Several years ago, our church’s prison ministry was invited to Lebanon Correctional Institution in Lebanon, Ohio. This particular prison is quite fierce. Not only is the building cold, intimidating, and ginormous, the inmate population there is comprised of some of the most violent men in the prison system. I was told that this facility accounts for 50% of the violence in all of the Ohio prison system. There are around thirty prisons in the system. This one is bad. Lebanon is a level three, just one level below near complete lockdown. Levels are assigned not based primarily on crime, but on behavior or anticipated behavior within the system. For many reasons, I’ll never forget that first trip to Lebanon. Just a side note, while there, somebody thought it would be a good idea for us to eat in the prison cafeteria. As much as I care about taking the Gospel to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), I don’t prefer to eat prison food. It’s like high school cafeteria food, but 10,000 times worse. Anyway, as was our plan, we pulled in through the sally port, checked in all of our gear, and made our way into a rugged-looking prison yard. While we pulled in, the prison was completely locked down, so it had an eerie, “Walking Dead” type vibe. Through extremely small windows, you could see the faces of incarcerated men, all ages, colors, and all types. The irony of this prison is that it is less than a mile from a huge shopping complex and an even bigger and shinier casino.
In most cases, but especially in Lebanon, we would try to set up our stage and banners with our backs against a wall. In this case, a 15- to 20-foot fence. Often these fences will be lined with razor wire, purposely designed to snag clothing, flesh, and anything else that gets near it. It’s brutal looking stuff. Our team quickly set up banners, stage, musical instruments, prepped books to be given out, sorted equipment for our magician, and so forth. With about a 15-foot gap between our trailer and the fence. This space would kind of serve as a backstage and prep area.
The bell sounded, not a school bell, but a prison bell. Like school but really different, hundreds of men began pouring down the steps of the prison and into the yard. We started our program and prayed for dudes to come enjoy a break with us and ultimately hear the Gospel. As our program came to an end, we began conversations with guys who had decided to hang out with us. One guy clearly wanted to talk to me. Honestly, that’s always an unnerving thing in prison when some dude really wants to talk to you.
So I struck up a conversation with this guy. To this day, I can’t remember his name, but I can remember his story, and where we were standing. I had walked back behind the trailer when this guy approached me to talk. He and I stood, basically, alone, between a fence and trailer with no prison staff in sight – not the ideal spot for a conversation with a potentially annoyed and violent inmate. This man began telling me his story of having a ministry outside of prison and continuing to do ministry while here in prison. In my mind there was a big part of the story missing, “How did you get here?” I wanted to ask. But unless an inmate offers that information or the circumstances are just right, you just don’t ask. At the end of the day, it isn’t eternally important. We are all sinners and we all need Jesus.
In this conversation, he told me his story. He told me how a man had sexually assaulted his mother. He found out who the perpetrator was, drove to his house, and knocked on the door. When the man answered the door, this guy told me that he just went into black-out-rage and killed the guy. At this point, there are still no corrections officers in sight, so my internal dialogue went like this: “Hey Josh…don’t make this guy mad. You can tell he’s already a little testy. Don’t make him mad. Be nice. Smile, not condescendingly! That could make him mad. Repeat: Don’t make him mad.” Of course, a thousand other thoughts raced through my brain, but the main idea was: don’t make him mad.
Meeting and talking to that guy, you could tell he was an angry man. Angry at the system for imprisoning him, even after he had only avenged his mother. Angry at being kept from “ministry.” Angry at being told by an officer, mid-conversation to move our conversation to the front of the trailer and away from the fence. Praise Jesus for that corrections officer. This dude was just angry, temperamental, and just ready to blow up. Rage was in his eyes.
As you read this, you might be asking, how could you possibly get that impression from one short conversation? How could you really know those things? Well, talking to that guy, who I think was named James, was like looking in a this-could-of-been-you type mirror. You see, anger has been my go-to emotion for most of my life. I have caused great emotional and physical pain through losing my temper. I have hurt the cause of Christ and His church. When I write about the Hothead, the sad picture I see in my head is myself. If you struggle with being a hothead, just know that you are not alone. You are not being judged. You are being warned, challenged, and invited to the thorough healing that Jesus offers through the Gospel. But before we find the peace that Jesus gives, we need to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” We need to take a good, long, hard look at the Hothead of Proverbs.
