December 5, 2020

Another Look: It Never Helps

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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.

• • •

…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.

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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.

Comments

  1. This is just what I needed to read this morning. Thank you.

    • senecagriggs says

      Sadly, anger appears to be in my D.N.A. Murderous revenge plans have too often been a part of my mental resume. It’s hard to let it go. But never have the revenge plans helped me; certainly not the anger either. And I’m quite assured God has never been supportive of my ideas for revenge.

      • Ditto. I feel anger constantly. Most of it is a sense of frustration and rage that wants to lash out, but not to hurt people, if that makes sense. Revenge rarely comes into play.

        I just want people to be better. And I want myself to be better.

      • One of my favorite moments in the Bible is this account from Luke 9:50-55:

        When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem; and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. But they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem. When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; or the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” And they went on to another village.

        Message to me: God prefers to put his power, and his anger, in his pocket.

  2. All true.

    I really struggled with Anger when I was younger. Probably the worst part of Anger is how easily it becomes disassociated; then there is just Anger hunting for a justification. It ceases to even be the useful reaction – it becomes the reaction waiting to pounce on any quasi-viable provocation. Ugh.

    Perhaps “righteous anger” worked better in the 1st century, but in the 21st century it is close to useless. For all its appeal [to me] “righteous anger” never worked. And all the advice from successful [*1] people, especially around politics, is always “play nice”, “don’t make fists”, etc…

    Modern adult life doesn’t have many bullies pushing my friends around, or for that matter, not many cave bears.

    [*1] defined as those who have had goals, desired changes, and seen them achieved.

  3. I think we live in an angry world these days. Or maybe I’m just projecting my own anger on it, I’m not sure which. Anger is compressed and strengthened in isolation and the world, maybe due to the internet as a platform for anonymous rage, seems to be ever more isolationist. I’ve heard depression described as compressed rage. Anger over the inability to change oneself or ones circumstance. Anger with nowhere to go but inside. Random thoughts here but like I said, whether it’s me or the world, the world seems angrier to me. War-like politics, religion, just driving down the street-very strident. Seething just under the surface and more often bubbling over it.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > I think we live in an angry world these days

      No. We have experienced the most peaceful and safest decades in all of known human history. Especially in the United States where violent crime is way down and life is especially safe.

      > he internet as a platform for anonymous rage, seems to be ever more isolationist.

      We, or many, people are every more [self-]isolated. What is happening is we are poisoning ourselves; creating silos of despair.

      >the world seems angrier to me.

      How much of that could be because we are not IN IT?

      I imagine Denathor sitting on this thrown, in his dark hall, listening to Worm Tongue and wringing his hands in despair. Replace the thrown with an easy chair and Worm Tongue with a TV/tablet/laptop. The angry world you perceive is a lie.

      • First we had CNN broadcasting non-stop war to us.

        Then we had the rise of talk radio broadcasting non-stop hate to us.

        Now we have the Internet broadcasting non-stop fear to us.

        Yup.

        • Shows like Jerry Springer are utterly based on the rage between dysfunctional people. That’s promoted as Americana. Then the whole political discourse is as venomous as I’ve ever seen it and I’m 56 so that’s a fair sample. I’ve read about some I haven’t lived through. Radio is just an outpouring of bile in many cases. Finally, yes, war has been ever present for 15 years, enough to create an underlying tension in society at large. Maybe I’m just dreaming this stuff and projecting it but I think it’s an angrier society than it was a generation ago.

      • Technically it was Theoden who listened to Wormtongue. Denethor had his own fear issues.

      • Life being safe and lower crime rates may mean that the real bad actors have been better impeded or helped to see alternatives to their violence. I’m referring to the average Joes and Marys who would never consider acting out a murderous impulse but who nonetheless experience frustration and rage more than in the past while simply driving down the road or doing the dishes.
        Afraid I’m not familiar with Denathor or Worm-Tongue but I will say that my observations are mostly of the world around me that I live in as opposed to what passes for reality on the internet. My internet experience is, by and large, reading a few emails and checking out IMonk. I don’t think it skews my vision of things because I don’t have much time for it. You are making the point though. “Silos of despair”. Good title for a book. Isolation feeds anger. Now of course one need not be submersed in internet anger to see through anger colored glasses. I said that from the start. If I’m angry then everyone looks angry. There may be many people who live in a peaceful world who wouldn’t have the foggiest idea what I’m going on about but I can only go by what I see. I generally see more aggression in myself and my world that I must contend with and wonder how these various factors may be helping that along. It’s true it may not be as bad as I imagine.

