Anger – Mental Health/Bible 5

What does the Bible say about anger? Is it forbidden? You may be surprised to learn that the Bible’s stand on anger fits well with the new brain research about anger. Once again, science is aligning with what God tells us in scripture.

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We’ve recently been reworking a series we did a decade ago, called Mental Health and the Bible. Some of the presentations were too long and others I’ve learned a lot about on the topic, so I’m going to add some of that in. It’s just a basic re-edit and update.

This one today is on Anger, and it’s the fifth in the series. If you’d like to see more of them, you can look them up with a search on our Website. That’s liferesource – that’s all one word – .org.

So anger is a part of everybody’s life, whether we like it or not. Many people, I believe – in the Christian world, at least – think that anger is wrong. And actually, that’s not the biblical stance. I’d like you to turn with me to Ephesians 4, and verse 26, and let’s look at, probably, the most widely known scripture in the Bible about anger. It says – this is Ephesians 4:26:

Ephesians 4:26 – Be angry, and yet do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.

So this is what the Bible is telling us to do about handling anger. Don’t get so out of control that anger causes us to sin and try to resolve problems that are making us angry quickly. Or, if they’re unresolvable, just let go of them quickly, so that you don’t have to pay the penalty for being angry.

Let’s look at another scripture also. It’s in James 1:19. This is another verse that gives us some clues about anger.

James 1:19 – So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 

So there it is again. Don’t be impulsive and don’t be hot-headed. Don’t let your anger produce hurt in others or yourself.

If you read the book of Proverbs, you’ll see it’s just loaded with references to not being soon angry. The idea is, we need to keep control of ourselves. Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to say it, especially if it’s an angry thought.

There was a young man who came to my office once at the counseling clinic. He told me that he had a history of overreacting. And I said, “Why don’t you tell me about that?” At that time, as he was talking to me, his hands were both bandaged heavily. He told me that he’d broken both of his hands in the past hitting walls and other hard things when he was angry. He said that his anger was way out of range for things that had happened to make him angry – like one time he came home from work late at night and found out that his sister had eaten that he was planning to eat a snack. So he went outside and pounded on a concrete block wall until he broke both of his hands. I guess that’s better than pounding on his sister, but still not a good thing. He said that the event that brought him in for counseling had happened just the previous Saturday night. The police had picked him up at 2 am without a shirt on in the middle of winter and both his hands were pretty well shredded, because he’d been hitting a chain link fence repeatedly. No alcohol was involved.

So what do we call that? Well, we call that intermittent explosive disorder. That’s how it’s portrayed in the DSM, where people go out of control – way out of control compared to whatever provoked them. So I’m going to talk more about him, because I want to explain what caused his problem. There’s a lot to be learned from it. He’s a really good example of what the Bible tells us not to do – to not let our anger get out of control, to not say and do things that are going to hurt others or ourselves while we’re angry.

In Proverbs 14:29, it says:

Proverbs 14:29 – He that is slow to wrath has great understanding. But he who is impulsive exalts folly.

See, this fella had trouble controlling his impulses. I think that our past experience in the church has taught a lot of us to be passive. We’re supposed to be nice people and we’re not supposed to protect ourselves or take care of ourselves. We’re supposed to love others. And this is somewhat confusing for some folks. But this is prevailing thing that, I think, a lot of people have been taught – that we’re supposed to let God take care of us and protect us. And that’s true – that we are – but it just strikes me that maybe that’s why there are so many wimpy guys these days in Western Christian culture. You don’t see young Muslim men acting that way. I’m thinking that it would be really good for a lot of people to read John Eldridge’s book, Wild at Heart, about the male mind. It’s written from a Christian’s prospective and it talks about how Christian men are supposed to be.

We know that Jesus overturned tables of the moneychangers. And I doubt that they thought that he was a nice guy later. He did that. He was a pretty strong person. Jesus didn’t hurt anybody, but He did get angry. He got upset about what was going on there in the temple. So there, again, the Bible doesn’t say it’s wrong to be angry. It says it’s wrong to stay angry and it’s wrong to do things in anger that are sinful – that are hurtful to other people. Even God gets angry. That’s more the biblical position.

Everybody gets angry. And, if we’re not willing to acknowledge that, then we’re susceptible to self-deception. It’s okay to express anger appropriately, as long as we do it without sinning and as long as it doesn’t take us out of control or cause us to do rash things that we’re going to regret later. And, you know, the mental health field generally takes that very same position. Isn’t that interesting?

