In biblical counseling, we’re usually eager to jump in and define a problem biblically. We need to do that, we need to give careful attention to it. But anger is one of those particular topics where sometimes our focus becomes just on the outward problem. We want to focus on anger itself and not necessarily what it’s revealing—because it gets your attention, especially when it’s an outburst. I want to encourage us to look beyond that, to look at anger as an indicator. But more than that, I want to look at righteous anger.
Do you know how the arm of the Secret Service that looks for counterfeit bills operates? There’s so many creative things that people do to counterfeit currency, so the Secret Service doesn’t necessarily study fake bills. They focus on studying the genuine article, so that they can recognize something that’s off from that. Oftentimes we skip talking about righteous anger. We can have a perspective that says, “Well, there’s sinful anger and righteous anger. We don’t do righteous anger really well. So let’s talk about sinful anger because that’s what we’re observing.”I would contend to you that if we really want to understand sinful anger, we need to understand righteous anger. Click To Tweet
I would contend to you that if we really want to understand sinful anger, we need to understand righteous anger. God has a good and right design for anger. If we understand the genuine article, it will help us better understand how sinful man has perverted that into sinful anger so that we can be more precise and accurate in helping people who struggle with sinful anger.
We want to minister to the whole individual—remember Colossians 1:28, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” It’s a great mission statement for us. We can have this tendency, I know I can in parenting and counseling—sometimes those are the same thing—to want to squash the hot, turbulent outbursts or even the cold, withdrawn distancing that we see.
We go right to Proverbs and talk about why it’s a wrong path. “Look at all the commands not to be angry”—and we’re right if we stick to the text, we’re right to do that. But if you go down that path we can miss a greater goal. Our goal isn’t necessarily just to eradicate the counselee’s sinful anger, it’s to help them understand that God has a specific design and purpose for anger. And when the situation calls for it, for them to understand what righteous anger looks like.
Instead of just categorically saying, “Don’t be angry,” let’s go a step further.
Before we understand man’s sinful perversion of anger, we have to understand what it was perverted from. What are the right elements of it that we can understand so that we can help people more accurately? What is God’s design for anger? A dictionary definition of anger is: A strong feeling of displeasure aroused by wrong. You notice something that you determine is wrong, and something wells up inside you because there’s an injustice that you see. My revision to that for our purposes is: A strong feeling of displeasure, aroused by a sense of injustice, that provokes action (to glorify God and appropriately address the wrong).
When we think about anger, we think about all the sinful expressions of it, but I want to look at God’s anger, at Jesus’ anger, and even at Paul’s anger in Scripture. You’ll see that at all times the indignation or anger of our Lord and of our Father God is never out of control. He’s never exhibiting the things that we would associate with man’s anger, so to speak. The anger of God has some important consistencies to it and characteristics that we need to note. I also want to say this very carefully, and maybe I’ll repeat myself a few times, when we look at a text with God’s expressions of anger in the Scriptures, these are descriptions that are useful for us. They’re not necessarily prescriptions.
They’re not a “this is how you need to do it.” If you get upset with me, don’t come up here and turn my table over or anything like that. I want to make sure that we’re studying this to understand our God better and understand how and why He expresses anger.
The Father’s Anger
In Matthew 18, we see a parable that begins with Peter coming up to Jesus and saying, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” At this time, the Pharisees were teaching that you should forgive your brother three times, and then you were done. The Lord responds with the parable of the ten thousand talents, where the servant is forgiven his great debt, but then he went to someone who owed him significantly less than ten thousand talents—still a lot, a hundred denarii was about a third of a year’s wages—and what did he do?
He demanded it. He demanded justice instead of mercy. And this is the response of the lord in the parable, who is God in Matthew 18:34-35, “moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
We understand that God is holy and just, and is always therefore angry at sin, including the sins of His own children. We can at least observe that from this this text. Remember there’s an injustice that’s perceived, and God’s perceptions are always right and always true. There’s a perceived injustice and then an action taken towards that.Jesus said, if you demand justice, then God will give justice. If you demand mercy, then God gives mercy. There's a connection there. Click To Tweet
In this parable, there was a disdain and ingratitude for God’s offer of mercy, as demonstrated by the lack of mercy to another and instead demanding justice. In this parable, as Jesus said, if you demand justice, then God will give justice. If you demand mercy, then God gives mercy. There’s a connection there.
