By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
Christians can’t allow themselves to get angry. Come on look at the verses. Look at where Jesus says In Matthew 5 that if you say Raca – an abusive slur – to someone you are going to hell. So, if you show anger you’re in big trouble with God.
Okay, I’m just messin’ with ya! Of course Christians can get angry! And I mean they can show it too. Like when Jesus was making a whip and throwing businessmen out of the temple. Like when Moses got so mad at the Israelites for their making the golden calf that he ground it to power and made them drink it. Like when David took on Goliath. Like when Peter spoke up to the sorcerer who wanted to utilize the power of the Spirit for gain. Like when Paul was so angry at the Judiazers that he says they should go ahead and emasculate themselves. In any of these places does God scold the angry person? You know the answer.
I’m not saying that all forms of angry expression are okay either. Of course not. But anger has sort of gotten a bad rap and that’s bad. Because the emotion of anger is not good or bad and doesn’t deserve to be the whipping boy. You see, it’s what gets done with anger that’s bad. And there’s been a lot of that, which then obscures our vision on the value of anger rightly placed. Let me ask you, what would it mean in a society that isn’t angered by injustice? How would you feel if a Father didn’t get really angry about someone hurting his little girl? Or a employee not minding being defrauded? Or a society that didn’t stand up to something like racism? Well, we had that until someone got mad enough to do something about it. You do realize that Martin Luther King was angry right? So, what this all means it that I have been wondering if it wouldn’t be helpful to write out a few ways that I believe that anger can be useful, as well as what to do about misplaced and mismanaged anger.
- Anger as a protective force.
There is almost a primal instinct that goes with parents protecting their kids, that is, if they really love them. Love should appropriately draw out anger in situations in which someone you love is being attacked, mistreated, manipulated or cheated. Because love produces a desire for that person’s best and a heart to protect them from danger. We can have this type of response for others and certainly for ourselves as well. Did you know that it is hard to be geared up to protect someone if you don’t feel any umph in you, any sense of wrongness about the situation? And that’s good not bad. It is in line with what we call the fight, flight or freeze response – meaning those situations that enact the biological defense system. When we believe there is danger, our minds trigger our brains to fire off hormones that get our bodies ready to fight, flee or freeze, just like animals do instinctually to deal with threats. In this case, anger is simply the response to determining a threat to ourselves or someone we want to protect.
- Anger as Psychological Protection
Sometimes the threat isn’t a physical endangerment, but it is still perceived as a threat. From someone spreading slanderous lies about us, to someone stealing from us, to someone not following through on something of importance to us, we can perceive a threat and feel and respond in anger. And even though we are not in any physical danger, when we perceive a threat our brains cannot tell the difference between real versus perceived danger and signals the biological defense system so that we end up flooded with hormones that increase our adrenaline, stimulate action and actually bypass our prefrontal cortex, which is where we make complex decisions. There is certainly still cause for feeling anger in many of these situations, but we must be aware and careful of the tendency towards responding out of that anger – responding before we have been able to engage our thinking processes. It will benefit us to take the time to explain to ourselves that there is no immediate danger and talk ourselves back from the precipice of reacting. We need to be able to review our perspective and ask if the situation warrants an angry response or to discern if there is something underneath our initial response of anger. What if I am angry because what I really feeling is hurt or disappointment or fear? If I take the time to investigate and learn more about my perceptions and feelings, then it gives me more clarity and opens up for me choices as to how to respond in the most effective manner.
Anger as Stress Management
In some families, there were a lot of displays of anger, many that maybe were not appropriate or in proportion. Some adults did not learn about developing self awareness and how to regulate their emotional responses. And so they modeled this lack of regulation to their children, reinforcing its normalcy. Children then learn either that all anger is bad, or that anger can’t or shouldn’t be managed. These children become then the adults of the next generation and so on it goes. Adults without this ‘education’ on self awareness and self management may learn to cope using anger as a way of managing their stress. You see, inner distress, anxiety, fear, even sadness, can bring with them feelings and perceptions of weakness and powerlessness. Anger, on the other hand, with the way that it produces surges of adrenaline, brings feelings and perceptions of power and security. Who wouldn’t prefer those feelings to feeling weak and powerless? These feelings and perceptions then reinforce the use of anger, to the point that it could become a type of addiction to anger in some, because now anger is medicating someone’s negative or overwhelming feelings.
What can we learn from this breakdown? I believe that by combing through the ways that anger is used can help us to develop discernment about the times our anger is appropriate and helpful and when it is not. My hope is that some who struggle with guilt over their anger will realize the places of legitimate anger and find grace. And my hope is that those who find themselves trapped by their anger will understand its hold on them better and seek out help in order to experience freedom and to be able to treat others more respectfully (as well as oneself).
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