Managing Anger

Ephesians 4:26-27, Jonah 4:1-11

5 December 1999

Greyfriars Church


Some of our emotions can be overwhelmingly powerful, can't they? We can be almost literally consumed by emotions like love, anger, jealousy, joy and pain. They can turn our lives upside-down. They are seemingly not under our control, but rather, often control us.

Why do we feel these things so deeply within us? Where do they come from?

I believe that we feel these things because God feels these things. Throughout the Bible we find examples of God experiencing all these emotions: love, anger, jealousy, joy and pain.

These emotions are part of us because they are part of God, and we are made in God's image. Some people would say that we have anthropomorphised God: that is, we have created a God who is like us, because we don't know any better. But if this were true, why would we have made Him holy?

No, the truth is more like this: God has theomorphised us. God has made us in his own image, and our deepest emotions reflect what is already going on in the very heart of God. We love because God loves; we get angry because God gets angry.

But characteristically, of course, we have spoiled and corrupted these things in our lives, just as we have spoiled and corrupted most of the rest of the world, so it's no longer always easy to see God's image in us.

The result of this is that for many today love is just a byword for sexual immorality, a synonym for lust. Anger and jealousy in our world are so often destructive, whereas God's anger is always used to acheive righteous ends: it is constructive. Instead of the depths of joy in God's heart, so many now know only the drug-induced rush of cocaine or heroin. And instead of using our emotional pain to drive us to put right the wrongs, we just numb it with a haze of tranquilizers, alcohol and hedonism.

Anyway, our theme this evening is anger, or more specifically, managing anger. So let's see what the Bible has to say on the matter of God's anger and ours.

Anger in the Bible

God is provoked to anger many times in the Bible by people's hearts going astray (Heb 3:10), or following other god's (Deut 6:11), or idolatry among his people (the Golden Calf, Exodus 32:9,10). Again and again people's sin provokes God to anger, wrath even.

Likewise, Jesus was provoked to anger by the stubborn hearts of the Pharisees. In Mark chapter three Jesus wants to heal a man on the sabbath, but they are more concerned about their own laws than about God's compassion. It says Jesus looked round at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn heartsref he healed the man.

On another occasion Jesus drove the moneylenders out of the temple with a whip because they were defiling his Father's house. Jesus had just cause to be angry, and, being Jesus, expressed it appropriately.

Other people are rightly angry in the Bible as well. For example, Moses was also angry about the golden calf incident, and when reading Galatians, it's hard to miss Paul's anger about the false teaching in the church.

Can you spot a theme here? There are things it is right to be angry about: the same things that God is angry about; the things that dishonour Him.

In each case the result was constructive: God came up with a plan of salvation; Jesus was spurred-on to heal, despite the Pharisees, and to clear his father's house. Paul was motivated to write his letter to the Galatians and defend God's truth.

There are causes it is right to get angry about, and right responses to that anger. But as I said in the introduction, we far more often get it wrong than right.

Our Anger

So what about our anger? What provokes us to anger, and how do we deal with it? I'd like you to think for a moment about the last time or two that you were really angry. What provoked you to anger? Why were you angry? And what did you do about it? How did you express your anger?

So, in the light of that exercise would you describe yourself as a Spewer or a Stewer?


There are two main ways in which people respond to their anger. The spewers just spew it out over whoever provoked them. A spewer is someone with a hot temper, a short fuse, someone who 'sees red'.

It's what we see regularly on the football pitch: the frustrated players who suddenly explode and start verbally or physically abusing the referee, or one of the opposition.

Unfortunately this kind of behaviour is not confined to the football pitch. We often see it in the world around us. For example in road rage: I've seen apparently sane and rational people do the most appalling and dangerous things on the roads at trivial provocation. I've seen people injure themselves by punching walls and smashing windows in their rage. Or what about taking out one's frustration on some poor call-centre employee who had nothing to do with whatever's gone wrong. When the faceless institutions have messed us around we sometimes just want to snap, don't we? But it's a clearly inappropriate thing to do. And which of us hasn't seen in the supermarket a parent yelling with fury at their child?

Do you often 'have a go at someone'? If so, then you are probably a spewer.

This is the advice of Proverbs to the spewers amonst us: A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.ref and further on An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sinsref.