When addressing anger, Scripture isn’t talking about the person who is righteously angry or irritated from time to time. As we’ll discuss later in this chapter, there are legitimate reasons to be angry. Anger is just an emotion. In and of itself, anger isn’t bad. When sin and destructive behaviors follow is when anger becomes a problem. In Proverbs, Solomon is writing about the person who is always angry. They are a moment from being red-faced and unleashing the fury that fills their soul. Solomon is describing the person who will often forget why they are so mad, but with just a quick look around, they find another perceived injustice and wrong that can justify their rage. Regardless of the situation, the weather, good news, the presence of friends and family, their inner not-so-incredible Hulk is always lurking just below the surface. Everyone walks on eggshells around them, guarding their every word, gesture, and expression, because the Hothead, the Hulk, is a ticking time bomb. With the Hothead, their anger is like “a buried landmine just waiting for someone to step on it – deeply buried, yet shallowly accessible.” The Marvel character, “The Incredible Hulk” warns, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” And family and friends of the Hothead feel the same way. Whatever you do, they think, don’t make him or her angry! Long before the Hothead blows his or her top, there is a heart issue and that issue in the soul causes great strife, loneliness, and, like a virus, eventually kills its host.
SILENT, SIMMERING, AND SAVAGE ANGER
Anger begins in the heart. Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 7:9, “Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.” Imagining the heart as a house, Solomon explains that a fool’s heart houses anger. The Hothead’s heart is host (that’s quite an alliteration) to constant anger. Long before the explosion of a temper, Silent Anger has taken up residence in the heart of the Hothead. This silent anger can be hidden under a fake smile, but like a volcano, eventually there will be an eruption. Whether the person is more vocal or tends to be more docile, if silent anger moves into the heart and isn’t addressed, eventually it will lead to unhealthy and ungodly expressions. Unchecked silent anger, becomes simmering anger. John MacArthur talks about anger that is “brooding, simmering…nurtured and not allowed to die. It is seen in the holding of a grudge, in the smoldering bitterness that refuses to forgive. It is the anger that cherishes resentment and does not want reconciliation.” Because of that simmering anger, innocent comments are perceived by the Hothead as insults and character attacks, further enflaming the ready-to-boil-over Hothead. Every situation is seen through the lens of frustration, annoyance, and resentment. Issues, whether real or imagined, are piled on and this monster hidden in the heart continues to grow. Soon, in the heart of the Hothead, there isn’t room for anything or any other emotion. Anger is the last emotion left standing. The Hothead’s life is now ruled by the dictator Savage Anger. These outbursts are what we normally associate with the Hothead, but this isn’t a new person being introduced. It’s the real person coming out. Beware, everyone within shouting distance becomes a target for the Hothead’s fury. The Hothead can find plenty of reasons to be angry and feels justified in consistently venting toward all of the injustice done in the world and to him. When the Hothead goes off, there is collateral damage.
This is when anger often begins to cause relational strife. “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” one teacher cautioned, “Here is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Please forgive my “Star Wars” reference. It’s true though, the Hothead will soon find strife all around him or her. Spouses, children, parents, friends, family, co-workers, employees, and just about everyone on the globe will struggle being around the Hothead. The constant angry outbursts are hurtful. Rather than being unpredictable, it’s predictable that the Hothead will find someone or something to be mad about.
“A man of quick temper acts foolishly.” (Proverbs 14:17)
“A hot-tempered man stirs up strife.” (Proverbs 15:18)
“A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression.” (Proverbs 29:22)
“…pressing anger produces strife.” (Proverbs 30:33)
Not only will a “quick temper” cause strife in relationships, but the Hothead feels an internal emotional storm in his own soul. Dave and Ann Wilson, in their book “Vertical Marriage,” wisely write, “Anger is not usually the first emotion we feel in a stressful situation. The first emotion may be hurt, frustration, fear, or something else – but we instead jump to anger because we’re too uncomfortable with the initial emotion…immediately default[ing] to anger instead.” The Hothead becomes emotionally one dimensional. If he or she isn’t angry, they don’t know how or what to feel. The Hothead refuses to process real emotions and simply bypasses them all, choosing the comfort and safety of anger instead.
