Dealing with Explosive Anger

Uncategorized Jun 06, 2024

John is a devoted husband. However, the unknown male caller on his wife's voicemail ignites a whirlwind of emotions in him. Suspicion, hurt, and fear crop up almost instantaneously. The amygdala, a crucial part of John’s limbic system responsible for processing emotions, kicks into high gear, sending distress signals throughout his brain. This signaling triggers a release of adrenaline, causing his heart to race and his muscles to tense. He clenches his fists, trying to control his impulses. John is on the verge of explosive anger. If he does not control it, he will do or say something he will later regret.

Can you relate? Perhaps the scenario was different, but surely you can relate to intense emotion and being on the verge of explosive anger. If you have ever given in to the impulses of anger, you have likely also found yourself regretting deeply things that you have said or done. The regret comes from the fact that the prefrontal cortex of your brain, where logic and reason function, typically kicks in after you've calmed down. The initial reaction described by the fictitious "John" above is emotional. And the emotions override reason. It is not until the emotions have calmed that you can reason out the situation that triggered the anger.

Perhaps you imagine that explosive anger is limited to people who are not dedicated believers in God. Or maybe it is the vice only of non-religious people. Perhaps you imagine that godly people like the characters mentioned in scripture are not the kind of people who succumb to explosive anger.

The Bible does not hide the struggles that godly men and women dealt with in their everyday lives. David is an individual who dealt with moments of explosive anger. And if you are a person seeking to learn how to gain control over anger, there is a psalm that David wrote just for you. And it’s worth a Bible study.

A Passage on Controlling Anger

Psalm 37 is that psalm. It is a poem that describes the process David went through to control his explosive anger. More specifically, it is David's poetic sermon in which he teaches us how God can move into a person's rage and bring peace and control. And just for the record, I need the psalm as much as anybody.

If you are interested in learning how David learned to control his anger, there are a couple of important things to understand. Let me start with a little bit of context.

Long before David, God made a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1; 15:16–18). He promised Abraham that he would raise a nation out of Abraham's children and give this nation a land of promise. That nation would come to be called the nation of Israel.

Hundreds of years after Abraham, David becomes king of Israel. And just as God had promised, he blessed the nation of Israel with a land of promise. The land of Israel was directly connected to the covenant God made with Abraham. Therefore, those who dwelled in that land were in that special covenant with God.

In Psalm 37, “dwelling in the land” or “possessing the land” is a key theme that is repeated multiple times (vv. 3, 9, 11, 18, 22, 27, 29, and 34). David spoke not only of dwelling in the land but also repeatedly used agricultural metaphors that referred to the land, like the ideas of plants, herbs, flowers, and soil. You won't understand David’s anger issues unless you understand that "dwelling in the land" was considered a privilege that was extended only to the people of Israel. To live in this land was to be included in the Abrahamic covenant.

But there is a problem. Wicked people had moved into the promised land. These are more than just people who were unlikable or difficult to deal with. These people were the kind who devised "wicked schemes" (v. 7b) and were using these schemes to prosper from the people of Israel. Since David is king, he takes this personally.

David’s Emotions Increase to Rage

God brought David's emotions under control. Now, David can teach his people, who are also angry at the wicked people dwelling in the land, how to control their emotions. He begins with a warning against what sounds like merely aggravation. He describes emotions like “worry" and “envy.”

“Don’t worry about the wicked or envy those who do wrong. For like grass, they soon fade away. Like spring flowers, they soon wither” (Psalm 37:1–2, NLT).

"Worry" and "envy" certainly do not sound like a description of an angry outburst. But the further into the poem you get, it becomes clear that the emotions become more severe.

“Stop being angry! Turn from your rage! Do not lose your temper—it only leads to harm. For the wicked will be destroyed, but those who trust in the Lord will possess the land” (Psalm 37:8–9, NLT).

References to rage and losing one's temper describe emotions much more volatile than worry and envy. This is not just a feeling of brooding anger. This anger is the emotional outburst that “leads to harm." David is addressing the issues of rage.

Three Instructions and Three Lies

The good news is that he has discovered three things necessary to deal with anger. You get the impression that these were things that God instructed him to do to control his own anger. And now, he is teaching others these very same skills.

Now, when I point out the three instructions that David gives to control anger, you will probably ask the same question I asked when I first studied this psalm. How in the world are these things going to help my anger? But give me a moment to explain. There is a powerful truth behind each of these three actions. They do have the ability to bring rage under control.

These three things are so powerful against rage because they address three common lies that people believe, which lead to explosive anger. When you learn to recognize these lies and confront them with the truth, you can bring your rage under control. Not only do these three principles lead to greater self-control, but Psalm 37 indicates that when a person takes these simple actions, God can uniquely get involved in the situations that trigger our anger and can bring us peace.

Are you ready for the three powerful instructions? First, David learned to "take delight in God" (v. 4). Second, David learned to “trust in God” (vv. 3, 5). Third, David learned to “be still” and “wait on God” (v. 7). Variations of these three actions are found throughout the psalm (e.g., “commit,” “put your hope in the Lord”).

Are you impressed with such profound, insightful instructions? Yeah, neither was I, at least not at first. But don’t be fooled by the first glance. While these instructions might sound like cheesy church clichés, they are so much more.

