Overcoming Anger and Fear
The evangelist shares practical steps for dealing with destructive emotions.
BY: Billy Graham
Reprinted from "The Journey" by Billy Graham, with permission of W Publishing Group.
Every destructive emotion bears its own harvest, but anger's fruit is the most bitter of all. Uncontrolled anger is a devastating sin, and no one is exempt from its havoc. It shatters friendships and destroys marriages; it causes abuse in families and discord in business; it breeds violence in the community and war between nations. Its recoil, like that of a high-powered rifle, often hurts the one who wields it as well as its target. Anger makes us lash out at others, destroying relationships and revealing our true nature. The history of the human race is largely the history of its anger.
Nor are Christians exempt from anger's grip. After Jesus' arrest Peter angrily denied his Lord: "He began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, ‘I don't know this man you're talking about"' (Mark 14:71). Paul had to urge the Ephesian Christians to "get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice" (Ephesians 4:31). How many churches have been torn apart by someone's anger? How many people have been turned away from Christ because of a Christian's anger? We get angry when others hurt us, both by what they say and what they do.
We get angry too when we don't get our own way or our plans and dreams are frustrated. Anger may arise in an instant erupting like a volcano and raining destruction on everyone in sight. Often, however, anger simmers just below the surface, sometimes for a lifetime. Like a corrosive acid, this kind of anger eats away at our bodies and souls, yet we may not even be aware of its presence.
Some people are angry at God. Sometimes I get letters from people who have been touched by tragedy—but instead of seeking God's help, they angrily blame Him for what happened. As a result they cut themselves off from the peace and joy He alone can give us, even when we don't understand.
Is anger ever justified? Yes—when it is caused by injustice and sin instead of our selfishness or hurt pride. God is angry when His righteousness is scorned; Jesus forcefully drove out from the temple those who were callously making money from God's people (Matthew 21:12-13). We must be careful, however; sometimes our so-called "righteous indignation" is little more than a cover for lovelessness or self-righteousness.
Anger and bitterness (as well as hatred, jealousy, and resentment, their offspring) aren't identical, but they are closely related. Bitterness is anger gone sour, an attitude of deep discontent that poisons our souls and destroys our peace. My wife has said that a bitter, sour Christian is one of Satan's greatest trophies—and she's right. The Bible says, "See to it…that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many" (Hebrews 12:15). Are anger or bitterness keeping you from becoming the person God wants you to be?
Can we overcome our anger, instead of constantly being overcome by it? Yes—with God's help. Peter's anger was channeled into boldness for Christ. Paul's anger against Christians was replaced with a burning passion to spread the Gospel. The Bible commands us "to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:23-24). Is this your goal?
How should we deal with anger? The answer is decisively! The first step in gaining victory over unjustified anger is to want to get rid of it—and the key to that is to see it for what it is: sin in God's eyes. Jesus warned, "Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment" (Matthew 5:22).
This means we must stop making excuses for our anger or bad temper—blaming it on our parents, for example, or claiming we have every right to be angry because of something that happened to us in the past. We also must face honestly the toll anger and bitterness take on our lives. They are our enemies! The Bible says, "An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins" (Proverbs 29:22). It also says, "Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; …it leads only to evil" (Psalm 37:8). Never underestimate anger's destructive power.
The second step—as with every other sin—is to confess it to God, and seek His forgiveness and help. On the cross Christ took upon Himself every sin you ever committed—including your anger. God in His love and mercy not only promises to forgive our anger, but to cleanse it from our lives if we will let Him. No matter its cause, commit your anger to God, and ask Him to replace it with the Holy Spirit's fruit of "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). Notice: Anger is the exact opposite of every one of these. Anger flees when the Spirit's fruit fills our hearts.
Then take practical steps to deal with your anger. When are you especially susceptible to anger? Avoid those situations when possible—and when you can't, pray about them in advance and ask God to help you. When you fail, be quick to seek not only God’s forgiveness, but also the forgiveness of those you hurt. If you have been harboring anger or bitterness or jealousy in your heart toward someone—a parent, an ex-spouse, a boss—hand it over to Christ, and ask Him to help you let it go.
