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The Headwaters of Anger


The Headwaters of Anger 

Love . . . is not easily angered.

1 Corinthians 13:4–5 niv

God will load your world with flowers.

He hand-delivers a bouquet to your door every day.

Open it! Take them! Then, when rejections come, you won’t be left short-petaled.

A glance at the two brothers would raise no suspicion. To see them exit the worship service would give you no cause for concern. Like any other set of siblings, they had their differences. One more like Mom, the other more like Dad. One with a bent toward livestock, the other interested in farming. Beyond that, they seemed alike. Compatible. Raised in the same culture. Romped in the same hills. Played with the same animals. Spoke with the same accent. Worshiped the same God.

Then why did one kill the other? Why the violent assault? What made one brother turn on the other and spill his blood? Why did Cain kill Abel?

To answer that question is to shed light on a larger one. Looming behind the question of murder is the question of anger. For “Cain was very angry” (Gen. 4:5 NKJV). Angry indeed. Angry enough to kill. What made him so mad?

Anger in and of itself is not a sin. The emotion was God’s idea. “Be angry,” he urges, “and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26 NKJV). It’s possible to feel what Cain felt without doing what Cain did. Anger is not a sin, but it can lead to sin. Perhaps your anger doesn’t lead you to shed blood, but does it make you touchy, irritable, quick-tempered, quick to take offense? Do you fly off the handle? Those aren’t my terms. They are Paul’s. According to the apostle, love is not:

“touchy” (TLB),

“irritable” (NLT),

“quick tempered” (CEV),

“quick to take offence” (NEB), “easily angered” (NIV), and love “doesn’t fly off the handle” (MSG).

Cain was all of these and more. But why? Why the short fuse? Again the text gives an answer. “The LORD accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. So Cain became very angry and felt rejected” (Gen. 4:4–5, emphasis mine).

Interesting. This is the first appearance of Anger in the Bible. He’ll pop up some four hundred more times between here and the maps in the back, but this is the first occasion. He pulls up to the curb and gets out of the car, and look who is in the front seat with him—Rejection. Anger and Rejection in the same sentence.

This isn’t the only time the couple are spotted in Scripture. Anger singes many pages. And more than once Rejection is charged with arson.

The sons of Jacob were rejected by their father. He pampered Joseph and neglected them. The result? The brothers were angry. Joseph’s “brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms” (Gen. 37:4 NASB).

Saul was rejected by his people. In choosing heroes, they chose the fairhaired David over the appointed king. The result? Saul was ticked off. “The women sang as they played, and said, ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.’ Then Saul became very angry” (1 Sam. 18:7–8 NASB).

David’s work was rejected by God. His plan to move the ark of the covenant by cart didn’t please the Father. And when Uzzah touched what he shouldn’t have touched, “God smote him . . . and he died” (2 Sam. 6:7 RSV). Before David was afraid, he fumed. “David became angry because of the LORD’s outburst against Uzzah” (2 Sam. 6:8 NASB).

And Jonah. The fellow had a whale of a problem with anger. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) He didn’t feel the Ninevites were worthy of mercy, but God did. By forgiving them, God rejected Jonah’s opinion. And how did the rejection make Jonah feel? “It greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry” (Jon. 4:1 NASB).

I don’t want to oversimplify a complex emotion. Anger has many causes: impatience, unmet expectations, stress, referees who couldn’t see a pass-interference call if you painted it on their garage door—oops, sorry, a flashback to a high-school football game. The fire of anger has many logs, but according to biblical accounts, the thickest and the hottest block of wood is rejection.

An odd encounter allowed me to experience this formula firsthand. I was tagging along with my wife and daughters as they went shopping. Such is the life of a father of three girls. Not being an avid shopper myself, I tend to pass the time with a book. We enter a store, they look for sales, I look for chairs. (Hint to retailers: A few recliners would lead to greater sales volume.) This particular store didn’t have a chair, however. It was a highpriced, uppity purse store that assumed you’d never want to sit in the presence of their creations. So I found a corner, sat on the floor, and entered the world of fiction.


Lifting my eyes, I saw pointy-toed high-heeled shoes.

“Ahem, ahem.”

Looking up, I saw a female employee with bunned-up hair and black thick-framed glasses.

“Don’t sit on the floor,” she said.

I thought she was feeling sorry for me. “I don’t mind. Besides, I couldn’t find a chair.”

Her response had the tone of a miffed third-grade teacher. “You aren’t allowed to sit on the floor.”

Not allowed to sit on the floor? Isn’t that like saying, “You’re not allowed to have your wisdom teeth pulled”? If I’d had another choice, I’d have taken it. “I couldn’t find a chair,” I told her.

“We don’t have chairs,” she told me, lowering the room temperature with her frost.

“But I just want to sit down,” I replied, my throat starting to tighten.

“We don’t want people to sit down,” she commanded.

My math was off. This didn’t add up. I enter the store with four women who have a weakness for puny purses with foreign names.

Shouldn’t I be offered a soda and a massage? “I’ll stand, all right. I’ll stand outside.” O-o-o-h, Max, the tough guy.

I leaned against the building and fumed.

Now, why was I angry? What stirred my frustration? In the great scheme of things, the event wouldn’t bump a seismic needle. So what bothered me? I narrowed it down to one word. Rejection. The salesperson had rejected me. She didn’t accept me.

Multiply that emotion by a zillion to understand the anger of an abandoned teen or a divorced spouse. I didn’t even know the lady, and I was angry. What happens when you feel the same from your boss, friend, or teacher?

You hurt. And because you get hurt, you get hot. Tacky-toned, coldshouldered, name-calling, door-slamming, get-my-pound-of-flesh sort of hot. Anger is your defense mechanism.

Envision a teenager receiving a lecture. His dad is going down the list: poor grades, missed curfews, messy room. Each accusation is like a shove in the boy’s chest. Back and back and back until he perceives a Grand Canyon between his father and him. His initial response is silence and shame. Lower and lower he bows. But somewhere a line is crossed, and an innate survival technique kicks in, and he lashes back, “I’ve had it!” And he stands and storms out.

What about the Hispanic immigrant in the small Anglo town? How many times can a man be teased about his accent, mocked because of his name, and overlooked because of his skin color before he takes a swing at someone?

Consider the wife of the insensitive husband. Every other woman in her office received a card or flowers for Valentine’s Day. She kept thinking a delivery boy would stop at her desk, but none ever did. She drives home thinking, Surely there will be something on the table. The table is empty. The phone rings. It’s him. He’ll be late for dinner. 

No word about Valentine’s Day. He forgot. How could he forget? When this happened last year, she was sad. When he did something similar at Christmas, she was hurt. But when he forgot their anniversary, she started to harden. And now this? Her tears are hot. Rejection leads to anger.

And if rejection from people makes us angry, what about when we feel rejected by God? Case study #1? Cain.

The account is sketchy and not without gaps, but we are told enough to re-create the crime scene. Cain and Abel went to worship, perhaps at the same time. They each brought an offering. How did they know to do so? God had told them. Hebrews 11:4 says, “It was by faith that Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did.” From where does one get faith? “Faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17 NKJV). Cain and Abel had heard God’s instructions. And when Abel brought the best parts of a firstborn from his flock, he did so out of obedience to what he had heard.

And when Cain brought “some food” from the ground, he was acting out of disobedience. Surely he had heard what Abel had heard. Would God hold him accountable otherwise? He knew what Abel knew. He knew that forgiveness of sin came through the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22). But still he was angry that God returned his sacrifice unopened. God cautioned him to be careful.

God asked Cain, “Why are you angry? Why do you look so unhappy? If you do things well, I will accept you, but if you do not do them well, sin is ready to attack you. Sin wants you, but you must rule over it.” At this point in the story, Cain had not sinned. A dose of humility and he would have been fine. But Cain had other plans.

“Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out into the field.’ While they were out in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen. 4:3–8).

Cain gave up. He gave up on God. He gave up on his ability to please him. And he took it out on Abel. Cain would have related to the frustration of the struggling missionary who wrote:

God’s demands of me were so high, and His opinion of me was so low, there was no way for me to live except under His frown. . . . All day long He nagged me: “Why don’t you pray more? Why don’t you witness more? When will you ever learn self-discipline? How can you allow yourself to indulge in such wicked thoughts? Do this. Don’t do that.” . . . When I came down to it, there was scarcely a word or a feeling or a thought or a decision of mine that God really liked.

Many have written letters like that. If not with pen and paper, at least with thoughts. Cain would have penned: “I can’t satisfy him. I work in the field and bring my crops. I give him my best, and it’s not enough.” Others would write:

“Why won’t God hear our prayers! We go to church, we pay our bills, but still the crib is empty.”

“Why won’t God give me a job? I’ve done nothing wrong. People who curse him have jobs. I’ve served him all these years and can’t even get an interview.”

“What do I have to do to be forgiven? Do I have to spend the rest of my life paying for one mistake?”

Such thoughts will heat your collar. Stoke your anger. Make you snap at those shallow minds like Abel who do half the work but get all the blessings— Stop for a second. Did you just make a discovery? Did a light go on? Have you for the first time found the headwaters of your anger? Can your bitterness be traced upstream to a feeling of divine rejection? If so (I’m glad to tell you this), in finding the cause you have also found the cure.

When I really want a person to listen to me, I scoot my chair a couple of inches in their direction and lower my voice. If you and I were having a chat about your anger, this is where I’d start scooting, and I’d say the next sentence so softly you’d have to lean forward to hear. So incline a tad and listen to this thought.

If rejection causes anger, wouldn’t acceptance cure it? If rejection by heaven makes you mad at others, wouldn’t acceptance from heaven stir your love for them? This is the 7:47 Principle. Remember the verse? “He who is forgiven little loves little.” We can replace the word forgiven with accepted and maintain the integrity of the passage. “He who is accepted little loves little.” If we think God is harsh and unfair, guess how we’ll treat people. Harshly and unfairly. But if we discover that God has doused us with unconditional love, would that make a difference?

The apostle Paul would say so! Talk about a turnaround. He went from bully to teddy bear. Paul B.C. (Before Christ) sizzled with anger. He “made havoc of the church” (Acts 8:3 NKJV). Paul A.D. (After Discovery) brimmed with love. Could a raving maniac write these words?

To the Corinthians: “I always thank my God for you” (1 Cor. 1:4).

To the Philippians: “I have you in my heart. . . . I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:7–8 NIV).

To the Ephesians: “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Eph. 1:16 NIV).

To the Colossians: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you” (Col. 1:3 NIV).

To the Thessalonians: “We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children” (1 Thess. 2:7 NIV).

His heart was a universe of love. But what about his enemies? It’s one thing to love your coworkers, but did Paul love those who challenged him? “I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them” (Rom. 9:1–3 NLT). 

On every occasion that he had to enter their synagogues and teach, he did so (Acts 13:4–5; 14:1; 17:1–2, 10). His accusers beat him, stoned him, jailed him, mocked him. But can you find one occasion where he responded in kind? One temper tantrum? One angry outburst? This is a different man. His anger is gone. His passion is strong. His devotion is unquestioned. But rash outbursts of anger? A thing of the past.

What made the difference? He encountered Christ. Or, to use his phrase, he was hidden in Christ: “Your life is now hidden with Christ in God”

(Col. 3:3 NIV).

The Chinese language has a great symbol for this truth. The word for righteousness is a combination of two pictures. On the top is a lamb. Beneath the lamb is a person. The lamb covers the person.2 Isn’t that the essence of righteousness? The Lamb of Christ over the child of God? Whenever the Father looks down on you, what does he see? He sees his Son, the perfect Lamb of God, hiding you. 