    • That Other Jean says

      ChrisS, I think you’re right. The world may not be a more polarized place than it used to be, but the anger of the world is brought into our homes by modern media every day–every hour, if we choose to look–so that it fills our lives. Good news isn’t news, so we rarely see the good that happens along with the violent and terrible.

      No wonder we feel under threat so often. Anxiety leads to anger, and a search for someone to blame, and we have all too many choices, from the people in big cities who don’t look or think enough like us to make us comfortable, to people fleeing violence in their own countries, who bring their own ideas and customs with them and don’t quite understand ours yet, to people in political parties in our own country who think differently and vote differently from the way we do. There are more than enough targets for our anger, and a 24/365 media with hours and hours to fill, will endlessly point them out.

      I don’t know how to cope with this torrent of anger-stoking news, except to recognize it for what it is–bad news, concentrated, and beamed straight into your life, over and over. Perhaps there are a few principles we could apply: different does not necessarily mean bad; some thinks I cannot fix; anger doesn’t generally help, especially if I can do nothing about whatever is making me angry; try to be patient with other people. None of these ideas will make our anger disappear, but I would be happy to see it diminish.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > people fleeing violence in their own countries, who bring..

        Amazing Food! 🙂

        > I don’t know how to cope with this torrent of…

        Turn it off? Media consumption is not involuntary. Never has there been more options for being informed.

        • Amazing food. Yes. It’s one of many reasons why I have to live near suburbs. I can’t stand white suburban bland food. And the most American I get is burgers, and even then, it better be a damn good burger.

          • …live near city

            I’m still very angry about the soup, and now I’m being made to feel like an idiot by my IT manager because I found a problem and he’s arguing against it.

          • That Other Jean says

            I live in a small city with a decent variety of amazing food from a number of cultures, but not big enough to support food trucks. The “threat” of taco trucks on every corner? Bring it on!

            • Adam Tauno Williams says

              Indeed. My city just liberalized food truck regulation; so they don’t need permits and all bother of what not. Suddenly they are everywhere – it is AWESOME! Now when I am at the train station at 5:30AM and I realize I forgot to get something from the bakery – FOOD TRUCKS, salvation.

            • … and other food trucks, like there are in Hawaii… Husband and I had some of the best food ever from the food trucks when we visited daughter in Hawaii last year… OMG!-good!

              Dana

    • Seems angrier to me, too, Chris. Divisiveness and shock-jock rants are everywhere.

  4. My experience has been that anger is the “cover emotion” that masks something deeper that is the ***real*** problem, which is usually a threat that has to do with how I perceive my identity. I find that the more I look (when I am successful at looking…), the more likely it is that I can trace the anger back to something for which I shame myself, and tell myself that because I am like this (whatever it is) I cannot be loved. Of course, there is always the piece of it that blames someone else; if only *they* would change, then I wouldn’t feel the way I feel – meaning that I wouldn’t have to look at the swamp that is inside me with all the discomfort and disillusionment about myself that brings up for me.

    It’s never easy, but it has become a bit easier since I have come to believe that God is truly good, and been in a very non-condemning church environment.

    Lord, have mercy.

    Dana

    • Dana, I think you are exactly right about the real problem. I have an issue with anger just like an alcoholic does with booze. However, when I became a Christian and especially when I became “Godly” (ha, ha) I had to mask that anger or relabel it. One of the hardest things I had to do was to go back and explore the root and reality of my anger and realize that first it still haunts me and second it is due to fears of disrespect or rejection. Now, even though I’ve been a Christian for 45 years, I am no less of an angry person. But at least now, I have insight and have to try and control my words and thoughts, knowing that they are not healthy. Yes, there is a place for the human emotion of anger, like a little salt on the meat. But no one lives on salt (okay, maybe a few). I used to put a little meat on my salt.

  5. Someone turned my crock pot soup from high to low. Now the veggies in it won’t be cooked in time for company lunch.

    Anger? I’m livid. You do not mess with someone’s cooking. Period.

    Deep breaths.

  6. I have always disliked being angry, and I try to avoid it whenever I can. The problem with that is that my usual response is to try to get away physically or distance myself emotionally from whatever or whoever is making me angry. That doesn’t work too well when it comes to maintaining healthy relationships. It’s hard to connect in a loving way with people while wearing body armor or just staying back out of firing range.

  7. Burro [Mule] says

    Anger is the only strong emotion men are allowed to exhibit in the dominant Northern European-derived American culture, at least outside of a sporting event. That leads to a lot of angry men.

    That said, I’d rather face an angry man than an angry woman.

    • Something I observed living in an Arab community, is that they (men and women) can have a total melt down like they are just about to pull your heart out through your nostrils and beat you to death with it, and then in a few minutes, when they are over it, invite you to dinner and tell you that you are wonderful. Maybe we have lost the ability to not let the sun go down on our anger but us Nort. Eurp. men keep it and let it distill into something horrible.

  8. God gets angry, and a whole lot of Christians have used that as justification for our own anger.

    However. God’s anger is tempered by his other characteristics—love, patience, grace, compassion. Whereas we don’t let anything get in the way of our anger. We just label it as justified or “righteous,” and tear in.

    • This! Yes, the difference between God’s (and Jesus’) anger and ours is…

      His is anger is always perfectly timed, perfectly just, etc. etc. Ours will NEVER be. Even if we think “Oh, God would want me to be angry with this,” well…probably not.

    • If God IS love,
      if the Trinity is sufficient among themselves for everything,
      then how can God change toward us, “loving” us one minute and being “angry” with us the next? I became convinced some time ago that our perception of God’s “anger” is our own experience of frustration at how we are out of communion with God and how that manifests in our lives, or otherwise is a way to explain something we don’t understand, or make sense out of life not going the way we want it to, or likening the ways our parents hurt us to God our perception of our relationship with God.

      “Sin” is not a matter of forensic morality; it is always relational – the “missing the mark” of the way we were made to relate to God and others. I can see God being angry at the things that make us miss the mark, but not with us, no.

      Dana

      • Dana,
        I tend to think, or like to believe, that God is angry at the parent who abuses his child. It seems to me that such anger is not a denial of love for the abuser, but a prerequisite of love for the victim. Neither would the anger mean that God has written the abuser off; but it would mean that God is paying attention to the depth of suffering of the victim, and indeed of the abuser, and is feeling anger as part of a relationally appropriate response to the suffering and the situation. None of this would mean that God is controlled by anger, or is vengeful, but that he is caring of the existential reality that before him. The examples of Jesus’ occasional anger in the NT would mean that such a response is not incompatible with God’s nature or character, if we take the Incarnation seriously, or at least that’s what I think.

        • I think I could say that God is angry with all the things that made the abuser get to the place where they were abusing.

          D.

  9. Peace From The Fringes says

    Something I heard years ago that has stuck with me and held true in most cases: “Scratch anger, and you find fear”.

  10. I’d like a follow-on to this post for people who display their anger in THIS way:

    Passive-aggressive.

    (“Oh, I’m not angry.” Takes his toys and goes home.)

  11. Anger is an energy…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zN-GGeNPQEg

    ….May the road rise with you….

  12. In my youth, my friends and I spoke of my father as the Wrath of God, but looking back he was a paragon of peace and calm compared to what I carried around a good part of my life. It was not until my fifties that I understood how intense and pervasive my anger was. Anger management just goes so far. It has only been since I started practicing contemplative prayer that I have really made significant progress with it.

    And while contemplative prayer can help disclose the depth of the problem, I have found that the only way to effectively deal with bouts of anger, and other unwelcome emotions as well, is what is called welcoming prayer. It seems counter-intuitive to welcome something like a sudden attack of rage, but if you resist it, you give it your strength. While you may temporarily push it back down, it does not go away, and it comes back even stronger. If you welcome it, something like blessing your enemy, you disarm it, and you can then release it in love in a way that actually lightens the load. Not a magic pill, you may have to do this over and over, but each time you are stronger and the intrusive emotion is weaker. There is an end in sight, whereas the end in fighting it is post traumatic stress disorder, and likely depression or murderous rage.

    I still find myself being triggered, especially in this current world-wide polarization and ongoing battle. If able to step back from it, often it will be found that these triggers are intentional and meant to produce rage and division, which then reproduces itself on and on. If you can avoid the trap, it may help to realize you are being played for a sucker. Welcoming prayer actually works. It is a technique, a practice, not an intellectual concept. The best people I have found to explain it are Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault.