I wrote a series of meditations for men and women whose anger has hurt others—A Small Book about a Big Problem. This, certainly, includes us all. Yet there is a version of anger that these meditations only touch briefly and recently someone raised it with me.
What about angry victims?
My first response to an angry victim would be: “Help me understand what happened.” In my experience, the problem for victims is rarely their anger. Their anger is more often a front for the pain of betrayal and harm. It is their temporary protection. When victims speak with someone who actually cares for them, their anger typically vanishes. Otherwise, I look for anger that victims might unleash on themselves: “I am so stupid. How could I have let that happen?” Or, since victims have often been coached by perpetrators to feel responsible for perpetrators’ behaviors, victims can mimic the abusers’ degrading words and actions.
But what if a victim can persuade you that his or her anger against the perpetrator is a priority? The challenge is that there are ten different ways that Scripture could help. Do you leave room for God’s wrath? Do you consider how Jesus gave matters of justice over to his Father? What about those “burning coals” Paul talks about in Romans 12:20? And so on. With so many options, the task becomes a joint venture in identifying what God says that is most important. Most likely this will include at least this one sure thing for the victim—speak to the Lord. Speak to the God who hears and who even gives you words for your misery and the oppressive acts done against you. If you are the helper and are searching the psalms for help, Psalm 5 is the first of the imprecatory psalms. Victims will recognize themselves in it. Though it might take years to master and be mastered by this psalm, they will be years in which the Lord both invites our words, shapes our hearts and brings us into his heart.
May we all grow in knowing God’s heart for the oppressed and shamed, even when they seem angry.
My son-in-law was praying before dinner at our home. Meanwhile, my four-year-old twin grandsons continued their conversation. So it was appropriate for me to say something.
“Guys, when we pray it is time to listen, not talk.” I spoke in a normal, conversational tone.
Immediately, one of the boys erupted into inconsolable tears—pitiful, barely-being-able-to-breathe silences followed by ear-piercing screams. Grief that came from the depths of his soul. He turned to his mother, who was sitting next to him, to seek some physical consolation, but he realized that was not going to help and fled to another part of the house.
Most of my grandchildren cried the first time I corrected them. We would talk about what happened, all would be fine, and by the next correction they had immunity to the thought that my correction was personal rejection. This grandson, however, has affection for me that goes deeper—even deeper than his desire to hoard his Halloween candy. For him, correction communicates that his grandfather is not pleased with something about him, and the perceived interruption of love is too much to bear.
I went and found him. “Buddy, we are fine.” The moment the words were out of my mouth, he was tranquil and smiling. I then spoke about the whole talking-while-someone-is-praying thing. He might have heard; I’m not sure. What he did hear was that the breach in the relationship had been mended, and things were back to normal. Nothing was more important to him than that.
Though my words at the dinner table were not spoken in anger, my grandson had not yet learned to distinguish between my correction and my rejection and he assumed the worst. Correction, rejection, anger—they felt the same to him, and he is not alone. If we think we are innocently saying, “You are wrong and I am going to correct you,” we might be heard saying, “I DO NOT LOVE YOU.” Add anger to correction and the message is unmistakable. Perhaps, when spoken to a four-year-old who loves you more than life itself, he will cry, and you will have an opportunity to bring healing. Sadly, most victims won’t say a word because this is not the first time. They have become accustomed to the rejection.
If your correction of your children is not offered with explicit words of love and encouragement or if you express your “legitimate frustrations” to those around you, then you are most likely saying “I DO NOT LOVE YOU.” Then it would be right for you to cry.
How many times today have you been irritated? Frustrated? While you might not think about it often, if you look closely at any day most everyone can find anger in their actions and attitudes. Something spills or goes missing, we get stuck in traffic or someone cuts us off on the road, or we feel like the people we live and work with are only making our lives more difficult. And while no one wants to get angry, what happens when our irritations and frustrations rise yet again?
