Counseling Anger

Anxiety.  Fear.  Depression. Anger.  We are collegiate missionaries and not counselors, yet we are regularly encountering these emotions among students on nearly every campus we serve.  Over the last 3 weeks, we jave been posting papers written by TJ Chesnut for a seminary class on Biblically counseling individuals experiencing these emotions.  Hopefully each paper will give you Scriptural direction as you relate with students.  - Andy

Description of the Problem

In defining anger Robert Jones states, “Anger is our whole-person active response of negative moral judgment against a perceived evil.” I personally like this definition because it encapsulates a wide range of components that come into play with anger. First, this definition shows that anger is not simply a response of our mind or emotion but of our whole being – body, mind, emotion, etc. Second, this definition points out that anger is an active response; there is an element of action that is being taken by an angry individual. Third, Jones’ definition recognizes that our anger does not simply appear out of nowhere but is targeted at something or someone. Fourth, this working definition displays that anger is a “moral emotion” that makes a moral judgment that carries with it condemnation. Lastly, Jones’ definition states that judgment is brought against a “perceived evil.” This point draws attention to how human anger is subjective because a perceived evil may not be evil objectively.

Thinking from a biblical perspective it is also evident that anger has three categories: divine anger, righteous human anger, and sinful human anger. Divine anger is God’s anger toward evil. Divine anger carries a special element in it that is not inherent in either of the remaining forms of anger; divine anger in the context of the Bible is always righteous. This means that God’s anger is always directed at something or someone that is objectively evil and is always deserving of His anger. This also means that the judgment God makes and the consequential action that follows is just in every way. Divine anger is the most frequently referenced form of anger in the Bible.

The second form of anger is righteous human anger. Robert Jones defines righteous human anger as “our negative response to the evil that we accurately perceive as being evil.” And in this way it mimics God’s righteous anger in that it reacts against actual sin, is God-centered in its motives, and is accompanied by other Godly qualities (particularly confidence and self-control). We can see examples of righteous human anger in Saul’s response to the Ammonite attack on an Israeli city (1 Samuel 11:1-6) and in many of the Psalms (particularly in many portions of Psalm 119).

The third and final form of anger is sinful human anger. Which is the inverse of righteous human anger in that it is a negative response to evil that an individual incorrectly identifies as being evil. And in this form of human anger there are two dominant ways that it shows itself: revealed anger and concealed anger. Revealed anger is the overt venting of a person’s heated emotions through outlets such as verbal or physical aggression. Revealed anger fails to align with God’s design because the inverse of reveled anger is the second form of sinful anger, which is concealed anger. The response of concealed anger is to act inwardly against a perceived evil by playing the role of judge, jury, and executioner with the guilty party being met with the punishment of emotional distance. The reason this response is not honoring to God is that it puts the individual as the one who is the lawgiver and not God.

Five Key Bible Passages

1. Ephesians 4:26 - In this passage Paul tells his readers that should they become angry they are to do so without sin. Paul is writing about how a believer should act when he/she becomes angry, it is not a command to be angry but a concession that when an individual becomes angry they should not allow that anger to be an excuse for sin. This fits with what Paul says a few verses later when he gives a list of sinful actions that should be put off or gotten rid of which includes anger.

2. Proverbs 15:1 - In this passage the writer tells his readers that it is a calm and thoughtful answer that disarms anger. The inverse of a calm answer is that harshness in a response brings about anger in return.

3. James 3:13-4:12 - The crux of this passage and its pertinence to anger is in the first two verses of chapter four when James points to the “warring” of passions being the cause of strife and anger within the church. James later points out that it is because of a conflict of inordinate desires and the attached emotions to them that lead to dissension, strife, anger, and sin within the congregations that were reading his letter.

4. Romans 12:19-21 - Paul writes that God is the bringer of vengeance against wrongs that are committed, not people. And since that is the case it is the place of the Christian to respond to evil with love; rather than being overcome with sinful anger, Christians are to respond with kindness and forgiveness. This serves as both a testimony to God’s love and as a witness against the conscience of the person who is guilty of wrongdoing.

