Anger

A curious thing...

A few months ago, I posted this on Instagram. It garnered some attention, some questions, and some private responses. Prior to posting I had been reading and thinking through these words with regards to anger:

Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

The Book of Matthew, Chapter 5, King James Version (emphasis mine)

The thing that struck me is the social call. We are warned of the danger of cultivating anger and contempt, but there is a specific call to do what we can to aid those we are connected to in forgoing their anger. Of course, there is a lot said about our individual anger and what it means and can lead to. However, the fulfillment of the treatise is beyond our own wellbeing and forgoing of anger.

That isn’t the only place anger is called out. In one of his letters to the Colossians, Paul writes about what someone who is walking in the way should work to do away with in their lives:

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.

Letter to the Colossians from Paul, Chapter 3, King James Version (emphasis mine)

These calls to put away anger and wrath, and to do what we can to reconcile the relationships of those angered with us, are quite radical. A brief look around the current state of the world will unveil how different the ideas underlying today’s common culture are.

There seems to be a lot of anger in the world today. Much of it may be justified. There is quite a bit one can be angry about. However, the justification of anger is not the question. I suspect that in one sense all anger is justified. As I think about my own relationship with anger I find that it often arises from the crossing or frustration of my will. I want to do something, or for the world to be a certain way, and I encounter a situation in which I can’t, or I find that it isn’t. I feel imposed upon, frustrated in my ability to do what I want, or prevented in experience my vision for my life and the world around me.

More deeply, I’ve found anger related to my sense of space. It fuels my readiness to defend my space from unwanted visitors, imposters, or imposers. This seems to be true of both the seen and unseen worlds. Anger may be the consequence of someone imposing or intruding upon my personal space or things – being cut off while driving, someone entering my room uninvited, or someone taking my phone without asking, for instance. It may also be the consequence of mental imposition. Someone’s voice or personality imposing a mental framework that is somewhere on the spectrum from inconvenient to unsafe. Additionally, I have experienced anger when my emotions were not acknowledged, or worse discounted.

More generally, anger seems to be a curious emotion. It’s fast, like a light switch. It can be off or on, with little nuance in between. Anger has been a cousin of frustration and impatience in my life. Where one is, the other two seem to be nearby. It also likes to justify itself, making it deeply related to contempt. I’ve been on both sides of conversations that move from trying to discern the cause of the anger, to whether or not the very act of being angry is okay. This shift only seems to fuel the anger. Even hypothetical/theoretical conversations around anger seem to land at an impasse. Most folks I’ve crossed paths with seem to agree that anger isn’t always good, but rather something we have, and that can be useful.

Here a definition and some thinking proposed by Dallas Willard have been helpful for me. Willard defines anger as the will to do harm. Note, he doesn’t say that anger is doing harm, but rather that in the state of anger, if the opportunity presents itself to do harm it will likely be taken. There is a readiness of the person who is angry in the direction of whatever the object of their anger is. Secondly, Willard’s thinking around anger is threefold. First, anger is a function of one’s will being crossed. In this frame, if our will is aligned with God (and God’s righteousness) then we arrive at righteous anger. If our will is not aligned with God we arrive at self-righteous anger. Second, acting out in anger will likely include the crossing of someone else’s will. Here we see the generation of cycles of anger – my will is crossed, and in acting in anger, I cross your will, which in turn makes you angry – which can lead to cycles of violence. Lastly, the justification of allowing anger to be cultivated is normally defended by the idea that the anger is righteous, however, recognizing the power of the emotion, we might want to ask ourselves whether or not we trust ourselves to know if we are right in our anger before we begin to justify its cultivation. Willard uses this last way of thinking in conversation in combination with the idea that it is okay to be angry because Jesus was. The episode of turning over tables and fashioning a whip is often referenced here. Willard’s response has been, to say that he can trust Jesus to be angry, but questions trusting himself.

For me, my anger’s usefulness has diminished to being a signal that something I want (whether good or bad, general or specific) is at odds with my circumstances or another person in my life. To work through the feelings, and underlying thinking, I have had to begin a practice of trusting God with my anger. If I become angry, I immediately begin to try to think through the cause. I have been able to interrupt my responses at times – the jumping to action or raising my voice, for instance. I have experienced moments where I’ve been able to let go of the knee jerk response to enact revenge for the crossing of my will. I get angry, but my attention goes towards the why. I see what my anger is pointing to, but I stand there, not acting it out. Rather, I keep asking the question of what God might be doing in each situation. I want join in that. I want to be aligned with God’s Kingdom and goodness.

Now here is the caveat to all of this, as I’m confident many might be feeling a sense of, “but what about [fill in the blank]?” when it comes to these ideas. The letting go of anger does not mean letting go of action, or letting go of the desire for change or justice. It simply means that our actions and desires for change or justice are not fueled by anger. Instead of being fueled by an emotion that cares little for its object (anger), our actions and desires may be fueled by emotions that will the good of their object (love).

These are not simple ideas with tweet length solutions. Rather, I hope that by sharing my journey of thinking with anger in this case, we might journey together toward a better way, not just a better ending.