Sanctification is a holistic process. God is making, through the power of the Holy Spirit, our whole selves into the image of His Son. We are growing to be more like Jesus, then, not just in our behavior, but in other ways as well. As we grow up in Christ, we not only do the right things; we actually start to feel the right things. We love what is truly lovely; we praise what is truly praiseworthy; we value what is truly valuable…
And we are angry at what and when we actually should be.
It’s a misconception to think that anger is wrong; it’s not. It’s not because there are things that make God angry, and correspondingly, we see Jesus getting angry in His ministry as well. The most obvious example of this is when Jesus encountered the money-changers in the temple. Far from the tranquil picture of the Son of God that adorns so many Sunday school rooms, in John 2 we see the righteous anger of Jesus on display as He flips over tables and forcibly drives out those who would seek to turn His Father’s house into a marketplace.
It makes sense, then, that Paul’s command to the Christians in Ephesus was not to be angry, but instead, to not let their anger linger, and in their anger to not sin (Eph. 4:26). Problem is, though, most of the time our anger isn’t the kind of anger that’s inspired by money-changers and injustice; it’s anger brought about by inconveniences like traffic or a website that won’t load fast enough. It would be helpful, then, when we feel anger rising up in us, to take a step back and ask a few diagnostic questions to help us know not only the nature of our anger, but then how to make sure we actually don’t sin in the anger within us. Here are three of those questions:
1. With what am I really angry?
Anger is consuming. You get mad, and your vision starts to sharpen to a point to where all you can focus on is what seems to be making you angry at a given moment. But if we pause and reflect a bit, we might well see that the person or situation in front of us is not the true source of our anger. Instead, it’s just the thing that happened to bring us to a breaking point. We are in reality very angry about something else.
Asking this question to ourselves in a moment of anger helps us temper our response in the moment. So, for example, if your child has just gotten out of bed for the seventh time, and you start to get angry at him, you might realize that the true source of your anger is your frustration at a situation at work earlier in the day. Then you can take a moment, be compassionate to your child, and work the true problem in your heart.
2. What is this anger exposing in me?
If we pause and reflect in a moment of anger, we might see one of the redemptive ways God can use our anger. That’s because our anger has a way of exposing things about our hearts. Just as an exercise, maybe you could pause even now and just ask yourself what or who it is that tends to always get a rise out of you. But don’t stop there.
If you do stop there, then you might conclude that the person in your mind is just annoying. Or that the situation is some example of how mistreated and misunderstood you are. But if you dig a little deeper, chances are you’ll find something in your own soul that needs some work. That person or situation might be exposing in you your deep need for control, some latent but lasting fear, or some long held insecurity lurking. Bring that to light. Talk to Jesus about that instead of just about how He should fix the person or situation making you angry.
3. Can I express this anger without sinning?
One final question here, and it’s a simple one. Can we really express this anger, in this moment without sinning? Can we express our anger without judging, free of self-righteousness, and in a way that extends a measure of grace?
It might seem like the answer is “no” in the moment, but that’s all the more reason to ask the question. Asking this question is not meant to make us just swallow our anger and push it down, because if we do that, then anger turns to bitterness. No, asking the question helps us begin to be able to articulate what is truly making us angry so that we can talk to our fellow humans without belittling them and without destroying the relationship in front of us.
These are questions of discipleship. They are questions that force us to look within ourselves before we look outside of ourselves. And they’re questions that posture us, even in our anger, in surrender to the work of the Spirit who is making us more like Jesus. Even when we get mad.