Anger Abroad

by Jonathan Trotter on September 24, 2014

Two friends were planning to meet for lunch one day when one called to cancel, stating that she had a terrible headache. This wasn’t a typical headache, and it hurt badly. Her friend admitted that she too had a horrendous headache, and suggested they go to the ER together. (This is just one step beyond going to the bathroom together.)

They showed up at triage and told their stories, grimacing through the pain. They were ushered to separate rooms, placed on various monitors, and examined. The first friend was treated for mild dehydration and sleep deprivation. She was told to sleep more, drink more water and less coffee. (They told her that her symptoms were consistent with a condition called “parenthood.”) She was released the same day, terribly discouraged; she really liked coffee.

The second friend was examined and immediately transferred to the operating room for emergency brain surgery. She was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and spent the next week recovering in the critical care unit.


Anger as a Symptom

Both women had hurting heads. Both wanted to find the cause, and both were helped, although the interventions were very different.

Like the headaches in the story, anger is a symptom, and we need to pay attention to it. I see a lot of missionaries wrestling with anger, but I don’t hear a lot of missionaries talking about it. I’d like to change that.

As a symptom, anger points to something. It doesn’t necessarily point to something massive or exceptionally unhealthy, but it might. Ignoring the symptom of anger is very risky, and the stakes are high. Unresolved, unaddressed anger will hurt you and those around you.

In our example above, one lady’s pain came from easily-addressed, easily-fixed factors (drink more water, sleep more, get a babysitter). For the second lady, however, treating her pain required expert care and plenty of time. Some of us may just need a holiday (preferably on a beach, with ice cream). Others may need to consult with someone who really knows what they’re doing — someone who’s skilled enough to ask the right questions, to probe, to help diagnose.

Some might say, “Wait, anger can be holy and righteous.” Yes, that’s true. But when I experience anger, either my own or another person’s, it is very seldom holy and righteous. And honestly, I think the anger exemption is usually applied too liberally. If you disagree, let’s meet for a courteous discussion in the comment section below. For now, suffice it to say that when Jesus faced the greatest injustice of all time — the most heinous crime ever committed against the most innocent of victims — he responded with love, not anger, saying “Father, please forgive them.”


Peaceful Missionaries?

What do you think of these statements?

“Missionaries are some of the most peaceful people I know; they really seem to have figured out how to seek peace and pursue it.”

“Overseas workers are good at letting the peace of God rule in their hearts.”

Has that been your experience? Yeah, me neither. I think we’d NEVER use the word “peaceful” to describe ourselves or our coworkers. And I think that’s really, really sad. But anger’s not the problem. Anger’s the symptom that points to the problem. So I’d like us to pause and ask, “Where is our anger coming from? What’s going on under the surface of our souls?”

Often, the ones who don’t show anger just bury it. And then, like other negative emotions we’re not too fond of, it bubbles up. Like the deepwater oil rig in the Gulf, something blows, and black tarry stuff explodes from the deep and ruins paradise (or Florida).


Why So Angry?

Sometimes, we’re angry at our spouses who dragged us here. We’re angry at God for calling us here. We’re angry at teammates who stay here. We’re angry at the churches who sent us here — “they’re just so mono-cultural and ethno-centric and don’t understand what it’s like here.”

We’re angry at nationals who live here because they just won’t respond to THE AMAZING GOOD NEWS THAT GOD IS LOVE!

We’re angry at organizations that issue directives from comfy offices in comfy cities that smell nice and have green space and are nothing like here. We’re angry at the traffic, the corruption, the instability, the injustice.

Maybe we’re angry at our children who don’t like it here. Or maybe we’re angry at ourselves for bringing them here.

The tricky thing is, we know we’re not supposed to feel anger at those things. And since being angry at those things is not always socially or religiously acceptable, we find a “safe” receptacle for our anger. We act on our anger in places no one sees. With people who can’t get away.

Please hear me on this. I’m not saying that being angry makes you a bad person. I am saying that if anger is part of your normal daily routine, you need to pause and assess your symptoms. What’s really going on? Where’s the anger coming from? From wounded pride? Traumatic past events that inflicted deep pain? Fear of failure?

