By Heather Caliri, Crosswalk.com
I still remember the first time I got enraged in my marriage. When I couldn’t sleep, I got up and wrote my husband a three-page letter.
The letter is lost to time, but I’ll give you the synopsis: You’re a nincompoop.
No, I have no idea what the disagreement was about. This was almost twenty years and thousands of arguments (and reconciliations) ago. So was at fault for my anger? Well, to that, I have a clearer answer.
I don’t think anyone was at fault. In fact, I think “fault” is entirely the wrong word to describe my anger. Webster’s says a fault is “a failure to have or do what is required…flaw; failing; imperfection; defect.”
But is feeling angry a failure?
No. Instead, anger is part of our God-given emotional toolbox. Need proof? There are a number of instances of divine anger in the Bible—just look up Jesus flipping tables in the temple.
In a fallen world, feeling anger is a natural response to our encounters with the effects of brokenness. God made us emotional beings on purpose.
Anger is not unlike fire: its effect is all about how it’s used. Used well, fire can warm a room or power a car. Used irresponsibly, it’s destructive.
So instead of talking about fault, let’s talk about responsibility. Who bears responsibility for our anger, and why? And what does that tell us about how to manage anger in a Christ-centered way?
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God Is Responsible for Your Anger
Let me clarify what I mean here: I don’t mean that God causes your anger, or is morally responsible for your anger. But God is responsible for creating humans to be emotional beings.
Wonder why? Consider what happens when they disappear. People with brain injuries to their emotional centers become completely rational and ALSO unable to make good decisions. In a radio show about emotions, the podcast Radiolab described a man, called Elliot by researchers, whose lack of emotions incapacitated him—it took him half an hour to decide what color ink to sign his name with. Eventually, Elliot lost his job, his marriage, and experienced financial catastrophe.
Why is this? First, our emotions provide a quick reference guide to past experience. Without them, we experience a kind of leprosy of the heart—we cannot quickly sort through options with the wisdom of the past.
Emotions also help us maintain healthy relationships. In their book Boundaries, Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend explain that emotions help us establish limits. “One of the first signs that you’re beginning to develop boundaries is a sense of resentment, frustration, or anger at the subtle and not-so-subtle violations in your life. Just as radar signals the approach of a foreign missile, your anger can alert you to boundary violations….”
God is not asking you to see anger as a failure. He is asking you to learn to use it appropriately. Which brings us to the next person who bears responsibility for your anger—you.
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You Are Responsible for Acting on Your Emotions Maturely
My therapist once told me that emotions are like indicator lights in a car. They let you know something is awry so you can fix it.
I was shocked. I had no idea anger served a positive purpose.
If your car had indicator lights on, it would be unwise to:
- Ignore the lights,
- Scream at passersby, blaming for them for your misfortune, or
- Get angry at the car for shining red light in your face.
Instead, the responsible thing is to stop, figure out what the indicator light is telling you, and address the source of the problem—whether on your own (getting gas) or with professional help (getting your carburetor replaced). It is also a good idea to do all of this as calmly as possible, without being unkind to any people stuck in the car with you.
What does this mean for anger? Now that I’ve learned how to handle anger productively, I have stopped asking who’s at fault for my anger. Instead, I get curious.
- Why do I feel angry?
- How could I address this problem with the person I’m angry at?
- Is there anything I need to do to care for myself or get support?
- How could I talk to God about this experience?
Getting curious about the source of our anger—and all our emotions—is a powerful act of discernment. Curiosity helps us take responsibility for our emotions and use them to love others and ourselves well.
Once we’ve gotten curious, we need to act on our next steps with as much calm, loving intention as we can. This is hard when emotions are overwhelming, but our perseverance and self-control brings manifold blessings into our lives and relationships.
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Your Past Is Responsible for Your Anger
You remember how I said emotions are like a shorthand reference guide to past experiences?
Well, this can overwhelm us.
Trauma in our past amplifies our anger, making it even harder to deal with—and especially important to address. Part of my struggle in my marriage has been discerning when I’m angry at my husband, and when I’m re-living deep wounds that have little to do with him.
Often times, as Christians, we believe that because of Jesus, our painful pasts disappear. But frankly, I don’t think that’s a biblical view. The ancient Jews constantly looked to the past to understand, as evidenced by the repetition of key stories—some triumphant, but many painful—in Psalms, laments, and histories. Sometimes, this was to grieve. Sometimes, it helped them know what to do differently.
Early Christians also hung onto the past. The Gospel writers constantly reference the Hebrew Bible to help them understand Jesus. And Paul remembers his time as a persecutor and Pharisee to explain the transformative power of Christ.
Our emotional lives in the present help us understand our pasts more clearly, and vice versa. Anger connected to our pasts tells us we have more healing work to do. Wise Christians notice those emotions, then actively seek help to address old wounds. Every bit of our past suffering can be redeemed.
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The Other Person Has Responsibility—for Their Actions, and for Acknowledging Your Feelings
Before I learned about emotions, I often blamed my husband for it—and then we’d argue about whether my anger was justified. But arguing about my anger distracted us from a much more important question.
It’s this: how could my husband and I work together to find a mutually beneficial solution to prevent more anger from occurring?
If you feel angry after someone does something, it’s a red herring to argue about whether the anger is justified, or irrational, or who is at fault for it. Like it or not, the anger exists. What’s essential is discussing why it arose, acknowledging its impact, and figuring out how to handle similar incidents in the future.
Sometimes, the anger is justified. In my marriage, both my husband and I have acted in hurtful ways. When we take the anger seriously, it helps us name what happened and reconcile.
Other times, our anger is misplaced. Occasionally, I get angry at something my husband says only to realize, after further discussion, that I misunderstood him. But the anger is still important to discuss and explore—otherwise, I could carry resentment, never realizing it’s baseless.
In counseling, our therapist had us practice simply listening to each other and then repeating back what we heard. This technique, called mirroring, helped us uncover not only what the other person meant, but any faulty interpretations of what they were saying. It helped us, as 1 Corinthians 13:7 proclaims, to “believe the best” of each other in love.
When someone tells us something we did hurt them, paying attention and listening well is the first and best action we can take to respond. Taking others’ emotions seriously, and digging into what they mean, helps us treat each other with the deep love Christ calls us to.
Hearts, Souls, Minds and Strength
Emotions are messy, unruly, often unwelcome—but essential nonetheless. Rather than asking Jesus to erase them, shaming ourselves for feeling them, or blaming others for causing them, we can instead use them as a guide to our heart’s desires, our deep needs, and how other people affect us.
Of course, emotions on their own are often unhelpful. As Deuteronomy commands, we need heart, soul, mind, and strength to love God well—and, I’d argue, other people. Our hearts remind us of past lessons and notice how people’s actions affect us. Our rational brains help us organize chaotic emotions into helpful information. Our bodies and strength help ground us in the present moment and remember we’re human beings. Finally, our souls connect us to God and the Holy Spirit for divine guidance and power.
We need all parts of ourselves to live as wise children of God. And even our anger—so often unwelcome, confusing, or frightening—is part of how Jesus teaches us to love other people well.
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