It’s amazing how much you can learn about your desires and the underlying motives when you simply slow down and consider what desire was being thwarted. Anger is always driven by desire—the better you understand your desires, the better you’ll understand how, why, when and where you’ll lose your temper next time and be able to prepare for challenging situations. And take heart. The simple fact that you are even saying “Help! I keep losing my temper!” should give you great hope.
Anger in the Saddle
Losing your temper is a lot like losing your car keys—you never choose to and it always seems to happen at the worst moments. For some “losing your temper” means yelling, swearing, pounding a fist on the table. For others, lost temper is barely perceptible: a tightening of the jaw, a cold silence, but the angry feelings are still swarming, just hidden away inside.
Whatever our style, we all lose our temper sometimes. By “lose our temper,” I simply mean that you and I sometimes hand the reins of our behavior over to the feelings of anger in our soul. As your body begins to pump adrenaline, expand blood vessels, and tense muscles for a fight, your desire to feel vindicated (though all too often later reflection reveals you weren’t nearly so far up the moral high ground as you’d thought) takes over and hands you your script. Fundamentally, losing your temper means you’ve placed anger in the saddle and you are now galloping along at its command.
Why Does This Happen?
Despite the thousand coats anger may wear, anger is simple at its core. Anger always passes moral judgment. It is the moral emotion. Anger says “what just happened was wrong.” Now our anger may be accurate in its judgment of right and wrong or it may be out to lunch. For example, my children may get mad because I’m exasperating them, or they may get mad because I’m putting them to bed at a reasonable hour when they wanted to stay up. Either way, the core cry of anger is “That is unjust! That is evil! I condemn that!”
James 4:1–2 lays out the basic dynamic at play in our sinful anger. “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” James asks. “Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” In essence, James is saying that our anger condemns anything that comes between us and what we want. Because, James argues, we are committed to our own wellbeing above all, when something or someone thwarts our desires, we feel unjustly treated and respond by calling out the troops to avenge the perceived injustice.
Ultimately then, a lost temper is just anger that’s been put in charge without checks or balances.
Is All Anger Bad?
It’s important to say one more thing before we identify solutions: this does not mean all anger is bad! God is angry against sin and the horrors it wreaks on his beloved children. We can and should be angry in the face of everything from sex-trafficking to a snarky spat between our friends (though even then we should never return evil for evil!). Further, even when our anger is indeed sinful and we are losing our temper and screaming at someone, many of the things we want are still genuinely good things to want! Physical safety for our families, fair treatment in the workplace, not being gossiped about at church, and a quiet evening at home after a long day are all perfectly righteous things to desire.
This is the point though: whenever you or I lose our tempers, it means we’ve gone from wanting some good thing, to demanding that we must have it or else. Sinful anger is so convinced of its own moral high ground that it feels perfectly justified visiting its wrath upon whatever, or whomever, has dared to transgress absolute justice (i.e., us getting whatever it is we want at that moment). Thus, while we may sometimes be “right” about the issue, giving anger total control of our response to a problem will always be destructive and sinful. “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20).
What Can We Do?
Thankfully we aren’t doomed to endlessly lose our tempers! God promises to work in the hearts of those who love him. He does not merely change our behavior, but also transforms us to “will,” to desire, according to his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). The more God changes our desires to mirror what he desires, the more
- our anger will be rightly directed at true evils (rather than the self-centeredness that naturally drives our anger without his transforming intervention);
- and paired with that, the more we’ll trust his ways of achieving what is good. No matter how right we are about the issue at hand, love for God resists the temptation to give our anger the reins. Instead, godly anger seeks restoration and protection for those who have been wronged without vengeance, cruelty, insult or any other form of returning evil for evil.
For those who find their temper to be a special problem, let me offer three brief suggestions.