Among other things that I have at my house, I have a two-year-old living under my roof. She is precious to me but she is at a willful stage and therefore angry a lot. She’ll scream if you carry her because she wants to walk. If you let her walk she screams because you won’t let her walk where she wants to walk. If you put food in front of her, she’ll scream because she doesn’t want it. If you eat the food from her plate that she doesn’t want, you will feel the full brunt of her wrath. When she gets ready for bed, she is angry if she doesn’t get to wear her first choice of P.J.s. She is angry if you make her wear a diaper instead of underwear. Parents of two-year-olds know, at certain stages, your life is organized around angry outbursts.
Most of the time, my wife and I can take these outbursts in stride because lets face it, a strong-willed two-year old demanding her way about absolutely everything is terribly funny. Quite adorable actually. It is hard not to laugh at a two-year old who picks up her dinner plate full of food and carries it to the kitchen and asks for cheese and crackers instead (this doesn’t work, if you are wondering). Our older daughter was just as bad at this age, so we know it’s just a developmental life-stage we have to get through before peace again reigns in our house (of course then number 3 is going Rage Against the Machine).
What isn’t particularly adorable is when grown men and women act as though they have the emotional intelligence of my two-year-old. They don’t act rationally but fly off the handle when the littlest thing raises their ire: waiting in line at the supermarket behind the coupon queen, when a spouse asks something they were going to do anyway, when they are forced to go around that idiot who is only going 5 miles above the speed limit in the left lane. When we see people lash out at the world because it has failed to accommodate their every whim, we don’t find it funny, but sad. How could anyone be so self-centered and demanding? It’s particularly embarrassing when the angry two-year-old of an adult is me.
Lets face it, all of us let our anger run wild and demand our way. When we are tired and stressed this can happen a lot (which is par for the course at our house). But then there are other times where our anger seems wholly justified and we are sure we are in the right. Jesus himself chased out the money lenders from the temple and his anger burned against the religious leaders’ hypocrisy for how they unnecessarily burdened the people. Martin Luther got the whole Protestant ball rolling because he was pretty peeved. And he had good reason, the Roman See was thoroughly corrupt and the selling of indulgences preyed on the poor. Luther also praised the focusing energy that anger brought to his life and ministry:
I have no better remedy than anger. If I want to write, pray, preach well, then I must be angry. Then my entire blood supply refreshes itself, my mind is made keen, and all temptations depart.(What Luther Says: An Anthology, Vol. 1, 74, 27).
Today we similarly see many things that make us angry. African warlords who rape women and kidnap children, systemic racism which still locks minorities in poverty, colonial paternalism which acts with good intentions but demeans the nations and peoples we perpetually victimize, the abuse of women and their objectification in pornography, magazines and super bowl ads. If these things do not make you angry then either you haven’t really looked at these issues or you have no heart Tin-Man.
So if Anger is the right response to these things, why is it a deadly sin? Like the other vices, Anger is a habit of mind which can poison us from the inside out. Sometimes anger is the appropriate response but it is sinful when it is excessive or misdirected. There are things that should make us angry and things that should not. If we like my two-year-old, are Angry every time we don’t get our own way then our Anger is subservient to our own selfishness. If our Anger over real injustice (large or small) causes bitterness and hatred to take root in our heart then our souls are in mortal danger. Anger at injustice, easily may give way to bitterness at particular people for perpetuating it. When injustice has a face it is hard not to hate and we can easily cross over to the dark side.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung points us to the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. which illuminates a different way:
Martin Luther King Jr., for example was undoubtedly passionate in his pursuit of racial justice, but he was not a person dominated by anger or one who hated his racial oppressors. His passion for injustice was deeply rooted in his desire that all people learn to love one another and see them as God sees them, and his manner of pursuing justice showed that he knew that the matter was not solely in his hands. The righteous angry person can still pray, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Moreover King engaged in his project among a community of believers. He did not attempt to discern God’s will all by himself or mete out God’s judgement as an individual. The checks and balances of shared power and wisdom are good ways to prevent wrathful rationalizations about the way our agendas and God’s do or do not coincide (Glittering Vices, 132-3).
Anyone who has read King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail has marveled at King’s ability to extend shalom towards his oppressors (jailers and white clergy).
Anger Management is all the Rage
So what are the practices which help us to reign in our anger and keep it in check? Principally, I see three:
- Life in community and systems of accountability, like King’s example above guard us from pursuing our own rights and agenda and help us discern God’s heart in the matter. Clearly friends can also re-enforce our Anger, so intentionality is important!
- Establishing ongoing systems of self-reflection. This could be as keeping a journal about your anger. Or you can pray the Examen and pay attention to your soul feels consolation and desolation. Learning to take inventory of inner thoughts is necessary if we are to grow in the virtuous life.
- Learn from Jesus. Yes, Jesus got angry, irritated and crazy mad. If you read the gospels you see instances where his ire was raised, but you still could not describe Jesus as an angry man. instead he was characterized by his compassion and gentleness. Part of conquering our inner beast, involves learning from Jesus a new way of navigating injustice in our world. His ultimate response to injustice was not an angry outburst where he smote the wicked. His response was the cross.
As we continue walking with Jesus the way of the cross, may he transform us from Angry hate mongers to his gentle and compassionate servants.