Note from CM: Several years ago, I wrote an essay on anger. You can read the original HERE. I’ve incorporated some of that post into today’s. But I’ve also gained a few new insights on the subject since I wrote the first article. This election year, with all its angry rhetoric and turmoil, has caused me to do some self-examination once more. What I see is usually not pretty, and it often makes me wonder if I’ve progressed much at all in the battle against this deadly sin.
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…the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.
• James 1:20, NASB
In my experience, it never helps.
Anger never improves a situation. Anger doesn’t work. Anger always make things worse. And anger has a multitude of unwanted consequences besides. Anger does not enable us to take forward steps in our relationships. Instead, it sows seeds of fear, distrust, and animosity that take root quickly and become nigh impossible to dig out again. Anger hurts. Anger leaves marks. Anger expressed can accelerate rapidly to emotional, verbal, and sometimes physical abuse. Anger held within and allowed to simmer can lead to withdrawal, alienation, and neglect. Anger turned on oneself can spiral down into depression, self-hatred, self-destructive habits or even actual suicide.
According to Jesus, anger toward another is the emotional equivalent of murder.
You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Matthew 5:21-22)
Anger and its consequences led to murder in the one of the Bible’s earliest stories (Genesis 4). That’s when God asked Cain the question we should all ask ourselves: “Why are you angry?” (4:6). Anger is the first condition of the human heart and experience that Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21ff). Moses, the Lawgiver whose laws Jesus speaks of in this sermon, was kept from entering the Promised Land because of unbelief that exploded in anger (Numbers 20:12). When the Apostle Paul wrote lists of vices for the ethical formation of his congregations, anger and related faults are always listed prominently (see, for example, Colossians 3:8).
“…there is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 151)
One source that helps me meditate on the perils of anger is Dallas Willard’s discussion of the topic in his book, The Divine Conspiracy.
When we trace wrongdoing back to its roots in the human heart, we find that in the overwhelming number of cases it involves some form of anger. Close beside anger you will find its twin brother, contempt. Jesus’ understanding of them and their role in life becomes the basis of his strategy for establishing kingdom goodness. It is the elimination of anger and contempt that he presents as the first and fundamental step toward the rightness of the kingdom heart. (DC, 147)
Willard reminds us that the emotion of anger is a natural part of human life. It is a spontaneous response that arises within us when someone or something threatens us in some fashion. It alerts us to a person or obstacle that obstructs our way or our will. Anger is an alarm within that goes off, releasing energy that enables us to resist and/or fight back against the threat. It is part of our survival instinct, and in and of itself as a simple feeling, it is a normal and useful characteristic of being human.
However, in the sinful human heart, anger cannot exist without containing some element of malice — the desire to injure, harm, or punish the ones who cross us. This is one reason why anger need not be expressed to be hurtful. Even if I simply know that someone is angry with me, it causes me pain, because I sense that person is harboring some level of ill will toward me. To some extent, I am under attack, even if the angry one says or does nothing to act on her anger.
This is one reason I so regret now the times I was angry with my children. It pains me deeply to think how frightened and under attack they must have felt just to see dad’s furious face, even if I didn’t explode in a tirade. And if in my rage I acted out and caused a scene, it must have seemed to them like an overwhelming onslaught of malicious force. Kyrie eleison!
Dallas Willard also talks about the sinful tendency to indulge our anger. We can choose to hold on to this emotion, to become angry people, carrying “a supply of anger around” with us, ready to pull it out and wield it at any moment.
Why would anyone choose to do that? Because anger often works hand in hand with another deadly sin, Pride. In our self-righteous, self-centered hearts, we believe the universe should revolve around us, that all the breaks should go our way, that people should always agree with us, cooperate with us, coddle us. When my ego gets wounded, when my autonomy is constrained, or when my agenda gets challenged, I feel I have a right to be angry. After all, it is all about me, isn’t it?
One problem with living this way, of course, is that I am only one “sun” among many, and all of us think we are the centers of our own solar systems. If I, an egocentric sinner with a sense of privilege, get mad when one of these other egocentric sinners with a sense of privilege impedes my will, what do I expect in response from them? Anger begets anger begets anger. Is it any wonder we live in such a violent world?
Willard notes that many advocate a “righteous anger” as necessary to confront and overcome injustice in our world. However, where does this lead? Consider the ever-increasing polarization of American culture over the past generation. Proponents of “blue state” positions speak with (self-)righteous indignation against “red state” position supporters, and vice versa. Since each group perceives the other as a threat, advocating against what is “right” (in our eyes), both accomplish little more than raising the ire of the opposition and the temperature in the room. It’s a futile cycle. Anger begets more anger, along with a multitude of other sins.
Anger never helps. Never. I’m convinced of it.
That is, anger by itself never helps. As I said above, anger does serve one positive purpose: it is a wake-up call. Anger is an emotion that gets our attention and gives us energy to act. However anger can only ultimately serve a positive function if, having alerted us to some danger, threat, or obscene injustice, we leave it behind and move on to more productive emotions, attitudes, and actions. Anger must be transformed into something better, something more useful, something positive and generative.
Anger can rise within us when we see a bully tormenting the defenseless, but it’s not anger that ultimately provides protection. It merely awakened us to the need, gave us a surge of energy, and led us to take responsible, loving action. Anger can surge through us when we are confronted with a situation that is clearly not right, fair, or just. Anger will only become productive if we learn how to harness its energy into a determination to find ways of making things right. It’s what we do with the anger that arises in us that matters. And many, many times, in the name of righteous anger, we behave badly.
So, when Paul says simply, “get rid of anger” (Colossians 3:8), he is exhorting us to stop thinking of anger as an answer or strategy that will promote the good. Abandon that way. It’s the wrong approach. At a certain point, anger itself must be cast off and replaced by better ways of thinking and acting.
I know what some are going to say: wrath is a part of God’s character, isn’t it? If we are made in God’s image, shouldn’t anger be considered a natural part of our character, a quality that could be “godly”? And didn’t Jesus get angry? Didn’t he speak and act in anger on occasion?
To all of this I say, yes, OK. But I’m still convinced that anger is so strong, so overwhelming, and it makes us so stupid and blind many times that the percentages of bringing good out of our angry condition are not in our favor. Some will say, but doesn’t the Bible say, “Be angry, and sin not”? Doesn’t that imply that we can be angry in non-sinful ways? Perhaps. All I can tell you is — I rarely if ever have. I can’t remember an angry moment of which I feel proud.
So what do we do with this? I can assure you that what I’m NOT going to do is give you “ten steps for overcoming anger.” If someone tries to sell you that curriculum, politely decline. There is no program, no training that will do the trick. To eliminate anger would mean we would have to cease being human. And to eradicate the sinful tendencies that corrupt our anger and make it so devastating, we would have to be perfected in sanctity. About the best I think we can ever do in practice is (1) recognize anger for the trigger that it is, (2) make a concerted effort to stop and ask what I should do with this surge of energy, and (3) try to put off our anger and find something positive to do with the energy it gave us.
Ultimately, I know I need to come back to the gospel. I need Jesus’ continual forgiveness and mercy for my anger. I need the cross. I also need Jesus’ victory over the powers of sin, his living presence with me, and the power of the Holy Spirit filling me each day. I need the resurrection, the ascension, and Pentecost. I need a family that loves and supports me, that forbears my faults, forgives my sins, and befriends me in spite of my weaknesses. I need the church. I need to hear and receive and be nourished by the gospel all the time. I need the Word and the Table. I need to remember my Baptism.
In short, I need a life with Jesus. I need the life of Jesus.
Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.