This past Sunday, among the appointed readings was from Matthew’s fifth chapter. It included this line from Jesus: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, … if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
This seems like a particularly pointed word from Jesus, especially in light of the culture in which we live. It’s a culture where anger seems to have currency because it’s equated with passion and conviction and commitment and a righteous dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Isn’t anger sometimes justifiable? Isn’t there some truth to the bumper sticker that reads, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention!”? Isn’t there such a thing as righteous anger? Why does Jesus find anger so problematic?
The Biblical scholar Jeffrey Gibbs asked these questions, in part motivated by his own experience with anger. He did what Biblical scholars do, he got into the Biblical text to determine how the emotion of anger was described and if there was any moral dimension to these descriptions and then he wrote up his findings. You can read his whole article for yourself. The title, The Myth of Righteous Anger gives away his conclusion.
In the Old Testament human anger is associated with foolishness. In the New Testament anger, while itself not a sin, is seen as such a risky business in terms of the temptation to sin, that it is essentially equated with sin by Jesus and the apostles, hence Jesus’ warning.
In all of the Scriptures, the only being associated with anything that might be described as righteous anger is Yahweh, the God of Israel. And even God is described as “slow to anger,” leading Gibbs to observe that humanity must really be making a mess of things if the Divine, who is described as slow to anger, is angry so often in the Old Testament.
Yet, this does nothing to resolve our cause for anger. Even if we can get past our petty irritations, there are plenty of situations and circumstances that display such flagrant injustice, anger seems to be the only possible response, unless we choose not to pay any attention. What then shall we do with our anger if it’s a short fuse to sinful behavior? May I, along with Gibbs, suggest three ideas.
The first is to recognize our anger for what it is. Yes, anger itself isn’t sinful and that neutral nature allows us some space to own our anger. “This makes me angry! What am I going to do with that?” This pause allows our reason to catch up with our emotion and creates an opportunity to frame things more constructively. It’s important for us to own our anger and not deny it or allow it to control our actions. We are not our anger.
The second is that recognizing that there are situations which will understandably and maybe even legitimately move us to anger, it is helpful to find a safe place or way for us to express our anger. Maybe this will be a conversation partner. Maybe this will be an entry in your journal (though I’d suggest that it not be a public blog.) Maybe this will be time in the gym. Each of us needs to find that which works for us. The goal is not to get rid of the anger and forget about it. The goal is to move beyond it to something more creative, something more constructive.
If, on reflection, you discover that you’re really frequently angry or mostly angry then ongoing conversations with a pastor or counselor to help get to the root of your anger will be really beneficial.
Finally it’s good for us to recognize that as people who live in a profoundly angry culture, our work of keeping watch over our anger — of repenting of it, of working through it and coming to a place beyond it — is truly counter-cultural. If you were looking for ways to be a rebel for Jesus, you could do worse than to resolve to resist the temptation to join the angry mob that is human society.
If you’d like to talk about this or anything else, Deaconess Kristin and I are ready to have a conversation with you.
Feb. 19, 2020