A Biblical Take on HALTing Addiction Triggers – Part 2: Anger
Christian Counselor Spokane
In addiction recovery parlance, the acronym HALT refers to four common situational addiction triggers for relapse: in the heat of temptation, is the addict Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired? If so, the addict who recognizes the known factors can mitigate them and increase his odds of staying clean.
In the war against addiction, wisdom calls for addressing these common predispositions, but let’s look at the spiritual correlates for the the second of four addiction triggers: anger. What does the Bible say about reacting to anger with regard to using?
Anger as InformationAnger has been called a secondary emotion in that it arises from another deeper emotion, often fear or discouragement. Watch a mom yank her toddler back from petting a stranger’s dog to see that fear for her child’s safety motivated her brusque movement or words. When depressed it is also easy to lash out at others, if only to distract ourselves from pain.
In the Old Testament, God’s anger reflects His jealousy for the affections of His people.“Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and said, ‘Because this nation has violated the covenant I ordained for their ancestors and has not listened to me.’” (Judges 2:20).
His chosen people, like their ancestors whom He had liberated from Egypt centuries earlier, repeatedly turned to other gods, kindling His righteous anger. He wanted them back.
Jesus’ anger similarly reveals not only His jealously for His Bride’s attention, but also His passion for her. In the last week of His earthly ministry Jesus looks at the city before Him and exclaims, “O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
Jesus’ earlier anger at the money-changers in the temple courts, who took advantage of the poor who could not afford “better” sacrifices illustrated His holy hatred of injustice. In these instances, we see God’s heart for mankind through His aggravation at their idolatry and mistreatment of others in the name of religion. If He did not care about us or the condition of our hearts, He would not bother. C.S. Lewis notes that the opposite of love is not hatred but disregard.
While righteous anger is borne out of love, often the anger that wells up in us in neither noble nor constructive. Paul cautions the Ephesian believers: “…each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your 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…” (Ephesians 4:25-26)
Note that the instruction to deal with your anger wisely and promptly is nestled in the context of community. Sin, including addiction, thrives in isolation. Your brother, a fellow part of Christ’s body, deserves respect and regard, not contempt. While you were still a sinner, still behaving (or simply believing) badly, Christ died for you.
Take the time to identify what is prompting your anger and address that problem, rather than attacking your brother as though he is the problem. Like the Midianites, we, too, can end up fighting each other if we fail to recognize our real enemy, which in our case is the Devil and his ilk.
Dealing with anger quickly is key. Anger that festers breeds resentment, another potent trigger for using. St. Augustine said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” No one wins when the addict responds to the disease of bitterness by numbing it. Like toxic waste buried in a backyard, it will only surface again another day, perhaps in another form.
Aside from medicating, neither does acting out solve the underlying concern; rather, it escalates the conflict. “A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.” (Proverbs 15:1) We need courage to steel ourselves, restraining the urge to lash out.
Peering beneath the presenting anger will elucidate which value we hold dear is being threatened or violated, or simply seems to be in jeopardy until we examine our motives more closely with a trusted confidante.
Under the Anger
Significant relationships grow us up. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17) If we do not get close enough to one another for sparks to fly occasionally, we are keeping too much of a distance to effect change in each other. Relating with others authentically will grow us past pettiness and superficiality. “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers, they succeed.” (Proverbs 15:22)
The same holds true today. A healthy counseling relationship provides a potent lab for examining our God-given emotions, and for practicing new ways to respond. Say you arrive angry that the unusually heavy traffic made you late for your counseling appointment. Anger may be the most conspicuous, but under the frustration, you and your therapist may identify several undercurrents at play:
Embarrassment for arriving late, if you grew up told that you are bad for making mistakes, that responsible people are never late.
Concern that you are wasting your money, and wasting your and your counselor’s (poignantly irreplaceable) time, when both resources could have been better spent.
Low self-esteem. You may feel guilty for using family resources for your own mental health, as though you don’t deserve to be cared for in this way.
Helplessness. The traffic may serve as a proxy for other situations you face that are outside your control. Knowing you are only responsible for your actions is infuriating at times.We all want the harmony and goodness left behind in the Garden of Eden. Paul says he is able to “do all things through Christ who strengthens” him but if 2 Corinthians 11 is any indication, he certainly dealt with his share of conflicts. If any follower of Christ “deserved a break,” Paul did.
“I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble and I do not burn with indignation?”
This same Apostle, Paul, who has “seen it all” and no doubt been tempted to numb his pain, tells the Ephesians (5:18) not to “get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless actions.” This aligns with Jesus’ exhortation: “Constantly be on your guard so that your hearts will not be loaded down with self-indulgence, drunkenness and the worries of this life, or that day (of Christ’s return) will take you by surprise.” (Luke 21:34)
The skilled Christian counselor will model our Lord’s unconditional love, albeit imperfectly, wanting the best for you and unwilling to play destructive head games. Imagine learning from this therapist, creating a new lifestyle of giving others the benefit of the doubt, coming at each relationship deliberately constrained by the “bond of peace.”
This stance is now possible since Christ broke the yoke of slavery to selfishness off of us. We’re free from sin, free to live with His honor our highest goal, leaving the outcome of each interaction to Him.
Righteous anger signals what is important and seeks to protect others. As a new creature in Christ, emotions need not hijack your behavior, taking you back to using. “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” (Proverbs 26:11)
Sin is ultimately the “same old same old” but now that you are reborn you have far more options. Heed the emotional “check engine” warning of anger by examining your motives. Grab the sense of injustice, the wrongness of sin, and in prayer, throw them down at the feet of our King who handles all things well.
“Sulky”, Courtesy of Troy Spoelma, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Cold Day”, Courtesy of Nils Leonhardt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Apprehensive”, Courtesy of Rohan G, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Wistful”, Courtesy of Pawel Szvmanski, Unsplash.com, CC0 License