Spewing out our feelings, letting it all out, giving full vent to our anger is a foolish thing to do. It far too easily leads us into sin.

How many of us haven't said something we regret in the heat of the moment? Or needlessly destroyed something: a possesion, or a relationship? Giving full vent to our anger really does make a fool out of us.

So, A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.ref That's fair enough, but we also need to beware of the opposite extreme. We are not to be spewers, but we are not to be stewers either.


A stewer is someone who bottles up his or her anger, trying to bury it. Apparently self-controlled, this kind of person is smouldering on the inside.

But the Bible has a warning for stewers as well. The passage we had read earlier from Ephesians says 'In your anger do not sin' : Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a footholdref.

You see, anger rarely goes away by itself. It is not made better by ignoring it. Stewing in our anger, nursing our grievances, will lead us into sin just as surely as venting our anger does, for it gives the devil a foothold.

I have to confess to you that I am much more of a stewer than a spewer. I rarely give full vent to my anger in the heat of the moment. Frankly, I'm not brave enough. What tends to happen is that I will internalise my rage. I'll pick over it and revisit it, my anger growing, but still bottled up inside. When I am truly angry it is hard to think about anything else. The anger doesn't go away; it is like a poison. And then my thoughts turn to revenge, which is when the devil really gets a foothold. I can become obsessed with going over and over again how I can get my own back. It's ugly, isn't it? My anger turns me into the opposite of someone who loves, because love keeps no record of wrongs.

As an example of this, some while ago I was knocked off my bike by a car driver doing something very stupid [the driver, not me]. But I wasn't hurt, and the bike was all right. Nonetheless I burned with rage inside. I happened to remember the number plate of the car, and as time went by I became obsessed with getting revenge. So for weeks after that event I kept an eye out for the car. I would take different routes to work so that I had more chance of finding it. I fantasized about slashing the tyres or breaking the windows. It's nasty, isn't it? Thankfully for me, I never saw the car again.

So this is the danger of stewing in our anger. It poisons our relationships with unforgiveness, it leads us to hatred, and it can make us depressed as our internal worlds are disordered by it. These things are what happen when we give the devil a foothold in our lives.

So, the verse says, do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.ref Somehow we need to find a constructive way of dealing with our anger which is neither of our usual tendencies of Spewing or Stewing.

Dealing with anger

First, the spewer needs to learn some self-control, how to avoid giving full vent to his or her anger. As Proverbs says, Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a cityref.

The Spewer must practice the habit of thinking first and speaking later. As the Apostle James says Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.ref Thinking first and speaking later is a good habit to have in any case, for as Proverbs says, Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongueref.

But it's not so easy to hold your tongue when the anger is boiling up inside, is it? Some people recommend the NASA technique. Make sure you count down from ten before you blast off.

Personally, I prefer to recite the fruit of the Spirit, which are in Galatians chapter 5, the subject of next Sunday morning's sermon. When in danger of exploding I try to remember to recite love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self controlref. It's a pretty good antidote, isn't it. It's humbling when we realise that our venting our rage is the exact opposite of the fruit that the Spirit is trying to grow in us.

Sometimes it will be appropriate to say something, to show our anger. For example parents are sometimes angry with their children. [Is that right, any parents?] It's right that sometimes the children experience their parent's anger when they are being particularly naughty, just as the Israelites sometimes experienced God's anger against them. It's a normal part of parental disciple. But we must always make sure that our anger is under our control. There is no excuse for spewing it out on someone, particularly our children.

So it's good to learn not to spew out our anger, but we must take care that this remedy doesn't turn us into a stewer. We do need to get rid of our anger somehow.

First it's important to try to work out what has caused our anger. Why are we angry? Prayer will help us to do this. We do not need to be shy to bring our anger to God; to confess to him fully and frankly how we feel. It's important that we do this. When you are angry, pray!

As we pray and try to understand what has caused our anger, God may show us that we are right to be angry, or he might show us that we have no right to be angry.

No right to be angry

The reading we had earlier from Jonah is a case in point. It's worth turning in your Bibles to Jonah chapter 4.

Jonah is furious with God. He has been preaching judgement on Nineveh, and now God want to save it! Nineveh, a city full of the godless, heathen people. God wants to save them!

This doesn't fit in with Jonah's theology at all, so, as it says, Jonah was greatly displeased and became angryref, and he has a good rant at God.