Hebrews 3:7-11 says,
Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says,
“Today if you hear His voice,
Do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me,
As in the day of trial in the wilderness,
Where your fathers tried Me by testing Me,
And saw My works for forty years.
“Therefore I was angry with this generation,
And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart,
And they did not know My ways’;
As I swore in My wrath,
‘They shall not enter My rest.’”
This is a reference to Numbers 14, when the people of Israel refused to enter the Promised Land that God put before them and they wanted to return to Egypt and choose another leader. Which makes sense, right? Because sin is irrational.
But what’s the injustice here? What is it that God’s anger is being stirred up for? That they put God to the test—Hebrews explains that to us. They refused to listen to His voice and their hearts were filled with unbelief, even so much to the point that they were blind to the miracles that He was displaying before them on a regular basis.
Because the people of God treated Him with that contempt, He swore that no one of this generation above a certain age would see the land that He promised to their forefathers. That’s the action that He took.
Some Psalms also help us see similar characteristics of God’s anger.
God rebukes and disciplines in His anger. Psalm 6:1 says, “O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger, Nor chasten me in Your wrath.”
Psalm 7:11 says, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day.” He feels indignation every day, because He is constantly righteous. Therefore, He is constantly indignant against unrighteousness. This is two sides to the same coin. God’s constant love of righteousness demands a constant wrath against unrighteousness. The two are the same; they don’t oppose each other.
In each case, who is the focus of the injustice here? Who’s the injustice against? God. That’s also very important. Righteous anger arises because of unrighteousness against God’s desires and God’s plan. Not ours.
Psalm 78:21 says, “Therefore the Lord heard and was full of wrath; and a fire was kindled against Jacob and anger also mounted against Israel.” Again, He is provoked because Israel did not believe in Him and trust in His salvation. We see in Psalm 78 that anger has provoked against idolatry. In verse 59 it says He “abhorred them.” God rejected many of the Israelites for their unbelief. Who’s the center of the injustice there for righteous anger? God.
What about Christ?
In Mark 3, we see a situation where Christ entered the synagogue and there was a man whose hand was withered. The Pharisees were watching Him to see if He would heal on the Sabbath—that’s what they were hoping for. Christ knew their thoughts, He knew what they were trying to do. He said to the man, “Get up and come forward!” The man did, and Jesus turns around and asks the Pharisees, “‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?’ But they kept silent. After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”
Of course their response was to immediately go off and conspire about how they might destroy him.
What was Christ angry about? Their hardness of heart. Their man-made ritualism and lust for power outweighed a God-ordained concern for man’s welfare in that situation.
What was the action Christ took?
He confronted and exposed that hypocrisy as an example to others. So again, Jesus’ wrath is a necessary accompaniment to His love. Let me give you an illustration of how we can relate to that—proper wrath being connected to love.
Let’s say you and I are extremely close—maybe you’re related to me or you’re in my church. One day you come over to my home and you realize that I’m living a life all of a sudden that’s just cold to my wife. I ignore her. She’s lonely. I’m callous about it. I could care less, to tell you the truth.
And you look at me, because of our relationship, and you say, “Tim, what is wrong with you? I can’t be quiet about this. We’re going to talk about it and you’re not going to let it go.” That’s an indignation that’s aroused by your love for me, by your love for our church, by your love for the whatever ministry the Lord has entrusted in my life and how it reflects upon Christ, because of His righteousness not because of anything I stand for in myself.
That’s an indignation that’s aroused by a sense of love. You’re concerned for God’s glory and my testimony. Your concerned for treating another image-bearer well. Your concerned for God’s glory in our marriage and in our church. Out of love, you move.
Christ’s love is necessarily accompanied by His wrath when the righteousness, the holiness, and the glory of God is attacked.
