tomake up for my failure to meet my own (or others’)standards, I may strive and fret to attain perfection. Iwork twice as hard at house-cleaning. I open myhome to unwed mothers and compulsively minister inthe pro-life movement. But it doesn’t work. The housekeeps getting messy, and no matter how good I am,the abortion still blots my past. I decide to keep tryingto play my own savior by rebuilding a perfect record,which (if only I could do it) would make everythingbetter. But I fail. So self-hatred always has the last say.I go endlessly back to dealing out my own punish-ment, playing the judge and the sacrificial lamb rolledinto one. I lacerate myself mentally. I brood on regrets,self-recriminations, self-hatred, accusing myself mer-cilessly for my transgressions (imaginary or real). I’mangry at myself. I can’t forgive myself.
Biblical counseling must approach such people atall three points: standards, “eyes,” and saviors. Theylive in a comprehensive counterfeit of biblical reality,which is why they are so confused and unhappy. Onlytruth can bring them wisdom and joy. Your goal is toredefine the reality in which they live, to state how lifecan be transformed by the renewing of the mind.
First, search out whether the standards people useto judge themselves are God’s, their own, or ones thatthey borrowed from others (such as Mom and neigh-bors). Sometimes the standards will be accurate; manytimes the standards will be distorted and can be chal-lenged and changed in the light of truth.
Second, whose eyes supremely matter? Whoseapproval matters? To live before my own eyes is tosubstitute my conscience for God. This is an act ofpride. To live before other’s eyes—for their approval—is to substitute their evaluation for God’s. This is anact of man-fearing. To live in God’s eyes is the begin-ning of wisdom. The self-hater who awakens to thisawakens to reality. He becomes aware of sins he neversuspected and of his real need for forgiveness.
Third, who is the proposed savior from all thischaos and misery? Does the person look to his ownefforts to find a way of perfection? Does he punishhimself for the guilt of his perceived failures? JesusChrist alone gives perfection; He alone can bear guilt.He can forgive the varied sins that are present: gen-uine transgressions (adultery, abortion, laziness), thetrust and faith in false standards (House Beautiful), thechoice to live before eyes other than God’s (my ownand Mom’s), and the pursuit of a self-attained right-
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eousness as a false savior. Jesus gives a real righteous-ness—His own perfect life—to people who sin. Hegives real forgiveness—His perfect self-sacrifice tobear our punishment—to people who sin. He givesindwelling power—His Holy Spirit—to renew ourminds, give us joy, and change us. What a relief fromthe stifling self-absorption of self-forgivenessschemes.
Self-haters will find their problems resolved asthey work this through. There are no loose ends inGod’s loving truth. Living for House Beautiful willrecede into the background as a nervous, petty follyfrom which God has delightfully delivered me. Theabortion was truly forgiven, not because I madeamends or punished myself, but because Jesus loveda sinner. The pride and fear of man that elevatedmyself and other people to the judge’s bench arereplaced by the fear of the Lord that is the beginningof wisdom. The legalistic perfectionism of my effortsat success and the self-punishment of my anger at selfare replaced by gratitude for the grace of God. Caseclosed, no longer “angry at myself,” yet not a whiff of“I need to forgive myself.”
Notice, by the way, how the false analysis (Angryat yourself? Forgive yourself.) led to a false gospel,just as it did when we considered anger at God. In thebiblical scenario, there is no hint of “You are worth somuch because of creation, and Jesus’ love shows howvaluable you are, so you can feel OK about yourself.”The truth is, creation and redemption don’t give usmuch reason to feel good about ourselves. Our cre-ation was in the image of the God of glory. Yet lookhow far we have fallen: “The hearts of the sons of menare full of evil, and insanity is in their hearts whilethey live.”10 An honest look at our glory in creation“stops every mouth... for all have sinned and fallshort of the glory of God.” Similarly, our redemptionwas won in a way that displays how utterly bad andhelpless we are. The only good and worthy Man freelydied for ungodly, weak, sinful enemies. Those factshardly offer a reason for confident self-acceptance andself-forgiveness! Grace, by definition, ruins self-worth. The covert pride that inhabits “low self-esteem” and “anger at myself” is not cured by misaf-firming me as valuable. The biblical gospel points usto the worth of Jesus Christ, who redeemed theunworthy and deservedly damned. How much betteris this real gospel, which defines our need for forgive-ness from God (not ourselves), and provides it, fulland free. People who embrace God’s grace become
truly happy, free of the need for props to their wobblyself-concept. An accurate, biblical self-knowledgedestroys the supposed need for self-esteem. It pro-duces the only people on the planet with reasons forconfidence as they approach life.
