What is Anger? When is it Sinful? By Dr. James Dobson
Let's begin with the question, Is all anger sinful?
Obviously, not everything that can be identified under the heading of anger is violation of God's law, for Ephesians 4:26 instructs us to "be angry but do not sin" (RSV). That verse says to me that there is a difference between strong feeling, and the seething hostility which is consistently condemned in the Scripture. Our first task, it would appear, is to clarify that distinction.
Well, how about the emotion you experienced in the floral shop? You were no doubt angry when you walked toward the door. Was God displeased by what you were feeling?
I don't think so, and I felt no condemnation afterward. It's important to remember that anger is not only emotional--it is biochemical as well. The unprovoked assault by the store owner was perceived by me as enormously threatening. It didn't take an extended analysis to figure that out! In such a situation, the human body is equipped with an automatic defensive system, called the "flight or fight" mechanism, which prepares the entire organism for action. Adrenalin is pumped into the bloodstream which sets off a series of physiological responses within the body. Blood pressure is increased in accordance with an acceleration in heartbeat; the eyes are dilated for better peripheral vision; the hands get sweaty and the mouth gets dry; and the muscles are supplied with a sudden burst of energy. In a matter of seconds, the individual is transformed from a quiet condition to an "alarm reaction state." Most importantly, this is an involuntary response which occurs whether or not we will it.
Once the flight or fight hormones are released, it is impossible to ignore the intense feelings they precipitate. It would be like denying the existence of a toothache or any other tumultuous physical occurrence. And since God created this system as a means by which the body can protect itself against danger, I do not believe He condemns us for its proper functioning.
On the other hand, our reaction to the feeling of anger is more deliberate and responsive to voluntary control.
When we sullenly replay the agitating event over and over in our minds, grinding our teeth in hostility and seeking opportunities for revenge, or lash out in some overt act of violence, then it is logical to assume that we cross over the line into sinfulness. If this interpretation of the Scripture is accurate, then the exercise of the will stands in the gap between the two halves of the verse "be angry...do not sin."
Not all anger is caused by a threatening situation, is it? What about those responses that are brought on by extreme irritation or hostility?
All anger produces biochemical changes in the body, although the hormones released through irritating circumstances are somewhat different from the flight or fight system. I might also say that each individual has his own unique pattern of responses. Some people become overheated with the slightest provocation, and others are cool characters who seem to be born with an ability to stay "above it all." These differences are partially hereditary and partially conditioned by environmental circumstances during and after childhood.
But doesn't the Bible take an absolute position on the subject of anger? Where does it allow for the individual differences you described?
Didn't the apostle Paul write in Romans 12:18, "If it is possible,...live at peace with everyone"? In other words, we are expected to exercise self-control and restraint, but some will be more successful than others by the nature of the individual temperaments. While we are at different levels of maturity and responsibility, the Holy Spirit gently leads each of us in the direction He requires, until a moment of truth arrives when He demands our obedience.
How would you define the emotion of anger?
Anger is a complicated response which has become a sort of catchall phrase. Many of the behaviors which have been included under the heading of anger may have nothing to do with sinful behavior. Consider these examples:
Extreme fatigue produces a response which has the earmarks of anger. A mother who is exhausted from the day's activities can become very "angry" when her four-year-old spills his third glass of milk. This mother might give her very life for her child if required, and she would not harm a hair on his fuzzy little head. Nevertheless, her exhausted state of distress is given the same generalized label as the urge which caused Cain to kill Abel.
Extreme embarrassment typically produces a reaction which is categorized under the same worn-out heading. In fact, my reaction in the floral shop was motivated more by embarrassment than hostility for the toothy man who confronted me. I had no desire to hurt him either during or after the encounter. If the two of us had been alone, I think I could have coped with his assault more easily. Instead, there were six or eight onlookers who added the dimension of ego-loss to the episode.
Extreme frustration gives rise to an emotional response which we also call anger. I have seen this reaction from a high school basketball player, for example, who had an off night where everything went wrong. Perhaps he fumbled the ball away and double dribbled and missed all his shots at the basket. The more he tried, the worse he played and the more foolish he felt. Such frustration can trigger a volcanic emotional discharge at the coach or anyone in his way. Such are the irritations which cause golf clubs to be wrapped around trees and tennis rackets to be impaled on net-posts.
