Why Are You Angry?
A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with the Internal Revenue
Service. I had made it through the telephone prompts and listened to
the repeated warnings not to hang up since calls were answered in the
order that they arrived. After ten minutes an operator asked the nature
of my call, and I described it: a question about my personal clergy
annuity, and she put me on hold. I listened to the warnings about
hanging up again, and perhaps fifteen minutes later an agent came on
the line. He listened to my question and said, "So this is your
personal annuity, you're not a business right?" "Yes," I
said. "Wrong department," he said, and put me on hold. Twenty
minutes passed with warnings in English and Spanish. And a pleasant
woman came on. "You're clergy?" she asked. "Yes," I
said. "Tell me your question," she said. I did, and we spoke
for ten minutes but got nowhere. "Listen," she said, "I
need to talk to my supervisor," and she pressed that button which
might say hold but also increases client counts, and I heard a dial
tone and watched as about an hour of my life disappeared into the
abyss, and I was frustrated.
A friend of mine, a clergyman, was in a diner in Maine some years
ago with his four-year-old daughter. It's an average restaurant in an
average town. But that day at lunch someone was upset about something,
and at a table near my friend words began to be exchanged, and then all
of a sudden two men were standing and throwing punches. My friend said
that he stood immediately and put his body in front of his daughter's
while at the same time he took a knife from the table and held it ready
in his hand. Most fistfights don't last long in real life, and this one
was over in a moment, but my friend was shaking, staring at what he
held in his hand and his instant, primitive reaction.
God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt with clouds and fire and manna
and parted waters, and God's agent, Moses, asked them to wait a bit
while he went to receive the Ten Commandments. But Moses was delayed on
the mountain, and the Hebrews grew restless, and they created a golden
calf and began to dance and worship it, which is how Moses found them
when he came down to camp. He found them ignoring, renouncing, and
insulting God. God saw this too. And God said, "My wrath will burn
hot against you for you are stiff-necked, and I will consume you."
Although Moses talked him out of it.
What makes you angry or even ready to fight? What frustrates you,
annoys you, or, as they say, drives you crazy? Is your anger
instinctive, righteous, justifiable, or daily? Is your anger
constructive or destructive? Or do you never get angry?
People have had a funny relationship with anger over the past
several thousand years. God gets angry on numerous occasions. Jesus got
angry himself and spoke in parables about the anger of kings whose
feast invitations are ignored. But God also likes to say, "I am
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast mercy." And Jesus said,
"You have heard it said you shall not kill, but I say anyone who
is angry is in danger." And Paul put anger in a list with
fornication, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, selfishness,
dissension, and other bad things to keep us from expressing it. We have
had a funny relationship with anger for a long time. Generally stated,
it is OK for God and Jesus, but don't try this at home. Anger appeared
as the third worst sin of the seven deadly ones, on the ancient list
behind pride and envy, but does it really belong there?
What makes you angry, and is that a good thing or a bad one?
The ten root words for anger appear 259 times in the Bible, and if
you add in the references to rage or violence or other synonyms, you
are well over 400 references in no time at all. One of the Hebrew root
words means nostril or nose, so when it says God is slow to anger it
literally says God is long of nose. Other words refer to heat like the
sun's heat or to the poison of serpents. In the Bible, anger is a
smelly, nasty thing.
But don't we also know anger as a normal human emotion? Isn't it a
logical reaction to pain or injury and perhaps to fear and even danger?
Aren't there gender issues with the expression of anger? Men are
allowed to show it and women not so much so. Or in some contexts is it
the exact opposite? Aren't there also victim and perpetrator issues
with this emotion? That is, doesn't the appropriate anger that reacts
to the pain of injury help a victim to become a survivor in many
instances? Doesn't anger equalize imbalanced power situations?
You could add a whole list of questions to the ones I've asked. And
you could notice that in my words and in our culture, the lines between
anger, outrage, rage, and violence get blurred, or perhaps I should say
that in addition to getting blurred, they exist on a continuum that is
not always clearly marked. Anger appears in many forms, and it means
"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore,"
said Paddy Cheyevsky. I'm fed up with what my culture has forced upon
me, and I'm motivated for change. That sounds good. "Bomb them
all. Let God sort out the bodies," reads the bumper sticker. I saw
it during the first Gulf War and the second one too. Can't we agree
that goes a little too far? So where do we find the line between
healthy and unhealthy anger, or is it still always a sin?
Well, the answer to the first question could come during our
conversation with Dr. Jensen after worship. At least that is part of
its purpose. The answer to the second one might come from the Bible.
And it goes back to our previous definitions of sin.
Over the past three weeks we have been considering the ideas of this
theologian Ted Peters and his modern sins of unfaith,
self-justification, and cruelty, among others. Peters says that in some
ways all of these find their root in anxiety. Now anxiety is not a sin.
It is a normal human experience. But it is the springboard or gateway
point that can open us to sin, small and large. As another writer has
pointed out, anxiety, angst, and anger all share a similar root. Part
of the reason for that is that they all respond to fear, doubt,
uncertainty, and even the injury that can be common to the human
experience. For example, Peters says frustration often leads to
anxiety. I can't get through to the IRS. Tax returns are due soon. What
if I am late? Anxiety can lead to humiliation. I've done this wrong. I
can't ask for help. I am in trouble. Humiliation diminishes self-worth,
our sense of well-being, and if that leads to helplessness it can lead
to anger or even rage. Maybe taxes aren't the best example here. And
not all rage comes from frustration, but it can, and when it does,
especially between armed nations or even people with strong fists, it
leads to injury. It leads beyond anxiety to broken behavior or sin.
What the Bible says about this is, God is angry, Jesus is angry, but
we don't have to be angry on the same level. Now this can get tricky,
but you know that old saying, "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the
Lord?" We don't quote that a lot, but it is at the root of the
issue here. That is, the sin of anger, if there is one, is putting
ourselves in place of God in the analysis and resolution of ultimate
issues. Or, what Jesus is asking us not to do is execute God-displacing
behavior with our anger. Don't condemn and punish entire groups of
people saying, "This is God's will". Don't judge and attack
those Godless others, saying you are doing so for your national faith.
Don't put yourself in God's place, presuming, concluding, maintaining
that God can't take that place at any appropriate time. The sin in
anger is taking God's place.
Should we be angry when the vulnerable are injured? Yes, absolutely. Should we say
God has ordained us to punish the perpetrators? I don't think so.
Should we acknowledge the fear, pain, or anxiety of the oppressed?
Without doubt. Should our anger justify breaking the sixth commandment?
I don't think so.
Often in the Bible there is a pattern to anger. In the story of the
Golden Calf and in the account of Jesus' approach to Jerusalem, each of
which can be read in a few verses, there are four identical stages for
God and Jesus: pain, anger, reflection, and repair. So in those two
events pain is the trigger, but anger is not the end. Neither, in any
of its expressions, should ours be.
This is such an enormous topic, and all I have done is scratch its
surface. It leads to other considerations such as the role of violence
in history and faith, the role of other emotions in faith, and the
challenges of Christian behavior that, even on a progressive stage, are
still sometimes counter to instinctual human behavior, among many other
But I started all this by introducing three stories of frustration,
fear, and theological injury. And by asking, "What role does anger
play in your life?" Which is the right place to end, too.
If you look at your own anger, does it have an extraordinary role in
your life? As the fourth step of the twelve steps implies, why? Is
long-held anger, fear, or resentment playing a large role in your life?
If you look at your own life, are you in touch with the anger that is
appropriate? When you contemplate all this, do you leave God to do
God's stuff, and retain to yourself the tasks and roles that are yours?
These aren't simple questions. They are Lenten questions. Cleaning
spiritual house for the fresh winds of the Spirit at hand. And they are
community questions, regarding how we treat each other, how we express
ourselves in faith, and whether our emotional expressions include love,
thankfulness, joy, and grief, as well as anger.
Yesterday someone visiting in my office, knowing that I was working
on all this, simply said, "There is so much anger in our world
right now. Can't we do anything about it?" That's the question for
ministry. That's the question to answer together. Amen.
Copyright © 2004 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by