In addition, discover the transforming power of forgiving other. Jesus said, "Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:28). You can't stay angry if you obey this command. Deliberately act toward others the way you should, even if you don't feel like it; changing our behavior eventually changes our emotions. The Bible says, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Is it any wonder that fear and anxiety have become the hallmarks of our age? Recently I received a letter from a woman living in the heart of one of our most crime-riddled cities. "I have five locks on my door," she wrote, "but I'm so fearful I can hardly sleep."
Fear has its place; if we didn't fear danger, our lives would be constant peril. A small child must be taught to fear the busy street or the unguarded pill bottle. A soldier or policeman knows ever moment's inattention is dangerous. The Bible says, "A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it" (Proverbs 22:3). We shouldn't just fear physical danger however most of all we should be on guard against moral and spiritual danger. The Bible says, "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8).
Fear has its place, but fear also can become overwhelming—and then it becomes sin. Why? Because fear causes us to doubt God's promises and disbelieve His love. Fear can paralyze us and keep us from believing God and stepping out in faith. The devil loves a fearful Christian! God told the ancient Israelites that He would be with them and help them conquer the Promised Land. But fear seized them, and they refused to obey. As a result they were forced to wander in Sinai's wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14). They allowed fear to paralyze them, and an entire generation missed God's blessing. This can happen to us.
Most people yearn for one thing more than anything else: inner peace. Without it they have no lasting happiness or security. I'm also convinced, however, that this is exactly what most people are missing—and the main reason is anxiety and fear.
Can we conquer our anxieties and fears? Or must we spend our lives consumed by worry?
Let me respond with another question: What is the opposite of fear? For the Christian there can be only one answer: The opposite of fear is trust—trust in God and His unchanging love. Once we realize God is in control and He holds us in His loving hands, we can meet life's dangers and uncertainties with confidence. After all, if we can trust God for our eternal salvation, can't we also trust Him for our lives right now? The psalmist declared, "The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid" (Psalm 118:6).
Let's be honest, however: It's hard to trust God when danger threatens or everything seems to be collapsing around us. Fear comes much easier to us than faith. But never forget: Fear can banish faith, but faith can banish fear. Faith isn't pretending our problems don't exist, nor is it simply blind optimism. Faith points us beyond our problems to the hope we have in Christ. True faith involves trust—trust in what Christ has done for us, and trust in God's goodness and mercy.
How should you deal with anxiety and fear? First, turn them over to Christ. Don't deny them—and don't cling to them. Confess them to Christ, and then ask Him to lift them from your shoulders. The psalmist wrote, "Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall" (Psalm 55:22). Peter echoed this truth: "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7).
Second, stand firmly on God's promises. In the Bible God has given us "very great and precious promises" (2 Peter 1:4)—and every one of them reminds us that we can trust our lives into His hands. You can trust God's promises, for He cannot lie! God's promises in the Old Testament are just as applicable and relevant to us today as those in the New Testament, and both Testaments contain God's principles for life. Fear vanishes when it is exposed to the promises of God's Word.
What are those promises? One is that God is with you, no matter how difficult or confusing life becomes. He says, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). Jesus declared, "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). You are never alone if you know Christ—never. I have never forgotten the familiar words from Psalm 23 my mother taught me as a child: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me" (v. 4 KJV). Saturate your mind and heart with the Promises of God's Word.
God also promises us hope—hope that someday all the evils and injustices of this life will be destroyed. Jesus warned, "In this world you will have trouble." But He immediately added, "But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Everything that makes you fearful or anxious is only temporary, for when Christ returns they will be destroyed.
Finally, pray diligently and in faith. I'm amazed how easy it is to become anxious over something—but then forget to pray about it. Anxiety and fear are like baby tigers: The more you feed them, the stronger they grow.
But God has another way—the way of prayer. The Bible's answer to worry couldn't be clearer: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." Then comes God's promise: "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:6-7, emphasis added).
How should you pray? Pray first of all for strength in the face of whatever you fear, for God helps us hold on in the midst of life's storms. Pray also for wisdom to deal with whatever is worrying you; some practical steps may change the situation.
Pray as well that God will act to change your circumstances, according to His will. He doesn't always do what we want Him to—but He knows what's best for us, and He can be trusted. God is sovereign, and no situation is beyond His control. Over her desk my wife has these words: "Fear not the future; God is already there."
Emotions enrich our lives, but sometimes they also can overwhelm us or lead us astray. But we can learn to keep them in balance—with God's help.