Anger is a very interesting emotion, especially in the life of a sexual abuse survivor. I have met many survivors whose reactions were defined by anger; it seems to be the only emotion they were in touch with. Others don’t allow themselves to feel anger, as if it is somehow bad. The question is what role can anger actually play in our healing, and as Christians, how can we deal with it most effectively?
There is no doubt that anger is a powerful emotion! It is also a God-given emotion. A review of scripture reveals that God Himself was angered by injustice and sin. Anger is often a catalyst for action. It can motivate us to respond to injustices or to alleviate suffering. Ephesians 4:22-27 suggests that truth and anger can be related:
“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitudes of your minds and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”
It is not wrong to be angry. Rather, scripture focuses on how we deal with our anger. Do we get stuck in it (after the sun goes down), allowing it to fester into bitterness, rage, brawling, slander, and malice, or do we somehow work through it, using it for good? In my mind, anger is like a mighty, raging river that is able to provide life-giving water for an entire community when properly contained or to destroy that same community if allowed to flood beyond its banks.
Getting in touch with our anger is certainly a good thing for abuse survivors. Some of us walk in denial as if a crime didn’t really occur. Maybe we repressed the truth for a long time and have only recently begun to come to terms with it, or maybe we’ve known it all along but minimized it nonetheless. Someone may have taught us that anger is a sin or told us that our anger isn’t acceptable to them. Maybe we’re afraid if we express anger we will explode like a raging maniac, or maybe we don’t value ourselves enough to even think we’re worth fighting for! Sometimes it’s our family that encourages us to minimize the reality of all we have endured. Recently, I had a relative criticize me for seeking emotional support from a sibling because my story “caused him emotional discomfort.” Her message was “Just handle this yourself—Don’t burden us with the truth!” Yet, the reality is a crime occurred and the damage was extensive. Anger is a proper response to such injustice. Speaking the truth requires us to acknowledge how much it hurt us and could potentially continue to hurt others.
Once we acknowledge our anger, however, there is a danger of remaining stuck in it rather than moving through it. When this happens the anger is no longer about what happened to us or others in the past. Instead, it has evolved into an attempt to protect ourselves in the future by maintaining a more powerful feeling of control, attempting to ward off additional harm, or thinking we are somehow holding others accountable by staying mad. The reality is that the emotion itself does not accomplish any of these things for us! It must be transformed into Godly wisdom and action to help us.
Anger is different from other painful emotions abuse victims commonly experience, such as the pain of betrayal, rejection, shame, grief, and loss. Those emotions seem to be about us, while anger is directed toward other people and circumstances. Anger feels powerful and can be a new, invigorating experience, especially for one who was powerless for so long. It is often referred to as a “secondary emotion,” meaning it sits on top of or hides other primary emotions that feel more vulnerable. I led a support group once where members had trouble talking about many of their emotions, but anger was near the surface whenever they spoke of their abusers. The reality is we must move beneath the secondary emotion of anger and also face these other more troubling emotions in order to find true healing and lasting peace.
So, what is the best way to process anger? Well, I’m certainly no expert and am still on the journey myself, but I can share what I’ve learned so far. For starters, sexual abuse isn’t a neat little package that can be wrapped up quickly with a tidy bow. Instead it’s like a jigsaw puzzle with an unfolding scene that is revealed gradually, one section at a time, with much patience and effort. Similarly, our anger isn’t a one-time event that we work through initially and never encounter again. Instead it comes in waves as memories and new insights continue to unfold. Here are some steps I’ve learned to follow when processing my own anger:
- I allow myself to experience the anger and acknowledge that it is to be expected whenever an injustice occurs. I also explore the anger. What wrongs need to be righted? Whose value has not been recognized? Then I express the full extent of my anger to God in prayer. I tell him exactly what happened, how it made me feel, and why. Nothing I say shocks Him because He already knows my heart! However, saying it out loud is very helpful to me.
- Then I lay it all at His feet. I find it helpful to hold my cupped hands up to Him with my anger figuratively inside, then to turn my hands over as if releasing the burden to Him. I ask Him to help me see myself and each player in the drama through His eyes. What does He want to show me about the person(s) who provoked my anger? What does He want to give me in place of my anger?
- I ask Him to help me identify the primary emotions beneath my anger too. For instance, in the example above when my relative wanted me to keep my story to myself, beneath my anger were feelings of rejection and abandonment. I felt painfully alone when members of my own family refused to acknowledge the crime and my need for support. As I surrendered my anger to God, I heard Him speak His truth into my situation. I thought my relative was being selfish and uncaring. The rejection felt deeply personal. Yet, God showed me how her reactions were rooted in her own personal fears of loss and were not really about me. He showed me how I am actually more healed than she is right now! She was incapable of offering the support I needed and tried to control things through denial. He then led me to pray for her. In the place of my anger, I received the assurance that I was not alone. God understood my pain and was there to comfort me. He also reminded me of others who still support me.
- Lastly, I ask how the passion behind my anger can be directed toward something good? Will I set healthy boundaries with family members who are in denial, yet somehow continue to find practical ways to express love to them? Will I become an advocate for other victims who also need someone to care? How will I respond to new insights gained from prayerful conversations with God? Who can I ask to continue to pray for me? I have found a burden shared is divided and support exchanged is multiplied.
My anger used to frighten me. Now I recognize it as a God-given gift. Like all gifts, I must respond to it wisely for it to accomplish its purpose in alerting me to injustices and helping me discover resolution, not only of painful emotions, but also of boundary issues and my own misguided efforts to find relief in unhelpful ways. What has your experience with anger been like? Do you suppress it? Are you stuck in it? Have you found healing through its prayerful expression? What constructive actions were initially fueled by anger in your life? I’d love to hear your story!