Seeing Red: Getting Unstuck from Anger

I delivered this sermon at my church, Hillside Church of Marin, and a few people who heard it requested that I post the transcript on my blog, along with the audio on my Talks Page. I have edited the script on this post from the original content that I delivered.

Personally, of all the issues that can stick our boots in the mudflats of sin, this one in particular has trapped me over and over again. If you feel stuck in your anger today, then I pray that you may find healing by the power of the Holy Spirit. Surrender. Confess. Repent. Put up your hands, and let the Savior of the World find you, pick you up, and set your feet on a path toward freedom and health! 

May this sermon bless and encourage you today!

Stuck in anger? Confess your control, repent, and put your hands up. Jesus promises to pick you up and set you on a path of freedom.

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“Life’s not fair,” cried one of my friends. He and I sat together as he shared with me about his parents’ divorce. 

He clenched his fists and tightened his jaw. “I cannot believe they would choose to do this. Can’t they see how much this hurts me?” he exclaimed! As he expressed his anger, my heart broke for him. I could sense that he wanted restitution, but in this situation, none would be found. His parents made their decision, and he was stuck having to deal with the consequences.

As a result, a wellspring of unending rage continued to pour forth from him over the next hour while he sat together. 

His face turned red. He continued to recount what led up to this situation and kept saying to me, “Life’s not fair. Life’s not fair.” 

I sat there listening to this man who stood firmly stuck in the mudflats of anger.

I listened for a while longer until at last I got his attention. His eyes locked onto mine, and I looked at him and said, “I hear your anger. Your hurt breaks my heart into pieces, and I agree with you, life is not fair. But until you see the grace of God for you through Jesus and the unfairness of that gift for you, then you will stay stuck in your anger forever! 

At that moment, tears welled up in his eyes, and he said, “I know.”

Some of you, like my friend, are stuck in your anger.

You may not even be able to explain what causes your anger… or why it unleashes with such fury. You simply know that the slightest off-putting situation can cause you to see red.

I want to ask you a series of questions to help you discern whether or not you are stuck in your anger. Think to yourself about how you would answer these following questions. If you answer yes to more than a couple of these questions, then you may very well be standing stuck in the mudflats of anger:

Do you have difficulty letting go of personal hurts?
Are you known for being argumentative and/or defensive?
Do you have to get the last word?
Are there people that you refuse to talk to because you feel angry with them?
In arguments with your friends, family, or spouse, are you able to focus on the issue at hand and be reasonable, or do your emotions lead you to say things designed to inflict hurt and “win”?
Does the very idea of forgiveness make you angry?
When playing sports or games, does your “competitive side” prevent you from enjoying yourself and others?
If you’re in a position of authority over others, such as employees, students, or children, do you find it difficult to correct or discipline without venting anger?

Again, if you answered yes to more than a couple of these questions, then it’s safe to say that you're stuck.

For the next few minutes, I want to define anger. It can be a subjective and overused term, so I want to get as close as I can to the heart of what anger means and what gets us stuck in our anger. Then, I want to discuss how the Gospel can get us unstuck from our anger. Finally, I will close with a few concrete take aways that you can do today to help you get your boots unstuck from the mudflats of anger.

What is anger? Is it merely an emotion that you experience when you feel wronged? In actuality, anger is a secondary emotion to a primary set of emotions that you experience just prior to feeling angry. 

In the case of my friend who sat in my office enraged about the decision his parents made to divorce, if you had asked him how he felt about the situation, then he would have told you, “I feel angry.” 

And indeed, he would have been telling you the truth. Anger is a real emotion. 

Yet, his anger, just like our anger, stems from a deeper, primordial set of emotions.

As he and I sat together over the next several weeks, he discovered that he felt stuck in his anger because he realized that he felt a deep sense of hurt, sadness, pain, pressure, rejection, and fear from the decision his parents made. 

These primary emotions - hurt, sadness, pain, pressure, rejection, and fear - healthy emotions, right emotions for a situation given this nature - stayed underneath the surface because he felt unsafe in his home environment to share them. 

As a result, his primary emotions began to fester, scab over, and scar, which created a variety of secondary emotions that began to surface in public, including anger and rage.