In counseling, we’re not always telling people just to turn away from things. I can turn away from something, but then I have to turn in another direction. There are 359.9 degrees away from it in “another direction.” We’re not just wanting to flee unrighteousness. We’re wanting to pursue righteousness. And that’s a real comfort to me. We can deal with people who are caught in all kinds of strange situations, but once we’ve gotten an understanding by data gathering and brought them to a place of repentance if the Lord wills it, we still want to protect and work to put off the sinful thinking and to change that, but really we want to fill their plates up with what it means to be a godly man or a godly woman in their particular context of life.
We can keep people pretty busy with that. I want to put them back in that normal flow of discipleship, where they are loving and serving in their church and they’re in the Word regularly. They’re praying regularly. They’re walking with the Lord as they should be, or at least moving down that path.
Sinful anger can come about for lots of different reasons. If I tell you that I’m an angry man, you really don’t have a whole lot of information to go on. I can be angry out of a sense of injustice, which could be any number of things. I have two boys and they’ve given me permission to share this with you. My oldest, when he was younger, had some anger that we had to deal with as parents. We began to observe when he was angry and it turned out that he loved control. So if his siblings weren’t playing by the rules, what came out? Anger. If they weren’t doing it the way that he wanted them to do it, what came out? Anger.
Not so with the younger one—there were also anger issues when he hit a certain age, and we began to see those things manifest themselves differently. We had to parent that completely differently, because it was really about vengeance. Both of them have a lot in common, both of them saw a sense of injustice (an injustice that God would not agree was an injustice), but they saw that sense of injustice and they acted sinfully to right that wrong in their minds.
Here’s another example of Christ indignation in Mark 10, this time toward His disciples whom he loves.
His disciples were withholding the children. They would not allow the parents to bring their children to Christ. And when He saw this He was indignant and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
The injustice: He loved these children deeply and tenderly. When He saw this, He told the disciples to bring them. He confronted and rebuked them. He pointed them to the gospel—because then he goes into the explanation of the faith of a believer needing to be like a child, saying, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”
And of course there’s the example we’ve all been waiting for—the table turning situation in Matthew 21:12, also in John 2:13-17.
The issue in this scene is that the money changers and cattle dealers in God’s temple were clearly in sin. They had desecrated the temple. It turned the physical manifestation of God’s abode—in that time, prior to the Pentecost—into a den of thieves. Christ certainly got their attention and He drove them out with chords. I’ll say this—because Jesus is who He is, we have to understand this was in no way excessive, and in no way out of control.
Now remember, His wrath is in lockstep with His love. When this text is explained in John 2:17, it says, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The injustice points still back to the same thing: God’s glory.
And moving them out of that situation as quickly as possible is the action He took. That’s not a prescription for us to do that, and to act that way necessarily, but we can understand still that pattern.
Galatians 2:11-21 records when Paul confronted Peter over his hypocritical and unloving actions toward the Gentile believers. Paul confronted him openly—that was his action. He confronted him face-to-face and he did it publicly, because that’s what was required for that particular situation. It was about the gospel—it was about God’s glory, not about something Peter had done that displeased Paul personally.
In each case above, we can see where the injustice is coming from—what God specifically desires for His kingdom, like your compassionate love for your neighbor as yourself, for example.
Sinful man perverts everything that God designs. There’s a perversion of righteous anger at every one of those levels: a wrong sense of injustice, a wrong motive or goal or desired outcome, and a wrong way to go about achieving that outcome.
At all three of those levels, we can really mess things up. Our sinfulness will certainly drive us to do that. What’s been corrupted here? What do we need to look for?
Corrupt Perception of What is an “Injustice”
The curse darkens our understanding. We see that in Ephesians 4:18. We ought to expect it. The curse darkens our understanding, so it affects our desires, which affects our treasures. The evil treasures of an evil man’s heart will produce evil (Luke 6:45). The good treasures of a good man’s heart produce what is good. Because out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.
