Putting Anger in its Place

The dynamics of personal anger in the life of the pastor

Ron and Karen Flowers are directors of family ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Angry and not at all amused, she watched him through an upper window as he led the parade into town. He had irreverently doffed his vestments, danced with one young woman after another along the sidewalks, and generally—it seemed to her, at least—acted the part of a jester rather than the grand marshal.

"I can't believe my eyes!" she fumed to her self. "How can he embarrass me like this? How will I ever be able to face people again? Just look at him!" Her brain fomented with the monologues she'd deliver when she got her hands on him.

For him the day had been exhilarating, fulfilling a longtime dream. Finally he had brought back the sacred ark to its proper dwelling place. Emotions soared as he partied with his people. With the public festivities ended, he turned homeward to cap off this high day with a private family celebration. But before David entered the front gate, Michal lunged at him.

"What a sight was the king of all Israel today!" she smirked with disdain. "Running around undressed in front of the servant girls like a shameless fool!"

David's response was quick and cutting. It was as if his response had been building through other like episodes, perhaps even silently rehearsed for just such a moment. "What I did, I did for the Lord! You seem to forget that I, and I alone, was chosen to re place your father and his household as the king of this nation! So I'll celebrate before the Lord the way I want. I might even do more daring things than take off my clothes! Anyway, who cares what you think? Plenty of women like me just the way I am!"

His massive retaliatory strike drew no response from Michal, at least none is re corded in 2 Samuel 6. But the sad postscript conveys coldly the plain fact that Michal bore no children. Perhaps it serves as an epitaph to the death of intimacy in their marriage.

Anger is inevitable in intimate relationships

Anger is common to all. Yet Christians are so often in denial, unable to acknowledge it. Given the expectations for ministers, it is even more difficult to admit that it stalks the parsonage as well. In public we work hard at putting our best selves forward, carefully guarding from view the anger in our private lives. In times of great stress, when our guard may drop, we spawn euphemisms for anger. It's merely "irritation," "annoyance," or "frustration." One cartoon showed a ruffled pastor responding to a church member's pointed accusation that he was angry: "Good Christians do not get angry," the cleric stoutly affirms. "They may become vexed in their spirits, but they do not get angry!"

Call it by any other name, the emotion is the same.

Scripture candidly shows anger as part of the human makeup. It is inevitable in close relationships. From personal experience we know the friction married couples experience with their differing personalities, temperaments, habits, values, and beliefs. Anger almost always accompanies the strain of making adjustments, retooling cherished values, and forging new ways of relating after the honeymoon is over.

We made a conscious effort with our children to play down the fact that we were a pastoral family, hoping to set reasonable expectations for all of us. But the sense of living in a fishbowl was nevertheless present, and so was anger. There was anger with whoever out there expected this very real couple with very normal children to display perfection, anger when our children, or worse yet, we ourselves, blew our cover. We were angry at the excessive demands on our time and energy, angry when robbed of opportunities for communication and family fun, and angry at being trapped between duty to church and responsibilities at home. We were angry that our hard work didn't push us up into the same lifestyle bracket enjoyed by higher-paid professionals. We were angry that the church didn't seem to appreciate that it was getting two for the price of one. We were angry when success was measured in terms over which we had no control. And we were angry that we didn't have the tools to understand and work with our anger.

If we are able to process and resolve our anger, we will be freed for deeper intimacy in our families. If not, we maybe driven further away from each other. If unresolved, anger will likely become destructive, inside of us and in our relationships. At best, it short-circuits our energy for growth and/ or leads to persistent low-level hostility. At worst, anger becomes abusive. The good news is that we can come to understand this emotion of anger. We can bring it under the discipline of the Holy Spirit, learn to appreciate it for what it can reveal to us, and harness its energy for good.

An emotion with a good purpose

Anger is an important part of our emotional packaging. While all our feelings have been tainted by sin, the gospel has the power to change our lives and our emotions. God's power at work in us through the Holy Spirit can enable us to bring our emotions under the control of reason and conscience and restore God's original purpose for them in our lives.

Scripture condemns attitudes and behaviors of anger that spring from a self-centered life and are destructive (Ps. 37:8; Gal. 5:19-21). These belong to the "old man" that Christians are called to "put off" (Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8). Scripture makes it clear that these destructive attitudes and behaviors belong to life apart from Christ, while the emotion of anger itself does not. Ephesians 4:22-27 suggests that the individual in Christ may become angry, but is not to sin. Thus we note a distinction between feeling anger and sinning. We must maintain this distinction and find ways of employing anger for its intended purpose in our lives without engaging in its destructive, sinful aspects.

