About a year ago, I was asked to speak to a group of young men in juvenile detention regarding anger management. During my talk, I asked them the questions: Do you like living in prison? Or do you want to be free? You can imagine the responses I received.
But then I played devil’s advocate for a while.
“Why do you want to be free,” I asked. “After all, in jail many things are provided for you. You have free food. You have shelter. You have clothing, people to associate with, a place to sleep. You don’t even have to worry about how to structure your life. Why would you want to give that up?”
As expected they all looked at me probably in the same way you are looking at your screen right now. Like I dangled somewhere between naïve and crazy. You see, the problem in jail is not with what you have been provided. It is in what has been imposed upon you. In other words, if they are serving food you do not like, you do not get to go into the kitchen and pick something different to eat. If you don’t like your clothes, you don’t get to change. If you don’t like your accommodations, you don’t get to find a new apartment. If you can’t get along with the people around you, it doesn’t matter, because your choices have been taken away from you.
What we may not understand is that anger is a prison. Self-control is freedom. While anger provides some things for you, such as control, getting your point across, defending/protecting yourself, or getting your way, it also imposes on you a set of biological and psychological consequences, such as ignorance, the inability to get close to others, continual defensiveness, and in some rare cases, loss of memory.
The opposite of anger is self-control. Just like an imprisoned man wants freedom, this is the goal of anger management at its core. For only when a person lives sober minded and in complete control of his own mind, is he able to live in freedom.
But while freedom permits choice, it also requires work. It is easy to stay in prison and let someone else make all the choices for you. But it is hard work to live in freedom. When you’re free you have to earn your own money to buy your food, shelter, clothing, etc. You have to find a way to get along with the people you associate with. You have to make the decision what type of worldview or life-philosophy you are going to live by. And once you have made that choice, you have to work hard to be sure you do not become a hypocrite.
The question becomes, though, once you have obtained your freedom, what will you use your freedom for? Of all the millions of choices out there, the truth is that you have only one of two options available to you: 1) you can use your freedom to satisfy the desires of your flesh or 2) you can use it to satisfy the desires of the Spirit.
This is not a new idea. It has been around for at least 2000 years. In Galatians 5:13-25 Paul writes:
13For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. 16But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
If you need a good comparison/contrast between the fruit of the flesh and the spirit, below is a chart to help.
|Fits of anger||Kindness|
|Orgies (and things like these)|
If you look at the above chart and find yourself leaning more to the left than the right, know that that’s expected. Just like a football player lifts weights, run laps, slams his body into obstacles, memorizes plays, and continually exhausts himself in the 100 degree heat of summer until he is conditioned to be a warrior who is prepared for battle, so self-control requires discipline and hard work.
Athletes do these things to condition themselves so that they may perform at the highest level of their abilities. They do these things so that each time they face their growling enemy they can win! Like Vince Lombardi once said,
“I believe in God, and I believe in human decency. But I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour — his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear — is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.”
The surprising question about anger management, though, is are you willing to do battle with yourself? Are you willing to discipline yourself so that you do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh? For this is where the true battle of anger management lies. It does not lie outside of yourself in your external problems or with the people who have offended you. The true battle of anger management lies within. It is the secret enemy within that tries to trick you, lie to you, manipulate you. It is that voice inside your head that convinces you to listen to desires and feelings above principles and knowledge and wisdom. It is that part of you that insists that you only look at the surface of things, telling you that if it feels good then it’s okay to say or do it; if it sounds mean, it’s okay to retaliate; if it reminds you of a past danger, it’s best to defend without asking questions.
But self-control is not about avoiding negative responses only. If anger were a weed in the yard, then discipline is like mowing over that weed with emotional strategies, such as relaxation techniques or positive thinking. But once mowed over, the weed is only temporarily uniform with the rest of the yard. It will grow back. And this time it may grow back thicker and stronger than before. Why? Because we have not killed the anger. We have only made the external look nice. If you want to kill the anger, we have to attack it at its life source. We have to go underneath the surface and kill the roots.
What we discover is that the roots of anger are typically more sensitive or vulnerable emotions than the anger itself. If we can learn to manage and/or heal these feelings, then the anger itself weakens, and in some cases dies off. But, as stated earlier, this requires work, for healing deep hurts (for example) can be more intense than calming a raging soul. It requires an honest look at one’s self and telling the unadulterated truth about things. It is asking for forgiveness, when necessary. It is humility, instead of defensiveness. It is listening, instead of persuading. This self-control is, in essence, allowing yourself to be guided by the other fruit of the Spirit, i.e. love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness.
But let us not be ignorant, “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (Romans 8:7). If you intend to embrace the opposite of anger, if you intend to be a person of self-control, you cannot do it under your own willpower. Think about it. While all of the above comments are true, it is also true that your self that got you into this mess. Your self is not going to get you out. Or, as they say in AA, “your best thinking got you here.” You can choose to control anger, but you cannot rely on your power to do so. That power belongs to God alone. Only He can transform your heart so that you no longer live to do the things you ought not to do. Only He can transform your mind from one that is controlled by fleshly desires to one that is controlled by the Spirit.
The question is: Do you want to live a life of maximum potential, or remain locked within a place where choice is removed and a specific life-script is imposed on you? You can live that way. Billions do. But Christ said that He came to give us abundant life so that we may live it to the full (John 10:10). Do you want this life? Do you want to be free? This is not a question for the naïve or the lunatic. It is a question for the desperate. The bars can be removed. You can walk outside the walls and smile in the sunshine again. The choice is yours. But the power? The power is God’s.