Anger is so common—yet it also hurts. It not only leaves a mark on us, but it also leaves a marks on others. The wounds we inflict on ourselves and others because of anger—loss of intimacy, trust, security, and enjoyment in our closest relationships—give us compelling reasons to look closely at our anger and think carefully about how to grow in peace and patience.
But if you, like many others, have just gotten irritated for the umpteenth time today, you might wonder if change is possible. Can anyone truly find peace? The answer is yes, but you will need a plan. Biblical counselor and psychologist Ed Welch invites readers to take a fifty-day journey that unpacks anger while encouraging and teaching readers to respond with patience to life’s difficulties. Readers will also be introduced to Jesus, the key to any plan for change. Known as the Prince of Peace, he is the only one who can empower his people to grow in patience, peace, and wholeness.
Sign up for 8 weekly videos delivered to your inbox as you work through this 50 day devotional with author Ed Welch.
The book is called A Small Book about a Big Problem.¹ It’s fifty devotionals about anger. The question is whether or not it is impolite to give it as a gift.
To give this book to someone is akin to giving a breath mint to the person sitting next to you in church, which happens to me most Sundays when I am sitting next to my wife. So it is okay to give it. We are still happily married.
But there is actually more to this analogy. If I have bad breath, I am the last one to know. Others notice it. I don’t. Those who don’t know me well would never say a word. They would only take a step back. All people-pleasers would remain silent too, because an offer of a breath mint might cause offense. Only the one who loves me the most—and is most affected by it—brings it to my attention.
These are also the ways of anger. Other people are affected by it; the angry person is unaware. Only when a loving person speaks out is there hope for growth and change. Where the analogy breaks down is that unlike bad breath, anger is deadly. It tears down relationships and, left unattended, can take the soul of the person given to anger. So it is okay to give this book to someone, but it is best done with wisdom and love.
Here are some possibilities.
If you have seen a friend head toward anger, you can be sure that you are only seeing a small piece of something much larger. If you are the spouse of an angry person, then that anger, no matter how infrequent, is tearing down the relationship and time will not change it. In other words, anger is not a problem that we overlook. Those who love do something. Perhaps this book, even if it meets with some initial resistance, could be a way to raise a matter that can be sensitive and even frightening.
¹ The full title is A Small Book about a Big Problem: Meditations on Anger, Patience, and Peace, and yes, I am the author.
² I hope this doesn’t seem sexist. I actually think it is a cute-looking book.Buy from WTSBooks
Let’s begin with a case study. Todd, a middle-aged divorced man, says he is angry with God because, essentially, his life is falling apart. His wife left him for another man; his only child—a twenty-five-year-old son—is not very responsive to him anymore, and a stray dog recently killed his cat, which he thought was the only creature that seemed to love him. His life has not turned out as he once dreamed, and now he’s afraid to dream. What could God possibly be up to in his life?
What could you say in response to Todd’s anguished and angry question?
Befriend him before you counsel him
In this type of case, the easy part is knowing “the right answer.” Undoubtedly, you can identify those biblical writers who would resonate immediately with this man’s plight. Think of the book of Job, Psalm 23, and the story of Jonah. Then there’s 2 Corinthians 1:4; Romans 8:28, and the list goes on. There are so many good, right, true, and helpful passages to draw from. However, your first question is not, “Do I have all the right passages to quote?” but rather, “Do I have this man’s ear? Are we in a conversation where the truth can be savory and relevant, and really touch him?”
When someone’s struggling with anger at God, rather than immediately diving into any number of passages of Scripture, make sure you have his ear. Take a walk with him as a friend. Acknowledge the value of his being honest about his struggle with God. Affirm his current conviction that life in a fallen world can be very difficult and deeply disappointing. Beyond these general guidelines, it’s hard to know how you might script that first relational step where you’re trying to build some trust with Todd. Yet, your purpose at this stage is clear: you’re trying to be the friend who cares about a man who feels like nobody cares about him.
