I get it when I’m angry about the big stuff. Once a friend conned me out of $3500; I was angry. Once a project at work was single-handedly held up for nearly a year by a regulator who kept changing the rules on us; I was angry. It makes sense.
What baffles me is the irrational anger. Recently I read about a 120-foot rusted metal barricade, installed as a “sculpture”, that defaced a public plaza in Manhattan from 1981-89. I was furious for days. Over a problem I never saw, already resolved for more than 25 years. “Oooh, for a short time decades ago, certain million-dollar views weren’t quite as nice as they should have been!” What?
Anger is often a symptom
One of the best sermons I ever heard was in the late 1990s by Jay Mitchell called “I’m Angry! Now What?” He made the point that anger can be like a fire alarm— it is obvious and loud, but in the final analysis, it is only distantly related to the actual problem. The noise is caused by the smoke, which is coming from the fire. The urgent problem is to find the fire; only a fool would waste time trying to deal with the noise. Yet this is the most common reaction to anger: we fire both barrels at whatever set us off, without a moment’s pause to look for an actual source.
Once I was temping at an escrow office, and an agent was trying to close a deal, expecting some important documents. To do him a favor, the moment they arrived, I got up from my desk and walked them a block down the street to his office. The next day, he called my boss and demanded that I be fired. I never found out what perceived slight had made me the object of his wrath, but I have often wondered: Where in his life was the volcano of anger that erupted onto me as an essentially innocent bystander? And did he ever find it and extinguish it? (By the way, my boss did not fire me; she dropped that agent as a customer instead… “Oft doth evil mar itself.”)
“In your anger, do not sin”
I’ll never know what was going on in that agent’s life, but I can be inspired by that example to pause and reflect before I lash out in anger. Dealing constructively with anger is a part of life, and the bible has a lot of really sound advice about it, but the overarching principle comes from Psalm 4:4: “In your anger, do not sin.” I may never have sinned by calling someone’s boss to get them fired, but I have certainly blown it plenty of other times in my life. (Read: “reply-all button”.)
To deal with your anger by simply stifling it… this is little better than dealing with the fire alarm by ignoring it
The only solution he could imagine was to have unlimited endurance that could never be exhausted, so that he could continue to stifle his feelings in perpetuity. I urged him, instead, to consider trying to deal with the issue. His response to this was, “No, that’s what I just said: when I run out of patience and try to deal with the issue, that’s when the wheels come off and everything falls apart.” To him, “dealing with the issue” was synonymous with unconstructively blowing up at his partner. However, I do not think this is what scripture has in mind when it says to “ponder in your heart and be silent.”
“When the fire is out”
Instead, I think the biblical picture here is to take time, cool off, and reflect. I once had a friend who was so intent on taking Ephesians 4:26 literally and verbatim that, if she and her husband got into a fight close to sunset, she would insist on having it out right then. Some of their most heated arguments occurred that way. (A good example of the need to seek biblical advice in prayer, and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit— not legalistically.) They finally learned that, if they were having issues with each other in the evening, they were much better off going to bed (there’s a literal verse application for you: “pondering in their bed”), and dealing with it fresh in the morning. Turned out most of the friction in their marriage had come from forcing serious discussions at the end of the day while they were both exhausted.
We may try to fight small fires ourselves, but in a big fire, by far the best course of action is to find a place of safety for ourselves and our loved ones, and to call in outside help. In the same way, few of our problems are created by ourselves alone, and few can be resolved by ourselves alone. Yet we often turn to secrecy because we find our problems embarrassing. Can you imagine declining to call the fire department out of similar reasoning? Trusted friends, pastors, counsellors… all can be part of helping us find, and resolve, the root causes of our anger.
Once the fire is put out— once we do not feel that hot anger rising in our cheeks— real work can be accomplished for good. In a building, if the problem is faulty wiring, that problem will still be there the next morning, and can be much more constructively addressed then. Whereas, there is a very good reason electricians don’t try to work on buildings while they are burning.