So if the treasure is offended, and it’s a sinful idolatrous treasure, then that’s the injustice we perceive. We don’t get it right a lot of times when God is not at the center of our concerns, which can be often. “I’m not getting what I want,” or as I’ve heard Nicolas Ellen say, “Well, I’m angry because they’re not thinking about me as much as I’m thinking about me.”
That has stopped me in my tracks so many times—what an honest assessment. When that happens, where do we need to move? If I’m potentially moving into a conflict with sinful anger, then even if I think there is an injustice, I need to take the log out of my own eye first. I still need to deal with the sin that’s on the table that I put there.
Corrupt Goals in Addressing the Perceived Injustice
Man will also pervert the goals in addressing that injustice. Say we get through that first filter and there really is an injustice that God would agree with us is wrong. Alright, what are we trying to do now with that?
We can have our goals corrupted if we’re not careful. So we need to then address, “What am I trying to accomplish by addressing this injustice?” Sinful anger is always tied to evil treasures and requires further pursuit of the counselor to help identify that treasure and shepherd the counselee in the path of repentance and good treasures.
We can take the example of my younger son with vengeance. He may have been addressing a real injustice, but he distorted God’s goals. We can overshadow God’s goal with our goals now. “I just want to get even. I want to put myself in the place of God and take care of this myself.”
Another example, “I just want my children to honor me! They’re supposed to honor me, right?”
Or, “Why should I show my husband reverence when he doesn’t even lead his own family?” There is an injustice—that he’s not leading his family. Yes, but the goal is not God’s goal. It’s not to restore that husband with gentleness and humility in that situation.
Stuart Scott drew it this way in his booklet From Pride to Humility. I really love these illustrations that highlight a God-centered view vs. a man-centered view, in particular what it helps us to remember about how a man-centered view corrupts our perspective of other people.
This is a self-centered perspective of others instead of God being at the center. Everything now has to be “to me,” “from me,” and “by me,” where I’m exalting myself and my desires. Therefore other people exist for what reason? When I’m in that state of mind you exist for me. You exist to please me, to serve me, to respect me, and meet my needs, so to speak. And you’re not going to do that—not consistently anyway, not by my perception. So what am I going to do? I’m going to try to manipulate you. I’m going to judge. I’m going to criticize. I’m going to press things upon you.
When I’m loving myself, I’m going to use people instead of loving people. The first and second greatest commandments help us to see when I’m loving God properly, then I will love people. I will see them as opportunities to show and express my love for the Savior. Rather than when I’m at the center, then I see other people as somehow being in the way. They’re either in the way of what I think I need to be happy, or they possess what I think I need to be happy and they’re withholding it from me.
For example, it’s not a wrong thing for me to want my wife to respect me. God calls her to do that. But if He in His wisdom and sovereignty allows her to sinfully withhold that from me for a period of time and I have a sinful response of anger, then I have corrupted that good desire into an idolatrous desire.
In what ways might I be doing this? Here are some quotes from counseling situations to give you a feel for what this might sound like:
“Instead of working things out, I’ll say that I agree, which is a lie, but then I go off alone and stew about it for hours. I’ll then avoid the other person as much as possible.”
“I get angry. I throw and break things until I calm down.”
“When I argue with my husband, I quickly resort to name-calling and bringing up past sins and hurts.”
“When I become sinfully angry with my children, I mainly want to manipulate their outward behavior as quickly as possible without taking the time and effort to address their hearts.”
Corrupt Actions Flowing from Sinful Treasures
Man’s perversion also corrupts the actions that flow from our sinful treasures and sinful desires.
When the Bible talks about the heart, it’s talking about the inner man: our desires, our motives, our thoughts, our treasures, our emotions—all of these things. These things are what generate our behavior, as the Bible teaches us.
And it’s our behavior that reveals what’s in our hearts. This is such good news for the counselor. Why? Because we can’t just go figure this stuff out.
We can’t counsel like Jesus did; we can’t walk up to the rich young ruler and automatically know what’s inside. We have to gather data. We have to be careful, we have to withhold judgment until we learn more and ask questions and probe and dig and get context. We have to be like little crime scene investigators. We observe what we can, which is the behavior.
