Anger, anxiety and trusting God

I never intended for controlling feelings of frustration and anger to be the theme of my prayers and writing for the past few weeks, but ever since the subject first came up I haven’t been able to avoid it. I didn’t realize how often I let my Irish temper get the best of me until I tried to work on it — and, boy, do I have a lot of work to do! But I had a major breakthrough this weekend that has brought me great peace that I thought I’d share in case anyone else finds it helpful:

A couple weeks ago when I first started writing on this topic, I stumbled across this line in St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life:

With the single exception of sin, anxiety is the greatest evil that can happen to a soul.

Wow! Those were such strong words that they really stuck out in my mind. I didn’t see that as directly related to the topic at hand, so I moved on and just made a mental note to review that passage again some day.

Meanwhile, Friday night I found myself in a state of being just furious. I was trying to get somewhere, I was running late, it was really dark, and Google Maps had taken me to the wrong place. After circling around a poorly lit neighborhood for a while, I realized that I was going to be so late that I would simply miss the event. I’d gotten all dressed up, put on makeup, set aside a bunch of work I needed to get done, told my friend I would be there, got everything in place to leave the kids with my husband…all for nothing. I believe “livid” is a good word to describe how I felt.

I recalled Abigail‘s recent advice to look past anger to focus on what’s really bothering you. I realized that I was so angry because I felt totally out of control: I couldn’t turn back time to not be late; I couldn’t guarantee that my friend wouldn’t be offended that I didn’t make it; I couldn’t be sure that I would get to all the things I needed to do that evening, that this lost time wouldn’t be a big setback to my to-do list; I couldn’t throw a brick through a window at Google’s headquarters to show them what I think of their mapping application. I’m kidding about the last one (kind of), but you get the idea. As I went through this list of what was really bothering me, I recalled that seemingly unrelated St. Francis de Sales quote I’d stumbled across, and realized that anxiety was at the root of my feelings of anger. Not just in this situation, but almost always.

When I lose my temper with the kids it’s not usually on days that I’m all caught up on housework and things are otherwise under control; it’s when I feel like their misbehavior is totally derailing something else I’m trying to do, e.g. putting away laundry or getting us out of the house or getting lunch ready. When I get really frustrated with some little thing like a person at the grocery store blocking the aisle, it’s not usually when my day is otherwise running smoothly; it’s on the days that I feel like I have way too little time and way too much to do. And so on and so on. As I thought through these examples, I realized that all of this — pretty much every time I end up losing my temper about something — comes down to one thing, and one thing only:

I don’t trust God.

To use my example from Friday night, I felt like the weight of the entire situation was on my shoulders alone: I had to control everything. I alone had to make it right. Heck, I alone had to decide what making it right would even involve. I was extremely anxious because of this self-imposed pressure, and my anxiety had manifested itself as frustration and anger. I had a vague recollection of something else St. Francis de Sales had said in his section on anxiety:

When you perceive that anxiety begins to affect your mind, recommend yourself to God. Resolve to do nothing that your desire insists on until your mind has regained peace, unless it is something that cannot be put off. In that case you must meekly and calmly try to check the current of your desires and restrain and moderate them as much as possible.

So I decided to pause and turn to God before anything else. Specifically, I decided to trust God. I pulled over on the side of the road to stop and think for a moment. I had so many options whirling around in my head: “Should I try to find the church or am I too late?! Should I just go home?! Should I do some errands first?! Should I call my friend?!” I set all that aside and decided to make a conscious decision to trust God, and to seek a state of calmness and meekness. For all I knew maybe there was some big reason this all happened; and, even if it was just a screwup on my part, God could surely make it right if I calmly, humbly sought his will for me in this situation.

For brevity’s sake I’ll skip the details of what happened next, but suffice it to say that I was led down a totally unexpected path that culminated in a wonderful experience that left me feeling very close to God. It ended up being one of the best, most spiritually fulfilling nights I’ve ever had. Yet I would have missed it all if I’d insisted on blocking out God’s voice with my noisy thoughts of anxiety and anger.

St. Francis de Sales writes:

If it is out of love for God that the soul seeks escape from its troubles, it will do so patiently, meekly, humbly, and calmly and look for deliverance rather by God’s providence that its own efforts…If it seeks deliverance out of self-love then, as if success depended on itself rather than on God, it will excite and wear itself out…Now if it does not immediately succeed in the way it wants it grows very anxious and impatient. Instead of removing the evil, it increases it and this involves the soul in great anguish and distress together with such loss of strength and courage that it imagines the evil it be incurable. [This] produces anxiety, and anxiety in turn produces sadness.