Christians are like their ancestor Abel. We come to God by virtue of the flock. Cain came with the work of his own hands. God turned him away. Abel came, and we come, dependent upon the sacrifice of the Lamb, and we are accepted. Like the Chinese symbol, we are covered by the lamb, hidden in Christ.

When God looks at you, he doesn’t see you; he sees Jesus. And how does he respond when he sees Jesus? He rends the heavens and vibrates the earth with the shout, “You are my Son, whom I love, and I am very pleased with you” (Mark 1:11).

The missionary was wrong. We don’t live under the frown of God. We stir an ear-to-ear smile of joy. “He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph.

3:17 NKJV).

Through Christ, God has accepted you. Think about what this means. I’m scooting forward and talking softly again: You cannot keep people from rejecting you. But you can keep rejections from enraging you.

Rejections are like speed bumps on the road. They come with the journey. Tacky purse peddlers populate the world. You’re going to get cut, dished, dropped, and kicked around. You cannot keep people from rejecting you. But you can keep rejections from enraging you. How? By letting his acceptance compensate for their rejection.

Think of it this way. Suppose you dwell in a high-rise apartment. On the window sill of your room is a solitary daisy. This morning you picked the daisy and pinned it on your lapel. Since you have only one plant, this is a big event and a special daisy.

But as soon as you’re out the door, people start picking petals off your daisy. Someone snags your subway seat. Petal picked. You’re blamed for the bad report of a coworker. Three petals. The promotion is given to someone with less experience but USC water polo looks. More petals. By the end of the day, you’re down to one. Woe be to the soul who dares to draw near it. You’re only one petal-snatching away from a blowup.

What if the scenario was altered slightly? Let’s add one character. The kind man in the apartment next door runs a flower shop on the corner. Every night on the way home he stops at your place with a fresh, undeserved, yet irresistible bouquet. These are not leftover flowers. They are top-of-the-line arrangements. You don’t know why he thinks so highly of you, but you aren’t complaining. Because of him, your apartment has a sweet fragrance, and your step has a happy bounce. Let someone mess with your flower, and you’ve got a basketful to replace it!

The difference is huge. And the interpretation is obvious.

God will load your world with flowers. He hand-delivers a bouquet to your door every day. Open it! Take them! Then, when rejections come, you won’t be left short-petaled.

God can help you get rid of your anger. He made galaxies no one has ever seen and dug canyons we have yet to find. “The LORD . . . heals all your diseases” (Ps. 103:2–3 NIV). Do you think among those diseases might be the affliction of anger?

Do you think God could heal your angry heart?

Do you want him to? This is not a trick question. He asks the same question of you that he asked of the invalid: “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6). Not everyone does. You may be addicted to anger. You may be a rage junkie. Anger may be part of your identity. But if you want him to, he can change your identity. Do you want him to do so?

Do you have a better option? Like moving to a rejection-free zone? If so, enjoy your life on your desert island.

Take the flowers. Receive from him so you can love or at least put up with others.

Do what T. D. Terry did. Many years ago a stressful job stirred within him daily bouts of anger. His daughter, upon hearing him describe them years later, responded with surprise. 

“I don’t remember any anger during those years.”

He asked if she remembered the tree—the one near the driveway about halfway between the gate and the house. “Remember how it used to be tall?

Then lost a few limbs? And after some time was nothing more than a stump?” She did.

“That was me,” T. D. explained. “I took my anger out on the tree. I kicked it. I took an ax to it. I tore the limbs. I didn’t want to come home mad, so I left my anger at the tree.”

Let’s do the same. In fact, let’s go a step farther. Rather than take out our anger on a tree in the yard, let’s take our anger to the tree on the hill. Leave your anger at the tree of Calvary. When others reject you, let God accept you. He is not frowning. He is not mad. He sings over you. Take a long drink from his limitless love, and cool down.

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