That’s why you’ll see an example of homework later—journaling is so helpful sometimes for me to understand, “What’s going on here?” Your counselee will never do anything that their heart doesn’t tell them to do. You can observe them in many different contexts, but there’s one thing that’s common in all these contexts—that’s their heart and it’s driving their behavior.
That’s going to reveal, ultimately, what’s inside. We need to gather enough information, not just one single data point, to come to that. That treasure is always there and it takes us time to look at it and discern it. One of the ways we do that is to put these discussions in real life contexts. For example, you get to these generic conversations where your counselees are saying, “Yeah, I have a problem with anger.” “Yeah, he gets angry, he says this and says that.”
There’s not a whole lot of detail there. If we want to understand Scripture, we always talk about getting the context of a passage right. Well, I want to know the context of their life. Here’s a good follow-up to that kind of generic conversation, “If I may suggest it, think about the last time you got angry. Tell me what was going on. What kind of things did you do? What was going around in your mind? What were you thinking and what were you wanting in that moment?”
We’ve gone from what we can observe down into what was going on in their heart by thinking about a specific situation. We don’t want to just think of this as evil flowing into sinful behavior—the path for change goes through here too. “The next time this happens to you, what should you be wanting? What does the Bible say that you should be wanting and what should you remind yourself next time? What can you practice thinking on? So that next time you need it, you’re not improvising. You’re not just going along with what you’ve been practicing for the last 15 years.”
Proverbs 14:17 says, “A quick-tempered man acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated.” Then Proverbs 14:29 says, “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who is quick-tempered exalts folly.” We see this played out that a man of quick temper acts foolishly and exalts folly versus the slow to anger, who has great understanding. We see that a lot in James 4. Not only does it corrupt our desires—it corrupts our sense of injustice, our desires, our goals (the things we are trying to accomplish by addressing that injustice).
Even when we have a right goal, we have to be very careful at how we’re acting because we can still mess things up. If this becomes a pattern in our lives, we will have a corrupt harvest. The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God, it achieves the opposite.
Ephesians 4:26-27 says, “do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.”
It only leads to evildoing if we don’t cease from anger and forsake wrath (Psalm 37). Man’s anger is said to lead only to evildoing—the context here is over being angry about the wicked who prosper. We see that a lot in the Psalms and in our own hearts too.
Hope and Help for the Sinfully Angry Person
How do we help this person? How do we help knowing this? Where do we go? Again, the corruption is in how we perceive injustice, the desires that we have, and the behavior or the responses that we have. To help someone, we start at the very beginning. What kind of question are we going to ask?
First, “What kind of injustice is it? What’s the injustice here that you’re angry about?” That’s a really powerful first question. We want to balance that with the reminder that we are not infallible. I’m assessing and I’m observing, but I can get it wrong.
More specifically, we should ask, “Is this an injustice in God’s eyes? Would He agree with you that it’s an injustice?” That pulling out in front of you in traffic on a busy morning (when that guy had to have known that you were a little late for an important meeting at work) is an injustice and he should expect God’s holy terror. But until then he can have your holy terror, right? So ask, “Is this an injustice in God’s eyes?”
Teach your counselee to stop and ask, “Should I gather more information? Because my observations are not infallible. Should I seek wise counsel?”
“Is it worthy of righteous anger in God’s eyes?”
Weigh the Purpose of the Response
We have to be careful to weigh the purpose of the response. We want to teach them to stop and ask the question, first of all, “What’s the injustice here? What is it exactly that I’m angry about?” Then, “What’s the purpose of the response? What am I wanting to do about it?”
Have them ask, “What am I wanting?” And we should throw a “should” in front of those and turn the question into, “What should I be wanting? What does God say I should want?”
We have an answer to that, friends. We can start at the top with: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-38).
Maybe the situation is a trial, and you’re upset about your condition. It’s key to learn to have a worship goal in suffering. To say, “My worship goal is that this situation with deepen my love for Christ.” That needs to be our worship goal instead of stewing over “Why me?” and becoming angry and bitter about the situation your find yourself in.
