All human beings are emotional creatures. We react to external stimuli. Some emotions like love, romance and hope are edifying. Some like fear and suspicion are incapacitating. Still others like anger, greed and jealousy if uncontrolled, can make us less than human.
Every person is born with a temperament. It influences everything we do. Part of it is inherited from our parents through our genes. Part we imbibe through our environment, our education and the values we absorb as we interact with people and the world around us. We establish our own personal boundaries and we are angry when people abuse or violate these boundaries.
Anger is not a forbidden trait. It is God-given and built into our system for our benefit. Thomas Fuller calls it ‘the sinew of our souls.’ Anyone who says he is never angry is a liar. A day rarely goes by without us feeling some form of anger. We human beings consider ourselves rational creatures. We have the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong. It is in the management of anger that we reveal our capacity to act responsibly and be accountable to ourselves, while showing respect to others. Anger is like a small fire. We can use it to warm ourselves or we can stoke it into an inferno that will destroy us as well as the person against whom it is directed. It brings to mind the tale of the two cats of Kilkenny.
“There once were two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many;
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till excepting their nails
And the tip of their tails,
Instead of two cats there weren’t any.”
Anger has tremendous potential for good and evil. As Dostoevsky said, “It is Nature exerting her rights.”
Anger has its functions. It alerts us to the fact that we are being hurt or violated and that something is not as it should be. It energizes us to resist attempts by others to influence us. It fuels our emotional defences and helps us identify what is acceptable or unacceptable, and protects us from being abused or taken for granted.
Anger can be expressed or remain unexpressed. It can be a mild vexation at something that is considered a nuisance like someone tapping his foot on the ground continuously or digging his nose publicly. Those who get annoyed over trivial matters have a low threshold for tolerance and are easily frustrated. They are likely to be moody or bristle at a touch like the ‘touch-me-not’ plant.
Anger may also be expressed in a sudden outburst and in a destructive or confrontational manner. It might result in aggressive behaviour resulting in harm to others or destruction of property. Such people have a tendency to blame everyone else for making them angry.
“A fool gives vent to his anger but a wise man keeps it under control.” Proverbs 29.11 (NIV)
Later, they may be remorseful. But the harm has already been done and cannot be undone.
Unexpressed anger however is dangerous. It builds up gradually in intensity leading to all kinds of pathological consequences. It is like ‘sand in the machinery of living,’ interferes with inner peace and renders people incapable of functioning to full capacity. Unexpressed anger becomes an emotional burden. William Blake in his poem “Poison Tree” says,
“I was angry with my friend, I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe, I told it not, my wrath did grow.”
Many of us are unaware that anger brings about physiological and biological changes that affect our health. Anger stimulates the adrenal glands to produce a surge of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. As a result there is an increase in heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, rapid breathing and even a rise in temperature. Frequent bouts of anger can lead to atrophy of some brain cells and even memory loss. “Carrying around a load of bitterness is stress inducing,” says Fred Luskin.
Another form of explosive anger is rage and may be due to neurological disease like brain tumours or brain trauma. This is distinct from other forms of anger and is beyond a person’s control. It needs medical intervention.
It is important to find the right strategy to deal with anger. It begins by acknowledging that you are angry. Is your anger justifiable or absurdly out of proportion? This is a time for introspection. Do you have a low level of frustration? If so the trouble begins with you. So be humble and honest enough to admit that you are wrong. The Bible counsels us on how to be angry.
“Be ye angry but sin not. Let not the sun go down on your wrath. Do not give the devil a foothold” Ephesians 4.26,27. (NIV)
Sleeping overnight with anger in your heart is poison to both body and soul. There is the possibility of a heart attack or cardiac arrest. Anger can cause stress and stress can generate anger, leading to physical and psychological problems.
An Australian nurse was asked by a friend how she always managed to be cheerful and good tempered. She said that as a girl she had a very bad temper. One day her mother said, “Anyone who angers you conquers you.” This put paid to her bad temper as she was unwilling to be anyone’s slave.
There are times when anger is justifiable. One of them is war and violence, leading to mass destruction of people and property. “There is something in the nature of modern life that promotes violence,” says Frank Moreas. Society is becoming fragmented through intolerance and suspicion. Terrorists and religious fundamentalists are causing the death of innocent people and leading to mass migration of the rest, as has happened to Syrians and the Rohingyas of Myanmar. We are angry against oppressive political regimes. We are angry because we are concerned about the safety and welfare of fellow human beings. The destruction of the environment through mass industrialization leading to Global warming is also a reason for justifiable anger. We hate the sin but not the sinner.
Even God who is ‘slow to anger and abounding in love’ can also be angry. This is not a blemish on His divinity. As Arthur Pinker says, “The wrath of God is the eternal detestation of all unrighteousness…… the displeasure and indignation of Divine equity against evil.”
But the anger we humans are prone to must be dealt in a constructive way. “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” James 1.20 (NIV)
We need to reflect prayerfully on our anger and deal with it. Forgiveness as the Bible tells us is the best antidote for anger. It brings down stress levels by 50%. Forgiveness does not mean condoning a fault. It means curbing resentment against the person who has caused us to be angry. To cancel any wrong it must be forgiven. Philip Yancy in his book “What’s so amazing about grace” says “Not to forgive is to imprison me and locks out all potential for change. I thus yield control to another, my enemy, and doom myself to suffer the consequences of wrong.”
Forgiveness does not come easily. We need to relinquish our anger at the feet of God, recalling how God has forgiven our sin. It is only through Christ’s grace that we receive power to forgive. “Never does a human soul appear strong and noble as when it forgoes revenge and dares to forgive,” says E.H.Chapin.
There is a time to be angry but it must be expressed with love and without sin.
“Get rid of bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as Christ in God forgave you.”
Ephesians 4: 31,32. (NIV)
As Corrie Ten Boom said, “Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free and realise that the prisoner is you.” In her book “The Hiding Place” she describes her own struggle to forgive. She was the survivor of a Nazi concentration camp.
Anger can be a self inflicted burden that will affect every aspect of our life until we make ourselves free and whole, through the act of forgiveness.