Doctors love to ask about symptoms. Why? Because symptoms are crumbs on the trail to diagnosis.

Are you willing to follow the crumbs? The next time you feel anger rising up inside your chest? Are you willing to ask, “Where is this coming from?” Are you willing to sit down with a good listener and say, “Every time xyz happens, I get really angry.” Are you willing to give the listener freedom to ask questions?

Are you willing to look for slow-burn anger? Maybe you think, “I’m not an angry person, I never yell or throw stuff.” Slow-burn anger is a favorite among Christians because it allows us to have intense feelings of anger on the inside without showing the world (or our church) how angry we really are. We have the same feelings on the inside, but we don’t show them on the outside.

We hide the burning coals of repressed anger deep in our bosom. And it destroys us from the inside out. A house will burn down just as easily from fire on the inside as fire on the outside.

We must deal with anger. The Church must deal with anger. The cost of persistent, unaddressed anger is much higher than the cost of a few counseling appointments.


The Anger Alternative

It is my heart’s cry that we would be people of peace.

People who adore the King of Kings and the Prince of Wholeness.

People who know what it feels like to Rest in the presence of the Almighty.

People who believe, deep in our souls, that His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.


I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. ~ John 14:27 (NLT)


I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world. ~ John 16:33 (MSG)


Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. ~ Matthew 11:28-30 (MSG)


For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. ~ Isaiah 9:6 (NLT)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Jonathan Trotter

Jonathan is a missionary in Southeast Asia, where he provides pastoral counseling at a local counseling center. He also serves as one of the pastors at an international church. Before moving to the field with his wife of sixteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years. He enjoys walking with people towards Jesus and eating imported Twizzlers. | | facebook: trotters41 | twitter: @trotters41
  • Laura Wegener Paxton

    As a counselor, when I see someone who is terribly angry, I know to look underneath the anger to see what the root is…because anger is what we call a “secondary emotion”. Unmet expectations, frustration, unresolved relational problems, underlying depression, and any number of other issues add up to lead to anger. Talking about the anger is a GREAT start, and necessary…because if it is not talked about, it only becomes worse.

    • Definitely.

      And I would add that with the amount of grief and loss that internationally mobile families face, we can’t overlook the possibility that anger is connected to grief–especially for men. Anger is often the only socially acceptable emotion for men, unfortunately. “Be a man!” “Real men don’t cry!” I literally heard these things said at a gathering recently, where I knew for sure that some of the men had suffered extreme trauma, and needed desperately to heal, not stuff it down some more. And yet this was the message, a lifelong message about how to be a man.

      I think there’s usually a reason for the anger. It’s not healthy to live with long-term, but there’s a reason. “Anger is a signal”–pay attention. It means something, and not just that you’re a bad person who needs to not be angry. It means something’s wrong. Sometimes something on the outside needs to change, sometimes something on the inside.

      Thanks for this, Jonathan.

      • Kay, it is so sad that “stuffing it down” is seen as healing in so many circles! As always, thanks for your insights. And thanks for making the connection, which I believe is very real, between anger and grief.

    • “Secondary emotion.” Wow, thanks for the comment, Laura! I’m so grateful for the folks out there on the front lines caring about peoples’ hearts and providing safe spaces for talking about the stuff no one wants to talk about. Blessings and peace on you and yours as you minister to the hearts of people!

  • Brian Rotert

    Hey Jonathan I love reading you and your wife’s musings on life overseas. A few months ago my wife helped “diagnose” some anger that had started to creep into my life. I was so thankful for someone who would patiently and lovingly help me figure out where it was coming from. So many missionaries don’t have someone like that. Blessings to you and your family!

    • Good to hear from you, Brian! Indeed, where would we be without patient and loving wives? So grateful!

  • Thanks for this post, I’ve been thinking of writing something that expresses my feelings on this issue for some time. I am a social worker/counselor at a residential home in Beirut – been here 5 years now.

