By G. Wade Rowatt
Anger is a normal reaction to being hurt, threatened, or experiencing a loss. I have observed that some ministers live with anger much of the time. Oftentimes this anger goes unnoticed and unexpressed. While some angers are managed routinely, a few larger ones should not be overlooked. We either work through these constructively or try to hide them.
The hidden ones come out in different ways. Some are expressed through sarcasm, contempt, cynicism, irony or mockery. Others may inappropriately be expressed in an angry outburst, yelling, ugly words, crude gestures, gossip, or throwing things. A few people may resort to threats, gossip, public demonstrations, physical attacks, or plotting retribution. Venting anger in inappropriate ways can harm our relationships, destroy communities of faith, or even get us fired.
At times this “unaddressed” anger leads to withholding attention, icy relations, withdrawing support, or loss of loving feelings. Repressed anger can hurt us. It is a root of depression, despair, and loss of hope. We may lose interest in everyday activities; we may sleep too much or too little; we may have difficulty starting or completing a project; we may feel down or tired much of the time; we may ruminate about how bad life seems; and we may want to give up and run away. Trying to hide anger can ruin our relationships and drive us into a deep dark funk.
Anger is not a sin. The Bible tells us to “Be angry, but to sin not.” This is a clear admonishment to face our anger and learn to express it in non-sinful ways. But where do we learn these constructive approaches to anger? We may have learned them and other negative patterns from our family and playmates as children. Many of us learned them as adults from books, workshops, friends, clinical pastoral counseling, or therapy.
Healthy anger can lead to stronger relationships. The family (church) that fights fair and solves issues before they get out of hand grows together. Their bonds are stronger. Their peace is more stable. Their reconciliation creates a common story that draws them into deeper sharing. They can work together more effectively.
The process of expressing healthy anger can be learned and practiced. The first step in the process is to recognize the anger before it controls us. It is important to listen to our tone, feel our internal hurt, and know we are upset. We claim the anger by admitting we feel it. This enables us to acknowledge the anger and voice it positively. We can give it a name. What words express how we feel? Are we miffed, upset, annoyed, mad, disappointed, frustrated, agitated, irritated, engaged or furious? Whichever word fits the situation needs expressing. “I feel _________!” is a good start to dealing with anger.
Identify the source of the anger by determining what hurt, disappointed, or threatened us. This may require a period of quiet reflection or time for talking it out with a confidant. Next, decide who is responsible. Sometimes it is our own fault. Anger at ourselves is a moment of truth that can bring transformation when we face it. Often our unmet expectations are disappointed. Perhaps someone hurt us by her/his actions (or lack of action). To find the “because” and “at” of our anger gives it an aim. Now we can say, “I am _____at______ because ____________________.” For example, “I am mad at you because you lied to me.”
For some of us the fear of overreacting causes us to stuff our anger. We have not learned to tame our anger. Others need to learn to speak up and not underplay their anger. They must increase it to be taken seriously. They need to learn to flame their anger. In either case the issue is to adjust the intensity according to the context. This is best done by answering the question of how strongly do we feel this anger. On a scale of one to ten, what do we feel? Now we can put it all together and say, “I feel angry at you because you hurt me and it is pretty big (little, mild, or medium).”
After recognizing, understanding, and expressing our anger, we stand ready to hear the feelings of others and to talk things out. We can define the issues, seek alternatives, and hopefully find a mutually satisfying new solution. We may need to offer and receive forgiveness as a part of the negotiation. Reconciling after an honest outburst of anger is much stronger than pulling away in anger, depression, and broken relationships. Making up is the best part of any angry exchange.
If we cannot handle our anger, or if we need guidance in dealing with it constructively, we can seek outside help. A great starting place would be Andrew Lester’s new book, The Angry Christian, or an old favorite like Theodore Rubin’s The Angry Book. We could get in a professional support group or seek out a pastoral counselor that will guide us in how to be angry and sin not.
Dr. G. Wade Rowatt is Director of the Saint Matthews Pastoral Counseling Center, Louisville ,Kentucky . For over 20 years he was Professor of Pastoral Care at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville .