On March 16, 2012 (I’m withholding names and places to protect the already embarrassed and guilty parties!), a boyfriend (age 24) and girlfriend (17) sped out of the downtown area where they lived. They were in separate cars, driving at a high rate of speed, and weaving in and out of traffic—obviously chasing, or trying to elude, one another. The young woman had a male passenger in her car; the young man had a woman passenger and an infant in his car.
They merged onto the interstate highway outside of town. The young man pulled alongside the young woman’s car and threw an object at her car, hitting and cracking her windshield. The young woman gave chase and tried to pass the young man’s car but lost control on a curve. She hit the guardrail and rolled her car across the freeway several times, striking her boyfriend’s car in the process. The girlfriend and her male passenger were thrown from the car as it rolled. The boyfriend maintained control of his car and neither he, his female passenger, nor the infant were hurt. The girlfriend and her passenger—the ones ejected from their rolled vehicle—were treated for injuries at a local hospital and released. The freeway was closed for 90 minutes while the mess was cleaned up and sorted out. (No word on whether the boyfriend and girlfriend are still together.)
Reading this story, the first thing that comes to mind is road rage. Using Google’s “News” search engine, I found just under a thousand references to “road rage” in the news. And those are only the incidents that made the news. For every road rage incident serious enough to be reported in the news, how many take place that go unreported? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? I can’t imagine, but you and I know it’s a lot. Anyone who spends time driving on freeways knows there is a lot of pent-up anger behind the wheel in our streets.
Though I’m calling this a road rage incident, it really wasn’t, in my opinion. Why? Because road rage usually happens impulsively—a shout, gesture, or blare of the horn. It’s rarely planned or premeditated. That wasn’t the case in the story I just related. I assume this whole incident—from the time the young couple got in their cars and began the chase that ended in a crash—must have taken at least 10-15 minutes. That may not seem like a long time, but how many opportunities were there in that short time span for one or both parties to cool down? Plenty! The chase may have started impulsively, but it went on and on by choice. And it ended the way self-centered anger usually ends—with people getting hurt.
It’s one thing for us to laugh at little digital birds that get their feathers ruffled over make-believe events on a smartphone or tablet screen. No harm, no foul—just turn the device off and everything’s fine. Feathers are smoothed and dander is down where it belongs.
But when we humans get our feathers ruffled, it’s not as easy to turn off as flipping a switch or pulling a plug. And the events are not make-believe. Anger is not to be treated casually. Instead, it is to be treated very carefully. There is a lot of anger in our world—righteous and unrighteous—and we need to understand how easy it is to slip into the latter kind where pain, shame, and injury are possibilities, if not the result.
I surveyed the number of times the words anger, wrath, and indignation (in all their various forms) are used in the Bible, and the number is more than 600! True to its purpose, the Bible doesn’t hide the realities of life. Human beings have been prone to anger from the very beginning. Cain has the dubious distinction of being the first person in history to be angry with God—something that is not recommended (Genesis 4:5).
But here’s what may be a surprise: Not all anger is bad. Not every emotion of anger that rises from deep within you should be negated. But I want to talk about the kind we have to control—the dangerous, sinful kind of anger.
In their 2011 book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, researchers Roy Baumeister and John Tierney cite abundant evidence showing how the lack of self-control leads to poor outcomes in life: “The results couldn’t be clearer: Self-control is a vital strength and key to success in life.”1 Think how much better off that young couple I just described would be if they had been able to control their anger.
If you get angry or indignant about the millions of babies aborted each year, or the desperate plight of innocent people in Sudan suffering at the hands of rival governments, and you do what you can to impact these or other immoral or unjust dimensions of our world—keep it up! You are in the company of Jesus (Mark 3:4-5), the prophets (Ezekiel 34), the apostles (Galatians 2:11-14), and God Himself (1 Kings 11:9-10). You aren’t retaliating out of anger due to personal injury; you are responding to the violation of a righteous standard of God. You are reacting to the influence of sin in our world. You are angry that Satan and his agents have such devastating influence. You are feeling righteous indignation.
But if you lose your temper, seek to carry out revenge or vengeance toward others, blurt out targeted words of disrespect toward someone, simmer and boil internally with uncontrollable feelings of rage or resentment, or think God has wronged you in some way that prevents you from entering into His presence with worship—you are not in good company (Proverbs 12:16; 15:18; 21:19). You are sinfully angry—and like all sin, that kind of anger needs to be confessed and repented of.
Did you know that anger can be found in two places? It can be internal or external. Of course, all anger that is manifested externally begins internally. But just because a person appears calm on the outside doesn’t mean that he or she is not angry on the inside. How often do we hear in the news about an employee going into the workplace and opening fire on innocent coworkers because he was angry over something? That kind of person is usually described as being “totally normal, a really nice person” before the internal anger overflowed and resulted in destruction. It is not okay to bottle up your anger on the inside while appearing calm on the outside. Sinful anger is sinful anger regardless of where it exists.
The great reformer Martin Luther is credited with observing that we can’t keep birds from flying over our head, but we can keep them from building a nest in our hair. That applies to anger as well. We can’t prevent situations in life where we are tempted to exhibit “life rage,” but that doesn’t mean we have to yield to the temptation. We have to distinguish between anger that is for God’s sake (righteous indignation) versus anger for our sake (sinful anger).
Do you retaliate verbally and impulsively? Do you stew and simmer on the inside? Do you raise your voice? Do you take pride in “giving as good as you get”? Do you withdraw and retreat into silence around others? Find it hard to love your enemies? Get upset over normal and unavoidable events in life (children’s accidents, traffic jams, people who are late for meetings, a spouse or child who fails to meet your expectations, and others)?
I mentioned self-control earlier—the key to keeping anger from turning into sin. If you experience any of these warning signs, make a daily practice of asking the Holy Spirit to fill you with His power of self-control as described in Galatians 5:23. You and I can’t eliminate every temptation to be self-serving if we remain sinfully angry at others. But with the Holy Spirit’s power, we can get our ruffled feathers back in place before harm is done.
1Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), p. 13.