Every single time since that night that I’ve found my temper flaring up, it ends up boiling down feeling anxious about something, which boils down to not really trusting God. The other day I posted about trying to let go of my attachment to the sin of anger. I’ve realized that even this is rooted in a lack of trust: I will continue to find it oddly cathartic to indulge in feelings of anger and frustration as long as I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders, that it’s entirely up to me to make it right. But when I can finally get it through my head that it’s not up to me at all, that there’s really not much more for me to do here than to cultivate trust in God at each moment, then I can finally relax. I can quietly, humbly do what I need to do each day, finding peace in the knowledge that when things go wrong, God will take care of it. He’ll tell me how to proceed, as long as I’m listening.

The best prayer for me to focus on here is not, “God, show me how to stop being angry.” It’s not even, “Show me how to stop wanting to be angry.” The best prayer I can say to help with this is, “God, show me how to trust you.”

[UPDATE: A Part II to this post is here.]

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20 Responses to “Anger, anxiety and trusting God”
  1. Kristen Laurence says:

    “I didn’t realize how often I let my Irish temper get the best of me until I tried to work on it.”

    These words say so much – about you and about the spiritual life. It is only when we try to close the gates on sin that we feel the weight of the iron working against us. Life is easy when we leave those gates wide open, and you clearly are not taking the easy path.

    It really is so beautiful to “witness” your struggle as you push those gates closed. I am continually inspired and humbled. What work I have ahead of me.

  2. Literacy-chic says:

    Nice one. This is a problem I have too–in a BIG way: anxiety from not trusting God. From when I first started attending Mass, one of my favorite prayers has been “protect us from all anxiety as we wait for the coming of our Savior….” Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Jennifer, I am Jewish reading your article, and this is quite beautiful. I am having serious issues with anger and with not trusting God these days. A few hours ago I gave up and just let the problem fall in God’s hands. And then I come across your blog and see the answer: my anger is nothing more than me not trusting God. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Rebekka says:

    Wow. Just wow. I think I need to get my hands on that book. I’m not even an angry person, just nervous and twitchy. Still.

  5. Sarah says:

    This is one of the best things I’ve read in a while. Thanks.

  6. Mary Poppins NOT says:

    I think I am going to hang up my blog and just direct everyone here. You wrote what I have been feeling, only better, with more clarity and less whine.

    The anxiety -> sadness thing hit me right between the eyes. It hit so hard I am pretty sure it left a mark.

    Thank you for this series of reflections. For me, they have been quite illuminating.

  7. Jenny says:

    Thank you for this.

  8. mightymaggie.com says:

    I came to the same anxiety=not trusting God conclusion pretty recently. My anxiety manifests itself in a way I’ve sort of resigned myself to struggling with for the rest of my life, but that doesn’t mean I can’t attack the root of the problem. Which is that I, too, don’t trust God.

  9. Ellen says:

    I just found your blog today through Kate and was immediately struck by what you write.

    I have been struggling with these things too: anger/ irritability, lack of trust, being late…

    Some advice I’ve recieved is to pray the rosary and entrust the people that are the victims of my bad temper to Our Lady.

    I can’t tell you how amazed I am at what has happened. When I make myself do this, the Lord takes over. Even the tiniest act of submission on my part yeilds huge amounts of grace.

    of course, the real struggle is allowing for even that moment of surrender. (I’m Irish as well.)

  10. La gallina says:

    Thanks for the insight!

    Now, about the details… We are dying to know where you ended up that evening!:)

  11. Abigail says:

    Just the post I needed to read tonight, as I try to recover my equilibrium after completely falling off my meekness pledge yesterday. A teething child, a rough day, none of it explains why I was suddenly hollering like a Fishmongers wife to my husband about who should walk our dog.(The things I choose to get mad about are always so dumb!)

    The temper thing- really humbling about how hard I’m finding too rid it’s effects from my soul. Last night, about two hours later than I should have started, I knelt and prayed using your “dropping the wolf’s ear” image. I got clear enough to imagine putting myself at the foot of the cross and imagined that every angry word was a hammer into Christ’s wounds. That got me feeling sincere enough to offer a real appology to my husband.

    It’s so embarrasing to have such a weakness that hurts my family to this extent.

    I’m encouraged by Kristen’s comment that the when we try to close the gates of sin, that is when they feel the most heavy.

    Keep up your good work and good posts on this subject!

  12. Kiwi Nomad 2006 says:

    Describes me to scarily well… the ‘efforts’ to solve, the ‘failure’ the seeming lack of a solution.. the sadness.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jen.

