“Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation. But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Oh Lord,” He said, “Why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand. Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth?’ Turn from your fierce anger, relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make their descendants as numerous as the stars. . .then the Lord relented.” ~ Exodus 32:10-12
So is this Moses doing a little anger management with God? I remember someone once noting that God was the angriest person in the Bible. As I pull off of Route 434 and on to I-4 in Altamonte Springs there is a gigantic revolving sign and one of its three messages announces: “God Is Not Angry” and of course below that is the name of some church. That gets one’s attention and undoubtedly gets some to thinking. But maybe all the anger and wrath in the Old Testament is really just like the sign—just God’s way of saying: “Pay attention; this is important. I love you enough to get really, really cross with you.”
Anyway, in the rather sketchy concordance in the back of my NIV this passage from Exodus is scripture’s first reference to anger. Apparently, the concordance editor didn’t think the story of Cain’s anger was worth listing. Anger enters the story of humanity very early, in Genesis 4, in the tale of Cain and Abel. When God looks unfavorably on Abel’s sacrifice (grain) it says: “So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.” We all know how that story ends. In my book The Unwelcome Blessing I discuss the relationship between unresolved anger and a negative attitude and how that eventually can lead to depression. Forty or fifty years ago the typical psychodynamic explanation of depression was that it was anger turned on oneself. Whereas, there is some truth in that formulation, it doesn’t account for most clinical depression.
I’ve spent more than enough time myself going about feeling angry and having a “downcast” face. You’d think that I might feel reassured about having the characteristic of anger in common with God–but I don’t. It is obvious that God’s wrath is qualitatively different than that of any human. The important point in the tale of Cain and Abel is the Lord saying, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” Mastering anger and sin has to do with a proper or “righteous” relationship with both the Lord and our fellow man; it has to do with repentance; it has to do with a new attitude—an attitude of confession and forgiveness.
I’ve worked in the field of mental health as a counselor for over 40-years. I’ve done hundreds of sessions of anger management counseling with dozens of angry clients. For two years I facilitated a “domestic violence” group of batterers; the content and focus of this group was mostly anger management. With all of that experience you’d think I’d have a better grip on my own anger–but I don’t. On most Thursday evenings I attend a Celebrate Recovery small group for men with anger and codependency issues. Like my old friend Ed used to say, “It’s a good thing you’re not a brute.” What he meant was it’s a good thing I wasn’t like our idol at the time, Dick Butkus, the biggest nastiest linebacker in the NFL. What Ed was saying was that if I were a big bruiser I’d likely be dead or in jail. I probably would have chased down some other driver, pulled him out of his car and then gotten myself shot or arrested. Ed recognized that in spite of my often passive, placid demeanor I was seething beneath the surface.
Anger usually comes from one of two sources: (1) frustration over our wants or needs not being met, or (2) rage placed into us by another angry person.
The second category can easily be seen by the fact that something over 60% of those incarcerated have been the victim of physical abuse. Prisons and jails are full of guys who have been abused by someone angry–and who have then passed that anger along to someone else. Violence begets violence; and abuse begets more abuse. That is generally the case, but I have known some individuals who were abused as children and made a conscious decision to break the cycle–and who became some of the gentlest and most caring people I’ve known.
With some people’s anger problem there is likely a biological, genetic root. The same neurotransmitter that has so much to do with depression, serotonin, also is a factor in anger. One of the not so easily recognized symptoms of depression is irritability or anger. Some folks problem with anger would likely be helped immensely by an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) like prozac, zoloft or lexapro. These meds increase serotonin in the brain. I’ve had some angry, agitated clients helped by these psychoactive medications. Unfortunately, they don’t work for everyone.
Another biological factor having to do with anger is the ability to inhibit angry impulses. Some people can “contain” their anger better than others. Since there are no assault charges pending on me, I’d say I’m a fairly good container in spite of my labile and often volatile moods. The circuits that inhibit impulses begin in the frontal lobes. Some people who act out their anger may have not developed those circuits completely or may have some frontal lobe brain damage. I use the container analogy when working with clients. I draw a rough graphic of a Coke bottle and show the bottle filling up with anger–in a take off on the computer paradigm: anger in = anger out–eventually the bottle overflows.
“Be angry, and sin not. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Eph. 4:26-27) Sounds like it’s okay to be angry as long as you don’t act it out in a way that hurts others, and Paul’s point of not allowing anger to settle in and ferment is very important. Paul’s brief dictums in his letter to the Ephesians is scripture’s most important statement about anger–and unresolved anger’s effect on us. It is a way for the devil to insert his evil schemes into our lives, and to poison the blessings of the present because it focuses us on the past. That’s why its best addressed immediately.
Perhaps there are appropriate ways of expressing anger. Consider Jesus blasting the barren fig tree in Matthew 21. Now, whereas this might upset some vegans, I think Jesus was acting out his anger in an acceptable fashion–sort of like slamming a door or screaming in the shower. And in His case, it served as a lead-in to a commentary on faith.
In Acts we see another interesting story about anger and temper: “Barnabus wanted to take John along, the John nicknamed Mark. But Paul wouldn’t have him; he wasn’t about to take along a quitter, who as soon as the going got tough, had jumped ship on them in Pamphylia. Tempers flared, and they ended up going their separate ways. Barnabus took Mark and sailed for Cyprus; Paul chose Silas and, offered up by their friends to the grace of the Master, went to Syria and Cilicia to build up . . . those congregations.” Acts 15:37-41 (The Message)
Sounds like everybody was pretty pissed in this incident from the Book of Acts. But the important thing is that the Kingdom grew and just maybe some anger and hurt feelings figured in God’s economy. In spite of Paul’s rancor, John Mark went on to have a pretty good career in evangelism; he is the author of the earliest of the four gospels: Mark. What someone might have meant for harm, God can turn to good (Gen. 50:20).
I’ve just been thru a season of anger in my life. The details aren’t really important. The bottom line is I felt rejected, hurt, marginalized, etc. But per Genesis 50:20, what someone else may have meant for harm God likely is using for good. I get that. And I might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I have enough sense to pray about it again and again and apologize to God. Eventually I figure it out and deal with it, and make amends, or in the words from Genesis “do what is right” and deal with the sin crouching at my door–and just maybe turn something potentially very destructive into something worthwhile. Sometimes the frustration of not having our needs or wants met as we would like can be a springboard for spiritual growth. The sins which plague us the most are where—when we choose to confess and deal with them—God meets us.