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What if you kept an “anger journal”? Calvin University professor Rebecca DeYoung tells of an exercise she assigned her students: keep a record of your anger for one week. Every time you become angry, capture what made you angry, and rank the intensity of that anger on a scale of 1 to 5. Then set the journal aside and return a few weeks later to evaluate your responses with distance from the provoking events.
We might expect what the general findings were. DeYoung summarizes them in Glittering Vices, her book on the seven deadly sins and their cures:
Frequently, reactions that seemed perfectly justified and rational at the time ended up looking petty and self-serving in retrospect, and the situations that have occasioned our anger seemed, in hindsight, more trivial than genuinely offensive.
But even as one who studies vices, DeYoung was surprised by the bottom line, that “the verdict was even harsher than I anticipated: a vanishingly small amount, if any, of our anger counted as good.”
The Apostle Paul may not have been surprised. With “anger” and “wrath” headlining the list in Colossians 3:8, he issues an unqualified “put them all away.” Anger flares in us, however righteous or unrighteous, at some perceived injustice or mistreatment, whether toward us or someone else we love. As Christians, we want to be “slow to anger” like our God, but being un-anger-able is no virtue. We see in the Gospels at least one explicit flare of anger in the sinless Christ—anger, notice, that He puts away before acting to heal the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:5). Anger rises naturally, even if slowly, in healthy souls. We need not cultivate anger, but as we’re shaped by God’s Word, His people, and prayer, our anger will flare less at wrong times and in more proportionate measures.
Anger, then, inspires action. It delivers a burst of energy, fuel to pursue the righting of a perceived wrong. The spark of anger prompts us to move from inaction and passivity into some righteous effort to address the problem. The danger, of course, is that anger appeals to our fallenness. It can feel so good. We don’t want to put it away. Far too easily we sinners nurse the flare and let its fire begin to eat us up.
Colossians 3:8 meets us in moments like these. The perceived injustice has our attention. Anger has been briefly, momentarily sensed; now it must go. But how? First, to put anger away, we must push it out. Paul pairs putting off (Col. 3:5–11) with putting on (Col. 3:12–17), and amid a whole cluster of virtues that take the oxygen from unrighteous anger, we find the special matches of patience (Col. 3:12) and forgiveness (Col. 3:13).
Second, such patience toward, and forgiveness of, others grows in the soil of a peace that rules in our hearts in Christ (Col. 3:15). Peace rules. As the Prince of Peace takes up residence in us, He extends His reign over unrighteous anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk. Increasingly, such vices are banished from His kingdom of peace and replaced with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12).
Third, this rule of peace doesn’t just happen but is planted and fed and flourishes by Christ’s own power, coming into our souls tangibly, through our ears, by His Word. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). A gospel-rich, Scripture-formed soul breeds the reign of peace that fosters patience and its accompanying graces that force out unrighteous anger—and prompt righteous anger to move along quickly once it has done its work.
Having put away anger, then, confirm, with a cool head, what anger-less action, if any, to take. It might be to forbear this time and see if other instances follow. Or it may mean that now is the time for some modest act. This is a critical step in righteous anger’s not quickly becoming unrighteous. Sadly, few sinners, even Christians, seem able to do this consistently—to take some humble step, because anger inspired it, but to do so without anger.
Finally, act with calmness and patience—without anger. In doing so, not only do we heed Paul’s charge to put anger away in particular moments, but one battle at a time, we become the kind of people, in Christ, who have put away anger in our lives as a whole. We are less prone to unrighteous anger and strangely more prone, we could say, to righteous anger, though slowly and infrequently, and ready to put it away, after its limited, helpful flare.
As Christians, both in the moment and over time, we put away anger as those imitating, and benefiting from, the one man whose anger was never unrighteous, and who never held too long onto any righteous flare.