“You have heard it said, Do not murder… But I tell you, whoever is angry with a brother will be subject to judgement” (Matthew 5:21-22)
In the last two posts I’ve been looking at the place of violence and rage in Christianity. Before tackling the big one, war, I’d like to look at the more basic question of anger. Is it okay for us to get angry and to react in anger?
Anger isn’t generally a very acceptable emotion in the church, at least not in the Anglican Church to which I belong. Anglicans, being extremely English, tend to be very nice, polite and controlled; and anger just isn’t very nice, polite or controlled.
We do get angry of course, but we tend to repress it or else express it indirectly or passive-aggressively. We tut, we give disapproving looks, we silently exclude, we post polite but pointed notices (quite often while still smiling fixedly). Often you wouldn’t even realise we’re angry at all.
Accepting our anger
Anger was a bit of a taboo emotion for me growing up. I learnt that anger was something dangerous and uncontrollable, to be avoided and buried deep down. I have deep-seated issues with anger, both what to do with it when I feel it and what it does to me when others are angry with me. I avoid conflict and argument from fear that I might lose control and inflict damage, or that I might be rejected for saying or doing unacceptable things.
For the last few years though I’ve been seeing a secular counsellor, a wise chap. One thing you learn quickly in counselling is that feelings and emotions – including anger and hate – aren’t wrong in themselves; feeling them doesn’t make us bad or nasty. Furthermore you can’t help feeling them, nor stop them from arising, and it’s counter-productive to try.
Feelings are natural (if not always proportionate) responses to events and circumstances. In certain situations you just will feel anger, whether you like it or not, and indeed that may well be a good response to what’s happening. Trying to deny, hide or repress that anger won’t help; it will only force the anger underground where it’s far more dangerous. Repressed anger is like volcanic magma bubbling below the surface, which may later burst out unexpectedly over innocent bystanders.
Furthermore, anger can actually be a very useful emotion if managed and channelled properly. It can be creative rather than destructive. Rather than destroying relationships, handled well it can lead to deeper intimacy and honesty. And in the wider world, we can use our anger to fight against injustice, inequality, poverty, prejudice.
Anger is an honest, open response. Sometimes it’s just how we feel, and it’s important that we feel that. If we can’t get angry with people or let them get angry with us, our relationship with them isn’t completely real, or really complete. Sometimes we may even need to get angry at God.
But what are we to make of Jesus’ words quoted at the head of this post? Can he really mean that it’s wrong ever to be angry with someone? How can that be?
Hang on just a mo though. Jesus himself got angry, fairly often. Much of the time it was low-level exasperation with his disciples for being so slow on the uptake – but that’s still anger. And he railed furiously against the Scribes, Pharisees and religious leaders – expressing righteous anger at their arrogance and self-blindness, their grasping of petty power and making of petty rules at the expense of the poor and ordinary people.
We’ve looked at the famous occasion where Jesus turned over the moneylenders’ tables and drove the sellers out of the temple. John’s gospel says he was consumed by ‘zeal’ – or you might say righteous anger, even white-hot rage.
Jesus wasn’t a hypocrite, a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ person. He lived out his teachings with perfect consistency. So anger can’t be wrong per se. There are situations in which anger, properly expressed and handled, is clearly the right and godly response.
“In your anger, do not sin”
Paul perhaps sheds a bit more light with his famous lines ‘In your anger, do not sin’ and ‘don’t let the sun go down on your wrath’. These both assume we’ll get angry; it’s just part of the human condition. The issue is what we do with our anger; how we respond to it, and to the people who’ve angered us.
In your anger, do not sin. We will at times feel rage or frustration or exasperation; that’s okay, normal, even maybe good. But in the grip of that emotion, however powerful it is, we always have a choice not to act out of it, not to lash out, not to say or do something harmful that we’ll regret. We can’t stop ourselves feeling angry, but we can choose whether to act destructively or creatively with our anger.
Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath. Don’t let the hot magma of your anger harden into resentment, bitterness, a long-term grudge, a cold settled attitude of hostility towards another person. Deal with your anger before it goes underground. Use the anger not to provoke revenge and recrimination but to prompt resolution and reconciliation.
Of course we won’t always be able to resolve all conflicts straight away, but we can work towards resolution. The wounds that led to our anger or arose from it need to be acknowledged and healed, so they don’t fester and go bad.
Are angry thoughts sinful?
I’ve said that it’s okay to feel angry. But Jesus does seem to imply that even just thinking or feeling something is as bad as actually doing it – that looking at someone lustfully is equivalent to adultery, and being angry with your brother is on the same level as murdering him. What on earth is he getting at here?
I think it’s partly Hebrew hyperbole to make a point, and partly context.
The initial thought or feeling of lust, anger or whatever just comes to us – we can’t help it, so surely we don’t need to feel guilty for it. What I think Jesus means is not then to dwell on that feeling or thought; not to nurture it, let it grow and take shape, because then we’re giving it power in our lives – and making it more likely that we’ll act on it.
So when we protractedly fantasise about hurting or getting back at someone we’re angry with, we’re veering into potentially dangerous waters. We’ll probably all fantasise briefly, but if it becomes something we can’t let go of, it becomes harmful. Even if we never act out on it, it will be a bitter canker within us.
We can’t forgive when we’re holding onto resentment, or desires to get back at people. And forgiveness is such a fundamental principle of Christian faith, albeit such a hard one. There are people who hurt me years ago who I still struggle to forgive, and at times I catch myself wishing them ill. I just have to give them over to God time and again and ask that he’ll release me from this bitterness which does me no good. And I know that God wants to – and can – redeem them and me and these part situations of hurt.
Is God angry?
So much for our anger – what about God’s?
The idea of God being angry seems very Old Testament. It’s something we associate with scary fundamentalists, Bible-thumping hellfire preachers and overly strict sects. Mostly now we’ve opted for a God of love and mercy alone, a friendly and only-benevolent dad rather than a Righteous (and sometimes wrathful) Judge.
God is love, not anger. But God’s anger rightly understood arises from and is a vital aspect of his love. Even in the Old Testament God is ‘slow to anger’; but when God does get angry it’s because he cares passionately. His anger arises from things that harm or damage those he loves, or from things that damage our relationship with him and each other.
Unfortunately we associate horrific and terrifying things with God’s anger – mighty smitings, mass genocide, sending people to eternal fiery hell. But God’s anger is usually much smaller-scale than this, and with much less dire consequences.
Being a parent has taught me most about God’s loving anger. I love my children and I can’t change that – it’s my default position towards them; a simple fact of our relationship. They quite often infuriate me and I get angry with them – but that anger is always in the context of a relationship of love. My anger towards them doesn’t mean I’ll cut them off, shut them out, torture them or destroy them. And if I wouldn’t, I can’t believe that God would either.
A God who was never angry would be merely indifferent, uncaring. But God’s anger is not necessarily – perhaps not ever – the violent, vengeful anger we see in parts of the Old Testament. (I’ve written more about the Old Testament genocides here.)
So anger – ours and God’s – is okay; it can even be good. I still don’t much like it though…