Let’s talk about anger and health – mental, physical and emotional – for a while. Research shows that hostility ranks right up there with smoking, obesity and a high-fat diet for risk factors. Of course, the bit about the high-fat diet is being proven wrong as we speak. But that aside, people that are chronically angry are really at risk for a lot of health problems. It causes high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, for one thing. We know that the immune system is affected severely by chronic anger. There was a study done in 1992 with cancer patients, and 75% of those people didn’t express anger, or unaware that they were angry, or they were unaware of all negative emotions. And they were generally non-assertive kinds of people that let other people have their way all the time and got walked over a lot. And these were people that liked to appease others, as well. They were overtly concerned with meeting the needs of other people and they were insufficiently engaged in meeting their own needs. In other words, they were enablers – 75%.

Paul’s admonition to be angry – and that is what it was, wasn’t it? – be angry, but sin not? – was a good one. It’s just that we have to learn how to express it appropriately. In Proverbs 11:17, it says:

Proverbs 11:17 – The merciful man does good for his own soul…. And we know, in the Old Testament, what the soul is. Right? Our nephesh – that’s the Hebrew word for it. It means our life. …but he who is cruel – sometimes people who get angry, they’re cruel to others – troubles his own flesh. So I think that goes back to what we’ve been seeing in the studies about how anger affects us in a very negative way healthwise.

So let’s talk a little bit about the young man who was exploding and hurting himself. We have to say that it was really good that he didn’t hurt anybody else while he was like that. He got angry at his sister and, instead of punching her, he went out and punched a wall. So he did have enough conscious to pull back from that. I spent some time talking to his mom and dad, and they told me that when he wasn’t like that – which was just very short periods in his entire life – maybe he’d only done that about four or five times in his whole life, and his rages might last from five to ten minutes. So all the damage was done in just very sort periods of time. But they said the rest of the time, he was just the nicest guy you could ever want to know. And when they said that, that just kind of perked up my ears. I started talking to him about what his life was like. The DSM says that people with that disorder quite frequently have been mistreated as children. So I started asking him about his family life. He said his parents were wonderful – that he had a really great relationship with them, that he knew that his parents were fully supportive of him, and that he never remembered a time when they weren’t. Okay, so far, so good.

But then I asked him some other questions. And he said that he always had a hard time at school because he had reading disorder and other kids made fun of him a lot when he was little. So he developed this habit of not retaliating, but stopping his feelings, because he wanted to be a nice guy, liked by everyone. So he developed a habit of not standing up for himself very much. Everyone thought that he was an easygoing, super nice guy. And he always was, right up until he blew, and then it would all come at once.

I asked him how things were going at work. And he told me that they were always shorthanded. They would call him on his day off and ask him to come to work in place of people that should have been there, but just didn’t want to come in. So he would always say, “Yes,” even though he didn’t want to go. He felt like he couldn’t say, “No.” He was making a lot of money, but he never had any time off. He just couldn’t bring himself to say, “No” to his supervisor. I was talking to him some more about that, and he said that it was really unfair of them to call him all the time. And he felt the reason he did was, number one, they needed help, and number two, they knew he wouldn’t say, “No.” So they would always just call him first, because he was so easy. That meant he was the first one all the time and was pulling these extra shifts for people that should have been there and didn’t really have a good reason not to be. We started talking more about that, and he really felt like he didn’t have the courage to take control of his own life.

So there it is. He felt picked on, and mistreated, and used. And so he was really angry about that. But he’d put on his happy face, and go to work, and act like nothing was wrong until 2 in the morning, when he didn’t have his snack that he liked that he wanted, and then he’d go crazy for a while. The rages he had related to being teased because of his reading disability. It was really the whole picture. I’ve learned over the years, it’s never just one thing. It’s always more complicated.

So I started pointing out these things to him. And he saw the connection between his lack of control at work and the rages he had. So that was helpful to him – to make that connection.

So what is depression? Well, we had a presentation about that at the very beginning of this series. But, for our purposes here, depression is how some people express anger. They don’t express it as anger, but it manifests itself as depression.

The young man that we talked about wasn’t depressed because he was letting it out periodically. He was unloading it. And after he would have these rages, he would feel a big sense of relief, then he’d feel remorse, because he’d hurt himself. But the young woman expressed her anger by turning it inward. She was angry and she felt guilty, so she would become depressed over it. It is interesting to note that it is mostly men who have intermittent explosive disorder. Very seldom do women have it. A lot more women get depressed than men, which is a way of telling us that women tend to take anger in and hold it. And men, sometimes they hold on to it, too, but a lot of them will go rob a bank, or hit somebody, or get in a fight, or go play basketball and bump people around on the court, and they tend to take it out on others in those way – some of which are socially appropriate and some of which aren’t. That why, at school, all the little boys are always in trouble and the little girls are depressed and angry and are ignored, because they’re not causing anybody any problems.

