Anger in the Saddle
Losing your temper is a lot like losing your car keys—you never choose to and it always seems to happen at the worst moments. For some “losing your temper” means yelling, swearing, pounding a fist on the table. For others, lost temper is barely perceptible: a tightening of the jaw, a cold silence, but the angry feelings are still swarming, just hidden away inside.
Whatever our style, we all lose our temper sometimes. By “lose our temper,” I simply mean that you and I sometimes hand the reins of our behavior over to the feelings of anger in our soul. As your body begins to pump adrenaline, expand blood vessels, and tense muscles for a fight, your desire to feel vindicated (though all too often later reflection reveals you weren’t nearly so far up the moral high ground as you’d thought) takes over and hands you your script. Fundamentally, losing your temper means you’ve placed anger in the saddle and you are now galloping along at its command.
Why Does This Happen?
Despite the thousand coats anger may wear, anger is simple at its core. Anger always passes moral judgment. It is the moral emotion. Anger says “what just happened was wrong.” Now our anger may be accurate in its judgment of right and wrong or it may be out to lunch. For example, my children may get mad because I’m exasperating them, or they may get mad because I’m putting them to bed at a reasonable hour when they wanted to stay up. Either way, the core cry of anger is “That is unjust! That is evil! I condemn that!”
James 4:1–2 lays out the basic dynamic at play in our sinful anger. “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” James asks. “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” In essence, James is saying that our anger condemns anything that comes between us and what we want. Because, James argues, we are committed to our own wellbeing above all, when something or someone thwarts our desires, we feel unjustly treated and respond by calling out the troops to avenge the perceived injustice.
Ultimately then, a lost temper is just anger that’s been put in charge without checks or balances.
Is All Anger Bad?
It’s important to say one more thing before we identify solutions: this does not mean all anger is bad! God is angry against sin and the horrors it wreaks on his beloved children. We can and should be angry in the face of everything from sex-trafficking to a snarky spat between our friends (though even then we should never return evil for evil!). Further, even when our anger is indeed sinful and we are losing our temper and screaming at someone, many of the things we want are still genuinely good things to want! Physical safety for our families, fair treatment in the workplace, not being gossiped about at church, and a quiet evening at home after a long day are all perfectly righteous things to desire.
This is the point though: whenever you or I lose our tempers, it means we’ve gone from wanting some good thing, to demanding that we must have it or else. Sinful anger is so convinced of its own moral high ground that it feels perfectly justified visiting its wrath upon whatever, or whomever, has dared to transgress absolute justice (i.e., us getting whatever it is we want at that moment). Thus, while we may sometimes be “right” about the issue, giving anger total control of our response to a problem will always be destructive and sinful. “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20).
What Can We Do?
Thankfully we aren’t doomed to endlessly lose our tempers! God promises to work in the hearts of those who love him. He does not merely change our behavior, but also transforms us to “will,” to desire, according to his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). The more God changes our desires to mirror what he desires, the more
- our anger will be rightly directed at true evils (rather than the self-centeredness that naturally drives our anger without his transforming intervention);
- and paired with that, the more we’ll trust his ways of achieving what is good. No matter how right we are about the issue at hand, love for God resists the temptation to give our anger the reins. Instead, godly anger seeks restoration and protection for those who have been wronged without vengeance, cruelty, insult or any other form of returning evil for evil.
For those who find their temper to be a special problem, let me offer three brief suggestions:
What Were You Wanting?
When you’ve lost your temper, ask yourself what you were wanting. It’s amazing how much you can learn about your desires and the underlying motives when you simply slow down and consider what desire was being thwarted. Anger is always driven by desire—the better you understand your desires, the better you’ll understand how, why, when and where you’ll lose your temper next time and be able to prepare for challenging situations.
And take heart. The simple fact that you are even saying “Help! I keep losing my temper!” should give you great hope. Far too many angry people don’t realize they are angry at all. They just “know” they are “right” and everyone else is “wrong.” The more you see and deal with your anger’s underlying desires, the more you’ll be equipped to value and pursue the right things in the heat of the moment.
Ultimately, our hope isn’t simply in exploring our problematic underlying desires. The only true way to reduce the problem of your temper is to actually increasingly value and cherish bringing good and blessing to those you love. Your biggest goal is not to understand yourself (as much as this helps!), but is rather to be altogether less focused on yourself and your desires. Instead, God would have you more focused on the good of those you love around you. The more your heart desires blessing for the people around you rather than your own comfort, reputation, etc., the less you will be prone to lose your temper when you don’t get what you want (and are sure you deserve) in any sudden moment.
One way to cultivate this is to daily spend a couple minutes praying Philippians 4:8 for those with whom you are most in danger of losing your temper. Pray for God to grow whatever is noble, right, lovely, pure, etc. in them and pray that you will more deeply appreciate who he has made them to be.
Get serious about repenting to the people you hurt. I’m not talking about extravagant promises to never be angry again. Instead, pray for God’s protection against self-righteous anger in your heart and then go ask people you’ve harmed to help you understand how you’ve harmed them. Then really listen to the answer. Express sorrow for how you’ve hurt them (not just the fact that you did something “wrong” in some abstract sense).
It will be excruciatingly difficult at times, but it will give your conscience an enormous amount of ammunition with which to guard you against further outbursts. (And remember, this isn’t about you demanding forgiveness—by definition you may never demand it as it must be freely chosen).
It may also sometimes be helpful to share your awareness of the problem in your desires: “I’m sorry that I let my desire for a peaceful evening control me so much that I yelled at you when you tried to talk to me about our schedule for the week. I know that must have hurt you and been frustrating too as you’re trying to plan for the next few days. Will you forgive me?”
Gaining control of your temper by taming your tongue (and the hundred ways your actions can speak louder than words) is no easy task. But no application of the call to love your neighbor and honor Jesus Christ is more urgent and important.
Thank God that in our every need he gives more grace (James 4:6)!
This blog originally appeared on the Crossway website.
Alasdair’s book, Untangling Emotions, was released by Crossway in March 2019. Purchase your copy here.