    I can say that for the past 1.5-2 years I’ve been angry, but it wasn’t until recently that I’ve been able to figure out that it was indeed anger, and how it was impacting my relationships with my wife, staff, and the children we serve. Its a difficult thing to diagnose and there isn’t an easy root cause: we’ve experienced a lot of change recently with staff and children coming and going, program changes that impacted how we operate here, and even some childhood trauma that has surfaced up recently.

    I know there are others that are dealing with the stress and challenge of living a cross cultural life, thanks for starting this discussion!

    • So grateful for your comment, Kahlil! You’re so right in saying that it’s a difficult thing to diagnose, and often, there isn’t an easily identifiable root cause. Sometimes it takes time and digging and help. But it’s so worth it! May God guide you in your relationships and ministry and give you peace.

  • Josh

    Anger is a spiritual stronghold. People have spiritual strongholds because they have yet to actually believe the truth of God about themselves in the situation the stronghold is flaring up. Why am I angry? because I don’t believe he is in control and he is the judge and I am just to be his child. Creation waits for these sons who know who they are to be revealed.

    • Hey there, Josh! Thanks so much for joining the conversation here. It seems from your comment that you’re saying all anger is a sin, and results from a refusal to believe the truth. If a person simply believed the right things (God is in control, etc.), anger would vanish. Is that an accurate restatement? If so, I’d have to respectfully (and without anger) disagree. : ) I’d love to continue this dialogue, but I’ll wait for a response to see if I’m on the right track. Thanks again, and happy Friday!

  • Pingback: Anger Abroad | The Trotter Family()

  • Thank you for addressing this. I returned a few months ago from spending a year in Uganda. I was totally caught off guard by the amount of anger I had to deal with while I was there, and I did suppress a lot of it. I still haven’t dealt with a lot of it, I guess because I’m not sure where to start. I’ve kind of put it on the back burner. (But I know it needs to be addressed!) Perhaps this has helped me start that journey. Thank you!

    • Thanks for your honesty here, Natalie. I think many of us are in the same boat; we’re initially caught off guard by the intensity of our feelings, and then we do what we suppose is the spiritual thing to do, we suppress it. There are some great debriefing tools (and retreats) out there. If your organization or ministry doesn’t recommend anything, you might want to check out Missions Training International in Colorado Springs (if you’re in the States). I’ve had several friends go through their weeklong debrief and renewal and they said it was excellent. Let me know if you’d like any other ideas or recommendations. Peace!

      • In preparing for the field my organization sent me to MTI, which was a great experience. Although I am still in the field I have heard stories from former colleagues that debriefed with MTI and they all gave it a thumbs up. I don’t know if my sending agency has moved from MTI, but I think we also use a program/group called CIT – they might have something worth checking out as well.

  • Brandy Gainor

    I’ve struggled with anger for a few years it started a few years even before I moved overseas. Uprooting Anger by Robert Jones has been an incredible book and resource to me as I look and explore my anger and prayerfully work to fight it in a healthy way. Thanks for the post. It is such an issue in so many of our hearts and lives. I think the overseas life simply squeezes us hard and our sin shows itself when we’re squeezed and stressed to our limits.

    • Thanks for the book rec, Brandy! I heard a long-termer here say that “the mission field will expose any chink in your armor, so be ready.” Perhaps that’s just another way of saying “the overseas life simply squeezes us hard and our sin shows itself when we’re squeezed and stressed to our limits.” So true. Thanks for sharing!

  • Pingback: Run Away! Run Away! (And Other Conflict Styles)()

  • Pingback: Face to face with the old man | Plenty of Room()

  • Jonathon Edwards

    Good article and glad my missions director sent the link in his last letter. It is something that I am going through and don’t like what I see. Some days are wonderful and then the “ugly monster” rises and I say things (not out loud) that afterwards I feel ashamed I said them. I never was this way and have found that this sometimes has a negative effect on the ministry. Thanks again for the article.

  • Pamela Bronson

    I found this wonderful post as a link in another wonderful post by a different author, which I then lost. Do you have any record of who has linked to your blog, so I could find it? I can’t even remember exactly what it was about, but it was very encouraging. (Not that I’m getting over pneumonia and “not smart” as we say in my family.)

Previous post:

Next post: