What causes anger and how can I overcome it?

Recognizing and resolving hurt and guilt

10 min

Anger is a universal problem. It is not limited to one age group, culture, ethnicity, economic level, social status, educational background, or any other classification.

Anger is one of the chief contributing factors to the destruction of marriages, the breakdown of family relationships, and the weakening of communities. This destructive emotion is a major cause of health problems and lack of productivity in the workplace. The prevalent violent crime of our day stems from unresolved anger, leading to uncontrolled rage.

Anger is a serious problem which causes great damage, but what causes it? Is this volatile emotion and the destruction it brings only manageable, at best, or is anger able to be conquered? Anger is a symptom of something deeper, and only when we understand the root cause of our anger are we able to find the answers for resolving it. 

The root cause of an angry temperament is tension from past hurts and guilt. This mixture of pain and guilt is cumulative and erupts in anger when new offenses remind us of past negative experiences.

Most people assume that hurtful events in the past will be forgotten and will have no effect on the future. That assumption is not true. Past hurts do not just go away, nor does guilt simply disappear after a wrong response to a situation. The pain and guilt from these experiences must be resolved through forgiveness and repentance. Until there is resolution, we will continue to experience bouts of anger when those deep, intense memories are triggered.

Recognize Experiences from the Past Causing Pain

Sometimes painful experiences, especially from our youth, impact us in ways that we often do not realize. This impact usually creates a bitterness that we can carry into adulthood. When we have underlying bitterness, we can become like a simmering volcano, ready to explode at any moment. We are prone to lash out in wrath, revenge, or other hurtful responses. The following are a few of the situations that can often lead us into bitterness. 

  • The pain of rejection
    The pain of rejection is one of the strongest factors in a person’s life, especially in childhood. A child forms strong attachments to his parents, friends, and relatives and finds security in these relationships. When those who are trusted communicate rejection, the child’s secure world collapses, and he faces a host of fears. The pain of rejection and the torment of fears can cause the child to develop deep bitterness toward the one who is responsible for his pain. When parents get divorced, their children typically experience the pain of rejection.
  • The hurt from ridicule of unchangeable features
    One of the greatest challenges facing every young person is that of accepting unchangeable features, such as physical appearance, mental capabilities, birth order, ethnicity, brothers and sisters, and parents. Ridicule by others not only mocks what someone does but also disrespects who he is as a person by attacking those attributes which he has no control over. One who experiences ridicule will be extremely sensitive to anyone who ridicules him or others. The anger he feels is motivated by a desire for the just punishment of anyone who mocks others.
  • The grief of favoritism
    When parents favor one child over another, they are not only causing the child to feel less appreciated, but they are also encouraging him or her to react toward the one who is favored. Favoritism to one will be seen as rejection by the other. The Biblical account of Jacob’s favor of Joseph over the rest of his sons is a classic example of this type of partiality. Joseph’s brothers resented the favor Joseph received, and they sold him into slavery. Then they led Jacob to believe that Joseph had died. (See Genesis 39.)
  • The anguish of false accusations
    A person’s reputation has great worth. Solomon wrote, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold” (Proverbs 22:1). A false accusation not only damages the one who is accused, but it also stirs up frustration, indignation, and a desire to see the false accuser brought to justice.

The pain that surrounds the memory of these experiences triggers anger when we hear of or face similar situations or feelings. Can you recall a past experience that deeply hurt you? If it has taken root in your heart, it will come to your mind readily. How do similar situations cause anger to well up inside of you? Do you ever find that you have angry responses that seem disproportionate to the current situation? This intense reaction may be because you still have unresolved hurts from your past that have accumulated and now create even stronger feelings of anger for similar but lesser grievances.

