Friday, August 2, 2013

"Anger at" and "Anger for"

The Biblical Data on Anger

How many sermons have you heard about how to get angry? How many books have you read on the subject? (This is a rhetorical question; if anyone actually has heard any sermons or read any books on how to get angry, let me know) In my experience as a Christian, anger has always been presented as something to be avoided, as a manifestation of sin from which Jesus cleanses us. Paul has plenty of words against anger, especially in his "sin lists":
For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish--that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2 Corinthians 12:20)
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:19-23)
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:21-32)
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling. (2 Timothy 2:8)
Or James:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.(James 1:19-20)
Clearly anger isn't a good idea for the children of God. It's one of the "works of the flesh" opposed to the fruits of the Spirit; it destroys Christian fellowship; it stifles the love we're supposed to resemble Christ by. I could write a lengthy post about how anger has twisted God's image in the church, but Morgan Guyton has already written a better one.

Well, that's all great, except Jesus got angry a few times.
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 3:1-5)
And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city. (Mark 11:15-19)
Also, the Greek word for anger, οργη, also translates to "wrath", which we're promised plenty of
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36)
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18)
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:9)
What is going on here? Is getting angry "okay" or not? How can Jesus do it if Paul prohibited it? The answer (as you may expect if you frequent my blog) is complicated! Let's look at the two examples of Jesus getting angry in more detail.

In the first passage, Mark 3:1-5, Jesus meets a man with a deformed hand. As He is preparing to heal the man, He notices people watching Him to see if they'll get a chance to condemn Him for healing someone on the Sabbath. He just made His intentions regarding the Sabbath very clear a few verses ago: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." In other words, the Sabbath is supposed to be a gift for Israel to enjoy, not a burden to make their lives onerous or a "gotcha" by which to condemn people. When no one is willing to recognize what should be obvious to them, that it's okay to heal someone on the Sabbath, He gets angry.

In the second, Jesus kind of goes on a rampage through the temple in Jerusalem driving out the money-changers and pigeon-sellers. Commentaries are helpful for providing context here. Jewish males had to pay a yearly "temple tax", but the temple had its own currency and onsite money-changers would exchange between the currencies--for a markup. Meanwhile others would sell "approved" sacrificial animals like pigeons, again for a nice profit. (Kind of like movie theatres and sports venues getting to charge you more for snacks) This capitalistic chaos would all take place in the court of the Gentiles, the only place where people from non-Jewish nations could come to worship at the temple. Hence Jesus saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

What is the common thread in both of these instances? Jesus is getting angry at people twisting or perverting the words of God (the laws about the Sabbath or the rules of temple worship) and destroying shalom, God's persistent desire for peace, justice and human flourishing. (This also applies to all the times He gets huffy at the Pharisees, who took God's laws which were supposed to be blessings and turned them into heavy burdens that they made people carry) Making an intuitive leap, I would more generally say that Jesus gets angry at sin.

"Anger at" vs. "Anger for"

In combination with Paul's writing about avoiding anger, we start to see a difference between "good" anger (as modeled by Jesus) and "bad" anger (as warned against by Paul). It is righteous, just anger; jealous anger--jealous for God's people and their redemption from sin to shalom. Paul warns against selfish, sinful anger at people; Jesus models righteous anger for people. "Anger at" is self-focused and intended to harm; "anger for" is others-focused and intended to protect and redeem. "Anger at" comes from a desire to be right, to have your way, or to put down those you dislike; "anger for" is rooted in love for God and for the people He loves.

This is, in my view, a better response than just saying, "God is allowed to be angry at sin because He's perfectly holy, but we're not supposed to imitate Him in this because we're not like Him. We're supposed to pay attention to the log in our own eye, not the dust in our neighbor's eye (Matthew 7:3)." By learning to see multiple shades of anger, we can move past this dissonant picture of sanctification where we're supposed to become just like Jesus except X, Y, and Z, about which He effectively says "do as I say, not as I do". Becoming more like Jesus means getting angry at sin, for sinners just like He did.

I just saw an example of this in my small group last night when we went over Jonah 4. Jonah has just preached a message of impending doom to Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, at which they immediately repented and avoided destruction. But Jonah isn't happy but angry at this development; he reveals that the reason he initially ran from God's call to prophesy to Ninevah was because he was afraid this would happen. (4:2) So Jonah gets angry, "angry enough to die" (4:9). God asks him twice, "do you do well to be angry?"

So we see that Jonah and God had different purposes for Jonah's prophetic message to Ninevah. Jonah was "angry at" the Ninevites and hoped that they wouldn't repent and would be destroyed. But God is, if anything, "angry for" the city of Ninevah and its people, so He wants to redeem them and is glad to relent from destroying them. Jonah saw the Ninevites as "those people"; God saw them as His people, alienated from Him as they were. It got me wondering, who are "those people" to us? Who, if we went to heaven and saw them there, would we get angry at God over?

This helps us to see how God can be so full of wrath, even in the Jonah story. Shalom is God's desire for His creation: every part at peace, with justice rolling like a river and righteousness like a never-ending stream (Amos 5:24). God's wrath can be thought of as frustration that this vision is not yet realized, and indeed that some created beings (that is, us) actively resist that vision and work to defeat it, maybe for their whole lives--we sin. Yet simply wiping us all out would be equally fatal to shalom (which we're supposed to be there to enjoy) as allowing us to continue sinning, as we see in the story of Noah. God's mission is positive (the ultimate fulfillment of shalom), not negative (the destruction of sin). God loves us as His children, created image-bearers, and intended enjoyers of shalom, yet He is grieved and angry when we reject these roles. God's wrath, when it happens, is an expression of this anger from a protective parent--not simply that of a child who doesn't get his way or an OCD neat-freak who can't tolerate any contamination of sin. God's wrath is primarily "anger for" His glory, for His kingdom, for us, for shalom, not "anger at" sin. His love and desire for these things is foundational, not His hatred for sin.

A deficiency of anger

I was inspired to write this post after reading a recent post by Rachel Held Evans about her struggle with anger. She also describes how God's anger arises from His love:
Throughout Scripture we encounter a God is angered by injustice and the neglect of the poor. Jesus expressed anger at those who exploited the poor and vulnerable, who harmed children, and who “shut the door to the Kingdom in people’s faces” through religious legalism and exclusion. As N.T. Wright has said, “To deny God’s wrath is, at bottom, to deny God’s love. When God sees humans being enslaved… if God doesn’t hate it, he is not a loving God.” 
We are right to be angered by inequity and injustice, whether inflicted upon ourselves or on other people. And we have to be very careful of telling other people—particularly those in the process of healing— when they ought to be angry, when they ought to forgive, or when they ought to “move on.”
With this in mind, she describes the limitations to the role anger should play in our faith, and her own difficulties staying within these limits and setting aside her need to "win" over others by being right.
I’ve been thinking lately that the hardest part of fundamentalism for me to leave behind is the part that equates rightness with righteousness, the part that makes "winning" the goal. 
Because I like winning arguments. 
No, I LOVE winning arguments. 
No, if I could marry winning arguments and cuddle with winning arguments every night while we watched ’30 Rock’ reruns together, I probably would. 
And yet I feel God’s presence most profoundly when I give up—not on making the argument, but on winning it. I know God’s love with more certainty, not when I’ve proven it, but when I’ve experienced it and when I’ve extended it. I find the most peace when like Dallas Willard I “practice the discipline of not having to have the last word.” 
It’s possible, I suppose, to win an argument and lose your soul.
Lastly, I thought this sentence was brilliant:
After all, the words Jesus promises at the end of this journey aren’t “Congratulations! You were right!” The words Jesus promises at the end of this journey are, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
As I was reading her thoughts about how we can't stay angry, I realized how little they seemed to apply to me. Anger is an unstable equilibrium for me. I don't like staying angry, especially against people. By nature, I don't hold grudges against people or consider them my "enemy". Especially since my humbling journey through doubt, I find it increasingly hard to care about winning arguments. Fortunately, by now I've learned enough about my relative uniqueness to not assume I'm "off the hook" because the sin issues people make a big deal of don't sound familiar to me. I started to think that instead of Evans' anger issues, I might have a different problem.

My default response when something would make me angry is to constructively redirect that anger into looking for ways to blame myself and subsequently "fix" whatever in myself is making me susceptible to the stress. Basically, I've realized that it's much easier to solve problems by changing myself than by changing the world. This has the effect of making me very good at taking responsibility for my "stuff", learning from my experience and mostly avoiding a victim mentality toward my problems in life. Also, it occasionally backfires when I get sick of myself or don't think I can change.

Unfortunately, another implication of this way of dealing with anger and stress is that the easiest way to "solve" stressors that I can't redirect in this way, that pertain to me only loosely or not at all is to simply ignore them. Better to save my care for things that are closer to me. This attitude is completely opposed to the righteous "anger for" I described above. It gets angry only for itself, no one else, and is just as "un-Christian" a treatment of anger as the domineering one that is seen as more of a problem.

Everyone processes anger differently. Maybe you fit Evans' profile (too much anger), or maybe mine (too little), or maybe you have your own problems living Paul's exhortation to "anger for". I don't want to try to enumerate all the ways people can fall short of it (because that's impossible), but rather to hold up the example we're called to strive for--a jealous, righteous anger at sin in ourselves and the world, for God's people and the shalom He earnestly desires for them.

Stay angry, my friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment