Where do you put the anger?

Anger and the animating presence of God

by Ken Sehested

            Few topics are as ambiguous for people of faith as anger. All of us get angry from time to time. But something inside us tells us we’re not supposed to be angry—even though sometimes it feels right.

            The Bible itself seems to be ambiguous. Jesus appears to forbid it when he says “every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5:22—although a textual note adds: “Other ancient authorities insert ‘without cause’ in this verse. The rest of this text involves Jesus’ warning about insulting behavior.)

        God surely gets angry. A lot. How come God gets to, and we don’t? The Psalms, in particular, are packed full of angry statements., though we almost never read those. (For more on this, see “Angry words in the Psalms: A collection of texts.”)

        One Saturday evening a church member called my wife about worship the next morning. She had assigned him a Scripture reading.

            “I made a mistake and wrote down Psalm 109,” he said.

            “That’s the one,” Nancy said.

            “Are you sure?” he replied, “This one’s not very nice—and you want me to read this in church?”

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            Sometimes we muster the will power to “swallow” our anger. Doing that, however, is like swallowing a mouth-full of nails. It usually produces serious digestive problems. (Have you ever heard someone described as “eaten up with anger”?)

            Psychologically speaking, swallowing anger leads either to depression (when internalized) or aggression. I am convinced you can no more stamp out anger than you can destroy energy. It simply assumes another form.

            I probably have as many questions about anger as anyone. I know four things for sure.

            1. If you’re never angry, you’re not paying attention. Conflict is constitutive to life as we know it, and envisioning and practicing redemptive response is the heart of faith.

            2. Anger is the appropriate response to every form of abuse and injustice. It is, in fact, the animating presence of God; for life as we know it is not finally fated to destruction and will be transformed. This is the promise on which faith is formed and engaged.

            3. Yet anger’s sway easily becomes a cover to act out our own fears and self-centeredness—and is especially brutal when cloaked in religious identity and claiming divine blessing. Truth be told, the only way to God is through unwelcomed, unruly neighbors. (See Matthew 5:23-24.)

            4. As with all such weighty matters, talking about the appropriate use of anger is immeasurably easier than practicing it. We remain acquainted with failure; it is risky; and sometimes bruising. But such is the stuff of glory.

            Unfortunately, few people ever admit to being angry “without cause”—any more than politicians and generals admit to waging war “without cause.” All of us are guilty of assuming a posture of righteous indignation when, in reality, we’re merely serving our own narrow self-interest. In actual fact, much of our anger is rooted in fearfulness. And fear, according to John’s epistle (4:18), is the opposite of faith. The only remedy for fearfulness, along with the anger and destructive behavior it produces, is grace.

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            A good friend once shared an anecdote about the dilemma of handling anger as depicted in a favorite episode of an old television show, “Hill Street Blues.” Ramona wrote:

            “At the time I had small children and a house that had become a community center for children in the neighborhood. The show dealt with the ugly realities of daily life in the inner city. I watched the show faithfully and considered the characters portrayed as friends—people who understood the violence of poverty and the drug culture, realities that characterized my neighborhood.

            “In one episode, one of the young police officers was being praised by his boss for how well he had handled a case of domestic violence, and an arrest of a drug dealer, and a confrontation with a prostitute—all in a night’s work. The officer thanked him for the encouragement and then asked him, 'But, sir, where do you put the anger?'”

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            All of us—virtually every day, in small, personal ways or in large public ones—encounter conflict and wrestle with the question about where to “put” our anger. Every episode is an exercise in faith development and the occasion for deepening grace, grace that calms our fretful habits, provides buoyancy amid the contention, and unleashes imagination and energy for building bridges across walls of enmity.

            Faith formation and the ministry of reconciliation are interwoven in the drama of redemption.

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For more on this topic, see “How do you deal with anger? Pastoral commentary. “
©ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org