I feel angry about all kinds of things, from people in front of me at the supermarket being ridiculously slow to unfair criticism on a piece of work I’ve done. Indeed, anger is a fact of life for any of us who interact with real people, but how do you deal with anger - Are you a fighter or a hoarder?
Fighters guard their boundaries and fight any who cross them. You act unjustly, you hurt those I love, you cut me up in traffic then you are fair game; I’m going to fight back. Hoarders appear calm and peaceful – you act unjustly, hurt those I love or cut me up in traffic and I carry on. But I store away the memories of injustice done, I resent and store up unforgiveness.
There is a story told in many churches that says fighters have an ‘anger problem,’ whilst hoarders are a model of peace. This story sees anger as inherently negative and so those who hide it should be applauded. But the resentment that builds from holding on to undealt with anger is just as damaging as the impact of the fighter’s fist. Look at what Jesus has to say:
‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder’ and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister without cause will be subject to judgement’ (Matthew 5:21, NIV)
Jesus links our outer actions with the inner workings of our heart and questions which way our anger is directed.
Because anger against injustice, abuse, exclusion is not wrong; indeed, one book says this:
‘Biblically, anger is God-given energy intended to help us solve problems’1
What if we referred to our ‘anger problems’ as ‘God-given energy problems’?! The problem isn’t the anger, it’s the direction; are we reacting to injustices against ourselves or others? Are we first and foremost defending our own interests or the interests of the poor, the weak and the marginalised?
The fighter leaves a trail of bodies, the hoarder holds on to resentment and unforgiveness that will turn us rotten, but Jesus offers another way, here’s the challenges he offers:
- Refuse to let anger slide. In Matthew 5:23 Jesus says if we are coming to worship and remember something is not right with a brother or sister then go and sort it out. Right now. Have the difficult conversation rather than retaining a bitter memory rather than being imprisoned by your unforgiving thoughts.
- Refuse to let anger escalate. Jesus goes on to warn us not to let fights drag on or get worse – ‘Settle matters quickly,’ He says. When someone crosses your boundaries, presses your buttons, can you have the grace to let it go? Can you be a peacemaker instead?
- Know our boundaries. The more we know our boundaries and our buttons, the more we can be prepared to react graciously when people cross or push them. Take time to reflect on when and how you feel angry and whether it is justified.
- Practice forgiveness. This is hard. But forgiveness is not to deny the pain that is caused, it is to offer freedom freely to one who does not deserve it. God invites us to a life that is forgiven and forgiving, that receives and gives the abundant flow of mercy. Forgiving the other sets our heart free.
When anger is no longer a reactionary defence of myself or bitter resentment stored away, then God can use the anger of our hearts to right wrongs, to defend the defenceless and to bring freedom to ourselves and others. Will we steward our anger well?
1 R.Paul Steven and Alvin Ung, Taking your soul to work: Overcoming the nine deadly sins of the workplace, (Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 40