Anger is a topic that has become more and more interesting to me. Maybe it’s because I was an “angry” kid growing up—not that many would have known. Or perhaps it’s more related to how I see anger being talked about in society and in the church. Who is allowed to feel angry and when? Then there’s my job…working with children as a mental health therapist, you run into a lot of angry kids who have similar questions. Some of them know why they are angry, but the rest? They are just angry, and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. It all leads me to wonder: how do I deal with my emotions in a way that honors God, especially when I’m angry?
In the mental health field, I have learned—and taught—that anger is a primary and secondary emotion. This means that anger can be the main, true emotion (primary), or it can be a front, covering up truer feelings (secondary). When there is real or perceived injustice, one may expect to experience anger. This includes having important goals blocked, you or someone you love being threatened or put in danger, or losing power and status.1 At those times, if you looked at me and said you felt any emotion other than anger, I may have questions for you. Anger as a primary emotion tells us when the world is unjust. As a secondary emotion, anger is much trickier.
Anger is an emotion meant to protect ourselves and others. We can allow it to overstep its boundaries and present itself as a primary emotion when it is truly a secondary emotion. Consider the last time you felt defensive. Perhaps you were challenged in an unexpected way, or felt insecure about a decision. I would be willing to bet there was some anger that welled up in that moment—or afterward—positioned toward the person who made you feel that way. In that situation, anger is a secondary emotion, but it’s acting as the primary emotion. However, it isn’t protecting you from danger; it’s protecting you from sadness and insecurity.
When anger shows up as a secondary emotion, it’s like having a big brother who shows up to protect you from the bullies at school. He comes in—often because you’ve asked—and he shows that you are not someone to be messed with because he’s always around. Eventually, though, this big brother comes uninvited. As soon as something is wrong, he’s there, defending you when you may not need to be defended.
Alternately, there are those who have anger present itself and decide it is not worth it. Anger may have presented in themselves or in a family member, and it was all-consuming. The defense and protection led to distraction from the situation at hand, making anger always wrong, always too much, and never true protection.
I would like to propose that neither reaction to anger—allowing it to protect us for all emotions or shutting it away—is the response God desires of us as a people made in his image.
After reading God Has a Name by John Mark Comer and listening to a series by BibleProject on Exodus 34:6-7, I feel confident God has emotions. He describes himself in a statement to Moses as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). These qualities lead him to be a God who is “keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:7). The verse ends with the reminder that his mercy, grace, and steadfast love do not keep him from justice saying, “but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7).
But he is God I thought, and who am I to ask about his anger?
In the very beginning of the Bible, God creates man in his image (Genesis 1:26-27). This means we are small look-a-likes to this great Creator God, and all that I am should reflect him. Perhaps the better question is not about God’s anger, but how my own emotions display or deny the image I am created in: his. So let’s ask together, being created in the image and likeness of God: How can our anger display God’s mercy and grace? How can we be slow to anger the way that God is, and abound in steadfast love, while also knowing and trusting he is just and will defend us so that we don’t have to defend ourselves with anger?
In the book of Job, God describes himself as the one who sets the boundaries on the earth (Job 38:4-40:2), something else we see him do in Genesis during the creation scene. I believe this is true in all aspects of life, including within our emotions. There are specific events which are meant to elicit particular emotions, including anger. When we are angry all the time, or never angry, we choose to not reflect God in our emotions. Perhaps it is that God is “slow to anger” because he has the right boundaries set, which he alone can follow perfectly. This means we must learn the boundaries of our emotions to reflect the Creator well. Below, you’ll find readings related to each of the primary emotions (joy, sadness, disgust, fear, anger). As you read, consider the God who set your boundaries and gifted you with emotions that mirror his, then ask him for guidance to assure that your boundaries are set as his are. Finally, talk to a friend,mentor, therapist, or someone trustworthy who desires to walk with God as you do. We are not meant to go through life alone.
For each of the following passages, I would suggest considering these questions as you read:
- What emotions are present in the text? Both God’s and man’s.
- How does the author of the text describe the event causing the emotion?
- How can my emotional boundaries be adjusted to better reflect the boundaries of God?
Joy: Nehemiah 8; Isaiah 61
Sadness: Palm 22 (Note: this is the Psalm Jesus quotes from the cross.); James 1:1-4
Disgust: Genesis 34; Numbers 25 (Note: the Genesis passage deals with rape/sexual assault, and the Numbers passage deals with sex outside of marriage.)
Fear: Psalm 56; Mark 4:35-41; 6:45-52
Anger: Exodus 34:6-7; Proverbs 14:29; 15:1; John 2:13-22
Bonus: Read Joel; it’s 3 chapters. It’s full of emotional language and examples of the boundaries God has set.
- BibleProject. Character of God, Podcast series. Simplecast. August 17,2020-November 16, 2020. https://bibleproject.com/podcast/series/character-of-god/. Accessed April 21, 2022.
- God Has a Name by John Mark Comer
1 Marsha M. Linehan, “Emotion Regulation Handout 6.” Essay. In DBT Skills Training Handout and Worksheets, 1-1. New York, NY: The Guildford Press, 2015.
Photo credit: Emilee Carpenter
Kate works as a school-based mental health therapist. She is passionate about helping the people she comes in contact with feel better by experiencing emotions in a way that brings glory to God. Kate loves her family, her dog, and getting coffee with friends.