As you think about your response, recognize his asked and unasked questions
Todd’s string of trials probably prompts a number of hard questions for him. There are a lot of what you might call implicit questions haunting him. Among them: (1) What’s the use in life now? Why go on? (2) Do you, Pastor, care about me? Your responses to Todd become a signpost pointing him to the deeper love of God. They set up a context of trust, honesty, and kindness that will make messages about God’s nature and purposes more meaningful to him. Todd cannot face life’s struggles and hardships if he thinks he can know God’s attitude toward him based on those experiences (rather than from Scripture). There has got to be a deeper foundation. Ultimately, he has to develop a deeper view of who God is that takes him beyond his limited interpretations of his circumstances.
Anger at God reveals Todd’s unanchored heart
Anger at God is like other anger problems in that it expresses what someone loves, cherishes, and worships. Todd’s anger at God over these losses illustrates how he has placed his faith, hope, and security in things that are perishable rather than in God, who alone can be his rock and fortress. No one wants a wife who betrays him. No one wants a child who avoids him. No one wants a beloved animal to be killed. But there must be something deeper that is this man’s foundation for building a life with meaning and purpose.
On the one hand, Todd’s anger is understandable: he has lost relationships that are very dear to him. His anger boils from the heat of lost relationships. On the other hand, his anger blinds him to his lack of relationship with the God who could sustain him during these trials. Obviously, it’s not wrong to desire close, ongoing relationships with family members or pets. But Todd’s anger reveals that these otherwise fine desires had been elevated to the status of implicit demands: “I must have ___, or my life is pointless.” But in living by this presupposition, Todd had drifted from God’s purposes for him. Therefore, it’s not the desires for relationships that ultimately got him into trouble; it is rather his own privately generated expectations that he thrust onto God that have sent him into the emotional storm that he now faces. As long as he holds to these desires-turned-into-demands, there will be no peace in his heart. His hope will grow increasingly dim. His purpose in life—which would give him direction—will be lost.
You should help him replace those expectations about what he thinks God ought to do in his life with humble submission to what God says He will do in His children’s lives. Scripture reshapes our core expectations. For example, help Todd to reconsider, “Who is most qualified to direct my steps in life?” You could build a conversation around a couple of life-rearranging Proverbs:
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps. (Prov. 16:9)
We do plan, but our plans don’t have the last say on what lasts. The humility to accept this is freeing.
A person’s steps are directed by the LORD. How then can anyone understand their own way? (Prov. 20:24)
We can’t even fully understand our lives. Again, the humility to accept this is freeing.
Then you might use the whole second half of Romans 8, which climbs into all of Todd’s hard experiences of life. The last several verses read:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:35–39)
Generally speaking, you need to help Todd see how his anger at God is due to weakness and blind spots in his faith. He has known God. But his degree of faith has been shown insufficient to sustain him through his losses. These hard experiences are a God-sent opportunity for his faith to deepen and grow. Help him learn how “Faith lives as though what God says is true.… The essence of living faith is something different than any particular experience.… Faith takes God at his word and acts on it.”1
Assure him that as he grows in such unmitigated trust in his God, he will change. A living, active, sincere faith always bears good fruit, because a living, active, loving God is at work.
Help Todd to see that the intensity of his current struggle actually bears witness that he is designed for something much greater than even his relationship with people. He is designed for a lasting relationship with God. Of course, his faith is the key expression of that relationship, and as such, it is also the key that unlocks the meaning, purpose, and hope that he desperately needs right now. Faith itself is not the anchor. But our faith anchors in the Savior, Shepherd, and Father who loves us.
Something that matters to you just isn’t right. First you see the problem, then you feel it. It starts with a rush of adrenaline and often a rush of words, but it ends with an overwhelming sense of irritation that impacts how we talk to those we live and work with, complaining,and maybe even a settled bitterness to a person or a group of person. We know anger affects us negatively, but we don’t know any other way to respond when life goes wrong.
Good and Angry, a groundbreaking new book from David Powlison, contends that anger is more than a problem to solve. Anger is our complex human response to things we perceive as wrong in a complex world, thus we must learn how to fruitfully and honestly deal with it. Powlison undertakes an in-depth exploration of the roots of anger, moral judgment, and righteous response by looking in a surprising place: God’s own anger.