"It is true there is an indignation that is justifiable, even in the followers of Christ. When they see that God is dishonored, and His service brought into disrepute, when they see the innocent oppressed, a righteous indignation stirs the soul. Such anger, born of sensitive morals, is not a sin. But those who at any supposed provocation feel free to indulge anger or resentment are opening the heart to Satan. Bitterness and animosity must be banished from the soul if we would be in harmony with heaven." 1

As we study the pertinent Scriptures and these supporting thoughts from Ellen White, we discover that anger has at least these good purposes:

  •  Anger may appropriately defend God's name and cause. Jesus was angry at the attitude and behaviors of individuals toward God, His worship, and His house (Matt. 21:12; Mark 11:15; John 2:14-17).
  • Anger may appropriately demonstrate opposition to all forms of injustice and oppression of the innocent. All human beings are to be treated with dignity, respect, and justice, because they have been created in God's image and redeemed at great cost by Jesus Christ. Jesus was angry at the attitude and behavior shown toward the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1-5). Nehemiah and David reacted against injustice (Neh. 5:6; 2 Sam. 12:5). Mistreatment of innocent human beings and failure to treat all with justice should arouse anger in us.
  • Anger may signal the need to address issues that affect our personal sense of dignity, respect, and worth. Anger is an early warning system that protects our own sense of personal worth and dignity. When we are denigrated by others, healthy anger in us fights acceptance of their assessment of us. One author likens it to a smoke alarm in your home or a squeak in the motor of your car warning of some trouble to which attention needs to be given.2 Oliver and Wright add: "[Anger] is a message system telling us that something is not right. We may be hurt, our needs may be unmet, our rights have been violated, or we have recognized an injustice. Anger tells us that there is something in our life that needs to be ad dressed."3
  • Anger may also serve to alert us that something is amiss in relationships. When people are angry with each other, they may find it helpful to reframe the anger as a warning that there are issues that need to be addressed rather than viewing their anger as necessarily all bad. Processing the anger thus may reveal that boundaries have been inappropriately crossed and personal space has been invaded. Or perhaps one is being manipulated or taken advantage of by another, and so on.
  • Anger limits the acceptance of abuse. Abuse is an extraordinary expression of in justice and oppression, the exploitation of an individual in what should be an intimate, trusting relationship. Anger in the abused individual is a reliable warning indicator of the violation. It stimulates action to limit the abuse and secure self-protection. For example, the psalmist experienced anger at his mistreatment and rightfully gave voice to his distress, sought help, and called out for a redress of the wrong done to him (Ps. 4; compare Ps. 7:1, 6, 10; 35:1, 2, 4, 17, 23, 24; Luke 18:3-8).

When anger harms relationships

Persons of varying temperament and life experience handle anger in different ways. Venting, suppressing, and processing are typical ways of relating to anger. By their nature the first two of these are more harmful than helpful to relationships.

  • Venting. Vented anger includes verbal outbursts that range from raised tones of voice, crying, and screaming to shouting, cursing, or hurling insults. The release may be physical and range from stomping about, throwing objects, and slamming doors to violent and abusive treatment of animals or persons. Vented anger often has the effect of shutting down responses from opposition and pushing them back to what feels like a safe distance. In some temperaments, vented anger may soon dissipate after the verbal or physical outburst. However, such anger inevitably leads to alienation in relationships. It is the kind of anger expression most commonly condemned by Christians, because of its obvious display and harmful effects.
  • Suppressing. Suppression is pushing down anger inside, making it less visible. There maybe outright denial of the feeling, an attempt to seek peace at any price, or an attitude of "Let's just forget it." Other manifestations include putting up a sweet, phony front to camouflage the anger, silence to punish, criticism, nagging, or passive-aggressive behavior.

In the case of one professional couple we know, the husband was very forceful and would display the fireworks of his anger for all to see. His pet peeve was his wife's tardiness in keeping appointments. He, however, insisted on punctuality and would start the car and back it out of the garage—his way of prodding her to hurry. If this failed to bring results, he would angrily honk the horn. Her response was an angry one also, but of the passive-aggressive sort. Instead of coming to the car, she would leisurely stroll through her flower garden in the backyard, plucking off dead blossoms, pulling a stray weed here and there, and sniffing the aroma of her roses. In her own good time she got into the car.