  13. allyouwhohope says:

    You have no idea how that helped me. I have to admit that I don’t trust God at all, and my anger is directed at him. I’m dealing with infertility and after reading this I realize my lack of trust is really eating away at me. It’s hardening my heart and pushing me away from God, even though I think I am being faithful, attending Mass, praying, etc. But if I don’t truly trust him, none of that matters. My problem is I don’t know how to actually turn things over to him. Anyways, thank you.

  14. 'Becca says:

    Great article! I’ve been thinking hard about it for the past month and have connected it with other things I’ve learned about anger and conflict. I just worked it into an article–see link behind my name. (I don’t take comments on my site, but if you have comments I’d love to hear from you at becca@earthlingshandbook.org)

    Your site is a great inspiration to me as a religious convert (Unitarian to Episcopal), and I think some of your articles are quite helpful for secular self-improvement. Keep up the good work!

  15. anxiety remedy says:

    One should try to control their anger and anxiety. There are other ways to curb panic and anxiety attacks.

    Some other natural anxiety remedies to look into are St.John's Wort, SAMe, L-Theanine, and Tryptophan. There's also cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and programs like Panic Away and The Linden Method, to name a few. Hope this helps!

  16. Liz says:

    Yes, Jennifer; anger can be “cathartic” … a spiritual director says sometimes it’s good to ‘let it out’ rather than suppressing…so long as
    we aren’t hurting someone by our anger; sometimes in our frustrations over life; we get angry. (angry with ourselves mostly) I also read that anger is a human emotion…that stems from ‘being hurt’ … it’s normal to feel anger. It’s a human emotion. Even Jesus got so angry he overturned the tables in the temple. Sometimes we do have ‘righteous anger’ / anger over
    how another is being treated, and standing up firmly in their defense,
    anger at the sins of humanity (the actions of, not the persons) Anger such
    as this ‘expressed in a calm verbal way but with passion’ would be of the
    same type as Jesus who stood up for His Father’s house (in my opinion)

    You make a good point on seeing ‘why’ we get angry…and if what we are angry about isn’t in our control (stuck in traffic, lost, not being kinder to ourselves for being human)You are correct; a short prayer, Jesus, provide me peace; I trust in you.

    Another something I read…when feeling ‘anxious’ over life and it’s frustrations…read the Psalms. Particularly the Lamentation Psalms. WOW…
    some the words those authors expressed were really ANGER and VENTING to God. God knows we have to vent sometimes…but it was suggested to me, that if feeling ‘anger’ … read these psalms and ‘pray about our
    human-ness’ and how God sees us. He KNOWS our HEART sometimes better than we do. As long as our anger doesn’t turn to HATRED for another or others;
    God is ok with some ‘venting’ / not always but don’t be too hard on yourself. GOD KNOWS YOUR HEART…and just that ‘you do feel bad’ for the anger says more about who you are than a few temporal words.

    Just my 2 cents.

  17. Jennifer, loved your post, just a shame i didnt see it earlier! It’s really intersting how such bizarre experiences can bring us closer to God. Anger, anxiety and depression are the three core, primitive emotions. The emotions that God gave us – all other emotions are connected to these. I’ve often wondered if these emotions are sometimes there to communicate with him – to allow him to hear us. Maybe this is a bit far fetched, but the power of these emotions does intrigue me sometimes…..!

  18. Anne says:

    Yes… It’s very embarrassing for me to admit but yes, the total reason why I get so angry so much is that I forgot to trust God. I am very busy with the house chores, the kids, the planning and budgeting that I totally forgot about God. Thank you so much for sharing… I am so happy I came across this site! More powers and keep inspiring others.

  19. B says:

    Thank you for your honesty. I have struggled with my anger at God for many years now and I end up hating myself after every blow-up towards Him. Then He calls me to Him and lets me know He still loves me and is still my God. And for awhile, God & I stroll peacefully together. Until something goes wrong. And with me, it’s usually something minor, like, the toilet suddenly not flushing right. Sounds silly, yes. But it’s true. It’ll set me off with a stream of profanity directed at God for not taking care of my needs, like His Word promises. I’m a single mom and I’m trying my best to let God be my husband like His Word says, until He leads me to my earthly hubby. I get disappointed with myself for throwing my anger on God, but I don’t know what else to do with it. But I don’t like this cycle I am in ( getting angry, yelling at God, repenting, peace, then repeating the cycle). I never saw that anxiety is behind my anger, which = not trusting God. So this post has helped, but HOW does a person trust God? It may seem ridiculous, but if there were steps, or instructions on how this is actually done, it might help me. Thanks again.

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