Stuart Scott draws the opposite of what we saw earlier this way. This is the God-centered or theocentric perspective of other people, where God is at the center of everything—all is “to Him,” “from Him,” and “by Him.”People exist for God's glory, and therefore you should respond to others as an expression of your love for Christ and your deep appreciation for your salvation. Click To Tweet
It is my responsibility—and yours, friend—to worship God by loving and serving Him, and loving and serving others. People exist for God’s glory, and therefore you should respond to others as an expression of your love for Christ and your deep appreciation for your salvation.
When we’re thinking right, that’s what’s going on. Instead of manipulating and trying to criticize them, or be harsh towards them and express my bitterness, then instead, we need to love, serve, evangelize, and edify other people who are still image bearers of our Savior and precious to God for that reason.
They’re precious regardless of where we stand with them, regardless of their background or our background, or any other things that we may disagree on—there’s no excuse. If God is the central interest and ultimate concern then we need to bring our counselees face-to-face with this worship goal in all of their trials and in conflict situations.
How do we repent and change course when there is something I am wanting more than to glorify God?
We pray about it. We think about it. We flood our counselee’s mind with the truth that points to that glory.
Galatians teaches us that we are sewing seeds all the time. We’re sewing seed in one or two directions—to the flesh or to the Spirit. This is not gardening a la Tim Keeter where I put something the ground and I hope it comes up. Everything we sew comes up, and we’re sewing to the Spirit and we’re reaping a righteous harvest from that because of His work. Or we’re sowing to the flesh and we’re reaping a corrupt harvest—and not just in our consequences and getting caught, but in our testimony, the habits we bear, and our usefulness in the Kingdom and in ministry.
Our sin affects others, whether they know it or not. Every joint is not doing what it’s supposed to in the body of Christ when someone is caught up in their sin.
If I’m the victim of an injustice, I want my suffering to deepen my love for Him. I want to ask how suffering this injustice can provide an opportunity to bless other image bears.
Someone else is the victim of an injustice. What is God’s goal in this matter? What is of eternal importance here?
Eternity is really the most important dimension of life. We should sing of heaven. We should think of heaven and our salvation, and what it is bought and promised for us. At the end of the day sin will not be master over us, that’s a promise in Romans 6. That’s not a command, that’s a promise that we can stand on.
What is the appropriate action? And after we’ve looked at that, what is God’s goal? What is of eternal importance here? What is the appropriate action that flows from it and what we got say is my role then and that action.
As counselors, we pray, we comfort, and we encourage the afflicted. We comfort the fainthearted. And how long do you comfort the fainthearted? Until they’re no longer fainthearted, and they’re able to comfort others who are fainthearted.
When is that? Two or three sessions? No, it could be some time. It’s a marathon not a 50-yard dash. And as a counselor, let me encourage you make that very clear to them. “Hey, this could take time. I’m not going anywhere. Six months, years, whatever, we’re not going anywhere. We’re your church we love you. We’re here for you. We’re going to suffer with you. We’re going to walk with you and we’re going to bring you face-to-face with your Savior. Even in situations where an injustice exists and you really have nothing left to hold onto but Jesus, He has to be enough. He is our portion.”
And I’m thankful for times in my life when the Lord has left me with nothing but that to lean on.
Weigh the Nature of the Response
Let’s say it is an injustice. It really is, God agrees with us that it is an injustice. We have to be very careful with the nature of our response. This is some of the warnings we get in James and other places. So when time permits, stop and ask some questions.
When time permits, take action only after careful self-examination (Psalm 139:23-24, Matthew 7:3-5). “Search Me, O Lord, see if there’s any any sin in my own heart.” Ask carefully:
Is there a log in my eye? Because I do not want to be hypocritical in this situation.
Do I have the facts right? I am answering a matter before I’ve really heard it? (Proverbs 18:13)
Should love hide it? Do I really need to go deal with this or is this something that love should hide? Is it sinful? Is it hindering growth? (1 Peter 4:8)
Is my timing rate? (Proverbs 15:23)
Is my attitude right? (Ephesians 4:15) Am I really wanting to speak the truth in love? Or am I just really ready to hammer down on somebody that’s got it coming because I think they’re a real jerk?
