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Managing anger

Jacob Ninan

Anger is an emotion which can cause much damage, sometimes instantly. People go 'mad with anger' - which means essentially that they temporarily stop thinking and behaving rationally. People 'lose their temper', which is another way of saying that they lose control of themselves emotionally. Yet it is not an emotion that is wrong or sinful in itself, because God Himself gets angry! One difference with God is that He never loses control! He never does or says anything wrong or makes any reckless decision as a result of His anger. He doesn't ever have to take anything back. His anger is righteous, and it achieves good results.

If God gets angry, it can't be altogether wrong to get angry. It is possible to get angry and behave in a wrong way, but anger itself can't be wrong. Anger is a response to what we perceive to be wrong. When what we perceive to be wrong is really wrong, anger is justified. What we then need to be careful about is the way we express it. It may not be always appropriate to express what we feel, and it is wrong to express it without any control. But if we perceive something to be wrong just because it upsets us - because we can't have our way, things are not going the way we want, we don't like the way somebody does things, we are impatient, etc., expressing that anger will be really an expression of sinful selfishness or self-centredness. This would not be glorifying to God. The Bible tells us that if we get angry we should take care not to sin (Paraphrasing Ep.4:26). Yet many Christians instinctively feel guilty when they feel angry, and they try to affirm that they are not angry (denial), suppress it (control anger so that it is not expressed), or repress it (avoid recognising its presence). As a result, their anger is not dealt with, even though they may imagine that they have got rid of it. It is only getting pushed into the background. This is an unrealistic and foolish way of dealing with anger. Anger which has not been dealt with and resolved will go underground, and will manifest itself as bitterness, malice, jealousy, grudge, resentment, unforgiveness, self-pity, irritabilty, impatience, etc. Anger which has been pushed into the background will also cause physical side effects such as headaches, backaches, ulcers, joint pains, etc.

Anger is only one of the emotions that God has created us with. One part of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, by which we know what emotions we are feeling at any point in time and why we are feeling them. The first thing in dealing with anger is to be able to recognise immediately when we are becoming angry.

For many people, this is not the first thing they need to do. Before they can do this, they need to understand and admit to themselves that they may become angry, and that instead of pretending as if they are not angry they need to deal with it. After they are convinced that they do get angry at times, they can take the step of recognising when they do get angry.

Let us assume at this point that we have become angry and done something stupid. This is to be expected when we have not learned how to deal with it in the right way. Then the next step, after we have cooled down, is to sit down and think about what made us angry. For most of us, the reason appears to be obvious enough! It is because he or she did this or that to us. The mistake most people make is to rest content with this explanation. It may be really true that this was the immediate cause for our outburst. The problem is that if we stop our examination at this juncture, we won't learn a way to manage our anger. The next time someone upsets us like this, we will again lose our temper and do something silly. And, our anger may go more and more out of hand.

Here is where a little bit of honesty is required. Ask ourselves this question. "When he did that to me, could I have reacted in a different way?" Also, "What is the best response I could have given, if I had the self-control and ability to do so?" This gives us a target to aim for, even if it appears to be out of reach for us at the moment.

Now ask ourselves this important question. "If I really would have liked to behave like that, why did I actually behave like this?" The first time we ask ourselves this question, it may take us some time before the answer finally dawns on us. "I wasn't willing to forgive him." "I was too quick to come to a conclusion about what he said." "I wanted my own way." "I wasn't willing to listen to him and try to understand him." "I felt that I was being pushed into a corner." "I wasn't going to let him get away with that!" "I wanted to let him know that he couldn't fool around with me." Etc.

If we knew how to manage our anger in the right way, we wouldn't have lost control, and we would have let the other person know that we didn't like what he had done in a way that would not provoke him. That is where we need to get to. But in the meantime we have lost our control, and we are trying to understand why we behaved the way we did. The more we understand what makes us tick, the better we are placed to address ways of dealing with the problem of anger. Then we will know what exactly we need to focus on in order to get control of ourselves.

This helps us in two ways. First of all we get to know what we need to watch out for the next time we are provoked, and secondly we learn to find ways of dealing with our specific weakness. We can go to God and ask Him for help in dealing with our specific problem. For example, if our difficulty is in forgiving others, we can look at how we ourselves have been forgiven, and ask God to help us to be more merciful and understanding towards others. We can realise how most of the time the others don't know what they are doing, just as Jesus did when He forgave those who crucified Him.

We can also do an exercise of imagining the consequences of continuing in our present way of losing control over anger, about the damage it would cause both to ourselves and to the others around us, how it would grieve God and dishonour His name, how it would break relationship with others, how it has grave risks of damaging our health, etc.

The more we concentrate on overcoming anger, the more careful we would become, and the more we would seek God for help. Even though it would take time, we would find that our outbursts are becoming less strong and less extreme. As we make progress we also become more sensitive towards anger, and understand how it is not only necessary to avoid outbursts of anger, but also to avoid getting worked up inside. Don't get discouraged if it takes time. The more we have lived with anger, the more time it takes for us to learn new ways. But we don't need to give up. God has promised us help, and we will succeed by His grace.

How can we 'cool down' when we are angry? Some psychologists advocate giving expression to our anger in a way that will not hurt others, such as beating a pillow imagining that we are beating up the person who has made us angry. This is really a foolish exercise, especially for a Christian. By doing this we may get rid of the pent up anger for the moment, thus relieving our body of stress. But we actually end up concluding that our anger was because of him and don't get to the point where we understand the reason why we responded to him like we did. So instead of learning how to overcome or control anger, we learn to indulge ourselves in it! Certainly, our God can help us to get to much higher ground in this respect!

So what can we do when we find ourselves becoming angry? We could pause from what we were going to say or do, till we have enough control to go forward without doing wrong. We could 'count up to ten' (another way of pausing), draw some long breaths and breathe up a quick prayer to God. If we can't manage to calm down this way, we could move away from that place temporarily till we can calm down. If we sincerely want to overcome anger, our prayers also become sincere and fervent. God will not ignore them.

We mustn't get discouraged if we are not able to control ourselves in the beginning. Remember, as we go through the exercise of trying to understand why we failed, and asking God for help, we will make progress, and ultimately we will come to the place where we have control over ourselves. It is not that we can't fall afterwards, but the chances of falling become less and less.

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