The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Contempt and Anger
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Contempt and Anger

Exploring Spiritual Formation and Community

I don’t like being angry, almost just as much as I don’t like labels. While I believe that righteous anger exists, and can be warranted, I have yet to see anger bring about love. Rather I’ve experienced anger to be harmful – tearing into people, even while justifying itself. That experience is enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I wasn’t always this way. In my early days as a tap dancer, anger was the first emotion that came through my dancing. I was a teenager and had plenty of pain and angst to work with. Anger was an easy emotion. It provided a lot of energy and clear direction. It was easy to express in ways that others could understand. Dancing loudly equalled angry, for example. Big and loud dancing equalled very angry. The energy of anger was also helpful when learning new things. I would talk to my feet like a frustrated parent talks to a toddler when both are out of sorts. “Just do what I say!” “Come here and just do this.” This often worked, so I took to using such language as a tool.

Anger was such an easy emotion to engage with that when I wanted to expand my emotional palette, I found it difficult. I didn’t believe that learning something new could be fun, or that executing steps could feel easy. Getting frustrated meant the step was worth the effort. My engagement with anger had blocked out the space in my heart that remembered how to play. I had so regularly used my dancing as the place to work out my frustrations that it took me years to come around to experiencing other emotions in it.

Anger is a relational emotion. It happens in the context of relationship with others and our environment, even the unseen world within and around us. At its core, anger has to do with a frustrated will. Anger is what can happen when we think things should go one way, our way, and they don’t. Of course, we think that our way is the right way. We may be able to defend our position, too. “This isn’t just my opinion,” we may think. “This is what is best or right or true.”

We may be right, but that is not the point. Just because we are right about bad drivers, or slow pedestrian traffic, or the way a person should act, doesn’t make anger the best vehicle of expression. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially since one of the aspects of grief is anger.

Any change may be accompanied by an aspect of grief. Changes that are out of our control may produce larger amounts of anger. We may feel that even though we can’t control the situation, we can at least express our frustration with it. This isn’t at all wrong. The consideration is in the potential consequences of the expression of anger. Once again I rely on a Dallas Willard definition:

Anger is the will to hurt.

Anger is justifying of itself. It doesn’t really care for anyone or anything else. It cares only to be expressed. Again, there is nothing wrong with the need to be heard, understood, or known. It is just whether or not anger is the best vehicle. Let us consider some hypothetical situations. Imagine for a moment a community in which anger is allowed to run its course – voices are raised, words are hurled, wills are crossed and crossed again, pain is experienced, relationships are severed. Without a course of action that provides for reconciliation, there is little hope for that community to survive. Now imagine a community in which there is no anger. That seems like an impossibility, too.

Reality

The reality of life is that anger happens – offenses happen – and they cause hurt. If we want to be members of a community that brings more good to life than hurt, what can we do? There are two ways any individual can work towards diminishing the hurt that anger causes without sacrificing their own integrity. One way is to minimize the things that bring us to anger. The other is to have a way of working towards reconciliation when hurt has been experienced.

Two years ago I was working through chapter five of the book of Matthew – starting with the Beatitudes and continuing with what is commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount (or hill). Here, after describing who citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven are, and what he has come to do with the current religious law, Jesus Christ addresses anger straight on with the following words:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5:21-24 KJV

Jesus begins by articulating the connection between anger and murder. Murder being the outward action, and anger, the inward disposition of the heart that ultimately leads to murder. Jesus goes further in the heart by addressing contempt. “Raca” being interpreted as the sound one makes as they are getting ready to spit on someone, and “you fool” needing little interpretation. We should pause here to see a clear line between contempt, anger, and violence. Thinking in the opposite might also help. Imagine a world free from contempt in relationships. Anger would diminish, as would violence. Alas, that is not the world we live in. So what can we do?

Continuing on, Jesus turns to a possible solution. Simply, if you know that someone has something against you, go to them. Do what you can to be reconciled to them. How important is this? Does this take priority over other important things? Yes. It is more important than any kind of act that you might think puts you in good standing religiously – like bringing a gift to the altar. It is more important than all the donations, volunteer hours, and recognitions. Go to your brother or sister and save them from their anger towards you. Jesus considers relational wellbeing more important than religious aspiration.

This is not an easy thing to accomplish, both the shift in priorities and the actual actions. It is important to work towards if we want to have the kind of relationships that withstand the hard things of life. Relationships that we can count on in the midst of moments of anger.

But here there is still something lacking. Jesus doesn’t explain how we are to reconcile with our brothers (or sisters) if we are the ones who are angry. That happens, so it is something that might be good to know, especially if trying to reconcile relationships is new to us (as it has been for me). It isn’t for another few chapters that we come upon a way.

In the Book of Matthew, Chapter 18, (NKJV) Jesus presents this way:

Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

What a clear and simple way – not that it will always be easy. If your brother makes you mad, go and tell him privately. If they don’t hear you – how many of us can relate to this scenario? If they don’t hear you, bring some friends, so there can be agreement of what is being said. If your brother doesn’t hear you and your friends, bring them in front of the entire gathering, the whole family, the entire community. If they still don’t hear that they’ve caused hurt, separate yourself from them. You have done what you can.

Imagine the kind of communication that happens throughout this process. Think about how many times you would have to explain the situation, your thoughts and feelings, the hurt you have experienced. In the simple act of describing the situation, and being heard, you just might diminish the amount of anger you carry. Genius.

As we’ve been thinking through these ideas, you may have noticed that there are clear stipulations here. Jesus talks about situations in which we are either the offender or the offended. We have something to do in both situations. It is never good to let anger sit and fester. However, in both cases, Jesus is talking about people close to you (brothers, sisters, family, blood or otherwise). There are of course situations in which strangers cause us to anger, or that we may cause strangers to anger. To think through those scenarios is important and something that will have to wait for another note.

Here it is enough to focus on the dynamic of the community of love in which everyone has committed to practice these things. Who else might we agree with that anger is worth putting away, among other things? Who else might we practice with when the offenses come and anger surfaces? Who else might we work with to become a kind of people for whom anger isn’t overwhelming, nor immersive, not a pot whole but rather a speed bump on the road of life? I contend that it is in these agreements, practices, and relationships that we might become the kind of people for whom love of one another overflows into love of the stranger, even the enemy. I believe the possibility to be real, but it starts with those closest to us.

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The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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