Processing Anger

In the Fall of 1985 my life was in shambles, and I located a couple of support groups to help me through that difficult time. The first group was held at an evangelical church in Minneapolis; the second was a secular self-help group that had meeting locations all over the Minneapolis – St. Paul area. Having prided myself on being  theologically sound for over 30 years, I was sure the self-help group would turn out to be some kind of New Age navel gazing and that the church group would offer me real hope. To my surprise, it was the secular group that helped me the most.

Let me give you a sample. On the night we were going to talk about anger, the church group handed out a one-page summary of “Eight Ways to Manage and Overcome Anger” and proceeded to teach us ways to fix our “problem” of too much unresolved anger. When I went to the secular group to talk about anger, they asked us to tell us about what had us so worked up. And as we told our stories, people around the room would comment occasionally with such things as: “Wow! That would make me angry, too!”;  “How did you not strangle someone?”;  “That was awful! I’m glad you finally got angry about that.”

At first glance it might look like I was just being encouraged to be angry. But that is not only true, it misses the point. In very important ways, I was being heard. My pain was understood. My reaction was understandable, even functional, because it gave me energy to move. My anger was not a problem to be fixed; it was a symptom of many problems I could not fix. I did not need someone to tell my how to not be angry. I needed someone to come alongside me and strengthen me so I could begin to make sense of why I was so angry.

It was a hard lesson:  To find that compassionate human beings without God were far more relational and caring than these particular Christians who wanted to “fix” me. Ironically, it was by delving into the pain and anger that made it possible for me to move on and “get past” those things. On the other hand, trying to treat anger as if it were the problem makes it go underground and leaves the true problems untouched and unresolved.

When we get a flat tire while driving, what we experience is a very rough ride, a lot of noise, and difficulty steering. If we simply grip the steering while harder, put ear plugs in our ears, and press down on the gas, the problem will not go away. We need to stop and find out why the car is behaving so strangely. We might even want to know what ruined the tire so we can keep from having that same experience in the future. So it is with anger: it makes more sense to deal with the problem than the symptom.

Yes, I understand that if we become slaves to anger we are in terrible danger. But we also put ourselves in danger when we fail to see anger (or any negative emotion) as a great servant, holding for us the true causes of our distress — if we will only do the necessary work to find them. What’s more, those are not the only two options open to us.

With what we know today, I can take my anger to God — honestly, openly, even unsanitized — and ask Him to help me see what might be underneath my rage. In every case, God knows what to do, how to say what I need to hear, and opens the door to healing my heart. After God addresses the real issues, the anger usually goes away on its own — it was only there because of the problem.

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