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The place of anger in enduring love

© Andrew Knock (1996, 2000)


Fear of anger

Is having or feeling anger always negative, or a ‘sin’?   Is anger always opposed to forgiveness, or can it sometimes be part of an active forgiveness?  Are there positive things we can say and celebrate about anger?

In this article I want to explore some of our anxieties about our own anger, as well as our fear of other people’s anger.  The way I want to do this is will involve considering some philosophical and anthropological insights into anger.  I want to then explore references to God’s anger in the Judaeo-Christian tradition – which as it appears in the Old Testament is such a strange and alienating feature for today’s post-modern readers – and then evaluate insights into God’s anger through examples of Jesus’ own.

In doing this I hope to explore not only what a ‘righteous’ anger might be, but also some of the overlaps between positive anger and active, transforming forgiveness, particularly in energising someone else to take a step they cannot yet take (= ‘give-for’).  Let me note here that religions with a strong emphasis on the personal nature of God will obviously assist us more than those with an impersonal approach to deity.

Some examples of the way we tend to react to the idea of anger are:

  • "It’s hard not to be frightened of anger if you grew up, as a child, with anger and violence."
  • "I am frightened of my anger.  It can take me over or control me; it’s not good."
  • "In the Old Testament, God is portrayed, sometimes, as a violent, vengeful power; though often also as kind and good. This angry God makes all anger seems like a threat of harmful power."
  • "Children experience anger as the withdrawal of love. In the Old Testament, God also seems to show this ‘cold face’ of anger, by withdrawing his blessing. Why?"


Human anger – some positive examples

New Zealand psychiatrist Guy Pettitt sums up the purpose of healthy forms of anger:

An increase in energy to produce beneficial change in the environment, whether it is the correction of injustice, survival, or assertion of one's genuine needs. (The Process of Forgiveness)

When I began my ministry, I got to know Hans Merkens.  Hans was born in Holland, trained as an engineer, and settled in Perth after the war.  He told me how he saw the appalling sewage system north of the town, and for the first time in his life got so angry that he devoted much of his energy to setting out a new system.   Here anger was the energy to improve something.

The Dunblane parents who after the 1996 school massacre campaigned under the Snowdrop petition for changes in gun law had to express their anger indirectly.  Thomas Hamilton, the murderer, wasn’t there to be angry with, unlike so many court scenes.  This displaced anger has actually done far more good, because people can sometimes change systems for the better. We are less able to change people for the better.

In a BBC news programme about caring for disadvantaged youths, I heard of the example of Roy Howarth, heading a special primary schools unit in Oxfordshire, and getting extremely angry (verbally) with Lee, a young referral, who was refusing any co-operation and verbally abusing Roy.  It was evident, right and impressive that Roy cared that much, to want to see Lee improve.

Keep these examples in mind, and perhaps others of your own, as we explore anger more fully.  It's worth noting that the first two examples involved directing anger towards the transformation of a system or institution.  The third involves working towards the transformation of another person's values and outlook, and is based on a committed long-term relationship within which the anger can be expressed constructively.


What is human anger?

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a little book on anger, in which he wisely defined it as the urgent attempt to regain control of a situation, to re-establish order when things seem to have gone out of control.  We often break into anger when faced with confusions in our lives.

This is an important truth, and control and loss of control are important aspects of anger.  But I think we can understand what is going on better by beginning from what anthropologists like Konrad Lorenz call the ‘fight-flight’ mechanism in animals, including humans.  Faced with any threat to our normal life (including a loss of control through illness as well as attack from other people), we can either retaliate and do battle, or run away.

Anger is an explosion of energy, with bodily signs of an adrenaline rush, blood pumping, eyes protruding a bit. It is the human way of dealing with sudden threats, almost always where we might lose something or someone.  It doesn’t necessarily lead to physical or verbal violence.

The sudden eruption of energy in anger is its greatest resource. What we need to do here is to explore whether, and how, the energy can be channelled in a spiritually positive way.  Two images may focus this: seeking to kick-start a situation or organisation, and redirecting the destruction of nuclear weapons into the provision of nuclear energy plants.  Note that neither image removes the edge of risk or danger.  No human relationship can involve real encounter and exchange and yet comfortable and safe. No spirituality can avoid walking into the unknown.