Pinpoint Sinful Attitudes and Actions Causing Guilt

Along with any painful experiences, we often have wrong or hurtful responses to those experiences or the people who caused them. Our own tendencies toward sin and the guilt that follows that sin also foster a temperament of anger. The following attitudes and actions lead to guilt and anger:

  • Pride
    Pride can assume authority that does not belong to us. Many conflicts arise simply because we try to control another’s area of jurisdiction. No wonder others react to us in this situation. In turn, the rejection we experience as a result can then lead to more expressions of anger, which are often accompanied by bitterness.
  • Personal faults
    When we fail in specific areas, we tend to be very alert to other people who fail in the same areas. Sadly, the frustration we have toward ourselves is often redirected to them through harsh judgment. Also, when someone hurts or offends us, his or her actions may be partially justified, which can trigger an explosive combination of guilt and bitterness.
  • Expectations
    When people make promises and fail to keep them, we tend to hold that against them and become resentful of their failure to fulfill our expectations. When we expect certain behavior or benefits from others—especially those who are closest to us—and they do not act as we expect, this resentment can also occur.
  • Envy
    Envy is bitterness toward another person who has received something we want and we think we deserve. Envy is a form of deep discontent which fosters angry thoughts. The anger might not be obvious to others until something triggers an angry outburst or reaction by the envious person.
  • Taking up offenses
    One of the most entangling causes of bitterness occurs when a person who was not directly involved in an offensive situation takes up an offense on behalf of the one who was offended. This kind of bitterness is deep-seated and often endures even after the one who was offended forgives the offender.

When we hold on to bitterness that is attached to painful experiences, we feel justified in our negative responses. We may feel the offender deserves the angry outburst, the sarcastic statements, or the silent treatment. We may rationalize our behavior by blaming, “It’s their fault; not mine” or “My circumstances made me the way I am.” But when we hold onto bitterness, causing further hurt to others, then we are the ones now sinning. We have not forgiven as Jesus has forgiven us. We have made ourselves “judge, jury, and executioner [full power to punish].” When we learn to recognize this pattern, we can more clearly see that this response is not the answer, but rather leading to even more anger and guilt!

Learn to Uproot and Avoid Causes of Anger

After identifying the past experiences, along with personal failures that are contributing to our current frustration, we should then seek to resolve them. Our anger is triggered when we experience a current situation that is similar to a past time in which we were hurt or when we failed to do the right thing. Usually the stronger the anger we feel, the more pain and guilt are harbored in that past event we remember.

Scripture states: “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil. . . . Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:26–27, 30–32).

Wrath and bitterness are not pleasing to God, and the presence of anger should serve as an alarm that something is wrong. Feelings of anger should lead us to respond to a situation or offense with wisdom and forgiveness, so that we do not develop an angry, vengeful spirit.

Christians are to walk in the Spirit of God, by the grace of God, yielding themselves to righteousness instead of to the bondage of sin. “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:12–14).

When we are tempted to say, “I can’t help it!” or “I can never change,” remember that God says in His Word that we can, and it is He that gives us the power to do so. In fact, as we have seen, He says we are to make a conscious choice to “put away” bitterness, wrath, and anger. But He does not leave us to do this on our own. He gives us grace and power through the Holy Spirit, as well as encouragement and direction from His Word. In His strength, we can not only “manage anger,” but we can resolve it. This does not mean that we will never be tempted to respond in anger, but we can deal with the root causes of our anger so that past hurts are not compounded to today’s experiences. The following insights offer keys resolving the causes our anger:

