Anger: name it and tame it?

My pastor read a ghost story to us, an excerpt from The Great Divorce by CS Lewis. There was a red lizard on the ghost’s shoulder that kept whispering things in his ear. He was embarrassed by it. An angel offered to make the lizard be quiet by killing it. The ghost was reluctant to let the angel kill the lizard even though it tormented him; he was afraid that he would be killed too. When the ghost finally accepted the angel’s help, he and the lizard were transformed.

My pastor shared the lizard story because we are studying the book of Ephesians. In Ephesians 4, Paul told the believers that they must no longer live as the Gentiles. “Put off falsehood and speak truthfully.” “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.” “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” Get rid of that thing that is controlling you. Ask God to help you resist whatever temptations you are facing.

Years ago, I read a book called Signature Sins: Taming our Wayward Hearts, by Michael Mangis. Anger is one of my signature sins – the red lizard on my shoulder. Fortunately, it doesn’t whisper in my ear everyday but I struggle to tame it when it raises its ugly head.

In Got Anger? Try Naming It To Tame It, Michaeleen Doucleff explains that if you are able to distinguish specific kinds of anger, it will help you regulate your emotions. This is known as “emotional granularity” or emotion differentiation. If you differentiate between the many variations of anger, you will better understand what is causing the emotion and how to handle it in a more constructive way.

Doucleff named three variations of anger that she struggles with: hurry-up anger (directed a people who are too slow), illogical anger (directed at people who are illogical), and disonophous anger (a made-up word for anger caused by noise). I can relate to Doucleff’s hurry-up anger but I sometimes think of it as “get out of my way” anger.

I have a few names for the kinds of anger I struggle with:

Overwhelmed Anger. This is one of my most challenging kinds of anger because it is stress-induced. If I am being pulled in too many directions, I feel overwhelmed. If there are too many things on my plate, I can’t even think straight. My anger stems from feeling stressed and out of control. And if I am feeling overwhelmed, I am less patient with other people. To get rid of this kind of anger, I know that I need to ask for help or to say no more often.

Interference Anger: This anger is directed at people who interfere with my ability to get something done or to accomplish my goals. For example, I get angry with my manager when he waits until the last minute to review my reports. He keeps me from completing my work early so I end up being stressed out as deadlines approach. I realize that my priorities are not my manager’s priorities. I have learned that he doesn’t have great time management skills so I have to manage upward.

Interruption Anger: This is another form of work-related anger. When I am really concentrating and focusing on the task at hand and someone interrupts me, I can get annoyed because the interruption messes up my train of thought. I have to anticipate that there will be interruptions and that unexpected things will happen.

Righteous Indignation: This anger is directed at people who are dishonest, immoral, greedy, selfish, unjust, unmerciful, etc. While I don’t want to be and should not be indifferent to immorality and injustice, my anger at evil does not always produce the kind of righteousness God wants. In Falling Upward, Richard Rohr wrote, “most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image…”

Michael Mangis says that “we are justified at being angry only at the evil that also angers God.” It’s very easy for righteous indignation to turn into self-righteous indignation. Our reasons for being angry are rarely pure and unselfish. Getting rid of righteous indignation requires humility. I have to admit my own sinfulness and accept the fact that I can’t fix people and I can’t eradicate evil.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

James 1:19 (NIV)

In writing about anger, Mangis said that it cannot be safely tamed. He quoted St. John Cassian who described anger as a deadly poison that must be completely rooted out of your inmost being. Anger can be extremely destructive. As long as anger remains in our hearts, it prevents us from seeing clearly. It impairs our judgment.

I don’t know that you can really tame your anger by naming it but I think it is beneficial to understand the causes and the underlying emotions. In a blog post on Psychology Today, Leon Seltzer, Ph.D., says that “anger is, unquestionably, the most moralistic of emotions.” We think our anger is justified if someone wronged us. A variety of other emotions underlie anger such as feeling disrespected, powerless, humiliated, etc.

Anger is most accurately understood as a potent psychological defense against a variety of more distressing emotions that underlie it.

Leon Seltzer, Ph.D.

There are all sorts of corrective actions you can take when you feel yourself getting angry. If you know your emotional triggers, you can anticipate the behaviors that provoke you to anger and become less reactive. You can try to see things from the other person’s point of view. You can become more assertive. You can try to see the humor in the situation.

The truth is, I have struggled with anger for years even though I know what triggers it, even though I can take my anger temperature, even though I’ve got emotional granularity. I would love to get rid of it once and for all. So maybe the next time the little red lizard of anger whispers in my ear, instead of trying to fix myself, I will just say, God, please kill it.

*****

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Truth: Philosophy and Ethics

I am studying Focus on the Family’s “The Truth Project” this year. The topic of the second lesson is Philosophy and Ethics. The lesson guide states that “there is a formal and vital connection between our ideas about the nature of the world (philosophy) and our understanding of right and wrong behavior (ethics).” What happens to this connection when you exclude God from your search for knowledge and wisdom? How can you really understand God’s truth if you conform yourself to the ways of the world?

Dr. Del Tackett says that philosophy is the love of wisdom. Dr. R.C. Sproul defines philosophy as “a scientific quest to discover ultimate reality.” The website, The Basics of Philosophy, lists many other definitions of philosophy including “the study of knowledge” and “thinking about thinking.” Philosophy is a broad subject that includes thinking about the nature of existence and reality and the search for knowledge and truth.

Because truth is based on reality, the quest to discover ultimate reality should be aligned with the quest to discover ultimate truth. Dr. Tackett notes that contemporary culture has excluded God from the search for ultimate reality. Many people only believe in what can be perceived with the senses. As an example, Tackett quotes Carl Sagan:

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

Carl Sagan

Tackett calls Sagan’s philosophy the “cosmic cube.” It’s the belief that the material world is all that there is, that nothing exists outside the box. And yet human beings long for something beyond the material. We long for a higher meaning and purpose. We sense that we are not just physical beings.

Tackett points out that many people accept the words of people like Sagan because they use powerful and deceptive “assumptive language.” If you don’t critically examine the assumptions, they may sound plausible. He makes a good point. I have long noticed that when explaining human conduct, people claim, without proof, that evolution explains our behavior. For example, they would explain my husband’s inability to find something in the kitchen cabinet and his concurrent ability to spot a deer far away with evolutionary psychology. 

Tackett reminds us that there are scriptural warnings about being taken captive or sucked in by hollow and deceptive philosophy.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces[a of this world rather than on Christ.

Colossians 2:8 (NIV)

Dr. Tackett didn’t say much about ethics but he explained the difference between morality (the rightness or wrongness of conduct; that which is) and ethics (principles of conduct; that which ought to be).

I have taken ethics courses but I have never formally studied philosophy. So how do I connect philosophy and ethics? How are my ideas about ultimate reality connected to my beliefs about right and wrong and how humans ought to behave? Why do I believe God exists? How do I defend my faith in an age of profound skepticism?

Those of us who believe in God believe that he is inside the box and outside the box. He’s everywhere. We can’t see him with our limited human senses but we see physical evidence of him in the wonders of creation.

C.S. Lewis said that if there is a controlling power outside our universe, it could show itself as one of the observable facts, as an influence to behave a certain way. He said that if this power behind moral law is interested in morally right behavior, then it follows that it would not approve of wrong behavior. I think it also follows that this higher power would want us to know what it means to be upright and moral and he would want us to live together in peace. And what better way could he show us the way the world ought to be than to come down to us like a Son of Man?

We have a sense that the world is not the way it ought to be. We have a sense that we are very flawed and yet very great. We have a longing for love and beauty that nothing in this world can fulfill.  We have a deep need to know meaning and purpose. Which worldview best accounts for these things?

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God.