In my last post I argued that anger is a severe problem we can’t ignore. Hopefully, you are convinced that you want to “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you with all malice” (Eph 4:31). But even if you despise your anger, you may not believe you will ever make progress against it. However, the Scriptures tell a different story. This post will offer practical counsel for overcoming anger.
#1 Believe that change is possible.
Sadly, many angry Christians believe their anger is uncontrollable and undefeatable; therefore, they put little effort into change. However, the gospel, the Spirit, and the Word are sufficient to make progress against any sinful pattern. God promises, “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue” (2 Pet 1:3). As a result, there is always hope and power for change in the gospel. It is up to us to believe this power is ours and to draw on it through walking by the Spirit (Gal 5:16).
On a practical level, it’s helpful to recognize that you probably have more control than you realize. For example, you may think that you can’t control your temper when life is stressful and the kids are screaming. However, you consistently control your temper when losing it would cost something you value. For example, you can’t truly say, “I couldn’t help but lose my temper with how my kids were acting on the way to church,” if you are suddenly able to put on a happy face when you walk into the building. As well, if you are able to keep it together when work is highly stressful, there’s no reason you can’t stay calm when you step on a Lego or another driver cuts you off. Unfortunately, our families are often the worst victims of our anger, because we don’t value the peacefulness of our homes as much as we should. While it’s painful to consider these examples, they also offer great hope. If you can control your temper when you really want to, you can control it all the time. The challenge is that you must learn to hate your anger and its destructive power and to value obedience to the Lord, peace in your home, etc.
#2 Address the heart issues feeding anger.
I mentioned in my last post that all sinful anger can be traced to discontentment or frustration with the purpose of God. As a result, no matter who or what is the present focus of our anger, we are fundamentally angry at God. Therefore, if I am going to overcome anger, I must be honest about my lack of confidence in God and submission to his will, and I must repent over these attitudes. Then I must develop a heart of humility, faith, dependence, thanksgiving, and submission.
Another common source of anger is bitterness over past wrongs. Bitter people often act irrationally. They blow up over the most minor wrongs. Others are always angry for seemingly no reason. Wayne Mack states,
“I remember a counseling occasion in which a man actually said that he was going to leave his wife because ‘she didn’t close the dresser drawers’…The truth, of course, was that this man…was upset about the drawers plus a thousand other things that had accumulated over the years. The drawers had simply become the focal point of his growing anger.
Whenever we see a person responding with an unusual amount of emotion and anger to what most people would consider a miniscule thing, we can be sure that person has had much unexpressed anger, simmering under the surface, from prior events. This person’s response to that one problem was really a reaction to that and many other things that he has not dealt with because he was not resolving his anger on a regular basis” (Anger and Stress Management God’s Way, p. 40).
Therefore, we must drive out bitterness and anger and replace them with forgiveness. Ephesians 4:31–32 states, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” If you are angry all the time, or you lose it over the smallest things, very likely you have deeper issues. You must identify the bitterness and anger deep in your heart. Then Ephesians 4:32 commands you to view how you have been wronged in light of the forgiveness you have received. In light of the gospel, a Christian has no right to harbor bitterness and resentment. Confess it, forsake it, and replace it with grace.
#3 Develop habits that feed patience and joy.
As with most sins, the fundamental answer to anger is to walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:16) so that you manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23). After all, if your heart is filled with love, joy, etc., there won’t be much room for anger and bitterness. Therefore, the first step to overcoming anger is a disciplined life of godliness in the strength of the Spirit. Practice the spiritual disciplines, consistently obey, lean on the Lord’s strength, and cultivate a broad foundation of godliness. As you do so, anger will lose its foothold.
With this foundation in place, develop other habits that will help you replace anger with joy and grace. First, break the habit of speaking and acting impulsively. Instead, learn to step back and to rationally and calmly evaluate the situation. Provers 29:11 states, “A fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back” (Prov 29:11). This is important because sinful anger is always irrational. Our perspective is skewed, and we aren’t thinking with eyes of faith. Therefore, calmly ask, “What is the source of my anger? Why does this make me angry? Is it really a big deal? Am I reflecting selfishness, pride, and discontentment, or is my anger legitimate?” Then ask yourself, “What do I need to believe about God? How does the Bible say I should respond to this circumstance?”
Second, develop a habit of turning selfish anger into selfless love and patience (Eph 4:31–32). Remember your own faults and your need for mercy. Then lovingly and mercifully consider the person who hurt you. “Does he even realize he hurt me? Is there something going on in his life that has him distracted or hurting? How can I disciple him through the sin he committed against me?” This simple change of perspective makes a massive difference.
Third, learn how to move on constructively. Much of the time, you should simply forget about the wrong. Proverbs 10:12 states, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins.” Provide others with a cushion of grace instead of bouncing every mistake back in their faces. At other times the cause of your anger needs to be confronted because it reflects deeper heart issues or because it will continue to strain the relationship. In these cases, wait until you are in a calm state of mind and then address the issue with humility, mercy, and love.
Don’t resign yourself to a life of anger. It’s a miserable way to live, and it brings misery on everyone around you. But most importantly, God commands you to put off anger, and he provides the strength to overcome as you discipline yourself toward a life of love, joy, peace, and patience. In my final post of this series, I’ll offer some practical help for discipling others who struggle with anger.