What most human expressions of anger have in common is that they try to cut off a damaging relationship: either by destroying the ‘enemy’ or by never seeing him again.  (‘Slinking off’ without facing the person who has upset you is still anger – just not very brave anger!)

Both of these extremes are part of anger.  Indeed, the more I have thought about our experiences, the more it seems to me that you can hardly distinguish between someone’s ‘initial’ anger and another person’s response. Anger is contagious – more than laughter or other human emotions, it spreads almost immediately.  The release of energy triggers release in others.

So: John may be angry towards Jean – or he may express anger about Peter, but express it to Jean – either way, Jean is likely to get angry as well, almost immediately!

A characteristic form of anger’s contagion is that we often respond to someone’s angry withdrawal by withdrawing from him or her.  Again, this is not very ‘brave’ anger, though it parallels the way in which sometimes we respond to someone’s confrontational anger by shouting back, banging doors and sometimes also moving to inflicting destructive personal hurt.

However, most people find confrontation hard.  Withdrawal is the more familiar pattern of angry response, and for that reason our angry is more familiarly triggered by instances of withdrawal.  For example: the death of a close relative, both through natural causes and when killed; being passed over for a job promotion; being gossiped or lied about; being rejected in favour of another lover; having favourite possessions stolen; being laughed at or humiliated; the loss of hearing or eyesight or general health.


Property: what is proper to human beings

I think it will help us here to connect anger more directly with issues of loss and theft, and to begin to understand anger as an emotion directed towards re-possession of personal 'property.'  By 'property' I mean more than household goods and cars - the expression refers to what is proper to a person, basic human rights and qualities which define the individuality of each human being.  In Sartre's terms, our basic sense of 'order' and rightness stems from our sense of self and what belongs to that.   Of course, one of the features of materialism is that people often do define their individuality in and through household goods, cars, etc., and experience intense anger when, say, their car is even lightly damaged.

The Biblical scholar William Countryman developed this idea of 'property' systematically in his remarkable book Dirt, Greed and Sex.  I want to give space here to taking his insights on board.  Countryman's main thesis is that Israelite religion developed its moral values along two axes purity/dirt and property/greed.  He then argued that Christianity, if it is to follow Jesus' teaching and also Paul's, needs to jettison its purity values, particularly in its preconceptions and prejudices about sexuality.  At the same time, property values were retained by Jesus:

In the ethic of purity, dirtiness is defined as wrong and therefore to be avoided, corrected and/or punished.  Since the purity ethic, with its concern for bodily boundaries, has a certain natural affinity for sexual acts, people often, in a casual way, reduce all issues of sexual ethics to that of purity; and once we learn that "all things are pure for the pure" (Titus 1.15), we may assume that, for the New Testament writers, sexual ethics have ceased to exist. 

This far from being their position.  They turn, instead, to another ethical principle deeply rooted in their world one, moreover, on which Jews and Gentiles were broadly agreed the principle of respect for sexual property.  'Property' denotes something which is understood as an extension of the self, so that a violation of my property is a violation of my personhood.  (op cit p 147)

Countryman then applies this principle to today's world, acknowledging how much our ideas about what is proper to every human being has changed since the world of 2,000 years ago:

The wherewithal of being human must include, at the very minimum, sustenance, space, the means to grow, the community of other humans, and some freedom of choice ... The metaphorical space which surrounds each of us and which we characterise as 'mine' is of the essence of our being human.  When it is opened voluntarily to another, it is also a means of community.  But when it is broken into by violence, the very possibility of being human is at least momentarily being denied to us.

If in antiquity, given the existing concept of family, adultery was the characteristic violation of sexual property, in our own age it had become rape ... Partners can easily withhold from each other those interior goods (property) which they have contracted, explicitly or implicitly, to provide.  The form of adultery most characteristic, then, of our own society, is not adultery with a third person, but the purely self-regarding adultery which demands of the partner the full range of goods associated with sexual property but gives few or none of them in return.  (op cit pp 248, 254)

Although Countryman's proposals towards a revision of sexual ethics are highly significant and insightful, for us here the point is to gain from his insights into how a 'property' ethic should be re-assimilated in today's culture and world-view.


