Anger is part of life in a broken world. When we are insulted, embarrassed, hurt, or betrayed, anger is a natural feeling. Similarly, the more we become attuned to God’s compassion for people and love for justice, the more anger we might feel toward the travesties of war, persecution, slavery, and abuse throughout the world.
Anger isn’t always wrong. In fact, used constructively, righteous anger can often drive great changes in society. But failing to deal with our anger properly can lead us to behaviors that are destructive to ourselves and others. Does the Bible offer any insights into how God can help us deal with anger?
God invites us to honestly acknowledge our anger and bring it to Him. When we turn to Him, He gives us the power of His Spirit to live in His grace and respond constructively to our anger.
In a previous article, we addressed dealing with anger toward God. If you’ve not yet read that piece, take a few minutes to do so. In that piece, we explore the benefit of taking all of our anger to God and availing ourselves of the grace that He allows us in working through our anger.
There we spend time with Moses, who often vented his frustrations to God, and Job, who cried out to God in anger because he did not understand why he was suffering.
The Source of Anger
As mentioned in the previous article, anger can come from a variety of sources. Moses’ frustrations toward the people of Israel were valid. It is easy to have sympathy for Job’s suffering. David was understandably fed up with a never-ending string of enemies pursuing him. Pain and depression can lead to anger, as can a compassionate response to injustice and the suffering that it causes.
Dealing with Anger
Regardless of the source of our anger, we are here to learn how God can help us deal with our anger because anger left unaddressed is sure to grow into bitterness, hatred, and other unhealthy sentiments.
We want to avoid going down this road that leads to further pain, broken relationships, and even violence.
If you’ve taken anger management seminars or read books on the subject, many of the strategies below will look familiar. Still, as Christians, it helps us to remember that these are all time-tested, proven strategies from God’s playbook.
Hold Your Tongue
Fools give full vent to their rage,
but the wise bring calm in the end.Proverbs 29:11
In the heat of the moment, it is easy to respond to a painful situation with harsh words. But taking a moment to think before speaking can provide us an opportunity to measure our words and not escalate.
James instructs us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God requires.” (James 1:19-20)
Adding angry words to an already volatile situation never brings about a Godly outcome. But a quick walk around the block or ten minutes on the back porch can give you time to process and articulate a productive response.
Meditate on God’s Mercy
Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.Micah 7:18
When we remember God’s forgiveness and grace, we remember that God has every reason to be angry with us, but chooses instead to embrace us with mercy. How many times has God forgiven us and shown us kindness that we don’t deserve?
Knowing that we have been consistently treated with mercy by a loving Heavenly Father makes our next step easier:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.Colossians 3:12-13
Paul instructs us to ‘put on’ these qualities of Jesus as if we’re putting on our clothes for the day. We can begin each day by intentionally going to God and asking Him to clothe us with His attributes. We keep these ‘spiritual garments’ in good repair by forgiving one another. The more we train ourselves to act with kindness and patience, the better equipped we will be to manage our anger.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone…
On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”Romans 12:17, 20
Grace diffuses anger, and kindness overcomes evil. That is the point of these verses. We might read the “burning coals” as a command to “kill ‘em with kindness,” but that isn’t what is really happening in this illustration.
Rather, Paul is quoting the words of Proverbs 25:21-22 to encourage us to give our enemy the best coals from our own house fire (loaded into a bin that they carried to us on their head), so that their house can be filled with warmth, too. When you fill your enemy’s life with compassion, love, and grace, there won’t be any room left for the cold bitterness of anger.
So what happens when we put all of these strategies together in practice? Can they really work to help us deal with—and overcome—our anger?
Galatians: A Case Study
When most Christians think of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, our minds first go to the fruits of the Spirit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.Galatians 5:22-23
Those of us who attended Sunday school as children probably sang songs celebrating the qualities of the Christian life that Paul listed out for us. These verses are forever a part of our memory.
But how many of us have explored the rocky, anger-filled road that Paul took through the first four and a half chapters to arrive at such a place?
God, in His grace and wisdom, did not hide Paul’s thoughts and feelings from us when He inspired this letter. So we will journey together across the bumpy terrain of Galatians, explore Paul’s anger as it unfolds, and see how he allows God to help him through it.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.Galatians 1:6-7
As a parent, if you’ve ever given your children a set of instructions only to see them run off and do the opposite of what you had just discussed, then you probably recognize Paul’s frustration.