Are my goals God-centered? (Psalm 73:25-28; Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians 10:31)
These are good questions to ask. If you’re working with someone who is habitually struggling with sinful anger, have them go through this list when they are tempted to respond in anger.
And along with self-examination is prayerful, biblical evaluation. Bathed in prayer, asking the Spirit to help us to understand His Word, going to others who are wise in the Word for counsel to evaluate the situation biblically. When we act in righteous anger, which may be confronting and going after someone, it needs to always be consistent with passages like Galatians 5:22-23, the fruit of the Spirit. It needs to be with self-control, kindness, and gentleness. We can be firm, we can confront, but we must reflect our Savior. We must not eclipse His grace.
Ephesians 4:2 is a great passage on patience and humility, and the characteristics that are necessary for upholding good relationships with others. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” We see a coupling of kindness and gentleness with the passionate energy that is sufficient enough to address the injustice. Of course, it needs to be coupled with our love of God’s righteousness.
And I think it’s important if we are going to go confront or if we’re teaching others to confront, that they make their intentions clear as to why they’re coming. “I intend to honor God and edify to you in this situation. I intend to love you by bringing something to your attention and addressing the situation.”
And if you can before confronting, get them to pray with you beforehand.
Do you see the hesitation? Why should we not tremble when we have such a propensity to get this wrong because of our own tendency to let those kinds of things run away within us?
We see passages like James 1:19, “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”
We see the warning that careless speech often accompanies an angry mood. And so James pleads with us for restraint. We’re teaching restraint and evaluation when we have anger.
Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” This is not so much an imperative as it is a warning. This passage quotes Psalm 4:4, which says “Tremble, and do not sin [in your anger, do not sin is a good way to say this]; Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.” I love that Selah comes right after this. Pause, be still, restrain yourself. Teach them to do that.Righteous wrath and vengeance belongs only to God. He'll bring about justice perfectly and in the proper time, it's never our job. Our job is to participate in His holy plan by being a faithful vessel that overcomes evil with good. Click To Tweet
Romans 12:21 gives us our role in a matter of injustice, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Righteous wrath and vengeance belongs only to God. He’ll bring about justice perfectly and in the proper time, it’s never our job. Our job is to participate in His holy plan by being a faithful vessel that overcomes evil with good. Injustice can come in a lot of forms and fashions—for example, a parent who finds out that their child has been bullied persistently through social media or at school. We have wonderful opportunities to minister to the souls of our children in those situations.
How do you train someone to exercise this restraint?
We know it’s not just about education. That’s necessary, we need to teach, but if the process of change was just about informing people, then we’re done as long as we hear the right stuff at church every week. But you know that’s not true. We know the truth. We know the Sunday School answers, and yet we still sin. Why? Because the heart is deceitful above all else.
We need to practice, we need to force our will to obey, trusting in faith that the Spirit will bring that righteous harvest up and conform us to Christ through an indwelling of the Word. We read and meditate upon His Word and apply it through obedience in our life, out of a sense of gratitude for the gospel.
Journaling can be very important. On our church website, you can find a Heart Journal sample. Sometimes just to get data for me I’ll assign a journal, and say, “Just answer the first four questions on that. Don’t worry about the rest of them. We’ll deal with it together when you get back.”
The questions are:
1. What was going on?
2. What did I do in response to what was going on?
3. What did I think about what was going on?
4. What did I want out of what was going on?
And they don’t need to write a dissertation on those, just enough so they can remember and talk about next time we get together.
I’m not praying for a lot of anger throughout the week for my counselee, but if they have several instances of anger, then we can go treasure hunting. We can look for common themes—behavior that’s flowing out of that same heart in all these different situations.
Then we can move onto the other questions, starting from inside and working back out. We start from the outside with what we can observe. Now we work back into the heart and start inside when we say, “Next time this happens, what should you be wanting?”
“What should you then say to yourself to remind you of these truths? What are some passages that might help you?”