If you scratch your knee and it bleeds, then taking the proper precautions to address it, stop the bleeding, and prevent infections can allow for immediate healing and no long term damage. To ignore a wound, however, causes it to fester, puss, scab over, and scar. In fact, if an open wound encounters the wrong kind of bacteria, then even serious illness or death can ensue. 

A similar comparison can be drawn between your primary and secondary emotions. If you feel hurt, rejected, and humiliated - and you process through those emotions in a healthy, timely fashion, then you can experience immediate relief with no long term issues. 

Left unchecked, however, your primary emotions over time will certainly fester and find secondary outlets to release. 

A therapist once said, your emotions need to zero out. If you experience a hurt, then you need to fill it. Foregoing your emotions creates secondary emotions that you then must work through, along with the original primary ones, creating the perfect scenario for us to get stuck in our emotions

One prominent Christian writer and theologian, Dallas Willard, says about anger, “The explosion of anger never simply comes from one incident. Many people carry a supply of anger with them.”

I think Dallas Willard hit the nail on the head, which begs the question: Why do so many people carry a supply of anger around with them?

Because getting to the heart of your primary emotions, hurts. Who wants to work through the emotion of humiliation? Or rejection? Or abandonment?

As a result of not dealing with our primary emotions, a supply of anger will begin welling up from within and fills a storage tank of anger that wants to burst out at the slightest opportunity. Three factors can keep you stuck in your anger after having not dealt with your primary emotions. I want to call these key factors reservoirs that feed our seemingly ending well-spring of anger. They have been adapted from Jared Wilson's writings on anger.

1. The Ignorance Reservoir. 

While anger can be a legitimate response to a given situation, one of the catalysts for how a person stays stuck in anger is ignorance. Quite simply, when you ignore your primary emotions, you open yourself to getting stuck in the mudflats. 

And why? Because it hurts. It hurts to acknowledge your humiliation, rejection, abandonment, and pain. Let’s face it: it is much easier - and often more satisfying - to feel angry toward someone or something than to take responsibility for our emotions, feel them, and process through them. 

I hear quite often allusions to the old adage, “Time heals all wounds,” as if somehow if you ignore your emotions and let enough ‘water go under the bridge,’ then somehow the emotions just disappears. That’s a crock, and all of us know it. Healing can take place over time when your hurt is dealt with in a healthy, faithful way, but time by itself does nothing!

Ignorance breeds anger.

2. The Entitlement Reservoir.

Over time, as your wellspring of anger begins to fill your anger tank ever so higher, inevitably your perspective will shift from personal responsibility to personal entitlement.

In some instances, you may experience a legitimate grievance that deserves addressing. If you are the victim of another person’s sin, then that person does owe you a repentant apology. According to Matthew, seeking forgiveness and giving someone an apology is a necessary step for both people to resolve a conflict.

But, hear me say this, your offender’s repentant apology is NOT contingent upon whether or not you work through your primary emotions. It is your responsibility through the power of the Holy Spirit to maintain your health, no matter what happens to you.

That might mean as you process through your primary emotions, you may need to make personal sacrifices to achieve health, even if your hurt is the result of another person’s sin.

Entitlement tells you the lie that you deserve restitution. Entitlement places an undue, undeserved interest on your self. Entitlement feeds your anger and takes you further away from the real emotions that you need to process, thereby keeping you STUCK in the mudflats of anger.

3. The Self-Idolatry Reservoir.

You’ve been hurt. You feel entitled. And now, you need to feel appeased. Here, your anger craves some sort of satisfaction and any kind of release wherever you can find it. Now, rather than the issue being about the hurt you endured and processing through those primary emotions, the desire now becomes all about satisfying your anger.

I like to think about this phase in your anger as a kiln - like a hot sun in the mudflats, baking the mud around you and keeping your boots locked down. As a result of your anger, satisfaction becomes about self-glorification and feeding the god within you that feels entitled and demands appeasement. 

