Do you fly off the handle? “Flying off the handle” is a term used to describe what happens when someone erupts in sudden and uncontrolled anger. The phrase dates back to the time of the settlers, who relied on hand tools for their survival. The handles of the tools were made of wood — which inevitably dries and shrinks with time. Thus, after having hung in a shed for months, the handle of a hoe or rake would often become loose. Using an axe with a dry and shrunken handle was positively dangerous. When swung, the sharp metal head could fly off the handle with such force that it severely endangered the user and everyone standing nearby.

“For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires.” James 1:20

Uncontrolled anger is like that. According to the Bible, it wounds relationships (Proverbs 15:18) and eventually “slays” the fool who wields it (Job 5:2). Flying off the handle is extremely dangerous — it leads to all sorts of destruction. That’s why the Psalmist advised his friends: “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret — it leads only to evil” (Psalm 37:8).

A few Thanksgivings ago, Kent Schnable planned to celebrate the holiday with his wife and loved ones. Instead, his family and friends kept vigil at his side in the hospital, praying for his life. Schnable was a victim of road rage. He was on his way home from an evening out with friends when a man in a blue pickup truck drove up behind his white truck and impatiently flashed his brights — demanding that Schnable either speed up or pull out of the way. Schnable didn’t comply to the driver’s satisfaction. The blue pickup then veered onto the gravel shoulder and spit up rocks as it attempted to pass several vehicles on the right. Further down the road, the two pickups crossed paths again. By this time, the driver of the blue pickup was irate. He cut in front of Schnable and forced him to screech to a halt. The confrontation between the two men ended with Schnable lying unconscious on the pavement with a life-threatening brain injury, and people of the community shaking their heads over the senselessness of the tragedy.

Experts report that one out of five Americans has an anger management problem. They maintain that failure to manage anger is the major cause of conflict in our personal and professional relationships. The apostle Paul probably would have agreed. Though we don’t know if the people of Ephesus had to put up with the road rage of impatient chariot drivers, we do know that Paul considered the topic of anger an important one to address with the believers who lived there. This is what he said:

"'In your anger do not sin': Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.... Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice" (Ephesians 4:26, 31).

Paul knew that in order to properly manage their lives and relationships, the believers in Ephesus needed to recognize a few things about anger.

Anger is a normal human emotion

Paul introduced the discussion by saying, “Be angry….” In other words, he wanted his friends to recognize that like joy or disappointment, anger is a normal human emotion. All of us get angry. And the emotion is not sinful in and of itself.

Jesus got angry when the religious leaders self-righteously opposed the healing of the man with the shriveled hand (Mark 3:5). He also got angry when people set up shop in the temple and used it as a place to feed their greed (Matthew 21:12). On that occasion he was so enraged that he cleared the place by kicking over tables and benches, sending the merchandise flying. Jesus was furious — and he let everyone in the place know it!

Anger is an emotion. And it can be entirely legitimate. If anger were sin, then God would be a sinner. The Bible speaks extensively about the anger of God. The answer to this, of course, is that God gets angry about the right things, and he exhibits his anger in the right way. His anger is felt and expressed correctly because of the holiness of his character. But it’s difficult for us to practice a truly holy anger. That’s because we’re tainted with sin and do not have the same knowledge that God has in all matters. We end up being sinfully angry rather than angry with sin. When Christ was angry, he did what was right, but when we are angry, we often do what is wrong. As James observed, "because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires" (James 1:20).

Anger is often accompanied by sin

Paul wanted his friends to recognize that human anger is often accompanied by sin. That’s why he coupled his acknowledgement that they would feel angry with a warning against sin: “Be angry and do not sin.” Because anger is a normal human emotion, we don’t need to beat ourselves up about feeling angry. However, we do need to carefully evaluate the source of our anger< (Why do I feel the way I do?) as well as our response to the anger (How will I choose to deal with this feeling?). This is where the sin usually shows up. It doesn’t occur in the emotion as much as it occurs in the attitudes and actions surrounding it. The problem is not so much that you feel agitated, but because you've pridefully judged and condemned your brother, and you are now belittling, berating, and slandering him.

The next time you’re angry, try to take a step back and evaluate your own attitudes and actions instead of just reacting to other people’s failures. Remember Paul’s words: “Be angry and do not sin.”

Is Your Anger Holy?

In Ephesians 4:31, Paul outlines some sins that commonly go hand-in-hand with anger. Think back to a time when you felt angry. Did you sin in any of the ways listed below? Grab a pen and put a check beside the sins you committed.

Bitterness — feelings of animosity, hatred and gall. Wrath — rashly exploding or bursting. Anger — handing out judgment and punishment. Clamor — harshly crying out and demanding. Slander — speaking negatively and hurtfully. Malice — harboring ill will and the desire to injure.

Can you think of any other sins that accompanied your anger? Jot them down in the margin.

Take a moment to repent. Remember, sin sticks to anger like Velcro. The next time you’re angry, take time to invite the Spirit to examine your attitudes and actions and tell you if any of them are sinful.

Photo Credit: Ritratto di Sebastiano