Getting Past Anger

by James Rudy Gray

The most prevalent problem in marriage relationships today is not a root cause of the problem, but a symptom: anger.

Psychiatrist William Glasser has stated, "External control causes almost all relationship problems." The complexity in this scenario is that once external control causes the problems, the same control seeks to solve the problems it has caused.

The truth is that no one likes to be controlled, but almost everyone enjoys the power and feeling that comes from having control. The really amazing observation is that we do not practice external control on long-term friends, but we do on bosses, subordinates, mates, children, parents, etc.  

Two of the top reasons a person uses anger are to achieve or maintain control, or to avoid being controlled. Anger is a secondary emotion that arises from more primary emotions like frustration or hurt.

Getting angry is not the problem. The problem is chronic anger. Getting angry is a response of the autonomic nervous system. The Bible says we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14). It is the choice we make immediately following this autonomic system reaction that is the key. Ephesians 4:26-27 says, "Be angry and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity." A person may feel the initial response of anger but that does not have to translate into expressing anger. As someone has noted, you cannot stop a bird from landing on your head but you can prevent it from building a nest.

Psychologist Carol Tavris has formulated five conditions that must be met before expressing anger can be effective:

1. ‑Is it directed at the person with whom you are angry?

2. ‑Does it satisfy your need to regain control and establish justice?

3. ‑Does it promote a change in behavior or give you new information about the person's behavior?

4. ‑Is it expressed in such a way that the anger has meaning to the other person?

5. ‑Does your expression encourage cooperation rather than retaliation?

It is not good to repress, express, or suppress anger. It is good to confess anger. Confessing anger is not an attack but rather a statement of feeling. Therefore, many Christian counselors emphasize confessing anger—to God, to a counselor, to a minister, to the person with whom one is angry. Confessing anger means rightly owning one's feelings. The emphasis is on how the angry person feels, not on revenge or attack.

Aristotle said, "Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy."

The major issues in most relationships among people deal with power and control. If external control is the leading cause of trouble in relationships and anger is one of the most common ways we combat control or enforce it, how can we help people see their anger problem? A few simple questions can be very insightful:

How often are you angry?

‑How angry do you get? (It can range from mild annoyance to rage.)

‑How long do you stay angry? (This is a key for determining the persistence of chronic anger in a person's life.)

How do you show your anger?

It is often good to explore how anger was handled in the family in which the client grew up. What were the family rules about anger? How was anger expressed? How did family members show other emotions?

Once the presence of chronic anger has been identified, then we seek to help people discover what is behind or feeding the anger. Remember, chronic anger is not a personality trait, it is an emotional condition. It is sin. Like any sin, it has to identified and confessed, and a new way of relating has to be learned. This is where it becomes vitally important to identify the pool of hurt, frustration, etc., that prompts the chronic anger.

A major biblical and theological truth that can have a significant impact on people who have trouble fighting control or being controlled is to grasp the realization that God is sovereign. We may fight for or against control, but God is truly in control. On that foundational truth, we can teach a person to learn new ways of looking at frustrations, hurts, etc. When a person knows that God is in control, that knowledge is often enough to soothe the initial feeling of anger.

Part of being free is knowing that God is sovereign. A Christian is still responsible for his behavior and choices. However, he or she can learn to respond much differently. It is interesting that we do not use external control with long term friends. If a person can live as God's friend, he can also be free to be a friend to others.

James Rudy Gray is certified as
a professional counselor by the
National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the
American Association of Christian Counselors. He pastors Utica Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C.

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