A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control. Proverbs 29, verse 11.
I’m a Civil War buff; have been for years. I’ve read dozens of books about it, seen any number of movies, have visited most of the major battlefields, and I even have an 1858 Union musket hanging over my mantle in formerly Confederate Texas. Like so many other people, I’m fascinated by General Robert E. Lee. He was perhaps the most able general ever produced by the United States military, he was gentrified and ‘connected,’ and he was both manly and just.
He also had a volcanic temper. Like his hero (and marital relative, George Washington), General Lee had a terrible temper that he worked all his life to control. For most of the time he was measured and stoic, able to keep his spirits in check and not let on what he was feeling. When he got energized, though, and when the temper took over it was memorable. His officers knew well to avoid him when he was enraged. Lee would become red in the face and unleash at whoever or whatever was tormenting him in the moment.
Lee was an educated and deeply devout man. He regularly prayed at the start and end of every day, even praying for his Union enemies after battle. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that this verse was one which he took to heart. There’s good reason for it because it’s good advice for the general and the foot-soldier alike.
Think about it: it feels SO GOOD to really blow off steam and let your temper fully vent, raging, swearing, cursing, yelling, maybe even coming to blows. It’s like blowing all the steam out of an over-stressed system, letting the release valve blow and letting the pressure release explosively. Things may get broken, people may be hurt and offended and some of the damage may be irreparable, but man does it feel better to let it all out!
That is, until you step back to view that damage. If the first thought to cross your mind isn’t ‘what have I done,’ then you should check your conscience (and maybe have your head checked). No one of godly conscience could view the full venting of their temper and not immediately feel both guilt and foolishness at it. What good is there in breaking things or punching holes in the wall? What good comes from offending people needlessly, and more than that, what kind of person would so deliberately, callously hurt someone out of selfish anger? Did it help to yell, scream, swear, curse, rage and fume? Was in necessary at all? Is that look of brokenness in your loved ones’ eyes worth it? Don’t you feel like a fool? And if you hit someone? I’m old fashioned enough to live my life believing that any man who hits a woman in anger is no man at all.
General Lee knew these things (so did General Washington). They knew their Scripture and they understood why this was more than just good advice. But notice a few things that I’m betting the good Virginia gentlemen also noticed. Notice that the verse doesn’t say “a wise man doesn’t get angry.” Anger happens, and properly channeled, properly tuned, that isn’t a bad thing. We’ve talked about righteous anger, and about being wronged, and that it’s ok to be angry…just not to let it fully and destructively vent. The wise man gets angry, but knows how to handle it: the way God would want us to. Christ got angry, but He channeled it properly, used it instructively, even when forcefully clearing out the moneychangers.
Notice, too, that the verse doesn’t say “the wise man keeps his anger under control.” It says “keeps himself.” That’s a small but important difference. Yes, in controlling our temper we control our anger; too true. But underlying that is the idea that, in controlling anger, we are controlling ourselves. The anger is what it is and, quite honestly, it can spin out of control even for ‘good’ people. Only by controlling ourselves can we reign it back or keep it in altogether. Besides, we are in charge of ourselves. God put you in charge of you, and in all truth, you’re both the only person here in charge of you and the only person you’re really in charge of. I really only control me. That’s a lesson God would want us to remember, whether we’re controlling how we react to anger, happiness, temptation, satisfaction, hunger, or extremes of temperature. Keep ourselves under control and the emotions become subject to us, not the other way around.
I think General Lee must have known these things. He was known to be a fair and just man. One time, a soldier, guilty of some infraction, was brought to Lee. “Do not be afraid, son. Here you will receive justice,” was what the General told the scared young man. “Sir, that is what I am afraid of,” was the young soldier’s reply. It’s easier to be fair and just when you know and exercise the limits of your self-control, and that’s a Godly thing to do. General Lee did it. So could you and I.