The idea of forgiving yourself to resolve anger atyourself actually panders to a core sin: it keeps peopleliving before the wrong eyes—their own. “I’m angryat myself; I need to forgive myself.” That airless psy-chic closet is a far cry from the real world that theBible frees us to live in. For example, in 1 Corinthians
4:3-5, Paul says that it doesn’t matter what other peo-ple think of him: “I care very little if I am judged byyou or by any human court.” He doesn’t live in theeyes of others. Then he says it doesn’t matter what hethinks of himself: “Indeed, I do not even judge myself.My conscience is clear, but that does not make meinnocent.” He doesn’t live in his own eyes. Finally hesays, “It is the Lord who judges me,” and goes on todiscuss what it means to live in God’s eyes. My opin-ion of myself (“conscience”) and your opinion of me(“reputation”) don’t matter unless they conform toGod’s opinion of me. They are extremely valuablewhen they stay in their place; they are tyrants whenthey seize the throne.
Anger at self, like anger at God, comes to a richand satisfying resolution when understood rightlyand when the Gospel is applied. The counterfeits thatare frequently offered to troubled people are enoughto make Christians weep with grief and anger.
A Pathway Out of Anger
Let’s move in a positive direction. How can wetake the biblical teaching on anger to help us change?That’s the payoff question. All that we’ve looked atthus far can be summarized in eight very practicalquestions. The first four questions help assess anger;the second four lead to resolution.11
Let me use as an example a simple situation thattempts many (all?) of us to get angry. You’re in a traf-
The truth is, creation and redemptiondon’t give us much reason to feelgood about ourselves.
11This basic framework applies to other problems besidesanger. It is simply a summary of the biblical pattern ofchange.
10Ecclesiastes 9:3; cf. other analyses of the human moral con-dition such as Genesis 6:5, Jeremiah 17:9, and Romans 3.
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fic jam and running late for an important appoint-ment. It’s five minutes before noon. The appointmentis for noon. You are stuck on the highway ten milesaway, in traffic that has not moved for twenty minutesand shows no sign of unsnarling. One commonresponse? You snarl—with anger, frustration, disgust,dismay, unhappiness, tension. When you do, askyourself these questions.
Question #1: What is the situation?
This one is easy. What is the provoking situation?Anger is provoked, it has a trigger, it happens for rea-sons in specific times and places. What is happeningto you? “I was not tempted to anger until I was stuckin the traffic jam, and the clock was ticking towardsnoon, and I knew I’d be late for my appointment.”The significant situation includes the Department ofTransportation that decided to do road work at thatexact moment, the traffic, the time, the appointment,the possible reaction of the person waiting for you,and so forth.
Question #2: How do I react?
This question is also relatively easy. It is meant tohelp you identify the specific ways you express sinfulanger. What is happening in your thought life? Men-tally curse the transportation department. Play outanxious mental scenarios of how to make my excusesto the person I’m leaving in the lurch. Self-recrimina-tion perhaps: “Why didn’t I leave earlier, or take a dif-ferent route, or listen to the traffic report on the radio?What if the person I’m supposed to meet gets disgust-ed with me?” Where is God in all this? Perhaps I’vecursed, invoking His wrath to serve my frustrations.Perhaps I’ve had a fleeting thought that “I ought to...or I shouldn’t...,” but that doesn’t slow the runawaytrain. Perhaps I’ve thought angry thoughts aboutGod, “Christianity doesn’t work; God’s a joke; what’sthe use?”
Body and emotions? I feel angry, irritated, hot. Thelonger I sit here the more I feel steam coming out myears. I feel tense. Back of the neck is tightening. Stom-ach is churning. Anxiety about missing the meeting.
