The devastation of anger

On May 18, 1980 at 8:32 AM an earthquake shook the Cascade Mountain Range on the western seaboard of the United States, and Mount St. Helens erupted. While scientists had predicted this cataclysmic event for years, no one could have anticipated its destruction. At the point of the eruption 1,300 vertical feet of the mountain’s top slid away (for perspective the Empire State Building is only 1250 feet tall). As it did, rocks, ash, volcanic gas, and steam were blasted upward. These elements accelerated to 300 mph before they began to fall to the earth. Ash and smoke continued to ascend. It would travel upward 80,000 feet (15 miles) in 15 minutes. US geologists reported that “over the course of the day, prevailing winds blew 520 million tons of ash eastward across the United States and caused complete darkness in Spokane, Washington, 250 miles from the volcano.”

As the lava poured forth it melted ice at the top of the mountain creating volcanic mud flows (lahars). These mudflows were so strong that they “filled rivers with rocks, sand, and mud, damaging 27 bridges and 200 homes and forcing 31 ships to remain in ports upstream.”  

What human eyes saw on the outside of the mountain was precipitated by powerful forces deep within the mountain. For 123 years the mountain had only appeared to be at rest, when all the while it was boiling away on the inside.

The Greeks used the word thumos to describe this type of boiling over action. In our English Bibles this word is translated as wrath, fury, anger, and passion. If you have ever lived with an angry person you know that the volcano is a good metaphor. Things may seem fine on the outside, but the smallest tremor can set them off. Once the eruption happens, the devastation follows.

Often our attempts at alleviating anger are only dealing with the external effects, when all the while this destroyer must be disarmed from the inside-out.

Jesus said as much from another mountainside 2000 years earlier.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire (Matthew 5:21-22).

What? Most of us would never treat anger that seriously. Yet, Jesus isn’t about anger management; he is about anger abolishment—taking out the desires in the heart where they reside. This is why the teaching of Jesus is so essential if you are to be victorious over anger. He doesn’t simply talk about how you respond, but he addresses what you believe about yourself, others, and the God who controls your circumstances.

 Source material about Mt St. Helens : http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2000/fs036-00/. http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/103/.

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The angry man’s belief system–part 3

When it comes to anger, the final belief that needs correcting is: You believe your desires are your rulers.

Cain was angry. And the more he thought about it, the angrier he got. He had been out done by his younger brother and it didn’t feel right at all. He had always been first in the family: his parents treating him as if he was something special. But when it came time to offer the sacrifices, God had accepted Abel’s not his. Cain was seething. From the inside out, he could feel the anger working its way on to his face and he didn’t care.

He had felt this emotion before, but it had never been this strong, and it was growing stronger. Somewhere in his sullenness he heard God’s voice: “Cain, why are you angry and why is your face showing it? If you do well, will you not be accepted?”

God paused.

Cain seethed.

Then God spoke again.  

“And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Cain understood the word desire. It gave him strength, and it justified his actions. He could feel the desire pulling him now . . . towards the field. He called for Abel, all the while knowing what he was going to do. Like a crouching lion, the desire sprung, and so did Cain. When it was over, Abel’s lifeless body lay before him on the ground. God was speaking again. And Cain ran . . .

The first murder in the Bible took place at the hands of an angry man. Remarkably, he had been given sound advice: rule over your desires. But the desires felt like they ruled over him, and the more he gave into them the stronger they became.

In the heat of the moment, anger is a very convincing leader. It tells us to stop our ears to sound counsel; because, they wouldn’t understand us anyway. With anger by our side we can justify both our sinful actions and our bad attitude. Anger promises us we won’t be left alone.  And when we’re ready to make a decision, anger crouches with us, telling us if it feels right it must be right. Afterwards, when we survey the damage that we’ve done; anger is gone, running like Cain through the night. And we have new companion: regret.

The key, God said, is to rule over your desires before they rule over you. Desires, like our thoughts, are habit forming. The more you feed them the stronger they become. Eventually, they feel stronger than your will to choose.

 We even use language that communicates this truth:

  • I felt like I was out of control (as if anger was ruling over us and we were simply obeying).
  • I was so angry I didn’t have a choice (as if anger left us no other options).
  • You just make me so angry (as if following our desires frees us from responsibility).

Paul captured it this way, “Do you not know that you are the slaves of whatever you choose to obey?” (Rom. 6:16 NLT)

In Ephesians 4:31, God told us to rule over our desires with slightly different words when he said,

 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph. 4:31-32).

The angry man’s belief system–Part 2

When it comes to our anger there are three faulty beliefs that need to be corrected if we hope to be victorious.
Belief #1: You believe what feels right must be right.
Belief #2: You believe your thoughts have a mind of their own.
Belief #3: You believe your desires are your rulers.