Rejection is another occurrence which often generates a kind of angry response. A girl who is jilted by the boy she loves, for example, may retaliate with a flurry of harsh words. Far from hating him, however, her response is motivated by the deep hurt associated with being thrown over--discarded--disrespected.
You see, anger has come to represent many strong, negative feelings in a human being. Accordingly, I doubt if all the Scriptures which address themselves to the subject of anger are referring equally to the entire range of emotions under that broad category.
Then how do the apparently innocent emotions you have described differ from sinful anger?
Your question raises a theological issue which may be difficult to communicate, yet it is of utmost importance to Christians everywhere. The Bible teaches the existence of a potentially disastrous flaw in the character of man which urges him toward sinful behavior, even though he may desire to serve God. Paul referred to this inner struggle in Romans 7:21-24: "So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"
You see, Paul was speaking as a Christian, yet he admitted the existence of an internal war between good and evil. Anger, jealously, envy, etc., are products of this inner nature. Paul was not unique in that regard, for the same predisposition has been inherited by the entire human race. David confessed, "In sin did my mother conceive me" (Ps 51:5, RSV). It is, in effect, the "sin living in me" (Rom 7:17) as opposed to sins which I commit.
Now, what does this have to do with the subject of anger? Simply this: our inbred sinful nature gives rise to a response that we might call "carnal anger" which must be distinguished from anger as a function of frustration or the endocrine system, or emotional and psychological needs. It is, instead, contrary to everything holy and righteous, and cannot by any human striving be nullified.
Virtually, every orthodox denomination acknowledges the biblical teaching I have described, for it is hardly escapable in the Scriptures. However, great disagreement occurs between Christians in regard to the resolution of the problem. The difference in teaching lies in whether or not it can be cleansed in this life and under what circumstances. It is my belief that the Holy Spirit, through an act of divine grace, cleanses and purifies the heart (see Acts 15:8,9) in order that the "body of sin might be rendered powerless" (Rom.6:6).(1)
Do you believe that no further sin can occur after the evil nature has been removed?
No, the choice is still ours. Furthermore, it is obvious that we remain subject to human frailty and foibles. WE stumble into errors and fall short of God's best for our lives.
Paul asked a vital question in Romans 7:24, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (This body of death made reference to the Roman practice of tying a dead corpse to a person in such a way that he could not extricate himself from it--until the putrefying flesh eventually caused his own death.) Then Paul provided the glorious answer which is applicable to all mankind: "Thanks be to God--[I am rescued] through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 7:24,25).
What are the characteristics of carnal anger? What aspect of it does God condemn in the Bible?
I see unacceptable anger as that which motivates us to hurt our fellowman--when we want to slash and cut and inflict pain on another person. Remember the experience of the apostle Peter when Jesus was being crucified. His emotions were obviously in a state of turmoil, seeing his beloved Master being subjected to an unthinkable horror. However, Jesus rebuked him when he severed the Roman soldier's ear with a sword. If there ever was a person with an excuse to lash out in anger, Peter seemed to be justified; nevertheless Jesus did not accept his behavior and he compassionately healed the wounded soldier.
There is a vitally important message for all of us in this recorded event. Nothing justifies an attitude of hatred or a desire to harm another person, and we are treading on dangerous ground when our thoughts and actions begin leading us in that direction. Not even the defense of Jesus Christ would justify that kind of aggression.
Are you saying that being "right" on an issue does not purify a wrong attitude or behavior?
Yes. In fact, having been in the church all my life, I've observed that Christians are often in greater danger when they are "right" in a conflict than when they are clearly wrong. In other words, a person is more likely to become bitter and deeply hostile when someone has cheated him or taken advantage of him than is the offender himself. E. Stanley Jones agreed, stating that a Christian is more likely to sin by his reactions than his actions. Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus told us to "turn the other cheek" and "go the second mile" (see Matt. 5:39,41), knowing that Satan can make devastating use of anger in an innocent victim.
If anger is unquestionably sinful when it leads us to hurt another person, then is the evil only involved in the aggressive act itself? What if we become greatly hostile but hold it inside where it is never revealed?
John told us that hatred for a brother is equivalent to murder (see 1 John 3:15). Thus, sinful anger can occur in the mind, even if it is never translated into overt behavior.
Read part 1 in the series on managing our emotions, "Conflict In a Floral Shop" HERE.
Be sure to check back next week for part 3 in this series, "How Do You Deal With Anger?"
From Emotions: Can You Trust Them? By Dr. James C. Dobson.
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