After opening his letter with the customary salutation, Paul lays his feelings bare for the Galatians—and the rest of us—to see. He’s astonished! Shocked! Not only are the Galatians ignoring everything that he taught them, but they are wasting no time in doing so!
So right away, Paul wants to know who is responsible for this sudden turn. He is sure that somebody is to blame (v 7) and he does not hide his opinion of their actions. These people aren’t just failing to grasp the gospel, they’re perverting it!
As Paul continues to lay out his case, he goes on to say—not once, but twice—”let them be under a God’s curse!” (vs 8-9).
As we read these words, we might consider it a relief that Paul was not with the Galatians in person and that he had the benefit of working out his anger in writing (pro tip: we can use this technique, too!). But one important thing that Paul does here is to identify the root problem that is fueling his anger. In this case, he is angry because someone infiltrated the Galatian church with false teaching.
A Familiar Situation
When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.Galatians 2:11-13
Apparently, this is not the first time Paul has had to deal with false teachers of this nature. He recalls, out loud—to the Galatians and to us—a time when he had to confront Cephas (Peter). Then, too, he says he addressed the root issue head-on by opposing Peter to his face.
Whether he means to or not, Paul also does something very revealing in these verses: he acknowledges his pain.
Not only over having to correct Peter, but over seeing his faithful coworker, Barnabas led astray. After all, it was Barnabas who vouched for Paul when he was first brought to the disciples as a new convert. And it was Barnabas who went with Paul on his first missionary journey. Losing Barnabas to this false teaching had to hurt!
Back to the Current Issue
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified… Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?Galatians 3:1, 3
After presenting the Galatians with the core problem and his past experience with this issue, Paul turns the discussion back to the present. His langue is admittedly blunt, informed by his anger and frustration. Twice he calls the Galatians foolish but then he goes on to articulate the foolishness.
In the matter at hand, Paul shows that receiving the Spirit and then returning to the ways of the flesh (the world and its legalism) is the height of foolishness. It sounds harsh, but clearly, Paul wants the Galatians to understand the seriousness of their error.
By thinking (writing) through the issue, Paul is able to move from anger to the root cause to understanding and—hopefully—undoing the damage.
Taking a Breath
But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? … I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you…
My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!Galatians 4:9, 11, 19-20
Paul isn’t done being angry, but we can already hear some calm entering his voice. We also hear genuine compassion for the Galatians. Even as Paul wonders out loud if he had wasted his efforts on the Galatians, he reveals that he is concerned for them and not simply for himself.
Again, all of the parents reading this are probably nodding in familiarity. It frustrates us to watch our loved ones make mistakes because we know that the mistakes will hurt them. And that makes us angry.
We detect the same sentiment in Paul’s words as he refers to the Galatians as his dear children and admits the pain that he feels for them. He wants to change his tone with them but he’s not quite there yet…
At this point, Paul is done directing his harsh words at the Galatians, but he has a final parting shot for the false teachers who led them astray:
As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!Galatians 5:12
This may be one of the most human statements made by Paul in all of his letters. Some translations are more forgiving than others (saying “cut themselves off” instead of “emasculate themselves”). Still, we must recognize something beneficial that Paul is doing here: he is using humor, through wordplay, to diffuse and redirect.
The issue at hand is whether or not Gentile converts need to be circumcised in order to become Christians. If we read this statement in the most favorable light to Paul (and it is fair that we do so), he is saying that these agitators that are so eager to “cut something off” should just cut themselves—and their false teaching—off.
We have to imagine that at least a couple of the gathered Galatians chuckled when this was read.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”Galatians 5:13-14
Having worked through his own anger and won the Galatians over, Paul is now ready to bring the discussion home by appealing to the Galatians’ freedom to serve one another in love.
But before listing out the fruits of the Spirit, Paul reminds the Galatians what the acts of the flesh produce. And that list looks like a whole lot of self-serving attitudes and actions, including—not coincidentally—discord, fits of rage, and envy. These are all by-products of anger that originates from a faulty source or is channeled in a faulty way.
But when we embrace life by the Spirit, He fills us with the patience, gentleness, and self-control that help us to overcome our anger and deal with root issues lovingly.
So we close with a final word of encouragement and instruction from Paul:
Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.Galatians 5:25-26