Over the past few weeks, I have been reviewing some of the recent research about anger. It’s fairly obvious to even the most casual observer that anger seems to be on the rise in our everyday situations.
At a basic level, we know that we all get angry, but that observation isn’t very helpful. Controlling our anger is usually the greater concern. Dealing with anger in a way that honors God requires greater work and understanding than simply controlling the anger.
Good science and The Bible increasingly agree about the purpose of anger.
The biblical teaching brings a deeper and fuller perspective of anger than science ever will. Science tends to measure the body and behaviors, but ultimately, anger is a matter of the heart.
These surprises from science about anger and their biblical parallels provide an interesting look at our struggle with anger and our failure to control it.
Surprise #1 – Anger is increasingly viewed as a good thing.
In recent years, many have explored research regarding anger and injustice. Biblical Counselor David Powlison summarized the experience of anger as “intense feelings of I’m against that.”
Certainly, we can all agree that we should be against many injustices in life. The approach of stuffing anger until an eruption takes place, while common, proves to cause more problems than it solves.
Ephesians 4:27 tells us to deal with our anger frequently and to deal with it in a way that avoids sin and brings peace to our souls and relationships.
Surprise #2 – Anger management helps, but it’s rarely enough.
Anger management strategies can be broken into two main areas of focus: controlling the external and refocusing the internal.
While anger management does help some, it isn’t enough. We need an eternal perspective as well.
When focused on external causes of anger, the goal of anger management is primarily controlling the outward problem and seeking to minimize the difficult outcomes of angry outbursts for themselves and others.
Internal strategies focusing on anger teach people how to better deal with the experience of anger within them. Rather than viewing anger as an uncomfortable threat or nuisance, they should embrace it as an ally.
Jesus said this about heart change: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (ESV) – Mark 7:21–23
A biblical approach to anger management adds another word: eternal.
An eternal perspective on anger recognizes that the momentary afflictions of this life are allowed by God to help us grow and to reflect his goodness in an increasingly dark world. Someday we will fully understand what God was up to. For now, we must trust him that our trials are good.
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:11-12
Surprise #3 – Compassion is one of the best answers for uncontrolled anger.
Recent developments of “compassion-focused therapy” have strongly come into focus in anger therapy. It makes sense. Grace allows us to walk in the shoes of the person who frustrates us.
In our anger, we can be constructive or destructive. When we model our anger after God’s anger, it pivots from anger at sin to compassion for sinners.
Consider how the following verses help us deal with anger and lead us to a heart of compassion. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” – Colossians 3:12
Research has found that until an angry person consistently demonstrates compassion towards the object of their anger, the anger only builds in intensity. Love is the strongest answer to anger.
Surprise #4 – We easily forget about God in our experience of anger.
As I read recent research it seemed to view spiritual concerns as irrelevant to the process. Consider this quote from a well-known talk by an anger researcher:
“If there’s one thing I want you to remember from my talk today, it’s this: your anger exists in you as an emotion because it offered your ancestors, both human and nonhuman, with an evolutionary advantage. Just as your fear alerts you to danger, your anger alerts you to injustice.”[iii]
If we are just sophisticated animals, anger is simply a tool that we must manage to our “evolutionary advantage.” However, if we believe that we are made in the image of God for a purpose here on earth, we must take a different approach to our anger.
The situations in our lives that tend to provoke anger are opportunities to worship and live out our faith.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:2-4
The difficulties of life bring about opportunities to draw near to God and trust him. Many secular approaches to anger ignore the purposes of God and simply focus on anger management.
In our lives and our churches, conversations about anger should go further than internal and external issues. They must seek to address the spiritual as well.