So how do we deal with anger successfully? Let’s think about the young woman who had to be nice to everybody, including her dad – very contained. She told me her friends liked her better when she was drunk. She was more lively and friendly, and more honest with herself and others – more natural and more real – when she was drunk. The filter was off. We wound up talking a lot about her family life, and it was helpful to her to do that. When she talked about her dad, at first, it was just this adoring picture, but then, gradually, it started coming out that she felt he didn’t really pay much attention to her while she was growing up. And finally, after quite a while, she got to where she could feel anger about it. And I would ask her to hang on to her feelings as long as she could. Then we would go out of it for a while, and then later, I would ask her to get back into the feelings again. So, in those sessions, we’d go in and out of that angry place. What I was trying to do was help her feel the anger that she wasn’t allowing herself to feel.

Now you might think, “You mean you were actually helping her to get mad at her dad?” Well, no. She was already angry with him. She just wasn’t being honest about it with herself. She was really angry with her father – so much so that she had a major depressive episode, which includes suicidal thinking. That was some ago in her past. So yes, I was trying to help her get in touch with how angry she was so that she could face it. And, as she was going in and out of her anger, she was starting to become more accustomed to feeling that feeling and becoming less afraid of it. And as she was able to admit it to me and to herself – the more she was able to do that – the less scary it became. And finally, she was able to admit to herself that she’d been angry and that she was able to really express it. And then, as she was able to do that, she was able to talk to her father about her anger, and how she’d experienced him as a father when she was little. I don’t know if he ever acknowledged his role in her unhappy childhood, but she was, by being able to talk about it, and by being honest with herself, and then able to talk to him her feelings, she was able to put them to rest and go on with her life. She let go of it. She forgave him. Then, after some time, she found herself a lot less depressed because that was what she was depressed about. So she learned that it was okay to express her true feelings, as long as she did it with control and forethought.

If we can’t feel our feelings, then we can’t admit them. If we can’t admit them, then we can’t let go of them. So you have to be willing to feel the feelings before you can let go. You can’t go around feelings, over feelings, under them. You can’t ignore them. You have to go through them, if you want to process them.

A lot of times, we’ll repress feelings and think we’ve let go of it, but it really hasn’t happened yet. And that’s when we’ll find ourselves really angry later about something we thought we’d let go of a long time ago. We really never did the work.

I had an experience some time back. I was talking to a friend on the phone, and he was talking about someone that, several years ago, had accused me of doing something that I didn’t do. And when I asked him what I could do to restore the relationship, he said, “Nothing.” And I thought, “Well, okay.” I thought that I was okay. I thought that I was fine. But while I was talking to my friend about it, I found myself getting really upset. And I thought, “Oh, I haven’t figured my way through that one. I haven’t worked it out yet.” So I had to go do some more work about it.

So think about a young man we discussed earlier. If he’d just developed a habit, as a small child, of talking about what he needed and wanted, and took some responsibility for communicating his wants to people, he probably wouldn’t have intermittent explosive disorder today. We tend to get angry when we think we’re not being treated fairly. And so the solution is to speak up and seek fair treatment. The problem is, a lot of times when we do that, we’re so angry by the time we do it, our presentation is – and I know this from myself when I do it that way – my expectations have been skewed. So I usually wind up asking for way more than I would have if I hadn’t been angry to begin with.

What we want to do is keep the pathways of communication open with people and say what we want right away. How would this have helped the young man? Well, what we did was, we started out with a sort of first aid. I asked him at the beginning, “Would you rather learn how to manage this anger” – and he started nodding his head – and I said, “or would you rather not get angry in the first place?” And he said, “Oh, I’d rather not get angry at all.” And I said, “Well, that’s going to take some doing, so let’s work on just managing it first, and then we’ll work on not getting angry at all.” I was trying to give him something he could do to lessen the impact of it until we got to the root of the problem. So what I did was, I taught him how to recognize when he was about to get angry, and then how to calm himself down. And he also learned how to talk to his boss and say, “No, thank you,” when they would call, or just look and see on his cell phone who was calling and shut off the ringer, because he always knew what they were calling about. And after a while, he really enjoyed doing that. He was just such a nice guy, he couldn’t say, “No” to anybody. So we taught him to sort of enjoy being unavailable for mistreatment. He reported feeling a lot better about everything after that. And really, his treatment only lasted a few months. I don’t think he was in a place where he was really able to do the work necessary so that he would not be angry at all, but he was learning very well how to manage and speak up more, and be more assertive, and take care of himself as well as others.

