Dealing with anger

Published 9:23 pm Monday, September 10, 2018

By John F. Shappell

“Be angry but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” — Ephesians 4:26 (NRSV)

Perhaps there is no more troubling issue for most of us than the subject of anger. From road rage to the less than complimentary exchanges in politics to the horrible taking of innocent life in mass shootings, anger seems to be both rampant and most definitely uncontrolled.

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It’s surprising then that the Apostle Paul would seem to be saying that anger is OK. “Be angry,” he states. That’s not something many of us were taught or experienced, particularly those raised in the church, but there it is. Anger, in fact, is very healthy, because it lets us know that we feel, think or believe that something is unfair, unjust, hurtful or inappropriate. It lets us know that our relationships have in some way become fractured.

So anger is not a problem — but how we deal with it certainly can be. This is why Paul adds “but do not sin.” So how do we express our anger healthily — “sinlessly,” if you will?

First, we must identify who or what we are angry with. Often times we discover that we’re actually angry at ourselves, so in that case it’s important not to direct our anger at others. “Own what’s yours; do not own what’s not yours” is something I’ve shared many times in my counseling experience. Recognize and own that sometimes the blame lies with ourselves. Learn from it and move on.

Secondly, clarify the facts. When upset we too often jump to conclusions, or we misinterpret what someone says. My favorite saying from the ’60s reminds us about the problem of miscommunication. “I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I don’t think you realize that what you heard is not what I meant!” Clarify everything first.

Once we identify who or what we are angry with and are sure of the facts, we need to do something about it — as soon as possible. This leads us to the second part of Paul’s teaching: “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Too many of us “stuff” our feelings, and that is definitely not healthy. Anger unexpressed grows and festers until it ends in shattering relationships or in the extreme of the taking of innocent lives.

We are afraid of anger, because we often don’t know the difference between being assertive and being aggressive. We don’t express anger, because we are afraid we will hurt the other. Being assertive simply means expressing one’s feelings. If you don’t like the way the chef cooked your steak, if you’re not given the food you’ve ordered, say so. But talk about the issue, not the person. Talk about the steak, talk about your order, not the person. And use those non-threatening, non-judgmental words I noted above — “I think, I feel, I believe.” If you talk about yourself, about your feelings, you cannot offend, but you can hopefully move to resolve whatever it is that bothers you.

Being aggressive means to damage property or attack a person verbally or physically. This is the “sin” to which I think Paul was referring.

Keep in mind that being assertive may not always resolve the issue. We have no control how others will react. But by stating our concern, we have handed it over to them. If you hold on to it, it holds on to you, which also is not healthy.

Paul ends this passage in chapter 5 by saying “walk in the way of love.”

The Rev. John F. Shappell is former pastor of Oxford United Methodist Church in Suffolk. He has served as police chaplain in local cities including Suffolk and is a volunteer chaplain at Sentara Obici Hospital. Email him at