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The life of a plant is in its roots. You can damage its leaves and branches, even its stem, and the plant can still survive. But if you kill the root, you kill the plant. So in a sense, the main life of a plant is the hidden part.
That’s how anger works. The part you see is not its main life. The parts you see—red faces and quickened pulses, harsh words and forced sighs, raised voices and clenched fists—these are expressions of something deeper. Something in the roots. Something in the heart.
So what is it, there in the heart? What do we call that root condition that leads to sinful expressions of anger?
If we go too generic with our label, we won’t be gaining much. If we describe our anger merely as sin, we will not gain the insight necessary for overcoming it. Anger in its usual form certainly involves sin. But generic acknowledgment usually doesn’t get you past generic repentance. We need further insight into the particular way our hearts are sinning that wells up into expressions of anger.
Insight into the heart starts with some cold water on a hot face. A really useful source of cold water is James 4:1–10. In this passage, James compels his readers to wake up to the reality going on under the surface of their anger. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1).
Here’s my main point: We need humble discernment into our own hearts to understand our anger. This discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit that we must seek.
Discernment is the ability to make distinctions, to tell the difference between right and wrong, fitting and unfitting, beautiful and repulsive. In other words, your heart is tuned to sense the difference between what is pleasing and displeasing to the Lord (Rom. 12:1–2; Phil. 1:9–11). This discernment is not unlike the ability of a soldier equipped with night-vision goggles in a dark place. He can better spot the features of his surroundings because he is better able to distinguish between different kinds of dark.
James tells his readers to aim those goggles not outwardly but inwardly. He tells them to discern the different kinds of dark inside their own souls. Specifically, he insists that Christians distinguish the ruling desires that are the root—the life—of their anger (James 4:1–4). This is no self-improvement exercise. It is an act of radical submission. It is, in humility, surrendering to the will of God what we find most precious. James says that God jealously yearns that His Spirit would be the One dwelling in and ruling our hearts (James 4:5). Not our desires. He will give every grace to establish this. And He will oppose every challenge to it (James 4:6–10).
How do we practice this discernment? The main thing is to have enough trust in God’s work in you through Christ to follow the clear commands of the passage, which include such specifics as “submit yourselves therefore to God” (James 4:7), “draw near to God” (James 4:8), and “cleanse your hands . . . and purify your hearts” (James 4:8), which can all be summarized in the final command: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10).
Let me offer some practical suggestions for tracing our anger back to the ruling desires of our hearts. This is something that the Spirit of God alone can grant discernment to do, but He does so through means. Those means include our efforts to humble ourselves by identifying and denying ourselves desires that have captured us.
Sometimes this is easiest to do when we recognize that anger is not a stand-alone issue. Bad roots lead to bad fruit on more than one branch. Sometimes our anger is so automatic in our responses that it’s hard to discern. Sometimes starting with another branch helps. It traces down to the same heart.
tracing your anxiety
Anxiety is such a common experience that the Scriptures are always telling us not to fear but instead to trust the Lord (Matt. 14:30–31; Phil. 4:4–7). Anxiety is a form of fear, one that grips the soul.
People tend to get edgiest about what they’re most scared of losing. Tracing that fear back will give insight into what might be fueling your anger too. If a professional is constantly anxious about his job performance, he will likely be angry with anyone who hinders him from performing. If a person is anxious about security in a certain relationship, she will be angry at any sign of distance or slight. If an adult child is anxious about making it on his own, he will be angry at anyone who threatens his sense of independence, even if the other person is trying only to help.
My point is that sometimes our anxiety gives us clues into our anger. So perhaps we can start by seeking the Spirit in prayer or having a conversation with trusted friends about what we’re so anxious about—it could reveal what we may be gripping with a closed fist before the Lord.
tracing your discouragements
Discouragement is another experience so common that the biblical writers are constantly encouraging believers not to lose heart (Luke 18:1; 2 Cor. 4:16). Discouragement also grips the soul with a heavy hand.
Discouragement leaves people raw, weakened, and often edgy. What you feel depressed about might reveal some of your deepest desires and expectations for life. When we feel hopeless of ever being able to realize those desires we long for, we can become characterized by bitterness, resentment, and outright anger at the unfairness of it all. A teenager is discouraged by not being as socially included as he wants, so he rages at everyone around him. A musician has just been outperformed for the spot she was wanting, and so is constantly irritable with her family. A husband is disappointed with how his career has turned out, so he’s always on the edge of fury.
My point here is that what we get most discouraged about can indicate a possible source of our anger. So here, too, we learn to talk to God and to trusted Christian friends about our discouragements and admit when those discouragements have spilled over into sinful anger. The Lord will be kind to anyone who wishes to identify these connections and no longer be ruled by selfish desires.
tracing your broken relationships
Broken relationships are a reality in a broken world. Scripture recognizes this, too, in its countless admonitions to seek peace with one another and to endure in loving each other insofar as we are able (Rom. 12:16–21; 1 Peter 3:8–12).
Sometimes a broken relationship is a clue to what may be setting you on edge in the rest of your relationships. Perhaps you have been wronged and this wrong has gone unresolved. This can be embittering and frustrating, and you may be carrying that frustration in ways that you aren’t fully aware of. An adult child is distant from a parent who always had unfair expectations. A sibling is distant from the rest of the family because he thinks they see themselves as better than he is. A friend feels ditched by another friend after having shared so much of their lives together. The hurt in these relationships can be related to a generally angry stance at the world.
My point here is that these broken relationships can reveal hopes and desires we may be clinging to so tightly that we are angry and defensive without them. Here, too, we learn to identify them before the Lord, who is infinitely compassionate to our hurts. Just read the countless psalms about relational pain (see Pss. 22; 31; 35). Entrusting those desires to the Lord will allow you to forgive in your heart as appropriate and will really undermine anger.
I need to close by reiterating that discernment of one’s own heart is a gift from the Lord, one that is not just given at one time but in a succession of arresting insights. If you pursue this wisdom, you will find it. This is God’s promise. Believing that will make your quest against sinful anger successful.