As a counselor, if we say, “Next time just do X, or just say X,” that’s still pretty outward. That’s hard to do. Why? Because we haven’t drug the heart along with it.
Scripture memory, reading, and meditation are also key—especially as we begin to zero in on what God wants to change in them that’s being manifested through this anger.
Have them practice thankful prayer. First Thessalonians 5:18 says, “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Jerry Bridges, in his excellent book Trusting God, says that at all times God is perfect in His love for you, He is infinite His wisdom, and He is completely sovereign. He’s perfect in His love for you, which means he always wants what is best for you. Because He is infinite in wisdom, not only does He always want what is best for you, He knows what is best for you. And He is completely sovereign, so not only does He want and know what is best for you, it’s a promise to all of His children that He will bring it about. And there will be nothing that stops that or hinders it in the slightest bit. That’s something we can gain comfort in even we can’t gain comfort in our circumstances or we lack the ability to resolve this conflict the way that we think it needs to be resolved.
I think it’s also important to practice how we discuss trials with others. “How am I going to discuss this in a way that points to Christ and that points to God’s glory?”
We need to practice how we think if we’re going to evaluate things well in the moment. There are days when the Word is open, our pastor is preaching out of the Word, and we see things that we’re so encouraged by. And I could step out the door that minute and face this great trial and I could handle it pretty well, because my mind is focused on the Word and I’m ready to go. The problem is that by Tuesday morning sometimes those aren’t really with me quite so sharply.
How do I think rightly in that moment too? I practice my thinking. That’s why I’ll bring the concept to you of a Think List. This is a short list of things to practice thinking. An example of a Think List for anger could be these questions:
Is this really an injustice?
Have I examined my facts, motives, and attitude?
Have I prayerfully taken time to seek godly counsel from God’s Word and others?
More than fixing the injustice, do I desire to act with kindness, gentleness, and self-control so as to resolve the problem in such a way to give grace and be a blessing to all involved?
We can go through an example of a Case Study with Eric. Eric came in with his wife and the whole problem was “He’s just angry a lot.” Alright, so you need more context there. One of the questions I asked Eric was, “What are some times when you’re most angry?”
And he listed a couple things out, like when the puppy chews on the furniture, son not bringing home good grades, etc. And there were some pretty interesting conversations from that but I gave him a journal to take home. He came back in the next week, had done his journal and I grabbed the first one and we talked about that. He got really angry in traffic.
There was a backup on the parkway and he just lost it. He was an appliance repairman for his job and he got dispatched and drove all over the place. We can talk about that all day long with Proverbs and Psalms and other things, but our conversation went like this,
“So Eric, what was bad about traffic being slow there at the end of the day?”
“Well, it was the end of the day. I had to hurry to get to my next appointment.”
“If you don’t get to your next appointment, what’s the problem there?”
“Well, then I’ll be late picking my kid up.”
“And what happens when you’re late picking your kid up? What’s the problem there?”
“Well, then I have to pay extra.”
And we began to put together all these little things and realize that Eric’s issue was a concern for money, not just traffic. You see how the pathway to the heart reveals those different things.
Another example is Linda, who finds out her sister-in-law is planning to commit adultery against her brother. How would you counsel that situation? In-law relationships can be stressful relationships sometimes anyway, and now she’s planning to commit adultery. There’s a lot of mixed up feelings there: love for her brother, a hatred of that injustice and who it’s for, and maybe even a love for her sister-in-law that needs to be there. We want to be very careful to help Linda see the glory of God in that situation. What brings God the most glory in that situation? Helping restore her sister-in-law, and helping her brother if his wife does go through with her intentions.
Another example: Julie observes her older son bullying her younger son. It’s a pattern she sees many times. Think of how we would walk through making sure as a parent that Julies applies all these principles about righteous anger. What is the real injustice here? The older son is harming his brother. He’s failing to love another image bearer. If we can help Julie think about that goal and that injustice amidst all the others—the interruption, the loudness, and the thing that broke when the baseball flew across the room—then we can put Julie on the right path to dealing with that correctly.