Best of Daily Reflections: What Not to Do When You’re Angry
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 foothold.
The What, How, and Why of Anger: Part 4
When I was growing up in California in the 1960s, I heard people claim that the best way to deal with anger was to "get it all out on the table." This perspective, which was popular in some "enlightened" circles, was known as Expressive Therapy. Some expressive therapists recommended, for example, that married couples "have it out" when they are angry. Any suggestion that you limit your expression of anger was a denial of your feelings and your absolute freedom to express them. It didn't take too long, however, for people to discover that such a free-for-all didn't foster healing and often led to more hurt and, yes, even more anger.
But doesn't Ephesians 4:26 seem to endorse the "get it all out" approach of Expressive Therapy? This verse says, "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry." Doesn't that imply that if I am angry with someone, I should let them know about it right away, certainly before sundown?
No, it doesn't. For one thing, the verse does not actually say, "Express your anger to the person who hurt you before sundown." Such direct communication may be helpful in some situations but unhelpful in others. As I mentioned in a previous reflection, when we're feeling lots of anger, it's terribly easy for us to say hurtful things, thus doing precisely what this verse prohibits ("Do not sin"). So, no matter what, we should not express our anger sinfully, and sometimes this means letting our feelings cool down a bit before we communicate with one who wronged us.
Moreover, the expression "Do not let the sun go down" is a poetic figure of speech, not something to be take literally. Prosaically, it means something like "Don't save up your anger, but deal with it promptly." So, it would be wrong to apply Ephesians 4:26 to every situation in a literalistic way.
Still, if I don't tell one who wronged me right away that I am angry, how can I release my anger without delay? In my experience, it is appropriate to share my anger even when it's white hot, as long as I'm telling God about it. When someone has hurt me and I feel irate, the best place for me to start is in prayer. I don't have to hold back with God. I don't have to be afraid that God can't handle my feelings. I can pour it all out, trusting in God's grace, patience, and wisdom.
Yet, our passage offers another practical way to deal with anger in a healthy way. I'll examine this tomorrow. For now, you may want to reflect upon the following questions.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What do you think about the "get it out right away" theory of anger management? Have you seen this work? Have you seen it make matters worse? What helps you to get beyond your feelings of anger? How free do you feel to tell God when you're upset?
PRAYER: Gracious God, you know how tempting it is for me to blast away at someone who has wronged me. I can't let the sun go down on my anger, right? These days, it is most tempting to let email do the dirty work, especially when my anger is burning hot. Yet, it seems that communicating anger through email is often worse than doing it in person. Forgive me, Lord, for the times I have hastened to communicate my anger, thus falling straightaway into sin.
Thank you, Lord, for being there to hear me out when I am angry. Thank you for being a safe place—the safe place—for me to share my heart. Thank you that I don't have to hide from you. Thank you for looking upon me with mercy and grace. Thank you for comforting me, for admonishing me, for guiding me, for helping me to see how I should act.
O Lord, when I am angry, may I turn to you first. Amen.
P.S. from Mark: This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. If you're wondering about the meaning of the holy day and how some Christians keep it, you might find helpful a short piece I've writing on the subject: Ash Wednesday: Meaning and Practice. Also, I've written a short introduction to Lent: How Lent Can Make a Difference in Your Relationship with God.
The Work of Play
Play is not just for kids. If you are under pressure in your work, a spirit of play can lead to balance, creativity, and good health. In our hyper-productive world, we need to learn how to play again—at home, on the job, and even in worship. This article is part of our series The Work of Play. If someone you know needs to rediscover the joy of play, invite them to the conversation on The High Calling.