It was early morning and the baby and her dad were the only ones on the playground. The baby was crawling happily under the swingset. I stopped jogging and watched as her dad crept a few meters away and crouched behind one of the large cement blocks ringing the playground.
The baby began crawling toward the block. Now and again her dad would tap on the top of the block or wiggle his fingers above it, reminding her he was there, keeping her moving toward him. Finally one small hand then the other reached up and grasped the edge of the block, and the baby pulled herself to standing, peeking over to see her dad smiling at her.
I wrote last week about anger. I omitted the obvious question.
It’s one thing to believe that anger on behalf of someone else might be pointing me to an injustice, calling me to act and giving me courage to do it. But what about when it’s anger over something that has happened to me? Surely then it’s selfish and sinful? Maybe. (It’s easy for sin to get mixed up in anger.) And maybe not.
When I’ve let anger spur me to action on behalf of another I’ve been saying two things: “You matter” and “What is happening to you is wrong.” If I refuse to let myself feel the anger that comes on my own behalf in a situation that is clearly wrong, am I disagreeing with God that I matter?
I feel the mountains tremble and shake with His anger as He runs to the aid of His child who is crying out. (Ps. 18) Every one of His children matter.
The dad turns the barrier into a plaything. The spacious trust of child in father and father in child delights me.
Scripture is full of commands to “put off” anger. I’ve wondered how. Avoiding it doesn’t work. Stuffing it just drives it deeper. It seems the only way to “put off” anything is to start by coming closer. To look at it, listen to it, touch it—in the presence of Jesus.
And as Jesus wiggles his fingers and smiles at me and I learn to stand, there are surprises:
He’s not afraid of my anger. Like everything else in life, He wants to turn it into a place we can explore together, one more place to enjoy His love and give Him mine.
Often beneath my anger lies untruth, an unwillingness to see or admit my real hopes and desires, hurts and needs. Sometimes honesty is enough to dissolve anger. Nine years I’ve felt anger every time I thought of him pacing back and forth across the office, shouting at us. And within five minutes of getting up off the toshak where I was still cowering and standing up to the man and, in my imagination, telling him the truth about what he was doing to us and to the people we served, the anger was gone and compassion had settled in its place. The man had shrunk, and I could see him for who he was, a bully so small and empty that the only way he knew to make himself feel better was to trash everyone within reach of his words.
Sometimes my anger holds wisdom. Anger shows me what matters to me. (I only feel angry if something I value is being threatened.) Resentment usually tells me I’m doing too much.
Often, the anger is around a choice that I’ve made. I’ve offered to do something when I was already tired. I’ve said “sure, that’s fine” when it wasn’t really fine at all. Sometimes there isn’t even another person involved—I’ve just been listening to the “shoulds” in my head, pushing away my desire for rest or play, when perhaps God wanted to use my resentment to show me what I really need and call me into his gentle, gracious way of living. Maybe obeying the command to “put off” anger involves learning to honor my God-given choice. “Each one should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Like all emotions, anger is meant to move us deeper into right relationship—with God and others and ourselves. It can only do that as I learn to listen to it in the presence of Jesus—the One who is truth and love.
Taking it deeper:
Next time you feel angry about something, stop and ask what it’s trying to tell you. What is it that matters enough to you that you feel angry when it’s threatened?
What is your anger inviting you to be honest about?
See God peeking out from behind the concrete block of your anger, inviting you to come closer, to explore and learn and grow and delight in playing with him in the safe space of his never-failing love.
How did it happen? How did the God-man who overturned thieves’ tables and called religious leaders snakes get labeled “meek and mild?”
Jesus was not afraid to feel angry. Or to express it.
I’d rather feel almost anything else. I’ve wondered why.
Sure, I’ve seen the devastation that poorly controlled anger can cause.
Yes, I like to please people rather than rock the boat.
The same culture that taught me that big boys don’t cry made sure I knew that good girls don’t get angry.
But perhaps the biggest, truest reason I’m afraid to feel angry is that anger insists on action. It’s easier to curl up in the corner, out of the battle, than to address the problem. Easier, less scary, less risky—unless risk is measured in terms of missed life and ignored calling.
I pray to hear the heartbeat of God, to let mine beat in rhythm with His. When did I forget that that might mean feeling His anger as well as His peace and His joy?
I’ve known His anger in the past: “It’s so wrong that we’re turning these kids off studying the Bible!” “It’s awful that all those women are dying for lack of access to care!” I’ve suspected that anger is linked to calling, that the place we feel God’s anger most deeply is the place we’re called to partner with Him in addressing the injustice.
“Passion” is a big word with a lot of layers to live.
I watch the One in whose image I am made, the One “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Num 14:18; Ps 86:15, 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2) The One who “time after time . . . restrained his anger.” (Ps 78:38) And then I watch as several hundred times this God who is Love expresses His anger.
Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Anger can be an expression of love. The fierce protectiveness of a mother for her baby, the anger of a man when he finds his wife in the arms of another: is the ability to express appropriate anger in defense of life and relationship what sets true love apart from sentimentality?
God isn’t quick to explode. But when relationship is broken or injustice occurring, He isn’t afraid to point out the problem. And then He lets His anger go. “His anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.” (Ps 30:5)
Slow to get angry but unafraid to express it as a means to restoring relationship, quick to let it go and welcome the other back into relationship: that’s how God lives His anger as an expression of His love. It’s how we’re asked to live it too.
“Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life. (Eph 4:26-27 MSG)
God of perfect love, this scares me. I’d rather a smaller version of love, one which allows me to feel safe and comfortable emotions all the time. But I want to be free to receive and give your love in all the ways you might ask. Open me up to the fullness of your love. Live your love in me.
We’d just found our housemate unconscious on the cold cement floor and my heart was raging mad. Not at her, but at our guests who cared more about having to wait forty minutes in their warm, comfortable vehicle than about our friend’s life.
I wrote that story last week. Some of it, I think, was good writing. Some felt weak. This morning I realized why. I was afraid of my anger. I tried to soften it, cover it, apologize for it when I needed to let it be seen. It was part of the story and, in this case, a marker of real wrong at work in the situation.
Satan has two tactics when dealing with our anger. The first is to whisper that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for feeling angry, that our anger is bad and dangerous and to be feared, and that we’ll never please God if we feel angry. And so we try to destroy or hide our anger instead of allowing it to energize us in the battle against Satan and toward relationship with God and each other. If he fails at that, Satan tries to turn our hand to train the powerful weapon on other people or back on ourselves, taking a tool intended to spur us to action in the service of life and teaching us to use it in the service of destruction instead.
In one sense, anger is a product of the fall: we didn’t know anger until after the fall. There was no need for this energy-full emotion that makes us feel what is wrong, involving us in the reality of it and spurring us toward making it right.
At a much deeper level, our capacity to feel anger is part of our imaging of the God whose infinite love and longing for right relationship includes anger against anything that threatens to destroy His beloved creation.
It’s a deep and daring trust that is willing to feel God’s anger, knowing it will call us to action.
Anger can kill. It requires great respect and caution. But the reality is, we will feel it. We’re meant to feel it. In this broken world, there’s no way to love without sometimes feeling anger. I watch Jesus turning over the tables of crooks in the temple, restoring His Father’s house to a sacred place of relationship. (Luke 19:45-46) I see him indignant at the tomb of Lazarus, his anger over the destruction Satan had brought on his friend paired with decisive action: “It doesn’t have to be this way!” (John 11)
Surrendered to the Holy Spirit, controlled anger can help push us up the hill of our apathy and fear to act in ways that bring holiness in the world. I hear the anger in the voices of some of the most godly men I know when they don’t just speak of other men enslaving women in prostitution, but act to do something about it. I once stood up to a gynaecologist who was verbally abusing one of my junior residents; it was anger over the injustice that fuelled my small courage.
Carefully handled, anger can be a gift. Join me in letting God teach us to use it well?
“Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” (Eph 4:26-27 NRSV)
For further exploration:
Since our anger—like every other part of us—has been distorted by the fall, there’s no doubt that this powerful emotion needs a trigger guard and cautious handling. We’re given guidelines and constant Holy help:
- Never train your sights on other people. (Eph 6:12)
- Learn when to let it go. (Eph 4:26-27)
- Hand it over to the One who can handle it before it gets too hot to hold. (Psalm 94, 109, etc)
Here are a few questions that help me in the handling of the gift of anger. What others would you add?
- What is underlying my anger in this situation? (Love? Fear? Envy? Hurt pride?) Is there sin I need to confess?
- What does this anger show me about what really matters to me? To God?
- What might be God’s invitation to me here?
It doesn’t happen all that often. Mostly I’m just so grateful to be His. But that day was different and I wasn’t liking it. I know He can handle the rest of the mess. The fear. The ache. But this? Anger? At Him?
I tried to pretend I was okay with the situation. I didn’t want to express the anger. Didn’t want to feel it. I love Him. I need Him. I don’t want to shout at Him.
“I trust you.” I do. But maybe not enough to obey when he urges honesty: “Let it come. It needs to come out.”
I try to hide: “I’m not really angry.”
He finds me: “Then why did you uncheck that song on itunes?”
We both know the answer already, but His question demands a response. Fine then: “I don’t want to listen to that song because it clashes too hard with my reality. It makes me want to yell at you and I don’t want to do that. “
I don’t say what I’m thinking, that just today I don’t want to lie still in his presence either (will the silence break me open?) That today I’m even afraid to ask for help, afraid that if he doesn’t answer quickly enough the unanswered questions will all rush out and I’ll find myself vomiting the contents of my churning heart all over his bright white holiness.
The story I’m (now) glad I overheard
It happened as they were driving up the ramp onto the ferry. Sensing something not right, she had just taken the baby out of his carseat. “If anything went wrong, I wanted him on my lap.” She still felt the same when she was telling the story the day after she had sat long in the car with the windows down. The day after she had thrown away her shorts spoiled by her baby’s bellyful of purple cherries.
“When something goes wrong, I want you on my lap.” Not strapped down. Not turned away. He’d rather have a lapful of purple cherries than have me out of his reach (and where’s that, anyway?). Rather have us beating our little fists on his chest than turning away to ache alone.
“Long enough, GOD—
you’ve ignored me long enough.
I’ve looked at the back of your head
long enough. Long enough
I’ve carried this ton of trouble,
lived with a stomach full of pain.
Long enough my arrogant enemies
have looked down their noses at me.
. . . . .
Take a good look at me, GOD, my God;
I want to look life in the eye,
So no enemy can get the best of me
or laugh when I fall on my face.
. . . . .
I’ve thrown myself headlong into your arms—
I’m celebrating your rescue.
I’m singing at the top of my lungs,
I’m so full of answered prayers.”
(Psalm 13, The Message)