If you are, let’s start with something unusual. Let’s celebrate that.
“A study of the accordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness,” writes Arthur Pink.[1. In The Attributes of God, pp. 95-96]
Richard Niebuhr famously criticized liberal Protestants for ignoring that point: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[1. The Kingdom of God in America (1937), New York: Harper and Row, 1959, p. 193] In Niebuhr’s formulation, the beginning of the error came by a denial of God’s wrath. So Garret Keizer says to the contrary, “I am unable to commit to any messiah who doesn’t knock over tables.”[1. in The Enigma of Anger, as quoted in Rebecca DeYoung’s Glittering Vices, p 121.]
Why would we celebrate a God who has wrath? A messiah who knocks over tables?
My favorite quote about anger may answer that question: “Great love is the root of great anger. You don’t get angry unless you care.”[1. Rebecca DeYoung, Glittering Vices, pp. 121-122. Again, I’m indebted to DeYoung’s work in this post more than I am probably even aware. You should read it.] We celebrate a God who has wrath because our world is full of injustice, and we want to know that God cares.
Wouldn’t you agree, too, that human anger has a godly place in our world? Yes God says, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.”[1. Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30] Yet few of us would say that leaves no room for our own anger at injustice and our own efforts to repel it. Imagine a world without anger, outrage, and retribution. It would shrug at the Holocaust, acquit the rapist…
Anger shows that you care. It rises out of a great love.
When anger becomes a vice
Fighting the wrong fights
Think back through your last week or month. When did you get angry? What was the injustice that drew your wrath?
If that anger showed that you care, if it arose out of a great love, what does it reveal about your love?
When I think back on my greatest moments of outrage, this self-assessment cuts pretty deep. I’ve had moments of righteous anger when I saw people blaspheming or misrepresenting God, or church workers doing poor work in the name of God. I’ve written with indignation about double-standards in church staffing situations. Events like the Newtown school shooting have left me at once heartbroken and furious. But a lot of my anger has been spent on personal offenses.
When I look at the proportions, I’m sickened to see how strongly I’ve reacted, and how long I’ve burned, over perceived injustices done to me in the past. Moreover, I’ve seen how quickly I can get irritated and grit my teeth when something isn’t going precisely as I want. A low-grade anger starts to develop when the traffic lights seem against me, or when things at work or home don’t all run smoothly.
What does this say about my great love? It says that a lot of my great love is for myself.
I know we aren’t meant to be doormats––walked all over by other people without ever a word. We needn’t take every bit of injustice that comes our way or tolerate poor or inappropriate behavior forever. In the ministry setting, churches are often accused of being too slow to fire. We’ve been known to bear with great patience people who should have been let go long before. We need to recognize that patience has bounds, and when we cross them, we become simply negligent.
But I recognize too often in myself something opposite the description of God’s character. Did you know that eight times in Scripture, God is described as “slow to anger and abounding in love”?[1. Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2] Most of those times, he’s also called “compassionate and gracious.” To the contrary, my anger can come quickly and negate all love and compassion and grace.
What fights are you fighting? Are you fighting good fights? The kind of fights that God would fight––for justice and truth and beauty?
Fighting the wrong way
The other question to ask is how we fight when we’re angry.
Let’s acknowledge it: fighting dirty can feel good. Because it’s usually about achieving justice through the lowest common denominator––eye for eye, tooth for tooth, insult for insult, misery for misery.
These feel good because they’re quick answers that give us control. Damage inflicted in a moment can take years to heal. When we fight, we can be part of the slow struggle to heal or we can inflict quick damage.
This happens when we direct our anger at ourselves, too. A person angry at herself for something she did (or didn’t do) can seek peace, or she can choose to punish herself––taking vengeance against herself for past mistakes. How many suicides have been the result of self-loathing? A person’s final angry judgment against herself?
The vice of anger misuses our outrage in legitimate cases of injustice. It causes us to seek justice through more pain rather than through healing.
Fighting back against the vice of anger
The most common pattern in fighting the wrong fights and fighting the wrong way: quickness.
We pick the wrong fights when we lack the forbearance to endure some amount of personal suffering or offense or inconvenience. We fight dirty when we lack the patience to seek peace and let God avenge. We become quick to speak and quick to anger.
I’m amazed by the lack of anger that I’ve seen from many Holocaust survivors. I think it’s a result of the forbearance they were forced to learn and exhibit. Their very survival required a degree of patient endurance I can’t fathom. Those who survived can tell of a great hope they carried––that their lives and sufferings could still have meaning. They didn’t give up because their existence still had a purpose.[1. See Viktor Frankl’s excellent book, Man’s Search for Meaning, for a treatment of this.]
And here patience and hope come together. When our hope is in God––in God’s justice and care––we can stand to patiently endure our present struggles, fight the good fight of peacemaking and restoration, and trust God to administer final justice.
Patience and hope light the path away from the vice of anger. These come only from God, as we grow to trust in him.
Can you assess your anger this Lent? What’s making you angry and how are you fighting? How can you be quicker to listen, slower to speak, slower to become angry? How can you fight good fights as a peacemaker, seeking justice and restoration for all? The beginning of the answer is to recognize how the vice of anger is perverting our sense of justice and then to seek patience and hope from God.
“In your anger, do not sin.”[1. Ephesians 4:26] May your desire for justice make you a peacemaker, blessed and called a child of God.[1. Matthew 5:9] And “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[1. Romans 15:13]