Suppressed anger is anger stored. It will usually reappear forcefully, perhaps with only the slightest "last-straw" provocation. Research indicates that suppressed anger has detrimental effects upon health, including greater incidence of heart disease, cancer, accidents, suicide, and earlier age of death.4

Since they do not manifest the readily identifiable characteristics of venters, suppressors may rest in the false belief that they either don't get angry or that they are handling anger in acceptable ways. Suppressed anger, however, almost always leads at the very least to low-key hostility in relationships.

Rage. For some, anger being vented or suppressed in their relationships may transcend normal ranges and far surpass that which could in any way be construed as appropriate to the circumstances. Rage, as this intense anger has been named, has complex characteristics beyond our scope here. Bussert suggests that the cultural socialization of males often deprives them of normal feeling responses. "The so-called heart emotions such as sadness, hurt, disappointment, regret, feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability, are all channeled into and given expression in one single emotion— explosive anger."5

Oliver and Wright point out that explosive rage and fury exhibited by both men and women in adulthood is related to overcontrol as well as denial and repression of anger in one's family during childhood. It is not uncommon to find rage in adult survivors of child abuse. We strongly suggest that pastoral families seek intervention from a professional counselor in circumstances that indicate rage or when there are other manifestations of anger out of control.

Processing: how to be angry without sinning

While anger is our enemy when it is vented or suppressed, it can become our friend when it is processed. Processing an ger involves several steps:

  • Acknowledge the emotion. Those with a positive approach to anger permit others to be angry and to report this anger immediately without a sense of guilt, as easily as they report being hungry or tired. They agree never to attack, blame, put down, or belittle each other for acknowledging the feeling. While they realize that the anger may reside in only one of them, they make a commitment to work on it and resolve it together when it gets expressed in the relationship.
  • Share in a nonproblem time. The heat of the anger may prevent the resolution of the issues that need attention. Allow sufficient time for emotions to calm down. Then revisit the issues or events that stimulated the anger and discuss them. Patience with each other is important. People differ in how speedily they each can address an anger is sue. Do not assume that because anger has passed, the issues are thereby resolved. "Sweeping things under the rug" only creates a bigger and bigger bulge that will eventually cause someone to stumble and fall.
  • Listen for feelings. Listen for feelings and accept one another, even though the feelings expressed may be difficult to understand. Anger is generally undergirded by other emotions such as sadness, disappointment, hurt feelings, fear, frustration, or lowered self-esteem. Processing anger gets us back to these primary emotions. By getting behind the anger we can learn important things about ourselves and others with whom we are in relationship. We can clear up misunderstandings, clarify expectations, and find better ways of meeting one another's needs, respecting boundaries and preserving each other's dignity and worth. Learning to recognize and respond to the more primary emotions as they appear can actually defuse many potentially angry situations.
  • Resolve conflicts so that everyone wins. Anger that arises out of unmet needs can not be resolved merely by bringing it up to the surface for discussion. A follow-up response is needed to resolve the issue behind the anger in ways that leave everyone involved feeling that their perspective has been heard and their needs met.
  • Affirm any attempt to work through anger constructively. At the foundation of much of our anger are perceived attacks on our personal worth. The willingness to listen and process another's angry feelings can itself be affirming when it springs from genuine warmth and empathy. Assurances that anger by itself does not make one a bad per son or remove one from the circle of God's love or family love provide additional comfort and often speed recovery. Look for further ways to encourage and strengthen the angry person's wounded sense of personal worth. Because of sin, many of us harbor the internal conviction that we are flawed human beings. Anger then becomes a desperate means of protecting ourselves and of guarding from others discovering the awful truth we have come to believe and about which we feel so helpless.

Jesus the healer

Jesus can bring healing to our damaged emotions. The answer to our inner sense of worthlessness can be found only in Him who created us and redeemed us and be stowed inestimable worth upon us, not for who we are or anything we have done, but because of who He is and what He has done. By our positive attitude toward each other in times of anger, by our commitment to work through this difficult emotion, by tuning our own hurting hearts with the hurting hearts of the others nearest us, we can be Christ's instruments to convey the mes sage of His love and value and to achieve the intimacy we long for in our families.

1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898),
p. 310.

2 See David Mace, Love and Anger in Marriage
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1982).

3 Gary Jackson Oliver and H. Norman Wright,
When Anger Hits Home (Chicago: Moody Press,
1992), p. 22.

4 See Oliver and Wright.
5 Joy M. K. Bussert, Battered Women: From a
Theology of Suffering to an Ethic of Empowerment

(New York: Lutheran Church in America, 1986),
pp. 44,45.

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Ron and Karen Flowers are directors of family ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

July 1997

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