So what did I teach him about recognizing his anger? Well, everybody feels anger somewhere in their body before they actually explode, so the thing is to figure out where that is. Some people feel it behind the eyes, some feel it in their neck, or their back, or the back of their neck. Some people feel it in their hands or their gut. A lot of people feel it there. That, apparently, is where anger stems from physiologically. Wherever it is, if we know that’s where we feel it, we can use that as an early warning system and take steps to control it. You might think, “Where do I feel my anger first?” and just see if you can find it.

We talked previously about low-mode functioning and how once the outer part of the brain shuts down, we’re just totally in an angry place. We stop caring about what other people think. We stop thinking about what they need. We only think about ourselves at that point. So, if we’re going to have some kind of control over the situation and, as Paul said, “sin not,” we have to learn how to stop it before it gets to that place.

What’s going on when we get angry? Well, our brain signals our adrenals to pump a lot of adrenaline into our bloodstream. That’s so that we can fight or run, depending on whether we’re afraid or whether we’re angry. The adrenaline – at least, in part – causes us to lose it, and the thinking part of the brain shuts down when this starts to happen. That’s because the blood is all going into the central part of the brain where the emotions are created. And the part of the brain that’s lacking blood – the thinking part – doesn’t work as well anymore. So one thing we can do – if we can catch it in time – is start to control our breathing. And that does two things: One, if you’re thinking about how you’re breathing, then you can’t be thinking about what’s making you angry. So that helps right there – takes our mind off it. And number two, if we control our breathing, then that adrenaline is oxidized out of our system more rapidly and it helps us calm down quicker. I’m not sure if oxidized is really the proper word, but at any rate, if the adrenaline doesn’t have any oxygen to work with, people aren’t going to get angry as much.

So let’s talk now about the thoughts. I said, “If you’re thinking about your breathing, you can’t think angry thoughts.” Let’s think about the kind of thoughts that cause us to get angry – you know, the nice girl who couldn’t experience her own anger and who was consequently depressed, and couldn’t work on it until she could find it? The Bible does say that we’re self-deceiving creatures. And that’s what she was doing. She wanted to be a nice girl, so nice girls are not angry with their fathers. So she stuffed all of that and got depressed. She didn’t like seeing herself as angry at her father, so she didn’t. But once she could feel the anger, then we could talk about the thoughts that she had about her dad. And what usually happens once a person gets the anger out in the open is, they usually go on the attack and say a lot of hurtful things. You know, it’s just so good once a secret is out in the open that we kind of launch on the people that we’re angry with, but then later, we start thinking about our angry thoughts and we start moderating all of that. So, that really angry time right after it comes out for the first time just lasts a while for most people. Then they’re able to process it, and it kind of takes the sting out of it, and then they’re able to control it.

I had another client who had a terrible case of road rage. She was a woman about forty. Her anger was displaced anger She was also angry about the way she was treated as a child. And we eventually went to that place, but I was trying to get her some kind of relief, for fear that she’d ram somebody in the car, because she would get so upset. So I asked her what she was thinking about when something unexpected would happen like that. And she said, “I would think, ‘That idiot!’” – only idiot wasn’t the word she used. And as I asked her why was somebody who cut her off in traffic an idiot, she would say, “Because people shouldn’t do that.” Have you ever had that thought? Then I would say, “What do you mean shouldn’t?” And she said, “Well, it’s not polite or considerate. I wouldn’t do that to somebody.” And I said, “You mean you’ve never cut anybody off in traffic?” And she said, “Well, not intentionally.” “So you think that everybody that cuts you off in traffic is doing it on purpose?” “Well, no.” “Let me ask you this. Do you get angry when you see somebody cut somebody else off in traffic?” And she said, “Not as much.” And I said, “Why not?” “Well, because it’s happening to me.” “Well, then, if somebody does something to you, they’re worse than if they do it to somebody else?” And she said, “Well, no.” And I said, “So why do you get upset when it’s done to you?” “Because I don’t like that kind of treatment.” And I said, “Does anybody?” She said, “No.” “So why do you get upset when it happens to you?” And she looked at me with this totally frustrated look and said, “Help me out here.” And I said, “Well, you said it before. ‘This kind of thing shouldn’t happen to you.’” And she said, “Well, that sounds really dumb.” And I said, “You said it. I didn’t. Why shouldn’t it happen to you? It happens, It happens in the world. Why shouldn’t it happen to you? People are sometimes impolite. People sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes they even act rudely, because they’re angry at somebody else. But isn’t it kind of bizarre or magical to think that it shouldn’t happen to you – because it’s okay to happen to everybody else?” So she said, “So I should think it’s really nothing personal – just a mistake or just one more rude person.” And I said, “Is that true?” And she said, “Yes.” And I said, “Well then, it’s always better to think what’s true, isn’t it?”

