Laurel Shaler, Ph.D.
“Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” James 1:19 (NLT)
I doubt it comes as a surprise to mental health professionals that Christians get angry. Even Christian women get angry! I experience it myself, and when I’m angry, I find myself turning into a person I don’t like…forgetting all about my goal of trying to be Christ-like in those (all-too-frequent) moments. I might not be punching walls or breaking plates, but I am still filled with this overwhelming emotion even when the situation does not warrant the intensity of what I am feeling.
In leading hundreds of individuals through anger management groups, I have learned that there are many reasons for anger. For women, lack of patience, high levels of stress, and busy schedules are just a few. Most of the time, folks did not come for anger management because of “righteous indignation” (think Jesus in the temple). Instead, they came because they did not get what they wanted when they wanted it.
While clearly not all anger is bad, the Bible reminds us in James 1:19 to be slow to get angry. This doesn’t mean that we should allow anger to slowly build up until we are seething and want to explode. Rather, we can and should work towards a reduction in intensity and frequency of anger. And that is what we can focus on with our clients who struggle in this area.
The consequences of anger are far reaching, and include thoughts and behaviors that are not in line with how God wants His people to think and behave. Ask your client what consequences they have experienced as a result of anger, and you will hear everything from relationship conflict to guilt. In fact, I have had clients who were hospitalized and arrested as a result of their aggressive reactions to anger. One even had the FBI show up at their house after making a threat over the phone. The anger was definitely not worth it! And, ultimately, clients come because of these consequences, regardless of what they are. It’s our role as professional counselors to help them learn to manage their anger and decrease these unwanted consequences.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.” I know all too well how true that statement is. I think the guilt and shame are the worst of all consequences. But, we can be reminded of two Biblical facts that scream of good news:
- We all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
- If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
These truths can help us as we try and address our own anger and as we work with clients on addressing their anger. For yourself and your clients, stop and ask, “Is this anger helping or hurting?” Almost always, the answer is a resounding “HURTING” ringing like an alarm. Use that alarm as a warning to change directions. One way to do that is through breathing retraining. This can be taught to clients through three easy steps:
- Take a deep breath and hold to the count of three.
- Slowly let the breath out while thinking of a calming word such as “relax” or “peace”.
- Repeat until you feel calm.
It’s tempting (and easier) to just give in to anger. It often becomes a habit…a “go to” emotion. So, how do we escape from the temptation to get angry when the anger is not healthy or helpful? Going back to James 1:19, we can learn two great pieces of Biblical advice. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. And managing anger is wrapped up in complexities such as how anger was expressed in the family of origin, unforgiving events that have not been explored, and day-to-day stressors that add up. An effective anger management protocol will address all of these areas and more. I believe group counseling for anger management is the most effective because of the accountability that the group members offer one another. And, as a bonus, these groups are often more entertaining than you might think.
I know it can be hard, really hard, to manage anger. And it can be just as difficult to help someone else manage their anger. When something seems overwhelming, I reflect on John 14:26. The BEST counselor I know, the Holy Spirit, is with us to remind us of the teachings of our precious Savior. With His help, we can ask ourselves “Is this anger helping or hurting?” We can listen first and speak second. We can avoid those nasty consequences of anger. I plan to keep working on this area of my life, and to share these truths with clients who are struggling in this same manner. I hope you will join me.
Laurel Shaler, Ph.D., is a Licensed Social Worker and an Assistant Professor at Liberty University in the Center for Counseling and Family Services where she was recently named the Director of the Human Services Counseling program. She is a former psychotherapist for the Department of Veterans Affairs where she provided individual, marriage, and group therapy services.