Actions? Creep up to the bumper ahead and don’tlet anyone merge from the sides. Strike my fist on thedashboard. Groans, sighs, hisses. Vent my disgust, “Ican’t believe it! This is ridiculous! Of all the....” Flipthe radio on and off aggressively. An obscene gestureor phrase. Drive like a maniac once the traffic clears. Asemi-coherent outburst of anger and excuses when Ifinally arrive at the appointment.
This stew of anger (and some fear) is a classic“works of the flesh” human reaction.
Question #3: What are my motives?
I’m grumbling and complaining, so some set ofcravings and false beliefs must be driving me. Askbasic questions: What do I really want? What do I real-ly believe? The anger comes out of my heart; it’s notcaused by the situation.12 Here are some possiblerulers of the heart:
• “I want to get where I want to go when I want toget there.” That’s unalloyed pride.
• “What will the people think of me? I was lateonce before.” Fear of man.
• “I want and need the money this sales call wassure to produce” (or the cure that doctor was sure toprovide; or the love that person was sure to give me;or...). Varied cravings (“I want”) and false beliefs (“Ineed”) regarding money, medicine, love.
When these cravings (classic “lusts of the flesh”)and false beliefs rule my life, they produce sinfulanger. If God ruled my life, these natural affectionswould be subordinated. I might feel some disappoint-ment, but wouldn’t be floundering in the swamp.
Question #4: What are the consequences?
Anger has consequences. It creates feedback loops,vicious circles. Perhaps as drivers aggressively edgeforward, I grind into the car next to me and get an ear-ful of the driver’s hostility and a $250 charge on thedeductible of my collision insurance. Perhaps I reapemotional and physical consequences: guilt, increas-ing distress and tension, stomachache and headache.Sometimes the consequences are fatal: the obscenegesture leads to the recipient pulling a gun and firing.Perhaps when I finally arrive at the appointment I’mso hot, bothered, flustered, and full of excuses that Imake a terrible impression and lose the sale (or girl-friend). Maybe the immature way I act blows my rep-utation with the doctor’s entire office staff, and theyhave twenty minutes of sarcastic humor behind my
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Anger has consequences. It createsfeedback loops, vicious circles.
12After all, if I had really wanted to avoid the appointment,I would be delighted at being stuck in traffic with a greatexcuse! Sinful happiness is a problem for which peoplerarely seek counsel. The Bible abounds with examples ofpeople who rejoice at getting what their evil hearts crave(e.g., Psalm 73:3-12; Jeremiah 50:11; Habakkuk 1:15; Luke6:24-26 and 16:19, 25; Revelation 11:10).
back. “My day is ruined.”
sected the anger reaction. They point out the specificprovocation, the detailed stew of reactions, the under-lying motives, and the consequences. We’ve glimpsed,even in this tiny incident, the vicious circles thatdefine “sin and misery.” The next four questions movetowards biblical resolution by the grace of the Godwho has been peering into what’s been going on thewhole time.
Question #5: What is true?
Who is God? What does He say? Many biblicalthemes and truths may be significant, but I will con-centrate on three that are always important whendealing with anger. First, God is present and in controlof this and every other situation. His sovereignty sur-rounds the things I face in Question #1. I am notmeant to control the world, but that does not meanthat the world is random and out of control. You willsolve sinful anger as you learn to believe, “God isextremely relevant when I’m stuck in traffic and run-ning late. He is present and He is up to somethinggood in my life as His child. God’s overriding purposeis to remake me into the image of Jesus Christ, tomake me a person slow to anger and full of trust, tomake me a peacemaker not a warmaker. I don’t likethe fact that my appointment must be scrubbed, butGod has handed me a perfect opportunity to becomea different sort of person.”
