Years ago, I participated in anger management classes held on our church campus. A secular counseling group rented one of our rooms and led the year-long course made up of weekly two-hour sessions. The 20 or so guys in the class were court-ordered to attend because their specific anger issues had led them to adopt violent behaviors towards their spouses or girlfriends.
While I have never physically violated my wife or daughter, my anger issues once led to shameful verbal outbursts toward both. At times my co-workers were also on the receiving end of these wrathful flare-ups. Perhaps as destructive as these emotional explosions was my ability to mask my seething anger between these explosions. My beaming smile on the outside almost always was accompanied by emotional torment on the inside. It was destroying me both relationally and emotionally. So, I was grateful when the counselor allowed me to join the class. I had something to offer others, but I still had room to grow.
Three types of anger
The Bible is an amazing resource when it comes to understanding the nature of anger. There are three basic words for “anger” in the Greek New Testament. Each appears in Ephesians 4.
In Ephesians 4:26 Paul writes, “In your anger do not sin…” This is orgē—righteous anger. Orgē should be the first emotion we feel when we witness injustices or experience wrongdoings at the hands of others. However, if left unchecked it can lead to stronger expressions of anger and more destructive behaviors. Our physical bodies also can begin to suffer the consequences of unrestrained anger. When responded to correctly, righteous anger will lead to righteous ways of living and a righteous reaction to remedy the injustice or wrongdoing at hand.
Both Jesus and Paul use this same word—orgē—with a negative connotation. In these situations, the word refers to an unrighteous anger. The context determines if it is righteous or unrighteous anger. Jesus even goes so far as to say this kind of anger is the same as murder, since both unrighteous anger and murder “will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).
In Ephesians 4:26 Paul goes on to say, “…Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” The word “angry” here is parorgismos and refers to an anger that is accompanied by exasperation, indignation and irritation. I liken this anger to the smile-on-the-outside-but-storms-on-the-inside type of anger. This anger is a stronger form of orgē, and it can easily morph into the more destructive thumos anger mentioned next. For this reason, Paul says, “Do not give the devil a foothold” (v. 27). Satan is all about moving us from bad to worse. He delights in moving us in the direction of “all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (v. 31).
Thumos anger is the shortest in duration. It is the most destructive type of anger. Thumos refers to an intense feeling of anger, fury and rage. It produces a turbulent commotion within that moves us to live out our anger in more destructive ways.
The joy of forgiveness
I have felt each of these emotions. At the same time, I can gladly say I have also experienced growing victories over the destructive forms of anger. I am profoundly grateful for the spiritual and emotional healing that God has brought to my life as I have sought his forgiveness.
I am also grateful for those brothers and sisters I have hurt in the past that have forgiven me. The words, “I forgive you, Lynn,” are music to my ears, whether they are spoken by God or by those I have sinned against.
The benefits of forgiveness and reconciliation have been many. Last week I had lunch with a brother in Christ with whom I “lost it” over 10 years ago. Over the years, God has changed me from essentially hating this brother in my heart to having a heart that now honors him. I once avoided him at all cost. Now I enjoy being in his presence.
Years ago, I was amazed to see a brother in the faith on the pastoral search committee that was discerning my candidacy for a pastoral ministry. Years earlier I had had numerous run-ins with him. My relationship with him was broken. Sadly, I also had let too many suns go down on my anger. And I suffered because of this. Today I greatly admire this person. He too forgave me when I sought his forgiveness. I am always delighted when our paths cross.
Until I die I will face the temptation to move from righteous anger to unrighteous anger and on to anger that potentially ruins relationships. Satan will never give up. That’s just his nature.
Blessings of gracious engagement
A new tool in my spiritual arsenal involves engaging graciously with others, especially with those who have hurt me. I believe God wants to lead us beyond managing our anger to guiding us into the blessed waters of gracious engagement. Anger management is good, but gra- cious engagement is better. Much better! Actually it is gracious engagement that enables us to deal more effectively with our anger and work toward reconciliation.
Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:31 to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” is about anger management. Verse 32, where Paul calls us to be “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,” is about gracious engagement.
Gracious engagement with others is not something developed overnight. Paul literally says, “Be becoming kind and compassionate.” To engage graciously with others is a long, difficult and painful process. It doesn’t come naturally to be kind, gentle, friendly, full of compassion and forgiving toward those who have hurt us.
Growing in these graces best happens when we remember God’s forgiving ways towards us. Paul states, “…forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (v 32). Notice how Paul calls us to remember God’s forgiving ways toward us in the past. We remember his benevolent spirit, gentleness, friendliness and compassion toward us when we hurt him in the past. And then we demonstrate mercy and forgive others in the present.
The Greek word Paul uses for “forgive” is much more extensive than just pardoning somebody. It speaks of showing one’s self gracious (thus the expression “gracious engagement”), kind, benevolent; to pardon, give graciously, give freely, etc.
Remembering God’s graciousness toward us in the past provides us with an example of how we should be gracious toward others in the present. Jesus said something similar about love: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34-35). As we recognize his loving ways toward us, so are we to love others. As we recognize God’s merciful ways toward us so are we to be merciful toward others.
Jesus says in Matthew 5:7: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” We are blessed and made happy when we choose the path of gracious engagement. The blessings are many as we seek the way of Jesus in our fight against unrighteous anger, bitterness, wrath and clamor. And it all begins with Jesus. Jesus shows mercy to us and then we show mercy to others.