Anger for the rest of us… Redeeming Emotions (2)

Posted by on Feb 23, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

The first post in our redeeming emotions series looked at the anger of Jesus, and the way he used it redemptively. I imagine many who read it thought – ‘all very well for Jesus. But what about anger for the rest of us? Is there any way that it can move from the deficit side of the ledger to being a positive in our life?’

It is a pertinent question. We live in an angry age. It may show itself in very obvious ways – family violence, warfare, bullying. Other forms are more subtle – sarcasm, cynicism, depression (which is sometimes anger turned inwards) and our addiction to graphic violence in movies are all signs that things are not well.

There is little doubt that overall anger does a great deal of harm. Its toll on the body is marked, and can lead to high blood pressure, ulcers, strokes, heart disease, arthritis and more beside. It tears communities apart. It lessens the likelihood of people being willing to be open and vulnerable. The fear it causes often leads to deceit and lies. It makes honest, transparent relationships nigh impossible. It is usually condemned in the Bible, Ecc 7:9 ‘Anger resides in the lap of fools’ and Ps 37:8 ‘Refrain from anger and turn from wrath’ being two of many possible examples. Angry Christians are likely to be ineffective witnesses, it being really hard to assure someone of the transforming love of God minutes after you have indulged in an angry outburst against them.

If you are an angry person, all this might simply make you feel a little uncomfortable, even angry. You may be muttering, ‘I know I’m an angry person, but just telling me I shouldn’t be is hardly likely to help.’ Perhaps you’ll  add some more colourful comments to that sentiment! Rather than simply identify a problem, let’s ask if there is a way to move to the solution side, though in saying this I freely acknowledge that anger is a complex emotion, and won’t be solved by a trite set of easy steps. But perhaps we can find some pointers that will move us in a helpful direction.

First though, let’s begin with some positives. When is anger right? Again I would point back to the first article in this series on the anger of Jesus. As always, Jesus is the example we should model ourself upon.

Most commonly anger takes one of three forms – rage (which is usually spur of the moment anger when something happens and triggers an explosively angry response), resentment (which is a seeping or leaking anger, often caused by a chip on the shoulder at some perceived wrong endured in the past) and indignation. Of this trio, it is indignation which is sometimes acceptable. It is primarily indignation at what others are being forced to endure that sparks Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples for turning children away from him, and leads to his cleansing of the temple. The key ingredient of righteous indignation is that it is on behalf of others.

In an oldish but still relevant book, Anger: Yours, Mine and What to Do About It, Richard Walters suggests 8 keys for discerning if something can be classified as righteous indignation. They are that the anger or indignation:

  1. Identifies a real injustice. Be careful of this… it is NOT anger looking for a respectable cause
  2. Prays rather than plots
  3. Points to a condition rather than a person
  4. Helps the badly treated
  5. Teaches rather than destroys the offender
  6. Is unselfish
  7. Is usually reluctant (be cautious of people who are always finding new things to be ‘validly’ indignant about)
  8. Refuses vengeance

If anger is tripping you up, you might well look at that list and shake your head and say, ‘that’s not me. Nothing noble about my anger. It’s just anger… and I really don’t know what to do about it. Is there a way forward.

While there are no easy solutions, here are some helpful steps forward…

Be willing to deal with the past

The trouble with the past is that for many people it is still the present. Unresolved issues lie not far from the surface, and in vulnerable moments everything bursts out. Anger in the present often links back to earlier experiences of rejection, humiliation, shame, powerlessness and loss. Agendas birthed decades earlier often shape our attitudes today. But what to do about them?

First it helps to recognise a basic life principle. In the end, everything comes out. Past pain and hurt can erupt out explosively, or it can leak out, or we can find measured ways to release it, ideally in the supportive presence of a good listener who in turn is conscious that listening is done in the healing presence of Jesus. The last is far and away the most helpful. It is worth accepting the invitation of Matt 11:28 ‘Come to me all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens…’ The past can be a very heavy burden. We need to come to Jesus – visualise his presence with us, name each burden we are carrying and then consciously let each one drop into his hands. He will know what to do with them. We might need to come back several times – no worry… the invitation remains… come to me. Don’t deny what has happened, don’t pretend it is not there – but consciously release it into the care of Jesus. Earlier I said it is best to do that in the supporting presence of a good listener – and it is.