Here, your anger and your desire for satisfaction drive decisions that are unhealthy for you and those around you. I wrote down a few decisions that people make out of self-idolatry and appeasement - all in the name of satisfaction and justification. Such decisions can include:

slandering your offender
gossiping about your offender or the incident
making outrageous purchases
engaging in unhealthy relationships that can lead to an affair
watching pornography - I know so many men who resort to this as a result of their unprocessed primary emotions. One Huffington post article from 2013 stated that so many men pirate porn online that 80 percent of the porn revenue has declined since the mid-2000’s, which would amount to nearly 30 billion dollars - nearly the equivalent of the entire agricultural exports of California! 
Severing ties to people or organizations
binge eating and drinking - I read an article on the BBC just this past week indicating that binge eating has now been classified as a health epidemic in our society.
letting go of commitments and becoming lazy

Indeed, if sin is making ourselves the god of our own lives, as Genesis 3 describes, then anger not only flirts with that boundary line, but often catapults us right over it. 

In fact, nowhere in Scripture is anger ever honored or condoned. Rather, I counted 18 separate warnings and cautions about the use of anger in your life. Here are just a few:

Ephesians 4:31 - Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
James 1:20 - Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.
Proverbs 29:11 - A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.
Ecclesiastes 7:9 - Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.
Matthew 5:22 - But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.

The Bible says here and so many other places that anger sticks our boots in the mud and ultimately keeps us from a healthy relationship with Jesus and one another, as well as from the full and rich life that Jesus promised to give us.

For the remainder of our time together, I want to ask the question: does the good news of Jesus Christ speak to our anger?

Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians church about a radical perspective shift for how we can understand our anger, as well as how to understand and interpret our anger in light of what Jesus did for every single one of us in the cross and resurrection. 

Paul writes this in Colossians chapter 3:1-17. Let me read through this first and then discuss each part:

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3 For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. 

5 So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you.

8 Now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language.

12 Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.

16 Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. 17 And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.

Here Paul’s opening phrase to the church, to you, “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ.” 

New life. The cross and resurrection give us new life, a new way of life, a forgiven, redeemed life in Christ. 

Our old lives - our sin filled lives - the lives that we chose when we lived like the god of our own lives - sought to fill our broken anger tanks, which constantly need replenished, from dirty reservoirs that reinforce a lie that you and I deserve to seek restitution for our hurts. 

Yet, Because of what Jesus did on the cross and in his subsequent resurrection, you no longer need to justify yourself, appease your desires, and seek restitution for your hurt. You have been made right in the sight of God. 

And now Jesus asks you to trust him. Do you trust him? 

The Father desires for you to make your place with him, and in so doing, no matter who hurts you and violates your basic human rights, Jesus says in all things that he will give you peace, bring healing, and make restitution for your hurt. 

Do you trust Jesus with the most vulnerable, painful hurts of your life?

I recently learned a new definition of repentance. I learned that when first century folks heard that word, it meant something much different than the definition that some of you possess. 

Jesus paints a new picture of repentance that we find in Luke 15. In the Old Testament, repentance, is defined by the Hebrew word “shub” {{SHOOB}}, meaning an individual who turns from his/her sin and returns to God. The responsibility is on the individual to stop sinning and then return to God. This is the definition that many of you possess who have been coming to church for a while - Old Testament 

In the New Testament, however, Jesus takes on this responsibility - and with joy! Repentance, according to the Gospel, means that Jesus goes out to find you, the one who got lost, who feels stuck, picks you up, and carries you home. 

Simply stretch out your arms, and the Savior of the world, the God of the universe, will not only find you and reach out his hand to help you, but pick you up out of those boots and carry you home. 

Some of you feel so stuck in your anger that you see no hope for freedom. Put out your arms. Jesus promises to find you. Confess and repent. Jesus promises freedom. 

As part of your healing process, you may need to seek therapy from a faithful Christian counselor, who can work with you in the power of the Holy Spirit to process through your anger and primary emotions. You may need place healthy boundaries between you and your offender. You may need to seek forgiveness from those who stood on the receiving end of your wrath. You may need to put software on your computer that keeps you accountable from numbing your anger with porn.
You may need to seek accountability with your gossip and slander. 

As Paul says, whatever you need to do to clothe yourself in love, tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, do those things so that you may live a new life in Christ and live a free, full live in Christ! 

Let today be the day that you get unstuck from your anger and live in the freedom that Jesus promised.