Jesus Died to Make Us Nice, Right? A Brief for Anger.
APRIL 7, 2021
As you know, I’ve been working on a new book, Laughter and Lament: The Touchstones of Radical Freedom.
One of the good things about writing a book is learning a lot of new things about the subject, and this new book isn’t an exception. As I’ve studied Scripture, and thought and prayed about laughter and lament, sometimes I’ve felt like I’m drinking from a fire hydrant. It’s hard to absorb all the many ideas and principles.
There is no place where that is truer than in the subject of anger, and its connection to laughter and lament. In fact, when I outlined the chapters, it never even occurred to me that I would be writing anything about anger. After all, Jesus died to make us nice, right?
What started my thinking about anger was a friend’s email, writing to invite me to celebrate the one-year anniversary of his being cleared of a federal indictment. My friend has been down some hard and dark roads, including a number of very difficult family and professional issues. And one of the most horrible experiences has been public humiliation. My friend held a prominent political office and, just before an important election, that federal indictment was brought against him and made public. Later on, after he had lost the election, a federal judge dismissed the indictment as bogus.
During the past few months, my friend illustrated almost everything I’m writing about in the new book, and I’ve learned a lot from him. He often wrote about how difficult lament was, pointing out that we only learn to lament when the pain allows no other option. “Lament has been a journey for me,” he wrote, “a journey into grace, repentance, and wholeness.” On another occasion, my friend wrote, “If we don’t understand lament, we will never understand celebration.”
What he wrote in this anniversary email, though, was different. My friend was irritated. “The indictment,” he wrote, “should have been dismissed three months earlier. Unfortunately, the federal prosecutors wanted to rub my nose in the false accusation for another three months.”
Of course, I rejoiced with my friend, but I was also glad he expressed anger. Do you know why? Lament without anger isn’t lament; it’s just whining. Honest anger is healthy and healing. Anger is a significant element in lament and one of the reasons for the freedom that follows it.
The reason I’ve been so intrigued with the subject of anger is that I struggle with anger and I’ve often been accused of being an angry person. I’m actually better than I was, and that could be God or just age. My anger has always come from a variety of sources (e.g. adult child of an alcoholic issues, church problems I could fix with a few funerals, ego, and, of course, the ever-present self-righteousness). For the most part, though, my anger was simply sin—sin I’ve often repented of both to God and to people I’ve hurt.
But sometimes anger is a gift, not a sin. If we repent of anger too much, we may be in danger of repenting of something quite healthy and, in fact, affirmed in Scripture. One of the reasons people see Christians as weird is that we often think everything bad is our fault (including a locust attack on the other side of the world) and anger just compounds the sin. So we repent of sin, but we also repent of anger even when it isn’t sin.
Do you sometimes get angry? I’m here to help . . . not to make you more angry, but to affirm a different kind of anger that is godly and righteous.
Paul said that we should be angry, but not let the sun go down on our anger. And then he demonstrated that teaching by expressing some very strong and angry words about those who were perverting the gospel, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9). A good many of the psalms of lament contain a strong element of anger as do the imprecatory psalms. And everybody knows how angry Jesus was when he kicked the money changers out of the temple. At the end of his book, the writer of Lamentations speaks, quite properly, to a sovereign God. If you don’t see the anger in his words (however muted), you haven’t read it right: “But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations. Why do you forget us forever, why do you forsake us for so many days?” (Lamentations 5:19-20). In other words, “It’s your fault and I’m angry.” And, of course, Scripture speaks quite often of the “wrath of God.” So, given that we are created in the image of God, there are times when our wrath is appropriate too.
In the old, but wonderful, movie Network, the news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has an emotional breakdown on camera and the powers that be notice that the ratings start going through the roof. So, instead of getting him therapy, they leave him on the air as his nightly rants become increasingly popular. In fact, it turns out that he wasn’t as crazy as everybody thought as he expresses his anger at the world’s depravity. In one arresting scene, Beale tells people across America to go out to the streets or open the windows of their apartments, homes, or workplaces, and shout at the top of their lungs, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
Let me show you some things I’ve learned.
Have you ever papered over evil with niceness? I’ve often said to people who have suffered injustice, abuse, or rejection, “Doesn’t that tick you off?” If they tell me that they aren’t angry because they’re a Christian, I know they have a long way to go in terms of healing. They have run from the demons rather than confronting them in the name of Christ. Anger is a part of the healing process of grief work and a door we must walk through on the way to hope and freedom. If there is no anger, then it’s called “denial.”
I have a friend who was sexually abused by her father. As she worked through the painful issues of that horrible experience, she stood by her dead father’s grave and yelled at him, expressing all her fiery anger. Once my friend was spent and started to walk away, she looked back over her shoulder and said, “And by the way, I forgive you.” After that, my friend told me she was finally free.
There is more. Anger names the demons. When Paul said in Galatians 5:12 (and in other places in that book where he expressed his anger), “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves,” it doesn’t sound very Christian, but it is. It is an anger that recognizes the world’s (and our own) brokenness, pain, evil, injustice, and darkness for what they are. It is saying, in essence, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be and I’m angry that it isn’t.” I often say to people who have suffered from real injustice that, if they give me a list of names of those at fault, I will pray for their deaths. “Of course,” I add, “God probably won’t answer that prayer, but he may just give them the hives.” That mildly humorous comment is, at minimum, a statement about the legitimacy of genuine anger.
Anger also motivates. I used to teach students in my communication/peaching classes that, if they were getting too emotional and tears started to come, to think of someone who ticked them off and they would get through it. The anger would motivate them. I told that to a pastor friend of mine retiring from a church he had founded 25 years before. “I know that next Sunday (his last) is going to be hard and I’m here to help.” I told him that when he got in the pulpit to think of someone in the church who made him angry. He said that he loved his people and he wasn’t angry at anyone there. I said, “Then you’re on your own” and began to head out the door.
“Wait,” my friend said, “I just thought of three. Thank you.”
That, of course, is rather minor; but, in fact, every movement for good in our world (e.g. emancipation, women’s rights, the civil rights movement, child labor laws, sexual trafficking organizations, the Great Awakenings in Europe and America, etc.) began because someone was angry and decided to do something about it. When William Booth founded the Salvation Army he said that he just couldn’t get the poor of London out of his heart. That was compassion, but there was an element of anger there too.
One more thing. Anger—even sinful anger—when you know it, will send you to Jesus. Frankly, I don’t know anything that reflects our inability to “remain pure” more than anger. That’s because anger is often unplanned, embarrassing, and surprising, and it violates almost everything Paul listed in the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. In that sense, anger is a gift because it’s a reminder that real people get angry and we are great sinners desperately in need of a great Savior.
So, along with Paul, let me say, “Be angry.” If it’s a godly anger, rejoice in it. If it’s sin, go to Jesus with it and he’ll love you. He might even make you nicer.
He told me to tell you.