How do you deal with anger?

Pastoral commentary

by Ken Sehested


Many years ago a friend wrote to ask about how to handle anger, naming a specific incident regarding
her congregation’s skewed budget habits. Of course, the incident is not unique, and the question
of what to do with anger stretches across a wide range of personal and public contexts.
Below is her question and commentary, then my response.

Dear Ken,

I have a question on which I would really appreciate your thoughts: what is the role of human anger in God's work?

At the moment I am working through some issues surrounding anger. On one hand I often see it as part of the passion to do God's work—as a response to injustices, thus a force that gets one to work for change. However, I am also aware that people get burned in the process of (my) anger—hmm, not likely a God objective.

Our congregation’s annual meeting is on Sunday. This is the time where money decisions get made. I am angry that our congregation has, and likely will continue, to focus on maintaining our building and not take on work outside the walls of the church. There are many issues here: the congregation's lack of vision of substantial work other than bricks and mortar, the failure of the spiritual leaders of the congregation (clergy and lay) to name this and act upon it, a lack of development and feeding of spiritual issues with the congregation.

The list goes on. I will speak on Sunday to the budget and name the shortfalls I see in it, but this is something I am really angry about. I think this is a ball of tangled thread I need to unwind. I think in the process I will separate the multiple issues of anger, including the force of God's presence, acting on the side of the oppressed, and being a catalyst for change.

How have you dealt with the anger, which I assume you feel and have felt over situations of injustice and willing blindness?


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Dear Chris,

You ask a great question, about anger. From what you've described, I'd say your instincts about the appropriateness of anger are much the same as mine. I’m not sure I have anything to say which you don’t already know; but we all need reminding of what we know, so let me make a few comments.

As you note yourself, anger is always the appropriate response to injustice. I would go so far as to say that in such circumstances, it is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. (You've probably heard this quote from St. Augustine: "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.")

Unfortunately, I suspect that you and I were both reared in a religious culture that strongly discouraged the expression of anger. (Typically, females have been more repressed than males, for reasons of gender.) And we don't have many good models on appropriate expression of anger.

On the face of it, Scripture seems contradictory at this point. Jesus warned that "every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" (Matthew 5:22). Yet Jesus himself is pictured as expressing anger, particularly when he overthrew the tables in the temple. On the other hand, Paul wrote what I think is the pivotal text: "Be angry, but sin not" (Ephesians 4:26).

How do we do that? How do we avoid sin in the midst of anger?

Like you, I have had numerous experiences where I was very clear of the truth of my convictions, in the course of discussion or debate (in church contexts, in particular). What I have to constantly do is make a crucial distinction between the power of the Truth and the power of my argument.

I am well aware, in times past, when I was advocating for a particular position (not unlike the one you describe, re: the church's self-absorption with its own building), that part of the agitation I felt stemmed from fear—fear that I wasn't going to win the argument. When that happens, the fear in me gets expressed as aggression and enmity toward those with whom I'm debating; and it often provokes a response in kind: they become defensive and respond with hostility (often masked with piety, of course—which is the worst kind of hostility).

It's this latter kind of "anger" which, I believe, is sin. It's rooted in our own insecurities—ultimately, in our own shaky confidence in the power of the Gospel itself. (i.e., If we don't win the argument, evil will prevail—the attitude from which, in the extreme, wars develop.)

This is why the notion of nonviolence is so central to my theology and is slowly but surely impacting my actual behavior! Our tendencies to violence, like ground-in dirt, often takes a lot of “soaking” to loosen their grip on the fabric of our lives.

For each of us, I think, the true power of the Gospel gets expressed in the refusal to coerce, to insist that my conviction be upheld over alternative convictions. In other words, in the ability to "lose" without "losing it" (i.e., without getting angry in a sinful way). This confidence, ultimately, rests in our confidence in the Resurrection: that not even death, finally, can take away anything of essential value; for God is at the Center; that "while the moral arm of the universe is long, it bends toward justice" (one of M.L. King's favorite sayings, quoting Carlisle).

But be very clear at this point: This confidence is no justification for passivity or withdrawal. We will do our very best to speak the truth, as compassionately, as powerfully, as strategically, and as intelligently as possible.

In the end, though, even with this commitment to nonviolence, you can't help but make some people mad. Trying to always be "nice" (i.e., behaving so that no one is unhappy with you) is itself a form of self-absorption and self-preoccupation. It didn't happen for the prophets, for Jesus, for the disciples—why should you think you could do it if they failed?!

We do everything possible not to make people mad, of course—including taking on unmerited suffering without retaliation. But even at this point (as my wife is fond of saying), there's a difference between taking up the towel and basin of water (to wash feet) and being a doormat for people to wipe their feet on. The latter is never, ever a form of righteousness.

Of course, even when we already know these things (as I know you do), learning about how to "be angry, but sin not" comes from practice. Unfortunately, experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.

So, be angry, dear sister . . . but sin not.


©ken sehested @