Anger, love and ‘re-possession’

Human love is, however idealistically we may wish, usually more about ownership and possessions than about self-sacrifice.  However much we may want to claim we have moved beyond the patriarchal property system of marriage, employment and bondage, we tend to love people because of the good effects they have on us, including physical attractiveness, reinforcement of our beliefs and prejudices, filling of our needs.  Falling in love may free us for a time to be more selfless and sacrificial with our property, but most relationships then revert to property contracts.

So we very often get angry with the people we love, when they seem to withdraw or withhold these ‘favours’.  More than seeking control, our anger is a kind of ‘re-possession’ of stolen property, or at least the attempt to do so.  If we cannot take it back in some verbal or physical form in confrontation, we will seek to recover our dignity, self-esteem or some other part of what has been stripped from us, through our own withdrawal.

One increasingly familiar pattern of withdrawal is depression.   Depression is usually interpreted as anger transferred towards oneself.   There is much truth in this: we are certainly complex, divided personalities, and view some aspects of ourselves as less likeable or worthwhile than others.  In some cases we may then transfer anger aroused by another person onto a less likeable aspect of ourselves.  But much more commonly in depression we will transfer the anger triggered by a complex or unknown set of events, people or circumstances that is so complex or unknown that we simply don’t know with whom to get angry, or how to express anger through confrontation, or even from whom to withdraw.

What is significant about depression in this context is that we then try to repossess without knowing what we have really lost.  With neither confrontation nor withdrawal actually possible, the only pattern available to us is to close down most of the less likeable or acceptable parts of ourselves.  We ‘lump all the problems together,’ we ‘spiral in on ourselves,’ we become inert.  Whatever energy might have been released in us for creative risk is being used in keeping still – and remaining hidden and in avoidance requires a lot of energy.

Although – because of the higher risk attached to confrontation than to withdrawal – society tends to be more accommodating of shy, withdrawing expressions of anger than of the aggressive ones (in both others and ourselves), neither form of expression can stand up and call itself genuine love.   For any spirituality which centres around love and deepening relationships, the repossession of property is not in itself a loving or virtuous thing to do, even if justice seems to require it.  It's interesting, for example, that the re-possession of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas by Britain was not seen in spiritual terms, whereas the loss of the same by Argentina had a key role in the religious and subsequent economic revivals in that country. 

A property ethic has within it the option to voluntarily give up one's property.  The early Christian church seems to have been enabled to do this.   So anger is never the only option, and is usually self-regarding and therefore damaging to human relationships.  Human anger in love only looks positive when it is accompanied by practical assistance – when our own concern is not to re-possess what we have lost, but what the people whom we love or care for have lost.  This was the anger that motivated Bob Geldof to launch LiveAid, or Hans Merkens, the friend I mentioned above, to improve a town’s sewage system.  Guy Pettitt calls this the "energy to produce beneficial change in the environment."

Here our anger is an attempt to release energy in order to shock and awaken people to their unintended selfishness, to lead them to reconsider what they are doing, and to effect a change of direction for them.  In some religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, great teachers have some remarkable ways of doing this with their pupils, including physical abuse.  However, the examples I have referred to are examples of anger directed not towards human beings who have taken property from us, but towards institutions and institutional values which have led often good people to act wrongly towards others.  We shall see, below, that while we may not be able to change other human beings by ourselves, we can effect political and institutional change, and anger is a positive motivator and release of energy for doing this.

However, it can be also difficult to see through our own motives: for example, parents become angry with their children because the children are wasting the gifts, opportunities, and wisdom that they have been given … or is it that they have wasted what we, the parents, gave them?  We’ll look at creative forms of anger below, under the heading of ‘righteous’ anger.


Sustaining the relationship

Thus far, we can say that anger is a sudden release of energy concerned with an attempt to repossess some material, emotional or spiritual goods or property that has been taken from us.  It may be expressed in confrontation, or withdrawal, or a depressive shutdown.