Second, God’s law speaks to events such as this.The law acts in two ways, as a mirror and a lamp.First, God holds up a mirror to me: “Love the Lordyour God with all your heart, and all your soul, andall your mind, and all your strength” and “Love yourneighbor as yourself.” That first great commandmentlays bare my heart: What did I love instead? I gotannoyed because I loved my way, human approval,and money (or health, or love). This command diag-noses the things I found out about myself in Question#3. In fact, it taught me to ask those sorts of questions!The second great commandment lays bare my fruits.What works of the flesh emerged from the cravings ofthe flesh? The sinful reactions of Question #2 areexposed for what they are. I’m even taught whatkinds of things to look for by the multitude of biblicalexamples and precepts that illuminate this com-mand.13
God also holds out the law as a lamp to guide me.The first great commandment tells me to love (andtrust, fear, hope in, turn to...) God. I can trust His pro-vision for me financially (or for health, or friend-ship/marriage) instead of lusting after these things. Ican love Him for bringing wisdom’s clarity and senseinto a situation that was previously an emotionalswamp. It tells me how to meet and know God (Ques-
tion #6, below). The second great commandmentspeaks positively of considering the interests of oth-ers. How will that apply? I could be charitable as thetraffic merges, and let someone in. Perhaps courtesywould have me make a phone call (if possible) to letthe person waiting for me know the situation. Thiscommand speaks of patience, and of numerous othergood fruits which will apply in different life situa-tions. It reminds me to tell the truth when I tell peoplewhat happened. It challenges me to gain the wisdomI need to apply God’s will into this exact situation—at11:55 a.m. when stuck in traffic and late for anappointment (Question #7, below).
Third, God’s truth speaks of the gospel. I havebeen convicted of violating the first and second greatcommandments in this small incident on the highway.These are sins. And the gospel is the bridge betweenthe law as mirror and the law as lamp, between thechaos of sin and the joys of wisdom. The gospel for-gives sins, restores me to God, provides power to bedifferent, and gives hope bigger than the disappoint-ments of life. God is a very present help in trouble,
a temper tantrum at God” expresses sinful anger. Such ananalysis is implicit in “The works of the flesh are evident,[give 15 examples...], and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21). That passage and others give us enough variations onthe theme of anger to enable us to get the picture. Scriptureorients us to reality, teaching us how to observe and thinkabout our world accurately.
Sometimes the view that Scripture is “sufficient” forcounseling is caricatured by opponents, as if it means Scrip-ture contains all the facts with which counseling works. Thisis an absurd view held by no person in the history of theworld. Instead, Scripture is sufficient to interpret all the factswith which counseling works. If Scripture were exhaustive-ly encyclopedic, we could not even ask a person his nameand get to know the details of his life! But biblical categorieswill map on to those idiosyncratic details—sufficiently, per-fectly, and wisely.
13Of course the Bible doesn’t need to or claim to list everysingle detail. It teaches us what sinful anger looks like andgives us numerous examples, making us wise to discernother examples. For example, I don’t need a proof text toknow that the act of “buying Penthouse and masturbating as
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The gospel is the bridge between the lawas mirror and the law as lamp.
and can give me grace to act peacefully and charitablyas I ride out the traffic jam. I can know and rejoiceafresh in the inexpressible gift of the love of God.
Question #6: How can I turn to God for help? Do it.
Question #5 laid out the worldview in which prob-lems now make sense. God is revealed, and the way ofescape from folly into wisdom is made clear. Mereanalysis, however, even the clearest thinking (some-thing Questions #1-5 seek to bring about), won’tchange me. Question #6 gets me moving. God meansme to seek Him, to transact with Him. I need to applythe truths of Question #5, for example workingthrough the questions distinguishing righteous andsinful anger. It’s not hard to tell that my anger fails thefirst test of righteous anger14: this traffic jam is not amoral evil demanding the energies of anger. My sinfulanger has asserted that lie because I served the falsegods identified in Question #3. I need to repent, turn-ing from the cravings and works of the flesh to theLord of life. I need to confess my sins, ask forgiveness,believe the gospel, ask for the wisdom to know how torespond and the power to do it. The results of all thiswill be the clear-mindedness of “coming to my rightmind.” I will know genuine gratitude to God, andcontentment (still in the traffic jam, no less) that wasinconceivable while I soaked in my sins. Thank you,God, for who You are, for the goodness of Your gospelthat has met me right here in my need! “How blessedis the man who finds wisdom... she is more preciousthan jewels, and nothing you desire compares withher” (Proverbs 3:13, 15). I am experiencing the bless-ing of wanting wisdom more than my way orimpressing people or getting money or the otherthings that threw me into a fluster.