The second one receives our attention today: You believe your thoughts have a mind of their own. With anger our mind can fool us into thinking our thoughts are involuntarily (i.e. they happen without us being aware of them), but in truth, they are simply habitual.

The brain is an amazing organ with amazing capabilities. There are certain tasks that our brain does without us even being aware of them. We call those actions involuntary: Things like signaling our lungs to bring in oxygen or letting our heart know it’s time to beat again. There are other thoughts our brain does when we tell it to. Like every key stroke I’m making at the computer or words you might say to a neighbor.

We tend to think there are only two categories, but in truth, there’s a third. There are the things we do habitually. There are patterns that we repeat so frequently that we do them as if we were not thinking. For instance, when I first started to play the guitar my fingers fought me to play the G chord, but as I did the task repeatedly I no longer had to think where my third, fourth and fifth finger went. They went their naturally. I only had to think “G” and then my mind did the rest. Now it happens so quickly, it feels like an involuntary action—almost like I don’t have to think about it. But it’s not involuntary; it’s habitual. It is simply a thought and action I’ve repeated until my mind has memorized the response. Now the important distinction: Because it’s simply memorized, and not involuntary it can be relearned. You probably need to read that sentence again; because for the person struggling with angry thoughts you’ve just been set free. You believed your thoughts had a mind of their own, but they don’t. They may be stubborn habits but they can be relearned.

This truth is evident in the way the Bible talks about our thoughts. When the Bible wants to make a simple statement of fact it uses the indicative mood, but when it wants to point out our ability to make a choice it uses the imperative mood. The latter, we read in our English Bible as commands. Joshua said, “Choose you this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15). It’s easy to hear the command in Joshua’s statement. But the Bible also uses the imperative mood (revealing choice) in respect to our thinking.  For instance in Philippians 4:8 Paul gives a list of 8 qualities, and he follows it with a command.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8) [emphasis added].

Think on these things is in the imperative mood meaning you can choose what you think about. Reexamine the list and you will see there’s not an angry thought in there.

When I am angry it feels like my thoughts have a mind of their own. It helps me to remember they are simply habitual thought patterns, and that the Holy Spirit has granted me his power to bend them to his will.

I’m not saying it will be easy, I’m just saying that you can’t say its impossible. This is why Paul urges us to bring all thoughts captive in our obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

The angry man’s belief system: Part 1

When it comes to emotional sins (like anger) we tend to address them on the emotional level. Yet, the more I have studied anger (both for my sake and to help others) I have realized that our struggle with anger is really one of belief before it is one of emotion.  Dealing with it only at the emotional level is a bit like brushing your teeth when you actually need a root canal.

We must learn to deal with anger as a belief system if we hope to make progress. Here’s the first of three beliefs that effect the angry person.

I grew up with a three legged stool in my parent’s living room. It was intended as a footrest for my dad’s recliner, but I remember being fascinated by it. You would think that a four legged stool would be more stable, but in truth the 3 legged stool was harder to tip over . . . until you took one of the legs away. The angry man’s belief system is built upon three faulty propositions. When I review these errors (and I have to do that often), I find that I am better prepared to deal with the circumstances that reveal my anger. Likewise, I find that my propensity to be gentle and understanding increases.

Faulty Belief # 1: You believe what feels right must be right.

Anger feels like a feeling. I know that sounds redundant, because it’s meant to be. It’s intended to describe why victory over this sinful desire is so elusive. With anger the feeling is so strong that we believe it must be right. In truth, it may have initially been generated from something that is right—like a violated sense of justice. For instance, its wrong when a parent is disrespected or a child is provoked (Eph 6: 1-2). Its wrong when hurtful partiality has been practiced (James 2:1-6). It’s wrong when these things are not set right (Isaiah 1:17). But anger subtly shifts the authority from what God says about it to how we feel about it. Once that shift has taken place our understanding of authority moves from an objective base (God’s Word) to a subjective base (our feelings). Hence, it can no longer be trusted. The challenge? It feels like it can be and should be trusted. We’re angry about it—and that makes it right.

The first leg of the faulty 3-legged stool to go is this one: You believe what feels right must be right. The Bible declares that our feelings cannot be trusted.

Consider these biblical warnings:

  • Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools (Eyck. 7:9).
  • Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil (Psa. 37:8)
  • A man of quick temper acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated (Prov. 14:17)
  • Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly (Prov. 14:29).

The Bible is really clear on this. The angry person lacks wisdom. Yet wisdom is an essential quality to determine if something is right or wrong. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7).

When I succumb to anger I incorrectly assume that because it feels right it must be right, and I respond with my temper. All the while, I am revealing my foolishness. I am determining the rightness of my choices; based upon what I feel not what is true.

The truth is this:  In Christ you can control the passion of your angry emotion. That is why you are commanded to put off anger and put on kindness.

…you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:21-24).

31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph. 4:31-32).