Are these all equally valid ways of expressing the anger?  I have already introduced a hint of evaluation by calling withdrawal ‘not very brave’.  And as someone who has suffered from depression myself, I want to say strongly that I do not place high spiritual value on it.  The most significant thing to notice about it – and about the rapid spread of depression and depressive symptoms – is that it is a response to faceless complexity, and that is a condition of human life for the developed world.

What then, of confrontation – of the expressive form of non-violent anger we are most alarmed by and are also least willing to adopt?  It does seem to me that it contains more positive and energising possibilities than other expressive forms.  It also seems to me that this kind of anger, from a parent or teacher towards a child or pupil, leads us closer to understanding God’s anger.

As Biblical commentator Abraham Heschel says in The Prophets,

God gets angry because he cares so much about what will happen to his people. (p 209)

God’s love is clearly what comes first – he called and empowered his people Israel, and did not withdraw from them but went with them himself (in the cloud and fire, the tent and ark of his presence) as he led them into the Promised Land.

In our own lives, it is the wonder and positive greatness of God, his mercy, friendship and forgiveness, and the love shown by his people, which are the normal ways people come to faith.  The love comes first – let’s be clear on this.

But then, if we really misuse or abuse what love has been given, we will become aware of what Jurgen Moltmann calls God’s ‘injured love’:

God’s wrath is injured love, and therefore part of his reaction to human beings.  The opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference. (The Crucified God, p 272)

He is disappointed in us for the meanness, fearfulness – and especially pettiness – we have so often shown.

Human beings may show such disappointed love by retaliating with resentment, or by going away.  Even parents are not above having the familiar ‘parental sulk’ over their children’s thoughtlessness!  Does God behave like this?  There are passages in the Old Testament which suggest he does, including withdrawal, and we will have to reflect on them.  But overall God’s constancy and faithfulness are shown in the way he remains both angry and yet true to the relationship he has with us.  He does not break off the love-relationship he has with us, but tries to improve us within this relationship.

This is a vital point to take on board in our own lives.   Many people, motivated by mixtures of fear, rejection, self-preservation, etc., in practice exhibit far more concern and anxiety about anger than about making a one-sided termination of a relationship.  Yet the God portrayed in the Judaeo-Christian tradition seems to have the opposite priorities.  For this God, anger is part of commitment to growth in permanent relationships ... albeit relationships which change and develop through time.   And the essence of love is not that it is 'nice' but that it endures. (See my article Love and forgiveness in 1 Corinthians).


Discipline and restoration

This is an aspect of God and of faith in this God which the church seldom reflects, preferring to withdraw or to drive people out and simply end difficult relationships.  The pastor and teacher John MacArthur brings many insights to the nature of real church discipline in Christianity, in his book The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness.  He observes:

Reconciliation is always the goal when we confront someone about a wrong done.  If your confronting aims at punishing the offender, or if it is simply a means of castigation and censure, you are confronting with the wrong aim in mind.  The goal of all righteous confrontation is the repair of a broken relationship and the restoration of the offender.  Whenever there is a broken relationship between Christians, both parties have a responsibility to seek reconciliation. 

If you are the offended party, Luke 17.3 applies: "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him."  You are the one who must go to him.  If you are the offender, Matthew 5.23-4 applies: "If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go your way.  First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering."

The public aspect of the discipline (outlined in Matthew 18) is a final resort, not the first step.  The point of ‘reporting a person’s offence to the church’ is not to get church members to shun the sinning individual, but precisely the opposite: to encourage them to pursue that person in love, with the aim of restoration. (Op cit. pp 132, 137)

(There are further explorations of this commitment to permanent relationship within discipline in other articles: for example Good judgement and bad judgement §1, §5-6, and The power to initiate forgiveness §7 & §11.)


The power to change us

For the Christian faith, God brings in the power to change us.  We don’t have this power, for ourselves or for others.  By and from ourselves, we can offer advice, make patient suggestions, and so on; but the people have to work it out themselves.

In the covenant-style relationship God wants us to do our bit, too – repentance, changing direction, better habits of worship and prayer, and choosing to spend time with better friends, are all steps we have to take, and to keep taking.  The greatest problem with the external forms of ‘religion,’ contrasted with spirituality and/or dynamic faith, is that they concentrate almost entirely on the ‘our bit’ part, becoming political, bureaucratic, concerned with maintaining power and status.