See how that works? If you haul it out in the light of day and look at it, it’s always really stupid. And it’s always not true. It’s not against me. It’s just a mistake.

So that brings us to the fact that other people can’t make us angry, doesn’t it? We do it to ourselves by the way we think about what’s going on around us. And these are a few thoughts that we think cause us to get angry: One of them is: “I should never be hurt or inconvenienced.” That’s what she was thinking. And when you just put it out there like that, that really shines the light on it, doesn’t it. “I should never be hurt or inconvenienced.” Well, does the world really work that way?

The second thing she was thinking was, “People who hurt me or inconvenience me are bad.” That’s why she used that bad word to describe that anybody who hurts me or inconveniences me is a terrible person. It’s kind of self-centered, isn’t it, when you think about it.

Then the third thing that we usually think, if we completed those two, is: “The bad person should be punished.” And that’s when we roll down the window and make gestures to them. We punish them for what they did.

Okay, so what do you think, instead of bad things, as a Christian? Well, bad things happen to everybody sometimes. Right? Isn’t that what Jesus said: “Time and chance happen to all men.” Although, that could include good things as well. So who am I to think they should never happen to me? That’s true, isn’t it? Isn’t that a good way to think about things.

I was talking to a lady the other day who was telling me that one of her friends prayed a lot, and then her husband divorced her. So she and her friend were both angry with God, because He didn’t cause everything to work out right. I asked her if she understood that scripture and what it meant – that time and chance happen to everybody – since she was a religious person. She wanted to talk about God, so we did. So the second thing that we can think – and this corresponds to the three things that we mentioned earlier – the negative side – is that people often make mistakes, or they often misunderstand, rather than being deliberately cruel or bad. Most of the time, when people are upset with others, it’s usually a communication thing. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes people do deliberately mean things. But most of the time, most people are not intent on that.

The third thing is, not that bad people should be punished by me, but that God says His job is to take care of everybody’s bad things. I mean, He says He will take vengeance, so we just have to let him take care of those things if we’re going to be Christian. So you see how that puts everything in perspective, when we think about it from that point of view?”

So, when we start thinking this way – that bad things happen to everybody sometimes, and who am I to think they should never happen to me, and people often make mistakes or misunderstand – or maybe they don’t have enough to share with us or take care of us or whatever – and that God says it’s His job to take care of the stuff and not us, see how it puts everything in perspective? It sort of strips the self-centeredness and the vengeancefulness out of our thinking.

Then there’s one other thing, as long as we’re talking about God taking vengeance. How do we let go of anger? Well, a lot of people hang on to anger because they think that people do something and they need to be gotten even with.

I was talking to a single mom the other day, and her ex-husband had abandoned their family. And I asked her if she was still angry with him, and she said she was. And I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because somebody needs to be.” Because he was making himself look good to the judge and all of that. And we want people to get what they deserve, according to us. But, if we’re Christians, God says that He’s going to take care of that. There isn’t anything that we have to do. Nothing. God will take care of all of that.

Most of the parents I meet I meet because their kids are angry with them, because of the way they’ve treated their children. And yet most of those parents are also resentful toward their parents for the way they were treated. So they’re doing the same thing to their kids that their parents did to them, and they have not made the connection. At the same time, they’re making these huge mistakes which are causing their kids resentment. And not a one of them is intentionally hurting their children. They’re not. They just don’t know any better. Parenting is a very complex thing. And most of us come into it with a measure of damage from the past anyway, so it’s hard for us to do a good job.

I think you might remember that I was talking to a young woman a while back, and she told me that she realized her father had had a hard life as a kid and he did the best he could. She said something I’ll never forget. She said, “And I’m thirty years old now and I can take it from there.” So she finally let go of it. Isn’t that a good story? And we’re to recall that we have been forgiven.

The lesson for us is, that it should be easy for us to forgive other people and let go of our anger toward them, because we have had so much forgiven of us – for all the things that we’ve done wrong – and God has let go of it and separated us from our sins – “as far as the east is from the west,” He says – and it’s never brought up again. So, when we boil it down, anger really, for Christians, is a grace problem at its root, isn’t it? Think about that. We can be gracious to those who have hurt or offended us, just as Christ has been gracious to us, in spite of our sins.

Well, that wraps it up for today.

Be sure to look for the sixth and next in our series. It will be about phobias.

For Further Consideration

To learn more about anger as related to Christian life, see our Series, Taking a Look at Our Emotions.

To access the book, Wild At Heart, mentioned in the presentation, click on this link.