How do you deal with anger? It’s a common emotion, but so few people (myself included) know how to handle it well. The prevailing West Coast attitude seems to be a mind over matter, zen approach to anger. A “you won’t like me when I’m angry” attitude. When our role model for dealing with anger is the Incredible Hulk’s alter-ego Dr. Bruce Banner, we’ve got a problem.
I try my best to avoid wrath. And I, like Dr. Banner, have become very capable at avoiding large outbursts. But that doesn’t mean that my anger lies dormant.
In some ways, I think we are meant to be angry. I have been watching the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer” this week. This series revolves around Steven Avery, a man who was convicted and served 18 years for a crime he did not commit, only to be accused and tried for murder, despite his pleas of innocent, just two years following his exoneration. The whole story surrounding the events of “Making a Murderer” is tragic, and seems unjust. And in this tragedy and injustice, I feel anger.
Is it wrong for me to feel this anger? No.
Our God is a God who is angered by injustice, and the mistreatment of the lowly. Our God is a God who is angered by sin. We are made in his image and it is because the Holy Spirit is alive in us that we feel angered by the wrongs we see in the world. But we are also fallen, and are largely incapable of expressing our anger well, despite our best intentions. That’s why Paul’s words, “be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26), are so dang hard to live out.
For me, as a polite and agreeable Canadian with a relaxed West Coast lifestyle, the way that I try to apply this command to my life is by simply trying to avoid being outwardly angry. If a toddler has a tantrum they are sent to timeout. If an adult snaps they are sent to anger management. Outbursts of anger are not tolerated in our society.
The way wrath tends to show itself in my life is less of a pipe burst and more of a constant drip from a leaky faucet. I’m not one to yell or create a big scene when I’m upset. The way I show my anger is more passive. When left unexpressed, anger to stews and festers, and it always has a way of working itself out.
When we are wrathful, we separate others from their true status as image bearers of God.
Even when we think we have our anger managed, it can seep out. Unfortunately and embarrassingly it often does that though unexpected avenues. I like to think of myself as a pretty funny person. I’ve always been able to make people laugh, and that is something that I take pride in. Unfortunately, humour has become a major avenue for my anger to escape. I am much more likely to make a joke about something or someone who upsets me than I am to actually confront the issue and express my anger.
I’m kidding myself if I think that my passive approach to anger, allowing it to come out in small bursts masked by my comedic genius, is any better than turning into a rage monster. To bring it back to the plumbing metaphor, whether there is pipe burst or a slow leak, we are still left standing in a puddle of water. There is still something broken, that needs to be fixed.
Anger, like pain or sadness, is an emotion that tells us something is wrong. When we dwell in our anger and allow it to fester long enough, and it turns into ugly wrath (whether that be passive aggression or an outburst of rage), how is it different from anger? How come it is okay to be angered by corruption and injustice in the world, but not at the person who cut you off during rush hour? Where do we draw that line?
For me, a good guideline is asking this question: What is my anger doing?
When I am wrathful, my anger promotes separation. I separate myself from reality, deny the brokenness I experience, and bottle up the emotions I feel. When we are wrathful, we separate others from their true status as image bearers of God. Instead of viewing people the way God does, our wrath changes what we see. When wrath seeps in, we can only see through that lens. Instead of being able to see people as beloved like God does, we can only see them coloured with wrath. But more than that, when we dwell in wrath, we separate ourselves from the God who comes to heal the brokenness we feel. The brokenness that makes us angry. The brokenness that makes him angry.
God’s anger at brokenness, sin, and injustice does not sequester itself. It doesn’t fester. He is slow to anger and gets angry at the right things. His anger at sin promoted action, and this action did not create separation, but was the ultimate unifying act of love.
Through Jesus we have forgiveness for the wrath that separates us. Through the cross we are brought near. Through God’s redeeming work, when we experience anger we can bring it to him, instead of keeping it and letting it fester. We can take our anger at the brokenness we experience to the one who is working to redeem all things. God can redeem our anger, exchanging it for his heart to see all things made new, and his all surpassing peace.