But (in the Judaeo-Christian revelation) God will also give us his Spirit – a new heart, his heart; his attitudes and ways of thinking, his wisdom and his power to forgive; his joy and his love for others, even our enemies.

John MacArthur makes a very helpful distinction between judicial and parental anger (and judicial and parental forgiveness).

Sin needs to be confessed and forsaken regularly, and the pardon of a loving but displeased Father must be sought ... Divine forgiveness has two aspects.  The judicial forgiveness God grants as judge, purchased by the atonement, is the forgiveness of justification.  The other is the parental forgiveness God grants as Father, which (according to the Lord’s Prayer) we are to seek daily when our sin has grieved him. (op cit. pp 58 and 99)

To accept God’s anger as parental discipline, secure in a permanent relationship with him without fear of being abandoned by him, means repenting regularly, not once off.  It means recognising God’s right to improve us, in his way, not our own.  It means trusting him, trusting that the touch of his ‘surgeon’s steel cutting out our rubbish is because he can make us so much better – if we let him in.

This experience was sometimes reflected to a few holy people even in the Old Testament:

  • ‘You do not stay angry forever, but delight to show mercy’ (Micah 7.18);
  • ‘For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favour lasts for a lifetime’ (Psalm 30.5);
  • ‘(In the past) you set aside all your wrath and turned from your fierce ... Will you not revive us again; show us your unfailing love, 0 Lord.’ (Psalm 85.3-7).


Prayer : expecting transformation

These Psalm passages bring us to an important point. When people are fearful of God’s anger, they usually don’t even believe that God has the power to change us, now.  High-energy people are scary; and all God will do, they think, is hurt them.  So they impose their fears of human, sinful anger, on God.  (This is why we all need to want and to receive the Holy Spirit before we can get close to God.  The Spirit’s touch shows you, inside, that he can transform you, so his anger is nothing to be afraid of.)

As Alistair Campbell observed in his fine study of anger:

(The pastoral theologian) D W Augsberger speaks of the ‘chronic niceness’ which afflicts so many church people ... We must find a way of moving from ‘niceness’ and the guilt felt about anger (which effectively prevent change) to a bolder confrontation of those forces which threaten to destroy all human value. (The Gospel of Anger, p 75)

We will all know a number of people who have a fear of anger because they have lost the awareness of being loved.  Many emotionally abused children carry this into adulthood.  Many people will actually go to a church largely out of a muddled awareness of their own guilty sides and needs, hoping to feel loved despite their sense of inadequacy, and hoping to feel better rather than being expected to acknowledge their human guilts, except in an impersonal liturgical formula.   And many clergy then collude with the unspoken power this gives them – Augsburger's book Anger and Assertiveness in Pastoral Care explores this collusion.

But there is a necessary and important discipline which the Psalms express again and again.  We need to ask, not only "Have I been loved enough?" but "Can I acknowledge what God has done in my life?" and therefore, "Do I look for indications that God can affect my life anew, and can I welcome this?"

Prayer, particularly in the catholic tradition, is so easily reduced to an experience of peace, beauty in meditative atmosphere, or to 'recollection'.   Endless pictures of the Pope on his knees in front of the cameras at every opportunity only reinforce this reduction of prayer.  A lack of the spiritual habit of expecting transformation leads to an increasingly hard, cold, political and judgmental attitude and heart.  Abraham Heschel observes:

The Bible locates the source of evil not in passion, in the throbbing heart, but rather in hardness of heart, in callousness and insensitivity. (The Prophets, p 258)

This a vicious circle, in that (as we will see) nothing angers God more than this judgmental attitude.  Practising the hope of transformation leads us to be less interested in what ‘I’ have done and deserved and more aware of what God has been doing.  It replaces guilt with the desire for God to change me.


10  God’s wrath on Israel

I’m going, now, to give some time to the Biblical pictures of God.  There are over 400 references to God’s anger in the Old Testament; only 29 in the New Testament.  (There are also many other illustrations, which don’t use the word ‘anger’.)