  • Accept personal responsibility for your anger.
    God holds us accountable for our thoughts, words, and actions, and we will give an account to Him for each of them. (See Romans 14:12.) Accepting personal responsibility for anger requires you to agree with God that your anger is wrong. If you justify your anger, try to explain it away, or blame others for it, you will not be able to conquer it.
  • See anger through the experiences of those damaged by it.
    Ask immediate family members to recall times when you got angry at them and how they felt about it. Don’t justify what you did or try to explain your real intentions. Simply listen. Begin to understand the emotional hurts they experienced through your raised voice, sharp words, and attitude of rejection.
  • Act quickly to seek the forgiveness of those you have hurt.
    Anger is an emotional explosion that results from a buildup of tension. This tension builds if past sins are unresolved. We tend to react in anger toward others when they do the very things we have been guilty of doing in the past. Clearing your conscience can give you freedom from past guilt, fewer reasons to get angry, and a better understanding of others. Seven of the hardest words to say are, “I was wrong; would you forgive me?” They may need time, or they may readily forgive, but your goal is to do all you can to restore the relationship. “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18).
  • Acknowledge the anger of your forefathers.
    If your parents often gave way to anger, you may experience unexplained surges of anger also. In Exodus 20:5–6 God warns that sin patterns are passed on to future generations. It is vital to acknowledge to God the moral failures of your parents and trust God for victory over the negative influences that they may have passed on to you. (See Daniel 9:1–19 and Nehemiah 1:5–11.)
  • Regain surrendered “ground.”
    The Apostle Paul warns us in Ephesians 4:26–27, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil.” Every time you allow anger to turn to wrath, you give “place” or “ground” or “opportunity” to Satan. When you give him control of this ground, or portion, of your soul, he will “build strongholds” of false ideas. The devil will use those lies to add torment to your soul through destructive emotions such as unfounded fears and anxiety, doubts, tension, depression, unexplained anger, lust, self-rejection, and pride.

If you justify your anger, try to explain it away, or blame others for it, you will not be able to conquer it.

These steps of action will help you to tear down those strongholds and then reclaim that ground for Christ which you allowed the enemy of your soul to seize.

  1. Confess the sin of bitterness that caused the anger. (See I John 1:9 and Hebrews 12:15.) Stop justifying your anger or blaming others for it. Admit your sin of giving ground to Satan through your bitterness.
  2. Claim the cleansing power of the blood of Christ over the power of sin. (See I John 1:7.) Satan has no more authority, and you are returning that authority over your soul to Christ your Lord.
  3. Ask God to take back the ground you surrendered and to enable you to tear down the strongholds of false ideas and replace them with truth. (See II Corinthians 10:4–5.)
  • Fully forgive your offenders.
    Just as God forgave your enormous debt (sin), you should forgive others for the comparatively minor offenses that they have committed against you. (See Matthew 18:21–35.) Though you may not forget the offense, you should be able to move past the pain associated with it. If you find that you still have pain attached to that person or experience, ask the Lord to take that pain and comfort and heal you.
  • Learn to see the potential benefits from anger-causing events.
    If you respond correctly, God can use frustrations to build character into your life, increase your maturity, and cause you to be more sensitive to others who are facing similar situations.
  • Place personal rights under God’s control.
    When someone violates our personal rights, we tend to get angry. Can you identify which of your rights was violated the last time you got angry? Yield your personal rights and possessions to God. Then you will no longer be the owner, but rather, you will be the steward of what belongs to God.
    God loves you and He takes good care of His property. When something happens to God’s property, He is able to work good through it. Surrendering your rights to God frees you from a reason to be angry, because God is trustworthy to work all things together for good. (See Romans 8:28.)
  • Establish a structure of accountability.
    If you are serious about conquering anger, become accountable to those around you for daily victory. Remember that God is holding you accountable too. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10).
  • Purpose to walk in the Spirit.
    There is a struggle to overcome anger because, even for Christians, responses to conflicts in life are often natural responses. These fleshly responses are usually contradictory to the direction of the Holy Spirit. Wrath is one of the negative behaviors that should have no place in a believer’s life, because by God’s grace we are to walk in the Spirit, producing the fruit of the Spirit. (See Galatians 5:16–25.)

When you surrender to God and obey the direction of His Holy Spirit, your life will not be marked by anger, envy, immorality, or other sins. Instead, you will abound in “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22–25). “For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: (For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:8–11).

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