A fascinating drama unfolded on a street corner in Glendale, California, several years ago. I’d just pulled up to a four-way stop, and a car coming toward me had already stopped and was slowly moving into the intersection. I’ll call it Car A. Suddenly, tires screeching, Car B came flying into the intersection from my left. It slid to a stop just inches from Car A.
The driver’s door flew open, and Driver B burst out of his car. Fists doubled up, he was literally dancing in the street, screaming at Driver A, demanding to know why he’d pulled into the intersection without checking for cross-traffic. For a moment, I thought I had a front-row seat at a boxing match. But Driver A kept his cool. He simply pointed to the stop sign that Driver B had failed to see. Driver B turned, looked at the stop sign, hung his head, and slunk back into his car.
Truths about anger
This simple story illustrates several truths about anger. First, anger is our automatic human response to injustice, and usually, the more threatening the injustice, the more intense the anger. Driver B believed that Driver A had violated his (Driver B’s) right-of-way to the intersection, nearly causing an accident.
Second, anger is also a highly emotional response, and anything that adds emotion to an angry situation will intensify the anger. The adrenaline rush that Driver B got from slamming on his brakes to avoid hitting Car A fueled his anger. That’s why he was dancing in the street.
A third truth about anger is that it has to do with perception, not necessarily with reality. Driver B was clearly in the wrong, but as long as he perceived Driver A to be the cause of the near miss, he felt angry.
Fortunately, anger can be resolved. I’ll mention four ways.
1. Get the facts
The simplest way to resolve anger, when the circumstances allow it, is for the angry person to learn the truth—and accept it. That’s what happened at that intersection in Glendale. Driver B’s adrenaline rush from slamming on his brakes, combined with the shame of making a fool of himself in public, guaranteed that he’d be on an emotional high for at least the next hour. But the anger itself was resolved—and very quickly—once he realized that he was the one who’d nearly caused an accident.
So the next time you’re angry, ask yourself whether the facts justify your feelings. Might you be at least partly to blame for the situation?
2. Assess the seriousness of the issue
Anger can also be resolved by putting the situation into perspective. Imagine you’re at a party and you accidentally bump into someone, causing him or her to spill a glass of soda into the lap of a person sitting nearby. Those two people may feel a momentary flash of anger at your carelessness, but they’ll probably recognize that you intended no harm. They’ll also realize that the soda will soon dry, and the garment can be either laundered or dry-cleaned. Their anger will be resolved fairly easily when they realize that the accident caused only a minor inconvenience.
So the next time you’re angry, ask yourself whether the offending party intended to cause the problem and whether it’s serious enough to deserve a major angry response.
3. Assess yourself
Anger is more difficult to resolve when a character defect causes you to habitually perceive injustice, whether or not it’s justified. Some people carry around a load of anger from childhood abuse that causes them to view all of life through the emotion of anger and to blame someone else for just about anything that hurts them. The only solution to this form of anger is to acknowledge that much of the anger you experience is unjustified and has distorted your entire view of reality. This acknowledgment requires a fierce commitment to absolute honesty about yourself.
It also requires outside help, both from God and from other people. You won’t be able to deal with this problem as long as you’re in denial over it, so you need God’s help to be totally honest with yourself. Even when you’ve faced your own character defect squarely, you must ask Him to help you remove it. You can’t expect it to go away instantly, though. You need to keep asking God for His help each time you feel the anger. As time goes on, those feelings will become weaker and weaker.
Facing your own issues squarely is also easier with the help of another human being. Share what’s going on in your life with a trusted friend and ask him or her for honest feedback.
4. Give it to God
One of our most common responses to anger is the rush to “get even.” We want the perpetrator (or the person we think is the perpetrator) to feel the same pain we’re feeling. We want to punish the person for what he or she did to us. Again, that’s what happened at the traffic stop in Glendale. Driver B jumped out of his car to punish Driver A.
I was discussing the problem of anger with a friend recently, and he said that any time he feels irritated or angry over a particular incident, he reminds himself of the statement in the Bible that says, “ ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19, NKJV). My friend said that just turning it over to God to deal with often keeps him from lashing back at the person he feels injured him.
When it’s justified
Often, the most difficult form of anger to resolve is that which is justified. Someone really did hurt you. And usually, the greater the injury, the more difficult it will be to resolve the anger. It’s one thing if someone cheats you out of ten dollars. It’s quite another if he or she cheats you out of 10,000 dollars. It’s also one thing if someone’s carelessness causes you to cut your finger or even to break an arm. It’s another thing altogether if someone’s carelessness causes you to lose an arm or leg or takes the life of someone you love.
If this is the case with you, you can complain bitterly that you didn’t ask for this burden—which is true. You can wish for the abuser to apologize to you—which does sometimes happen. But regardless of the nature or severity of the abuse and whether or not the perpetrator apologizes, only you can work through your anger. If you don’t do it, it won’t happen.
A common response to severe injustice is resentment, which is anger stretched out over time. Resentment feels good. The victim feels justified. However, the stress can create severe physical and emotional damage. As long as you allow the resentment to continue, the abuser is controlling your life. You need to ask yourself how long you want that to continue. As a therapist friend of mine once said to an angry person in a group session I attended, “How long do you want the abuser to rent space in your head?”
You can’t just push a button in your head and expect your anger to go away. Those who try the quick-fix solution to their anger are likely to discover that they simply shoved it into their subconscious where it continued eating away at their mental and emotional well-being, generating even worse anger over future perceived injustices.
The only permanent solution to genuine abuse and injustice is forgiveness. There are countless stories of people who felt profoundly angry over an injury they suffered from another person. Often, they despaired of a solution—and they found it when they were able to truly forgive. Again, here’s where help from God and other people is essential.
If you ask Him, God can lead you to forgive. He can help you to calm down, analyze the situation, and recognize where you may have contributed to the difficulty. He can also change your feelings so you’re willing to forgive.
And a human counselor can also be a tremendous help. A wise counselor will spend only a little time sympathizing with your pain and then will lead you toward an appropriate resolution.
You may have noticed that twice in the previous two paragraphs I spoke about God and wise counselors leading you toward an appropriate resolution. That’s because forgiveness for a severe injustice may not come easily. You need to give yourself time to process the abuse and work toward forgiveness.
The good news is that the stress and pain of anger and resentment don’t have to last forever. You can be free. The solution is to move from anger to forgiveness.