I’ve counseled Christians who have thrown things at, slapped, and even choked their spouses. I’ve lost count of the number who were fired after fits of rage.
In the past, Christian psychologists advised: “Vent it. If you suppress anger, you’ll get an ulcer or worse.” John Powell, author of Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?, adds: “When I repress my emotions, my stomach keeps score.”
But is venting anger really biblical? Jesus compared anger with murder. “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment … Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matt. 5:22, NIV). Paul lists “fits of rage” among the acts of the sinful nature (Gal. 5:19-21).
Some find biblical support in Ephesians 4:26 – “‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” But is “ventilation” taught here?
No one bothers to consult the Old Testament passage Paul quotes – “In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord” (Psa. 4:4-5). The Septuagint makes it even clearer: “Feel compunction (remorse) upon your beds for what you say in your hearts.”
In short, we don’t need ventilation, but God’s forgiveness.
Granted, there’s “righteous indignation.” Even Jesus got angry. When the money changers made God’s house a den of thieves or the Pharisees denied a cripple healing on the Sabbath, the Lord expressed anger.
Yet when He was arrested and illegally tried, He held His peace. When men denied and violated His rights as the Son of God, He remained silent.
Perhaps we should define righteous indignation as anger aroused by the unjust treatment of others. Most of our anger, however, does not fall into this category. We get angry when we are hurt. “It feels good to release my aggression,” we say. “It lowers my blood pressure.”
But the Bible warns of dire consequences from expressing anger:
- “Everyone should be … slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20).
- “A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel” (Prov. 15:18).
- “Do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared” (Prov. 22:24-25).
- “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control” (Prov. 29:11).
In a controversial book, Anger – The Misunderstood Emotion (Simon and Schuster, 1982), Carol Tavris writes, “The psychological rationale for ventilating anger does not stand up under experimental scrutiny. The weight of the evidence indicates precisely the opposite. Expressing anger makes you angrier, solidifies an angry attitude, and establishes a hostile habit.
“If you keep quiet about momentary irritations and distract yourself with pleasant activities until your fury simmers down, chances are you will feel better, and feel better faster, than if you let yourself go in a shouting match. A ventilationist society pays no attention to the social glue of kindness and empathy—and is in danger of disintegrating from within.”
Other researchers, like Jack Hokanson of Florida State University, agree:
The myth that ventilating anger brings down tension is long gone (Newsweek, January 1983).
But what if our anger continues to gnaw at us? How do we get rid of it? If ventilation isn’t the answer, what is?
Although the Ephesians passage doesn’t advocate ventilation, it does encourage dealing with our anger before Satan gets his foot in the door: “Do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:27).
At the end of the chapter, Paul expresses the same idea: “Get rid of bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Eph. 4:31). When we do not eliminate bitterness, we fall deeper into sin. Like most temptation, if we can stop the process early, we’re safe. Beyond a certain point, however, it gets out of control.
The progression begins with bitterness, the root of anger. “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Heb. 12:15).
If we don’t conquer bitterness immediately, a quiet “rage” builds. The Greek word is thumos, meaning “getting hot.” It differs from the next word in the progression, orgē, which is translated “anger” in the New International Version of the Bible.
According to W. E. Vine, thumos expresses the inward feeling, while orgē represents the active emotion. Thumos can be harbored until it eventually explodes into orgē.
This is where counselor H. Norman Wright’s “emotional trading-stamp syndrome” comes into play. We save each irritation for our memory books. When we’ve collected enough stamps, we cash in the books.
Imagine, for example, that the kids left their bicycles out again. Maybe they left the television on or they’re out playing ball when they should be doing homework. “I’ll keep quiet,” we tell ourselves. “The Bible says it’s to a man’s glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). But when Johnny spills his milk at supper, we cash in our books. The family is shocked by our outburst – “It’s only a glass of milk.”
Paul mentions three ways anger is released. “Brawling” signifies shouting or crying, which can turn into “slander,” where we defame someone. Our character assassination then becomes “malice” – the desire to injure or harm another person.
The Lord asked Cain, “Why are you angry?” He then warned, “Sin desires to have you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:6-7). Cain never did master it; although he was bitter with God, he took it out on his brother Abel. Sometimes malice can be turned inward, resulting in suicide.
How can we handle our bitterness and rage to curb this hideous progression? Scripture says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). When we begin to grasp how much God has forgiven us, it becomes easier for us to forgive others.
Forgiveness means overlooking an offense. Too often, we get offended because we think our rights have been violated. Some of those “rights” include:
- The right to have and control personal belongings.
- The right to use our money any way we see fit.
- The right to be heard, respected, and treated fairly.
- The right to have other family members help with chores.
Suppose I felt I had the right to keep a pair of scissors on my desk. I’d get mad any time someone borrowed them without returning them.
My son, on the other hand, might get angry if I mistakenly opened a letter to him. It would violate his right to privacy.
For each of our abused rights, God has an equivalent right that’s been denied or neglected. Ultimately, He has the right to control my possessions, to be heard by me, and to be respected. When Christ became a man, He gave up many of His rights (Phil. 2:6-11). How could we expect to do less?
Surrendering our rights is the key to personal forgiveness. Our Lord has given us His example: “When they hurled their insults at Christ, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23).
The Lord Jesus gave His rights back to the Father, leaving justice and vengeance with Him. “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me,” Christ said. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will save it” (Lk. 9:23-24).
Our anger can signal an unyielded right. Psalm 4:4-5, quoted by Paul, shows us how to shut off the alarm: seek forgiveness and surrender our rights to God.
Part of leaving vengeance with God means repaying evil with good (Rom. 12:17-21). Consider Moses’ example. Although Miriam and Aaron denied his right to lead, Moses refused to defend himself. He entrusted the matter to God. As a result, “the anger of the Lord burned against them,” and He afflicted Miriam with leprosy (Num. 12:1-12). Moses prayed for her healing; he was not seeking vengeance. He had relinquished this right.
Two influential preachers, Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker, occupied pulpits in London during the 19th century. On one occasion, Parker commented about the poor condition of children admitted to Spurgeon’s orphanage. It was reported to Spurgeon, however, that Parker had criticized the orphanage itself.
Being a man of fiery temperament, Spurgeon blasted Parker from his pulpit. That attack, printed in the newspaper, became the talk of the town. Londoners flocked to Parker’s church the next Sunday to hear his rebuttal.
“I understand Dr. Spurgeon is not in his pulpit today, and this is the Sunday they use to take an offering for the orphanage,” Parker said. “I suggest we take a love offering here for the orphanage.”
The crowd was delighted; ushers had to empty the collection plates three times.
Later that week, there was a knock at Parker’s study. It was Spurgeon. “You know, Parker, you have practiced grace on me,” he said. “You have given me not what I deserved; you have given me what I needed.”
Would that we could apply Ephesians 4:31-32 as well.
by Dr. Mark Porter
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