Road rage found me early. I hadn’t been driving long—just weeks since my 16th birthday—but I had taken every opportunity to adjust my mirrors and then hit the gas. On my way home from a friend’s house one afternoon that summer, air conditioner and music blasting, I swerved a little wide from the turn lane toward a passing car, which infuriated its driver. I was oblivious to this fact until, at the next stoplight, he was standing at my door, hitting the glass and shouting.
“Get out of the car!” he said, and I flinched as his fist struck again. “Get out of the car!”
I was terrified and eyed the lock. “You almost hit me back there—twice. Come out here!”
I mustered a shaken “No, I’m sorry,” watching for the light to change.
“You better be more careful—if you do that again, I’ll kill you,” he said with an expletive and a final fist against the window.
He was no more than 10 years older than me—and in my mind, he’s forever in his 20s, standing there in a white T-shirt, the August sun haloing his shaved head. Sometimes when waiting for the light to change these 23 years later, I still see him lingering there in the periphery. He had, no doubt, been angry for a long time. But why? What had happened along the way? How does rage come to exist so close to the surface of a person’s heart and mind?
I’d like to say I never made the same mistake while driving in the two decades since, but I’ve had many other near brushes (and seen plenty of middle fingers). And I’ve noted the way my own ego swells over what another driver has done. I’ve purposely blocked lane changes, thrown up my hands in disgust, ridden bumpers, and slowed down. I’ve done it all, and more in my heart besides. But this is not an essay about driving etiquette. And it’s only partially about anger. What I can’t stop thinking about is the broken part in me that feels the need—even the desire—to punish others over the pettiest of things.
What I can’t stop thinking about is the broken part in me that feels the need—even the desire—to punish others over the pettiest of things.
I understand the anger that burns against exploitation and injustice. The issues surrounding all forms of oppression—the suffering and lives lost—warrant a reckoning and tangible repentance. I will not judge the rage or the desire to punish felt by those who have carried and endured hurt for generations. It’s the lesser anger that worries me—the way this self-entitled, blindly proud rage boils low beneath the lid of respectable behavior. I’m concerned about the readiness some of us feel to damn others over the smallest of perceived wrongs. The fact that we can publish what often amount to frivolous complaints in a few taps on a smartphone intensifies the urgency to face this soul sickness we’ve normalized.
Dr. Stanley said in Jesus: Our Perfect Hope:
“In the world today, it may seem normal to air your grievances as long and as loudly as your heart desires. You may tell yourself you’re standing for what’s right and prevailing in an important battle. But the truth is, when you spout off uncontrollably, you’re really losing—hurting yourself, others, and even Jesus’ work through you.
“Friend, it is always better to act like Christ in every situation: remaining patient, being loving, understanding the hurts of others, forgiving freely, and praying for those who persecute you. In that way, you’re always sure to win the more important war for the greater kingdom—the one that really counts.”
For those standing up against oppression and the deep anger they feel over how they’ve been treated, we should listen to what they have to say and pray for God to answer their heart’s cry and bring peace. And we should participate in the solution that sets things right.
You may tell yourself you’re standing for what’s right. But when you spout off uncontrollably, you’re really losing—hurting yourself, others, and even Jesus’ work through you.
For those of us struggling against our own ego and entitlement, the kind of self-control Dr. Stanley alludes to above is first and foremost a work of the Holy Spirit in our life. But make no mistake: It’s also labor we must undertake in collaboration with Him. Our efforts are necessary works in the process of sanctification—a way of demonstrating the sincerity of our faith in Christ, lest we become living proof of the apostle James’s point that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20 NKJV).
As Christians, confident in God’s love for us (Rom. 8:35-39), we of all people should feel equipped to interrogate anything that keeps us from growth, including the sources of our anger and the desire to punish. As with the man who pounded my car window, the true source of our anger is not likely to be the thing in front of us but something in our heart. An impediment we might previously have justified as normal or been unable to spot. I use the word interrogate because it conveys a sense of intentionality sustained through many obstacles. And intentionality is needed because rooting out the complex motives and reasons for why we act the way we do requires patience and even diligence, as we ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth. It may be uncomfortable at times, particularly when what’s revealed to us is our own pride. Yet it’s impossible to truly walk in the way of love without this work. And if we ignore it, the abundant life Jesus promised we’d experience here and now will remain out of reach—like a plentiful land we can see across an expanse of water, too far to reach without help.
The wonderful thing is that we haven’t been left to journey that way alone: God Himself goes with us in the person of His Spirit. And He gives us brothers and sisters, fellow travelers on the way to fullness, to help us see and name what we cannot. It’s only through humble listening, repentance, and mutual submission to one another that the Holy Spirit will complete this work in us (Phil. 1:6). It’s time we put to rest our petty distractions and seek the liberation the world—including us—so desperately needs.
As Christians, confident in God’s love for us, we of all people should feel equipped to interrogate anything that keeps us from growth.
When I mentally replay that scene at the traffic light from a different angle, I imagine the man leaving the car door wide open as he bounded out toward me, shouting. And in order to see my face, he would have had to look through a reflection of his own—like a double-exposure photograph. He would have seen a little bit of himself in me, and yet, that’s precisely what he missed as his knuckles hit the glass. It’s also what we overlook when dealing with one another—how alike we really are: prone to making mistakes but capable of engendering such beauty.
It’s an active choice we make, striving to see one another in our fullness. That is, each of us bearing the image of a God who is a community of three persons. The God who, though He would have every reason to burn with anger, burns instead with love.
Illustration by Adam Cruft