Anger often leads to physical, emotional, verbal, psychological, and even spiritual abuse. Pastor Ray Ortlund asks, “Have you ever felt that envy and resentment deep inside? It is where violence begins.” Then in reference to Proverbs 1:11, he says, “Your heart is lying in wait for blood.” Eventually, anger completely isolates the Hothead. Nobody can stand the constant outbursts, berating, or abuse anymore. Nobody wants to be around the Hothead and continue to endure this emotional hurricane. In the end, the only company the Hothead has left are those who are obligated to them and even they are looking for an exit. The Hothead’s anger becomes an embarrassment at family functions, the office, church, the gym, and kids’ athletic events. Family members cover their faces, turn away or leave because of the shame and humiliation they feel as their Dad, Mom, or spouse loses their mind. Proverbs says the Hothead holds up, essentially advertises, their foolishness (Folly) for everyone to see. The Bible compares friendship with an angry man to a trap. The Hothead’s rage causes destruction around them.
“He who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” (Proverbs 14:29)
“Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” (Proverbs 22:24-25)
Not only is there only one emotion left, but a short fuse is all the Hothead is known for. They are angry all the time. Anger has consumed and overwhelmed them. My mind is drawn to a giant wave that comes crashing over our heads as we wade into the ocean. Proverbs 27:4 says, “Anger is overwhelming.” The Hothead is overwhelmed and drowns in a sea of his own indignation and self-hate. Ultimately the Hothead’s anger brings death - death of relationships, emotional health, spiritual life, and healthy self-love. In the book of Job, the Scripture says, “Anger slays the foolish man.” (Job 5:2, NASB).
However, within the Scripture, we find there are legitimate reasons to be angry. The Gospel of Mark records an account, where the Lord Jesus becomes angry.
“Again, he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come here.’ And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:1-6)
Rather than demonstrating pity on the disabled man or then celebrating the miraculous work done, they baited Jesus to heal on the Sabbath to give them reason to plot His demise. They were religious and supposedly God-loving, yet Jesus saw the true condition of their hearts, which was far from God (Matthew 15:8-9; Isaiah 29:13). Jesus was angry at the hardness of their hearts. He was angry about something worth being upset over. He was righteously angry. This man clearly had a need and Jesus divinely met that need, but the people didn’t care. In their minds, Jesus had spoiled the Sabbath. When Jesus asked them a question, they couldn’t even muster a response. Their hearts were void of any compassion for the man with a withered hand. John 2:14-17 and Matthew 21:12-13 record Jesus cleansing the temple. It’s hard to imagine Him not being angry as He cracks His homemade whip. He drove the money changers and other extortionists from their religiously-themed flea market, cleansed the court of the Gentiles, and restored the worshipful purpose of the temple. Seeing this example from Jesus, Charles Spurgeon taught, “Evidently it is possible to be angry and to be right.”
DEALING WITH ANGER
When I was growing up, our go-to show was “Family Matters.” Now, it’s been 20 plus years since I’ve watched the show, so I can’t vouch for it. One of my favorite memorable moments from the show was a comedic bit that they often repeated. The Winslow family’s annoying neighbor Steve Urkel would come over unwanted. Of course, as the audience, we loved him. He was far from unwanted on the show. But at the Winslow’s house, he was a pest. Carl, the Dad, would often say, “Go home Steve! Go home! Go home! Go HOME!” Steve would calmly respond, “I don’t have to take this…I’m going home.” It was funny every time. Throughout the show, Carl attempts to use different methods of dealing with the anger that Steve inevitably brings out. On one occasion, Carl tries saying, “3-2-1, 1-2-3, what the heck is bothering me?” He glances over to Steve, realizes his anger has yet to subside, so he tries again, “3-2-1, 1-2-3, what the heck is bothering me?” Finally, giving up on his new coping method, he answers his own question and screams at Steve, “YOU ARE!” He proceeds to chase him out of the house.
Learning to deal with anger and a temper is really important. If we don’t, eventually we’ll be consumed and become The Hothead of Proverbs. We need to learn from Jesus. Unlike the Lord, we often become angry about the wrong things. We fall into the trap of a quick temper that Proverbs warns about. “Let us admit it,” DA Carson writes, “by and large we are quick to be angry when we are personally affronted and offended, and slow to be angry when sin and injustice multiply in other areas.” Don’t sweat the small stuff. It isn’t all small stuff as the erroneous statement goes, but most of it is. “Wisdom asks, ‘Why should I feel intensely about that issue?’”
“He who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” (Proverbs 17:27)
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” (Proverbs 29:11)
“Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” (Psalm 37:8)
We don’t need to be afraid of the emotion of anger. It’s ok to be angry, just be angry about things that actually matter. We also need to find healthy ways and spaces to express our anger. One of my favorite commentators, Kent Hughes says, “In our anger we must be very, very careful because anger often leads to sin, which will give an ‘opportunity to the devil.’” Anger often leads to vengeance. Revenge is never a healthy expression of anger (Romans 12:17-21). In losing our temper and pursuing revenge, a place or a foothold has been given to Satan and he quickly moves in for the kill (1 Peter 5:8). We must be extremely cautious, especially if we’ve had a history of unleashing the beast of anger over dumb things or in unhealthy, sinful ways. John Calvin asks the person with a “violent temper,” why “have [you] conspired with Satan so to torment yourselves?” The Hothead, as Calvin puts it, is actually tormenting himself.
“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (Ephesians 4:26-27)
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20)
For many people, it seems like there has been a rage brewing in their hearts for a long time. When it comes to anger, dealing with the deep issues causing this pain can be very challenging, but extremely enlightening. In his biography on the Old Testament leader Moses, Chuck Swindoll spends a chapter recounting all of Moses’ recorded angry outbursts. Swindoll’s observation and advice, “The living Lord,” he writes, “is the only one I know who can come in like a flood and smother the flames of a vicious temper.” Anger isn’t sin, but angry outbursts, revenge, curses, and all the things that often come with anger are SIN. Only the Lord Jesus, through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, can change the Hothead.
“Now the works of the flesh are evident…fits of anger….” (Galatians 5:19-20)
“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath…” (Colossians 3:8)
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” (Ephesians 4:31)
“For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered….” (Titus 1:7)
HOTHEAD’S NOT SO ANONYMOUS
When I told Jen that I was working on the Hothead chapter and that I was going to use my story in college about anger, she responded, “Which one?” That hurt, but she was right. Which one? Sadly, there are too many. So many that I’ve forgotten. One story sticks out in particular because it was the beginning of a long journey of revealing what was really going on in my heart.
One night, our university decided to host a dodgeball tournament between dorms. As you read this, you might be thinking, “You got mad at a dodgeball tournament?” Yup and you are not alone in realizing the immaturity and foolishness of that fact. The tournament started and the dorm that housed the majority of the baseball team was crushing all the other teams. In hindsight, of course, they would. They were NCAA Division I athletes who could throw a baseball a country mile. We didn’t stand a chance. Well, my team lost, but in my not-so-humble opinion, because their resident director was the referee. We couldn’t have possibly lost simply because they were better. I had to find something or in this case, someone to be angry at.
So like a good Christian at a Baptist College, I threatened to beat up the resident director. He was a snivelly, little guy and had “obviously” cheated. I was much bigger than him, so he called campus security. Needless to say, throughout this confrontation, I was running my mouth threatening and saying all kinds of stupid stuff. The next day I was called into the Executive Vice President’s Office. In my anger, I had said all kinds of things that I wouldn’t have remembered, but that resident director remembered every word and relayed it to the man who held my fate in his hands. I was nearly kicked out of school and almost lost my job on campus. It was ugly…really ugly. Instead of being expelled, I was graciously ordered to weekly counseling and warned that if this type of behavior repeated itself, I’d be gone.