Be willing to do some practical things in the present

There are some fairly down to earth things we can do about anger in the present. Here are a few:

  1. Nip things in the bud. This is the Eph 4:26 principle where we are told to not let the sun go down on our anger. Sort things out in the early stages. Much conflict arises from misunderstanding, and if we are willing to act quickly to clarify or to make sure that we have understood someone’s intent, it can remove the kind of anger that simmers away – slowly growing until it eventually bursts out, often at someone who is totally perplexed by the outburst because its origins were in a misunderstanding they were unaware of.
  2. Be honest with God. The lament Psalms are interesting. They record one outburst against God after another. And outbursts against God are not limited to the Psalms. Think of the angry explosions from Gideon (Judges 6:11-13) and Jonah (Jonah 4:9). Their anger is important because rather than bottling what they feel, they indicate that they trust God enough to show their emotions in his presence and then to leave things in his hands. God is our refuge and strength… if we hide what we feel, our lives are lonely indeed. When we take everything to God, including our anger, frustration, disappointment, hurt, outrage, weariness, fear – whatever – we are in the place where every emotion is understood, and solutions can be found. Rage in God’s presence often has the unexpected aftermath of deep calm – the catharsis of venting what we feel often being followed by the gentle guidance of God… try this, or look at it in this way, or think how that person is seeing it. It might be more direct – take courage, tackle this head on, speak to this person.
  3. Be honest with others. No, don’t dump you emotions on them, but do speak to them and let them know how you feel. Because it is how you feel, accept responsibility for your feelings (they are your feelings, not theirs, so even if you think they are the cause of them, they are your feelings). In other words, don’t blame. Rather use language like, ‘When you said… I felt….’ rather than ‘You said… and therefore…’
  4. Take a deep breath. Thomas Jefferson advised, ‘When angry, speak to ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.’ While taking the deep breath or counting to a hundred, ask ‘whose problem is this.’ Very often we will realise that we are being dumped upon by another broken person (and aren’t we all broken). The problem might lie in their hurts from the past. We should feel for them, rather than feel we have to take on their agenda for us. Ironically, an angry outburst from another might lead us to a deeper compassion for them, rather than a need to retaliate in kind. Of course, whilst counting we might realise their anger is fully justified. If so, face that, and apologise.

Be willing to claim your future

Anger, especially when it takes the form of rage, is often the result of feeling powerless. The anger is usually a futile attempt to regain control. It often goes back to our earliest years. The child throwing a tantrum at the supermarket is desperate to get out of shopping and to be back home again – but really can’t make that happen. The resulting tirade is an overflow of the angst that results from the impotence to do anything.

Strangely the way forward is often an act of resignation. It is about breathing deeply and facing a difficult but fundamental truth – this I cannot control… and welcoming rather than fighting this realisation. Indeed, it can be liberating. There are many things in life that we cannot control. We can’t control the day of our birth or death. We had no say in the family we were born into, nor its location, economic status and cultural commitment. We were born into a story that started long before us and its contours have a huge impact upon us. We can rage against the injustice of this – or embrace this as an act of providence – somehow part of God’s wider plan, no matter how obscure or how difficult it might seem to be. Ironically when we accept the many things we cannot change, we often become free to notice the things that do lie within our power. Sometimes our rage at what we can’t do blinds us to the huge range of options within our grasp. It is about accepting a complex truth – there are so many things that I cannot control, but I am not a victim. There are still lots of choices I can make – and I can decide if those choices will be life serving or destructive. Furthermore, if I have placed my trust and confidence in Christ, a wider truth covers me. Whatever the complexity of the present, my future is secure with Christ. The Apostle Paul is right – nothing can separate us from the love of God found in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39). And nothing actually means nothing

No, I don’t think this post is going to answer every question – but here’s hoping that it points in a helpful and hopeful direction.

As always, nice chatting…

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