Powlison reminds us that God gets angry too. He sees things in this world that aren’t right and he wants justice too. But God’s anger doesn’t devolve into manipulation or trying to control others to get his own way. Instead his anger is good and redemptive. It causes him to step into our world to make wrongs right, sending his own Son to die so that we can be reconciled. He is both our model for change and our power to change.
Good and Angry sets readers on a path toward a faithful and fruitful expression of anger, in which we return good for evil and redeem wrongs. Powlison offers practical help for people who struggle with irritation, complaining, or bitterness and gives guidance for how to respond constructively when life goes wrong. You, your family, and your friends will all be glad that you read this book.
Publisher: New Growth Press
Publication Year: 2016
The Apostle Paul has a tendency to give us lists of sins. He gives us at least five of them. (1) At first glance, it feels like he is simply piling it on. But his lists include a recurring structure that brings keen insight into the human condition. He identifies the overarching category of renegade desire, and he typically calls out two expressions of this desire: sexual sin and anger. These are a big deal to Paul because they are a big deal to God.
Here are two of those lists.
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. (Gal. 5:19-21)
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk. (Col. 3:5-8)
Inordinate and idolatrous desires dominate the way Paul describes sin. These sins are filled with: I WANT! (2)
So here is the raw human condition.
We are bent toward sexual immorality. God has created us to live within sexual boundaries. Male-female, joined in a covenant—that is the boundary. But as those who are no longer fully in synch with the mind of God, we flirt with that boundary through pornography, and many violate it when given the opportunity. We want to sexually possess people who do not belong to us. No surprises here.
We are bent toward anger. According to Paul, we should have at least as much interest in anger and its divisive, destructive ways as we do in sexual immorality. Look at the ways it is expressed: enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, wrath, malice, and slander. People are devastated by reckless anger, in our churches and in the world.
Paul urges us to be rigorous in taking our souls to task. We are to aim for accountability with anger just like we do with sexuality. And we want to speak into a world that is losing confidence that we can actually help people with either.
So here is something better.
We aim for self-control. We might prefer to hold out for a better offer, but self-control is Scripture’s contrast to self-indulgence. It is not shallow self-effort or dour asceticism—it is the ability to say “no” to desires. And it is on the cusp of becoming stylish. The world around us is rediscovering the goodness of self-control because it happens to be correlated with happiness and “success.”
Paul’s sin lists tend to scatter our minds in different directions, but he is actually focusing us with illustrations of one thing—unleashed and ungodly desire—that is chronically expressed in two ways—sexual immorality and anger. One small step we can take toward self-control is to be more specific when we pray “forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12). “Forgive me for sexual sin in thought, word or deed, and forgive me for anger and its endless manifestations, all of which are lethal.”
(1) Rom. 1:21-32, 1 Cor. 6:9-10, Gal. 5:19-21, Col. 3:5-9, Tit. 3:3.
(2) In Galatians he inserts idolatry, but even there he emphasizes the greedy, rapacious roots of idolatry. That is, “God has not given me what I want so I will look elsewhere.”
Anger. We all experience it, some more than others. When is it righteous and when is it not? How can we control our anger and not get caught in a maze of rage when things don’t go our way?
David Powlison takes a close look at anger to help us understand what it is and why we have it. He exposes three common misconceptions that leave us powerless to overcome anger. Using the illustration of a traffic jam, he probes the assumptions and cravings of the heart behind a typical angry response.
In place of the false premises and futile consequences of ungodly anger, Powlison guides us to biblical truths and outcomes that honor God and teach us how to live.
David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. In addition to serving as CCEF’s Executive Director, David is a faculty member at CCEF as well as the Senior Editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as an M.Div. degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. David has been counseling for over thirty years. He has written numerous articles on biblical counseling and on the relationship between faith and psychology. His books include Speaking Truth in Love; Seeing with New Eyes; Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare; and The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context. David has taught across the United States and in Korea, India, Brazil, Europe, and Sri Lanka.
Publisher: P & R
Publication Date: 2000