May a Christian be angry?

Many Christians fear anger, denying that they feel it and suppressing it when they can't avoid it.

David C. Jarnes is an associate editor of Ministry

Anger is one of the traditional seven deadly sins. Paul includes it in his lists of evils that Christians should avoid (Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8). Consequently, many Christians fear anger, denying that they feel it and suppressing it when they can't avoid it.

But the biblical view of anger isn't so simple. The Bible depicts the Father and even Jesus as experiencing anger (e.g., Num. 25:3; Mark 3:5). Apparently, our capacity for anger is one of the ways in which we bear the image of God. If God experiences anger, we cannot classify it as categorically sinful.

Interestingly, in the context of one of those lists of evils the Christian should avoid, Paul wrote, "Be angry but do not sin" (Eph. 4:26, RSV). The whole pas sage has to do with interpersonal relationships, and so the anger of which he speaks seems to be the kind that arises in such relationships; it is not merely some kind of "righteous indignation."

The distinction Paul made, "be angry but do not sin," suggests a key to the conundrum. Paul was more concerned with how Christians treat other people than with what emotions they experience. And anger is an emotion. As such, it is a reaction to some stimulus. It's not sinful to feel angry; people sin when they vent their anger inappropriately.

Anger is a natural part of close relationships. It serves an important role in those relationships it signals that there are differences that need to be worked out. (Biblically, the anger God expresses toward His people functions in much the same way. It is aroused by their unfaithfulness, and its intent is to bring them back to faithfulness to Him.)

David Mace, author of the helpful book Love and Anger in Marriage, says that people typically deal with anger in one of four ways: they vent it, suppress it, dissolve it, or process it.1 It's in venting anger, in the sense of unrestrainedly letting someone else "have it," that anger produces sin. This manner of dealing with anger gets the problem out in the open, but does so in a way that hurts the other person and damages the relationship without resolving the problem.

Suppressing one's anger directs the force inward rather than outward. In one's attempt to maintain the relationship, one spares the other person and bears the brunt of the problem oneself. Suppression may be necessary in some cases—for instance, when it's your boss who occasions the anger and trying to negotiate the problem poses the threat of losing a job you cannot afford to lose. But suppressing your anger means ignoring issues that may be vital to the relationship and ultimately forces you to distance yourself from the other person. If you habitually suppress your anger, you may lose your capacity for warmth and tenderness.

One "dissolves" one's anger by deliberately distancing oneself from the person who occasions that anger. The issue involved may or may not be overtly recognized. Again, this form of handling anger may be necessary in some circumstances Paul and Barnabas broke up their partnership when they disagreed sharply about John Mark's accompanying them on their missionary journeys. But while this mode of handling anger may at times be necessary, if you always handle your anger by distancing yourself from the other person involved, you will end up a lonely person one who has no close relationships.

It is only as one processes the issues that arouse anger in relationships that those relationships can grow and deepen. Mace offers three principles helpful to processing anger: First, communicate the fact that you are angry. Anger is not wrong in itself; it is an acceptable feeling it's ok to be angry. (Though depending on the circumstances, you may be wise to express your feelings in less loaded terms, saying that you are upset or that you are uncomfortable with something in the current situation.)

Second, when you are angry do not attack the other person. That way, the other person does not have to be wary or defensive. If your anger is intense, don't discuss the issue that is arousing it until you have cooled down and can discuss it rationally and without provoking the other person.

Third, in very close, continuing relationships, such as marriage, reach an understanding with the other party that both of you will own and work out the anger that threatens the relationship. You should regard this anger not as evidence of a weakness in the one who is angry, but as a function of the total relationship. Here close relationships differ from more distant ones, where one may have to own and process one's anger oneself.2

Anger serves a positive function. It highlights areas in which situations can be improved and relationships developed, and provides the motivation for doing so. By understanding anger, pastors can improve relationships in their churches and their own homes and can come to understand and accept themselves more fully.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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David C. Jarnes is an associate editor of Ministry

May 1990

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