So God asks Jonah a telling question, Have you any right to be angry?ref Clearly he thinks Jonah has no right to be angry in this case: God is God after all; he can save people if he wants to, whatever Jonah may think. Jonah has no answer, so God tries to teach him a lesson about anger.

Jonah sat himself down overlooking the city to wait, still hoping that his prophecy might come true and God would annihilate Nineveh. It's exposed and dry and hot, so he's pleased when God makes a vine grow to shade him. But the next day the vine dies and the harsh wind picks up, and so he becomes angry with God again.

God says to Jonah, do you have any right to be angry about the vine?ref Well, clearly he doesn't have any right to be angry. After all, Jonah chose to sit there, and God gave him a gift for a day. If Jonah learns this lesson, then maybe he will realise that he has no right to be angry about God saving Nineveh.

But Jonah doesn't learn his lesson. He replies I do—I do have a right to be angry—I am angry enough to dieref. Maybe that's an illustration of how our anger clouds our reason.

Basically, God is saying to Jonah, "Get some perspective Jonah, there are far more important things going on here than your personal comfort" .

Anyway, God wants us to be a bit quicker than Jonah. If in our anger we can bring ourselves to pray we may well hear God saying to us "Do you have any right to be angry? Do you have any right to be angry?" .

Most often our honest answer will have to be no, we don't have any right to be angry. We will be angry because our personal comfort has been attacked, or our beliefs have been challenged. We will be angry because we are selfish, or self-centred. So often we are angry because of some inconvenience or other. It's a question of perspective. When we start to see things from God's perspective, we may find that rather than anger our correct response should really be repentence. With the right perspective the anger will no longer trouble us.

Every right to be angry

But from time to time when we pray, we will find that, yes we do have a right to be angry. Perhaps someone has truly and deeply hurt us; or perhaps we are angry on someone else's behalf about an injustice of some sort.

In the first case, if someone has truly hurt us, then there is only one possible response that we are called to. [How should we respond when someone hurts us? Who said revenge?!] For a Christian, a forgiven person, our only right response is to forgive those who hurt us.

We frequently pray the Lord's prayer which contains these words, "Forgive us, as we forgive those who sin against us" . I have to tell you that I find those words really hard. I often find myself mumbling them, and desperately hoping that God's forgiveness of me is a bit more whole-hearted than my forgiveness of others. If God is as meager and unforgiving with me as I am with others, then frankly, I am in serious trouble.

But that's the point, isn't it? God has forgiven me everything. God's anger that we talked about earlier, was directed at me. God was angry with me, because I have offended him in so many ways.

When I am angry with someone, sometimes God begins to show me how much he has forgiven me, the overwhelming depths of the compassion he has for me. How, even when I was still a sinner, with my back turned to Him, he sent his Son to die for me.

As our reading in Ephesians goes on to say, Get rid of all 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 in Christ God forgave you.ref

Yes, as Christians, we are called to forgive in the same way that God has forgiven us. This may take much courage, it may mean more pain, it may mean facing rejection again. But God has given us his spirit in our hearts to help us to do this, and, believe me, God really knows about all these things.

As Christians we have no option but to forgive. Right after Jesus gives us the Lord's prayer he says this: If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sinsref.

As we wrestle with forgiveness, we can know that we are doing God's will, and he will heal our anger. This is a very positive way for us to use our anger. Please, if you are angry with someone tonight, I urge you to make every effort to forgive, and make whatever amends are necessary. The sun has already gone down, but it is not too late yet.

Sometimes though, forgiveness is not the issue. Perhaps we are angry about a cause like injustice, or about someone slandering God with false teaching, or a particular evil in the world.

In cases like this our anger is a great motivator to do something about it. It can be God's antidote to our indifference. Well-controlled anger is the sort of thing that leads people to do great tasks like causing the abolition of slavery, or sparking off the reformation, or campaigning against tyrannical dictators, or fighting drug smuggling.

This is what Jesus did with his anger. It motivated him to heal on the Sabbath. It motivated him to try to keep his father's house undefiled.

Maybe God has put that kind of anger in your heart, that kind of passion. In which case, go with it; use that energy, but take great care that you stay close to God, as our passions all too easily make us stray. As the Revised Standard translation puts it, Be angry, but do not sinref.