Towards Israel, God certainly appeared to be a ‘hurt-causing God’ a lot of the time. Sometimes the wrath was punishment for disobedience. For example:

  • He sent a plague on the people after they had started grumbling and complaining that they had no meat to eat, only manna. God accused them of ingratitude.   When a flock of quail appeared, the people killed the birds, but the meat rotted in them and many died from a plague (Numbers 11.4-10, 18-20 &31-34).
  • He threatened to turn the people into cannibals (Leviticus 26.27-29) in a list of punishments for disobedience.
  • He struck Uzzah dead simply for touching the holy ark of the covenant when the oxen he was riding stumbled and he put out a hand to steady himself (2 Samuel 6.7).

Sometimes, though, God’s anger and violence seems random, or deliberately destructive:

  • His wrath on Job seems cruel and arbitrary, part of an argument with Satan.  (There is a sign of this in Paul’s letter to the Romans, 9.18-22, and references in Isaiah 6.9-10 to God hardening people’s hearts which Jesus also refers to.)
  • He ‘incited David’ to wrongdoing (2 Samuel 24.1-17) by ordering him to take a census of the army.  There was nothing wrong with taking a census – the book of Numbers is called for this purpose – but the reason seems to have been David’s pride in the size of his army.  Strikingly, when later writers re-wrote the history of Israel, they changed the person who caused David to sin, from God to Satan (see 1 Chronicles 21.1).


11  Evaluating through Jesus

What can we say about these and many examples, in which God seems either deliberately harmful, or at least extreme in his cruel punishments?  Our guide to interpreting these alarming suggestions that God is arbitrary in his anger must be Jesus’ own behaviour and teaching.  One aspect of Jesus’ great importance to everyone is that he does reveal the very nature of God – ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14.9).

As we shall see below, Jesus’ anger was not arbitrary.   So we can trust that God’s cannot be, either.  At the same time, Jesus did show real anger – so we can trust that God will be angry. Getting the most accurate picture of God through Jesus’ own ministry is an important hermeneutic principle (i.e. a measuring rod for interpretation).

Therefore as regards the Old Testament examples of God’s ‘random violence,’ we have to view these as human interpretations of puzzling events.  A plague came, and people interpreted it as a sign that someone must have done something wrong – which they were doing even in Jesus’ day (see Luke 13.1 5) when Pilate cruelly killed Jews, or a tower in Siloam fell and crushed 18 people.  There are many people today who still interpret their own illnesses or problems in the same way.

Some strands in Jewish mysticism can say, ‘There is in God a principle that is called evil, and it lies to the north of God’ (The Kabbala).  Jung and other recent ‘semi-mystics’ have similar interpretations of God as having an evil or dark side.  I find that, although these are interesting and significant reflections, they are not only at odds with the loving nature of God conveyed by Jesus, but draw us away from some important and good aspects of anger to which the New Testament can lead us.

In other words, we could anthropomorphise God so much that we apply real human complexities, yin and yang, good and evil, to God, and treat God as an interesting subject of study, like other people.  (I agree that we are this complex.) But this humanised God is too superficial a picture.  We miss the opportunity of revelation.  The release and transfer of energy, the creative power in anger, become available to us only by going deeper into a loving God who places primary value on permanent relationships.  This inevitably requires us to become participants, not observers or onlookers, in relationship with a God for whom anger – disappointed love – is one aspect of the expression of this value of permanence.


12  The Day of Judgement

The range of interpretative issues raised by the subject of God’s Day of Judgement is much bigger than I can cover here.  What I do want to do is firstly to agree with the normal interpretation by most Christian teachers of God’s anger, that it is indeed a punishment by God, as Judge, in response to disobedience.  Secondly I want to go further and explore the transforming power and goodness which lie in this punishment.

In human courts of justice, the most a judge can do is either find the defendant innocent or guilty, or to act on a jury’s verdict, and if guilty to punish the defendant.  (There is an important debate in the British prison service today about how humane detention can be allowed to be – but even the most humane can only hope that a prisoner might improve.)  God, however, in his court, can go on to create dramatic transformation in the very person he has convicted!

So to experience God’s anger today is part of God’s justice, part of the way God wants to change us and improve us.  It is judgement; yet positive, powerful and empowering.