5. James 1:19-20 - James’ words in this passage tell Christians that to respond swiftly in anger rarely comes from a heart that aligns with God’s righteous standard nor will such a response produce an outcome that is righteous. It is not man’s place to act in anger to avenge a wrong, as has been stated earlier it is God’s place to avenge wrongdoing. I believe that James is writing that when a person acts as judge, jury, and executioner they will fail to act in accordance with God’s righteousness. To attempt to do this is to not simply act on God’s behalf but is actually an endeavor to be God in the situation.

Five Crucial Questions

1. Is your anger directed at something that is objectively evil?

2. Are you angry because someone or something failed to live up to your expectations?

3. Are you angry against yourself because of a failure to live up to your own expectations for your life (career, family, education, spiritual growth, etc.)?

4. When you are angry do you take vengeful action against the person/thing/system that you believe has wronged you?

5. When you are angry do you exhibit godly attributes (self-control, focused on God’s kingdom, etc.)?

Five Theological Insights about Anger

1. God’s anger is always perfectly just and directed at evil.

2. Anger is a moral emotion in two ways: it places a perceived wrong in a position of possible moral culpability and God not only sees the result of our anger but also the motive behind anger.

3. The cause of sinful anger is sinful desire: we are angry about abuse of or failure to get that which we desire.

4. While uncontrolled anger certainly has physical, emotional, and relational ramifications, the most pressing reason for an individual to kill the sin of sinful anger in their life because it is ultimately displeasing and offensive to God.

5. God is both the perfectly just judge and perfectly loving forgiver of sin. Because God will rightly judge sin we can know that even if we are the victims, God will bring justice. Also, because God can and does forgive the sin sinful rebels who profess Him as Lord we should also show forgiveness to those who wrong us.

Five Best Homework Assignments

1. Journaling - Recommend the counselee keep a journal the next time he or she notices that they are angry (or are told they are showing anger). In this journal have the counselee write down how they felt, what circumstance (comment from their spouse, being passed over for a job opportunity, not getting the response they desired from their child, etc.) caused that feeling to be dominate, how they responded once that feeling became dominate, how that response affected those around them, and how Scripture tells us God wants them to respond. Doing this will allow the counselee and counselor to see patterns in what sets off the counselee’s anger and how they respond when angry.

2. Biblical Character Study - Have the counselee study examples of righteous human anger in the Bible (Jesus in Mark 3:1-6 and Mark 10:13-16; Moses in Exodus 32:19-20; Saul in 1 Samuel 11:1-6; Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20:33-34). As the counselee reads about the righteous responses of these individuals in Scripture have he or she write down common themes that make their responses righteous rather than sinful.

3. Scripture Memorization - Have the counselee study and memorize passages of Scripture that speak to the reality of anger and forgiveness by placing them in their proper place (forgiveness being preeminent of the two). Two great passages for this are Romans 12:19-21 and Ephesians 4:31-32. In both passages Paul writes about the importance of forgiveness and that it is the ultimate response and goal that a Christian should be striving toward during circumstances in which he or she is wronged by others. While anger may have its place (without sin), the end goal in all confrontations is forgiveness and peace in as much as it depends upon the individual.

4. Denied Desire and Unmet Need Inventory - Have the counselee fill out an inventory focused on helping them identify the things they desire most and helps them assess if these desires are being met. On this inventory have roughly 25 generally desirable things listed such as: good health, problem free life, feeling loved/accepted, having children, significant other, success, sexual satisfaction - to name a few. Also, include a section for them to write in other things that may not be on the list. And have the counselee place a check beside the items on the list they feel like they need or that they desire. Next, have the counselee indicate which of the needs or desires they feel like are not currently being met. After this have the counselee focus on the top three unmet needs or denied desires by listing what or who it is that is denying them that need or desire, how it is being denied, and how they tend to respond to the person/circumstance that denies access to the need or desire. This will help the counselee see what they truly value most and identify who is involved and how they respond to denied desires and unmet needs.

5. Anger and Wisdom - Have the counselee study many of the passages of Proverbs that speak to anger (Proverbs 14:16-17; 14:29-30: 15:1; 15:18; 16:32; 19:11; 19:19; 22:24-25; 29:9 29:11; 29:20; 29:22). In the time they spend reading these passages have the counselee intentionally ask and answer questions about these passages and their relationship to anger (“What are the consequences of anger?” “What danger is there in being around angry people?” “What are healthy responses to anger?”). This will help the counselee see what one of the “wisdom books” of the Bible has to say about anger.

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