So, let's break down these three instructions and learn how each addresses one of those common lies that lead to angry outbursts.

Rage Because of Injustice

Lie number one: Life is unfair! There are variations of this lie that might run through your mind. For example, you can feel that God is unfair. Or that a particular system, like the justice system, is unfair. A sense of injustice creates a spiritual condition of discontentment inside your heart. Discontentment can cause you to compare what God has allowed in your life with what God has allowed in the lives of others. Discontentment shows up in your self-talk when you use words like “should," “could," or “ought."

Some examples: "You should have known that is how I feel!” "That person ought not to have that privilege!” “If God had wanted to, he could have made this work out differently for me!” “If God is a God of love, he should not have allowed this to happen!” Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?

David's solution for discontentment is to "delight in God” (v. 4). How does this deflate anger and rage? Delighting in God is an action where you intentionally celebrate God's goodness and character. Rather than asking a question like “Why?” you focus on “Who?” In other words, you do not compare your situation or circumstances with how they could be. You do not ask why God allowed it; instead, you ask, “Who is our God?”

The Bible does not often explain why God permits some circumstances to occur. And when you hear this concept, you usually think about adverse circumstances. You think about why God allowed accidents, disease, loss, abuse, and injustice in your life. But what about those good things that God has allowed in your life? Are those things fair? Has God truly given you everything you deserve? If you are wise, the answer to that question is a resounding “No!”

However, the Bible has gone to great lengths to describe who God is. He is a God of love, mercy, and incredible grace. That’s why you have all of those good things! And that is who He is, even during difficult circumstances. Focusing on who God is and delighting in Him moves you from thinking about your rights to how blessed you are. It helps you to stop wishing others would get what is coming to them because you recognize you have not gotten what “should” be coming to you.

Rage Because of Responsibility

Lie number two: I am responsible for fixing this situation or for fixing this person! I cannot tell you how often I have heard someone express some form of this lie. "What that person needs is one good punch in the mouth! That would teach them not to mouth off anymore.”

Do you want to hear a simple truth? There are countless examples of people who have been punched in the mouth, and it has not altered their attitude one bit. You can likely think of an example when you experienced consequences for your words or actions, yet you made the exact same mistake again. Thinking about the consequences of your actions can help motivate you to make the right choices. But experiencing consequences does not, in itself, change your future decisions.

So the next time you think about how good it would feel to dole out some consequences to another person, consider the fact that change must be created inside of the heart of a person. None of us have the power to change another person's heart. Furthermore, we are only responsible for changing what is actually in our power to change. When dealing with people you cannot change or circumstances you cannot change, you have no choice but to radically accept people and situations as they actually are.

By radical acceptance, I am not referring merely to the cognitive process of accepting a fact of life to be “the way it is.” The biblical process of radical acceptance occurs when you obey David's second instruction: “Commit your way" to God and “trust" him (vv. 3, 5). The word "commit" in the original Hebrew language carries the imagery of rolling one's destiny and future onto God. In other words, this kind of radical acceptance acknowledges that people are God's business and not ours. Changing other people is above your pay grade! And it is above mine, too.

As you embrace the principle, “If I cannot affect it, then it is not my responsibility to try to do so,” you become freed from feeling that your rage and anger can bring justice and change. Believing that it is your responsibility to fix a person or situation you do not have the power to fix is, in reality, an assumption on your part that your power is greater than it actually is. This lie is a distorted form of pride.

When you commit your ways to God and trust God to bring justice, you become free from the feelings of injustice. Instead, you look to God to transform hearts and bring justice and healing to unjust situations.

Rage Because of Control

Lie number three: I can control the outcome! The myth of control is a huge motivator behind explosive anger. Anger often comes when you believe you must control how a situation turns out or how a person behaves. This lie can cause you to assume that explosive anger is a strategy that gives you control. You think that if you yell loud enough, use enough curse words, throw enough objects, and damage enough property, you will be in control.

Listen carefully. Explosive anger is not a strategy that gives you control over life or other people. Instead, listen to David’s third instruction. "Be still and be patient” (v. 7). I have always felt like someone telling me to "be patient" is about as useless as someone telling me to stop "being hungry.” It seems like “Be patient” should come with some how-to instructions.

Believe it or not, David’s instruction to “be still” is a how-to manual for patience. To be still is not a reference to inactivity or to stop moving. In the original Hebrew language, the meaning of this phrase refers to the act of submitting to God and choosing not to take a specific action. To be still is to acknowledge that God alone controls every detail of your life, every situation in your life, and every person in your life.

Greyhound Bus lines' advertisement years ago read, “Go Greyhound and leave the driving to us.” That is an illustration of what it means to “be still.” When you are still, you leave the driving to God. He is in total control. You are not.

The idea that God controls every outcome is incredibly liberating. Although you still must intentionally remind yourself to lean the seat back, watch the scenery move by, and let him drive, it frees you from anger and the illusion of control.

Let God Get Involved

Take a moment to read Psalm 37 for yourself. Consider how David describes God’s activity in dealing with the wicked people. There is much to learn about the difference in allowing God to handle people and situations that are unfair, out of your realm of responsibility, and out of your control. Believe it or not, practicing these three principles releases you from explosive anger and brings peace to your heart as you watch God handle your problems.


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