Anger is Learned

Early this morning I finished reading the most recent book from David Powlison on the subject of anger. I’ve been tackling a small section with each of my devotions and ab-so-lute-ly loved the journey.

Dr. Powlison is the executive director of the Christian Counseling & Education Foundation (CCEF). He had worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ; he is a former pastor with over thirty years of counseling experience.

63753_bfabd1b5d9909f2cda7ec95e70f2e6c9At some level, we all struggle with anger. We are a fallen race. Add to that, living in a sin-stained world which encourages our flesh to respond. So when do we use it correctly and when is it practiced in such a way that is harmful to ourselves and others?

Good & Angry is a marvelous and much needed exploration into the roots of our anger and how we can rightly respond (i.e., biblically).

What does your anger look like? Is it incendiary or internal? Brief or bitter? Early on in the book the author sets the premise that our anger is a learned expression.1

Our capacity for anger is a given of human nature, but at the same time, our patterns of anger are also learned through human nurture.

Powlison then explains two reasons as to why we express anger the way we do:

1. Our anger is taught and modeled to us.

We learn many things from other people about how and when to be angry, for good and ill. We learn what to get upset about (and what to ignore). We learn how to show our displeasure (and how to mask it).

Let me give a simple example. I live in Philadelphia where, on occasion, we get a heavy snowfall. Is a snowstorm something to enjoy or something to get angry about? Is a snowstorm a beautiful sight with a built-in opportunity to meet neighbors, exercise by clearing the walkway, and have fun sledding and cross-country skiing? Or is it a frustration, with the inconvenience of shoveling and the financial hit of customers staying home?

Either attitude rubs off on the people around. Unlike experiencing betrayal or being given a surprise gift, a snowstorm doesn’t come with a cue card telling you whether to “get mad” or “get glad.” Your response to snow is often shaped by how the people around you react.

This is IMHO a spectacular illustration. Stop, drop what you are doing, and think for a moment: what habits or tendencies to bad anger have you acquired from others? And are you passing it on?

2. Our anger is practiced by us.

“Practice makes perfect” in anger as with many other things… A few weeks ago my wife and I were driving on an unfamiliar road, trying to find an unfamiliar destination. I slowed down and was a little tentative about which driveway to turn into. (I swear that I had not been indulging in my love of slow driving before that. I’d been moving along at a normal speed, and I’d given the truck driver behind me no previous reason to be irritated!)

But as I slowed and wavered, that driver leaned hard on his horn. Then as we started to turn left, he accelerated up next to us on the shoulder, and leaned out his window, face contorted with rage. He let fly a blast of obscenities. Employing a vivid mix of anatomical, excretory, sexual, and hellfire vocabulary, he concisely summed up my character, intelligence, mother, and right to be driving on that particular road, making his life miserable. I marvel that he could pack so much content into such a brief moment. The verbal tirade was accompanied by creative use of finger gestures. Then he gunned the accelerator and shot off down the road.

I think it’s fair to assume that I was not the first slow driver to receive the full treatment at his hands. I had run up against a well-practiced habit.

This is why I love to read anything and everything from Powlison. I feel as if I snuck into his office—eavesdropping on a conversation he is having with a dear friend over coffee. I’m trying everything I can not to give away my hiding spot—hanging on his every word. It’s like reading a novel.

So what’s the point of these two stories?

Patterns of anger—both good and bad—become characteristic… to respond constructively to trouble is a fine art, gained through long practice. We develop a “lifestyle,” a characteristic of doing life.

If you have a problem with anger—as I do (actually we all do)—let me encourage you to pick up a copy of this book and begin thinking about your “expressions,” and how you can deal with them in a faithful and fruitful way. Let it snow.

1 Powlison, David. Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2016). 66-69.