The long, bumpy journey began that day. I was an angry young man. I could snap at any moment and I was often big enough, strong enough, and mean enough to back it up. I was the Hothead. Life was filled with relational and emotional strife. On the inside I was dying. I was an emotional wreck: either mad, sad, fake happy, or really mad. Over time, I learned for me, anger was the emotional outburst of a prideful heart. I was better and smarter than anyone else. I knew best. My anger came out when the world and everyone in it refused to bend to my order. I was an overgrown little brat. I suffered secret depression because of loneliness. C.S. Lewis, in a chapter we used in our discussion of the Proud Fool, writes, “Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But pride always means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.” Being a Hothead, I was left alone. It was what I became known for.
I still fight against my temper. I still find anger an easier, more familiar emotional response than truly facing the complexities of my emotions. Recently a counselor told me, “Use your anger.” WHAT?!?!? I’m still wrapping my brain around anger being okay.
So I decided to end this chapter in a little bit of a different way. I’ve written a letter, but not to my kids. I’ve written a letter to personified Anger. After reading it, you may realize we have a lot in common as Hotheads. You aren’t alone in the struggle. And from someone who is walking that road of repentance, just know that the power of the Gospel can change you. It changed and is changing me.
My old friend, we need to talk. Things have to change. I’ve decided that it’s time to set some boundaries. You have aggressively eclipsed all of my other emotions for years and years. I realize that I’m going to have to learn how to function without defaulting to you when I’m embarrassed, afraid, feeling powerless, intimidated or threatened.
Honestly, I used to really like you. You made me feel good, invincible. I don’t blackout when you come around, I actually think more clearly and my tongue and brain are sharper. I thought you were a good friend. You were my go-to. I realize now there is nothing sinful about being angry, even Jesus was angry and God is angry with the wicked day and night. So it isn’t that you are intrinsically sinful, it’s what often follows that causes so much damage. Anger is the root, and wrath is the fruit. And man, does it have a bitter, gross aftertaste.
I relied on you for many years as my go to emotion. You became my master, my source of power, intimidation. I surrendered to anger in exchange for the feeling of power, strength, and control. Yet constantly surrendering to anger left me feeling alone and foolish. Nobody really wanted to be my friend. Who wants to hang out with the Hothead? The guy who is unstable and could blow up at any time, for no real obvious or apparent reason.
I’ve let you off the leash too many times. You’ve hurt me, my wife, my kids, my friends, family, and church. I let you do that. I liked you when you made me feel powerful and forceful, but things have gone too far. From now on, we can hang out only under certain circumstances. We are only going to be together when it’s truly necessary…when wrong is done, when injustice seems to prevail, and only in a way that reflects God’s anger. We are not going to hang out when I’m slightly offended or when my ego takes a hit. You may want to rise up and right what we perceive to be a wrong, but don’t bother.
I’m going to make friends with my other emotions now. I’m a little nervous to meet them for the first time, but I think it’s time. I’ve ignored them, but I’m going to spend time with hurt, fear, embarrassment, weakness, powerlessness, and all the others who I’ve ignored because they were too uncomfortable and challenging. I’m anxious to meet these new friends and expand my emotional vocabulary.
I’ll see you soon, I’m sure. And I know you’ll try to break through those boundaries and I’ll be tempted to let you. I’m sure I’ll give in, but things are never going back to the way they were before. We are not going to be spending as much time together in the future. I will see you and you are part of my life, just not the only part of my life.
Your former best friend,
Questions for Reflection
Are you an angry, irritable person?
Are you an angry, resentful person? (1 Corinthians 13:5)
Why are you so angry?
How has the emotion of anger negatively affected you?
If you were to write a letter to Anger or to your temper, what would it say?
How have you been righteously angry?
Read Psalm 7:11.
William Barclay paraphrases Matthew 5:5, “O the bliss of the man who is always angry at the right time, and never angry at the wrong time, who has every instinct, and impulse, and passion under control because he himself is God-controlled, who has the humility to realize his own ignorance and his own weakness, for such a man is a king among men.”