“Have you given yourself permission to be angry?” Several years ago a counselor surprised me with that question. Pretty sure my answer was a big, fat “Nope!”
McLeod and I had been in marriage counseling for two months, but I felt stuck like we weren’t making much progress. In fact, one of the things I most wanted was to STOP feeling angry and frustrated with our relationship all the time, so giving a green light to my anger seemed counterproductive.
Turns out, though, I was angry about quite a list of grievances. I was stuck because I’d been working so hard not to feel angry while I exercised what I thought was my Christian duty to be forgiving and understanding that I’d overlooked an important truth about anger: Anger often indicates that something needs to change.
So, did I still need to be forgiving and understanding? Sure, and so did my husband. We needed to learn to communicate with God’s kind of gentleness, which, as I discussed in the last post, is neither out-of-control rage nor ambivalence but rather, a balanced response that honors God and each other.
However, I’d been trying to shut down my anger without looking at which faulty behaviors or frustrating circumstances might need serious changes. That’s like slapping a band-aid on a nasty splinter and pretending no infection will set in.
Giving myself the green light to take an honest look at what had hurt and angered me was the first step in getting “unstuck.” I’ve since learned three powerful truths about anger that have helped me through the years:
1. Anger is a good indicator. Anger is part of our internal warning system that a boundary has been crossed, so it makes sense to pay attention to it. Does that mean we should fly into a rage every time someone cuts us off in traffic? Probably not. But when we feel anger, it’s healthier to ask, “What is my anger indicating?” rather than to ignore it or to react to it without thinking.
Is there a pattern of unkind or unwise behavior by another person that needs to stop?
Am I picking up on another’s anger and perceiving it as a threat? Is it really a threat or just awkward and uncomfortable?
Am I hungry and tired—an encroachment on my health boundaries, so to speak? Do I need a snack and a nap? (Yes, I often fall in the “hangry” category!)
We also need to pay attention when our anger rises in response to others being mistreated. We should have our anger stirred up in such cases! I love the example of Nehemiah, one of ancient Jerusalem’s governors. He found out that the city’s wealthy elite had been loan-sharking the impoverished farmers so severely that their children were becoming bondslaves to pay off the debts. He wrote, “I got really angry when I heard their protest and complaints. After thinking it over, I called the nobles and officials on the carpet. I said, ‘Each one of you is gouging his brother.’ Then I called a big meeting to deal with them.” (Nehemiah 5:6-7, The Message version) This smart, godly man reacted appropriately with anger to major out-of-bounds behavior. His anger then motivated him to “think it over” and plan a course of action.
2. Anger is a terrible dictator. While anger makes a great indicator of out-of-bounds behavior, it’s often a terrible dictator of our actions. Just scan the headlines to see unchecked anger that turned into hate and hate that turned into destruction. Thus, while we give ourselves a green light to feel angry, we need to give ourselves a yellow caution light for how we act upon that anger. It cannot be allowed to dictate our every action. In fact, take a look at Ephesians 4:26-27, again in The Message paraphrase: “Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life.”
Sometimes we repeatedly rehash how angry or hurt we are without ever analyzing why we feel that way or what needs to change. We stoke the fire of our anger until it’s too hot to handle, and it prompts us to go after revenge rather than the right kind of change. Instead, like Nehemiah we should “think it over” in a way that helps us plan a course of action to deal with specific behaviors, not just lash out to punish others for making us feel hurt and angry.
3. Anger shouldn’t become our long-term motivator. Anger gets us moving and hopefully, if we’ve been thoughtful and prayerful, in a positive direction. However, staying angry day after day is unhealthy and unhelpful. Long-term anger, even if it’s justified and motivating us toward change, “gives the Devil…a foothold in your life” (Eph. 4:27). That’s when it’s time to declare a red light on our anger by choosing to lay it down through the power of forgiveness. It doesn’t mean we don’t still work for change, but it does mean we take care of our souls before they are damaged by the continual heat of anger.
Remember my list of grievances from counseling? Writing them down in an actual list gave me time to “think them over.” Yes, there were changes that needed to happen, work that needed to be done, but my counselor also helped me pray over each item on the list and forgive each hurt. When we were done, I destroyed that paper in her office shredder, a symbolic and powerful moment. I was relieved and happy to move on. Anger had done its job, but it was no longer my primary motivator for change. Instead, I had hope and excitement over the practical changes that could help my marriage grow strong and healthy. That kind of hope is just the kind of motivator we need for the long haul.
Want more biblical guidance on topics like anger, forgiveness, and other relationship challenges? Check out my book, New Woman, New Clothes: Outfit Your Soul to Live, Lead, Love available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.
Photo credit Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash