Someone else’s (or our very own) contemptuous stare, cutting remarks, lethal coldness, sudden outburst, or cruel joke leaves everyone in a room appalled and makes everybody in the office or the family walk on egg shells.
That’s anger. It breaks relationships and dismantles people.
Some list anger as a deadly sin. Others insist that it’s a natural emotion requiring honest, appropriate expression.
This is a largely semantic argument that boils down to the kind of question every intro philosophy student learns to ask. What do you mean by anger?
This is what we all experience. Some things make our blood pressure rise. That is entirely appropriate in some cases. Cruelty to a child deserves indignation. Disagreements about what movie to watch….not so much.
That emotion we call anger can arise in the face of injustice and simply as a result of our own bruised ego. Knowing and acknowledging the difference takes most of us some work. Well, maybe a lot of work.
So let’s be clear here. I have no quarrel with perfectly justifiable, appropriately expressed anger. I’m just aware that it can be awfully difficult to know when I’m perfectly justified and quite a challenge to express powerful emotions of any kind in an appropriate way.
The really striking thing about anger is its ability to hijack us.
It’s as if some raving lunatic snatches control of our bodies. That lunatic then dedicates himself or herself to destroying our most treasured relationships and leaving us with memories that will forever make us cringe.
For the most part, anger commandeers our lives in far subtler ways: The cold shoulder. The smug, self-righteous Facebook post. Giving ourselves permission to think that those who differ with us politically or theologically are morons or degenerates.
So what does Jesus have to say about this?
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder’; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt. 5:21-22)
Anger is murder. Well, not literally. But the same habits of thinking and feeling and acting embodied in murder lie on a continuum with even the most civil expression of anger.
The path from everyday resentments and contempt to homicide is not a slippery slope. At the same time, the distance from contemptuous thoughts to lingering resentments to disparaging gossip to character assassination may be shorter than we realize.
These ‘lesser angers’ are radioactive. They bear handling with care. Following them along the path they pave can poison us.
The problem is not any one instance of anger. The problem is the cumulative effect of feeling, thinking and acting in certain ways. That cumulative effect is called habit.
Over time we can drift from being momentarily spiteful to being routinely spiteful. We can slowly slide from one contemptuous response to a spouse or a child or a friend into a predictably contemptuous posture.
We acquire habits gradually. Those habits of heart and mind are our character. Actions arise from character. When we want to change our actions, we find that simply saying “no” rarely works. Just ask any experienced dieter.
Changing a repetitive behavior involves changing deeply ingrained habits. In other words, reforming our behavior involves character transformation.
Unlearning habits and learning new habits is part of what theologians mean by the term “sanctification.” It’s not something we do all on our own. It’s the result of the Holy Spirit’s deep work on our souls.
Here are a couple of things we can do.
The first is to admit that we really can’t live with our anger habit. It’s bigger than we are and takes us places we don’t want to go. This would be easier if being right and pointing out where other people are so wrong weren’t so easy to savor. And yet, I want to want to be done with it.
This is another way of saying repent. Notice I didn’t say stop doing whatever it is that’s killing me. For that matter, I admitted that giving up the habit is an on-again-off-again deal.
Nevertheless, it’s a big step to say I don’t want to inhabit my skin that way anymore and I need help.
In addition to this, by way of something positive we can do, we can stop reinforcing the habit. The popular term I have in mind is “venting.”
We are not steam engines. Anger is not like steam that will build up in us if we don’t let a little of that steam off. That’s where the idea of “venting” comes from.
Nope. We’re habit formers. When we vent, we nurture our anger and we express it in an inappropriate way. We spew our negative feelings about a third party to an apparently sympathetic listener.
In other words, with the help of a friend who may mean well, we enroll in an informal anger mismanagement class.
The remarkable thing about Jesus Christ is that he never tells us to stop being angry in order to win his affection. Instead, he tells us again and again that he loves us, and that’s why he wants to help us with our anger.
Strictly speaking, he has already started helping us with our anger. It is precisely that very human anger that nailed him to the Cross.
He took that anger onto himself, because he knew that anger was going to kill somebody. And he didn’t want it to be us.