I am preaching through Ephesians and was reviewing Paul’s teaching on anger and it got me thinking about anger in my own life and how as a pastor I have seen anger’s consequences in relationships. And my observation is this: Nothing destroys relationships like anger.
Cain was warned by God that he was angry and that if he didn’t master his anger, it would ruin him. He didn’t master it and it did ruin him: he went out and killed his brother (Genesis 4:3-15). Anger has led to all kinds of destructive behavior in relationships. And who among us hasn’t been so angry that we’ve gone out and done things we’ve regretted? And who hasn’t been the object of someone’s anger? And why do some people seem to always need one person in their life to be the object of their anger? And why do some relationships have one bellicose member who is always ready to criticize to the point of getting easily angered? We are left wondering, “why have I become your catharsis?” The irony is that we are all too familiar with anger because we all struggle with it, yet we know so little about it.
Now we know that the sin of anger is just that, a result of the fall of man. We have all been born into sin. But what is the psychology of anger? How do we rationalize anger away from an emotional and social perspective? And does this rationalization blind a person to how angry they really are and how they are ruining a relationship? In an article titled “Anger – How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt and Fear,” Dr. Leon Seltzer explains why some people are seemingly always angry and how and why they use anger. I will highlight his points:
- A good deal of anger is motivated by a desire not to experience guilt.
- People routinely use anger as a cover up to keep their more vulnerable feelings at bay and become so adept at it that they have little to no awareness of what they are doing.
- Anger allows people to escape upsetting, shameful, or anxiety-laden feelings that they haven’t developed resources to adequately deal with.
- The one who is the object of anger will undoubtedly respond defensively.
- Or worse, they may tire of it and leave the scene entirely.
- Anger, despite its ability to offer immediate emotional release, rarely resolves anything.
So, for example, say your partner (whether intentionally or not) expresses something that leads you to feel demeaned. Rather than, assertively, sharing your hurt feelings, and risk making yourself more vulnerable to them, you may react instead by finding something to attack them for. It could be as petty as their forgetting to put something away, or not having gotten back to you on scheduling an event, or a past mistake that compromised the family budget—in short, anything! In such instances, what you’re basically doing (though it’s most likely unconscious) is endeavoring to make them feel demeaned, to hurt their feelings—or rather, hurt them back. It’s an undeclared, largely unrecognized, game of tit for tat. And while you’re engaged in such retaliatory pursuits, guess what? Presto! You’re no longer feeling demeaned—at least not in the moment. . . . Which, sadly, reinforces this essentially childish behavior (as in, “You’re the one who’s bad!”).
And what about the recipient of your fit of temper? Now they bear the burden you’ve just managed to shake off. Whatever feelings of hurt you were experiencing has been passed on—or “transferred”—to them. And their initial reaction may be one not simply of hurt but fear as well. For at the most primitive, instinctual level, by experiencing themselves as the object of your anger, they unconsciously grasp that you harbor the hostile impulse to harm them. So if they step back from you, it’s not because they want to provide you with more space to vent your venom. It’s that they’re feeling an urgent need to distance themselves from it.
So much for the machinations of anger from a psychological and emotional perspective. Now to my real point in Ephesians about anger. Paul warned his readers in 4:26,
“Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
The command to be angry and yet do not sin has puzzled interpreters for 2000 years but that is a post for another day. The point I want to make here is that anger must be managed and dealt with quickly, in other words, before the sun goes down or better, “Now!” But it is the next verse that is so ominous. Paul notes,
“and do not give the devil an opportunity.”
Anger is the one sin that allows Satan to get a foothold in your life quicker than any other sin bar none! So a warning to us all: Anger destroys relationships.