Question #7: How should I respond in this situationto glorify God? Do it.
Repentance and faith lead to concrete changes inbehavior, emotion, thoughts. Righteousness is just asspecific as the sins described in Question #2. At thesimplest level, I may simply take a deep breath andrelax, trusting that God is indeed in control. But Godhas other fruits in mind, too. I become a charitable,courteous driver. What does it matter if I’m two morecar lengths behind? I’ll let a couple of cars in. God hasset me free of both the hostile and competitive aspectsof sinful anger. The traffic jam is no longer a dog-eat-dog battle. I offer thanks to God. I plan what I will sayto the person I’ve stood up: not anxious excuse-mak-
ing or blustering irritation, but the simple facts and aconcern for their welfare. I’ll plan to apologize for theinconvenience. (I won’t ask forgiveness, that’s forwhen I sin against someone; apologies are for acci-dents. If I had left fifteen minutes late in the first place,then seeking forgiveness for inconsiderateness wouldbe called for.) What a joy to be free of the emotionalchaos of sin. Instead of that mix of anger, anxiety, con-fusion, and disgruntlement, I’m peaceful with thegrateful “peace which passes understanding” and
Godliness creates gracious circles.
“secret of contentment” that come from living in thelight of the gospel. Question #7 tackles every aspect ofthe situation described in Question #1, and walks outthe will of God in detail in my world.
Question #8: What are the consequences of faith andobedience?
We’ve already mentioned some of the subjectivebenefits. More objectively, maybe a dented fender oreven a killing got prevented. Somebody else was keptfrom stumbling into sinful anger or murder on myaccount. And in my corner of the world, the halfdozen cars around me, maybe my courtesy andrelaxed response proves catching. Godliness createsgracious circles. Here we come full circle and find thatgodliness, while not guaranteed to change the originalsituation, often has an effect for good on the world.Maybe I end up making the sale anyway because themanager is so impressed at the calm, reasonable wayin which I handled a frustrating situation. He’d seentoo many other salesmen come in spouting excusesand coming on strong. Godliness intrigued andattracted him.
The possibilities for the many-sided blessings ofGod are endless. Instead of my day being ruined, Godhas extricated me from sin and misery, and this is per-haps one of the most significant days in my life fromthe standpoint of growing into the image of Christ.I’ve learned how life works in God’s world. I’velearned how the gospel works. I’ve learned profoundlessons in a very tiny corner of life. And perhaps whenI talk to a troubled, distraught friend that evening onthe phone, I’m able to “comfort those in any afflictionwith the comfort with which I have been comforted byChrist” (2 Corinthians 1:4). I didn’t suffer much—theinconvenience of a traffic jam—and maybe he or she issuffering a great deal. But the dynamic of the human
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14See the first part of this article, “Understanding Anger,”Journal of Biblical Counseling, 14:1 (Fall, 1995), pp. 40-53.
heart is identical: I will understand my friend’s temp-tations to anger, fear, and despair because I’ve under-stood my own. And I’ve come to understand the wayof escape. Walking this through has not only blessedme, but has made me able to wisely counsel others.
A traffic jam—that’s only a tiny case study. Somepeople might ask, “What does this have to do withmajor afflictions and major provocations to anger?” Inthe way the Bible views things, it has everything to dowith them. The same truths about God apply in thesame way. Sure, many details will differ. And the Bibleis frank: there are tears that won’t be wiped away andenemies who won’t be out of the way until the lastday. Question #8 does not create heaven on earth. Butit creates tastes of heaven, even though the last enemyhas not yet been put under Christ’s feet. If on the day
I see Christ I will be made completely like Him, thenin a small way I taste the joy of heaven in a traffic jamby being made a bit more like Him. These eight ques-tions orient us to Christian reality, which is to say, theyorient us to reality! They teach us about our world,ourselves, our God, how to live. People whom Godteaches how to handle traffic jams, He will teach howto handle anything.
[Part 3 of this article, “Helping Angry People,” willfocus on the process of offering counsel to angry peo-ple. It will appear in the next issue of The Journal of Bib-lical Counseling, God willing. Isn’t it interesting howthat last phrase can keep readers, author, and editorsalike from sinful anger should something interferewith those plans!]
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