Jesus’ great and frequent images of a Final Judgement disturb many contemporary Christians.  Here there is no possibility of change and transformation.  (As a sidenote on some of the issues connected with eschatology and Final Judgement, for myself I don’t find this worrying: the ‘end’ means THE END (!) however and whenever it comes, and at the end there is no point trying to go on.   Like becoming too tired as you near death, or like the universe's entropic decline, when no change is possible it isn't a worry that I can't make any changes or hope for any.)

For Jesus, what matters in the face of the finality is be ready always – live as if the end is about to come, even if it doesn’t. As he said at the end of the parable of the five wise and five foolish girls, waiting for the bridegroom to come, ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.’ (Matthew 25.13)

From its beginnings, the church immediately experienced the explosion of the Holy Spirit into its life, and understood this to be a foretaste of ‘the end’.  The future can be experienced today, in part.  This is a foretaste of heavenly joy and laughter; also of God’s anger and justice.  The latter have the effect – if we accept them – of changing us.  God’s love means this – he loves us so much he will make us better and better, more like his Son.  Pastor John Arnott of Toronto, a notable teacher on forgiveness, said:

So know that God loves you just the way you are.  But he also loves you much too much to leave you the way you are.  (Sermon on Forgiveness, TACF 7 May 1998)

The later prophets of Israel, who anticipated much of Christ’s work and message, understood that God’s punishment is because of the scale of his disappointed love:

‘You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins’ (Amos 3.2, Isaiah 63.2-6, etc.)

These images are echoed in many of Jesus’ parables of the Day of Judgement.  The Day of Judgement is Jesus’ central image for showing us the smallness of our achievements – everyone’s –and the enormity of God.   But this is not just a negative assessment of human beings. It is a call to grace.

Let me say, candidly, that it is people who have met and deeply received God’s grace and love who have little problem admitting their smallness.  The ones who find it hard to admit their smallness are the proud, who stand back from God’s power and try to seem big and important in themselves.

The disciples’ question to Jesus, ‘Who then can be saved?’ (Mark 10.26) shows us where we ought to start: God’s grace is not like Coca-Cola, wine or beer, on tap.  It is his gift, to give as he decides and chooses.  We are not worth it in ourselves; we are not worth much at all, until and unless we begin to live by and for Jesus rather than for ourselves.

The expression Paul uses is: We are justified in Christ, meaning both judged and transformed; we are counted worthy because of our closeness to him and our love for him; our readiness to let his Spirit replace our own. (Romans 3.9-24, etc.)


13  ‘Righteous’ anger?

I deliberately haven’t explored the subject of ‘righteous anger’ in this article until now, because it can so easily be misused without being understood.  Moral crusades use the phrase a lot, but seldom reveal God’s righteousness, and sometimes reveal far too much self-righteousness.  The reason I say this is that, in the New Testament, the words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’ are the same – and so an anger which justifies another person, establishing them in Christ, rather than merely finding fault with them, can as properly be called ‘righteous.’

So we may sometimes be filled with a genuine righteous anger.   This has to be expressed by confrontation rather than withdrawal or depression, because we want to help another person to repossess what he or she has lost, even though they ‘stole’ from us.  This is the internal parallel between righteous anger and active forgiveness.  But we will only be sure that our ‘righteous anger’ really is righteous if it leads us to actively make another person better in Christ or in some spiritual dimension, and if that is our aim and also our spiritual ability – otherwise it isn’t righteous (= ‘right-making’) at all!  And if it’s not, and we are in fact seeking to repossess what is 'ours' for ourselves, then our anger - even if brave and confrontational - cannot claim any spiritual dimension or validation.  For many religions, we should repent quickly.

It is however more possible for us to make an institution better, increasing basic values of justice, answerability, creativity, openness, forgiveness and empowerment or sometimes, in leadership, giving a moribund institution new inspiration and direction.  In practice, people often wrong us unintentionally, and part of forgiving them involves coming to see that the institution and institutional values they cleave to have led them to behave in cruel or destructive ways. 

If we are to speak of "forgiving an institution," we should be aware that this is a different kind of process from forgiving a human being, and anger is more useful in the former.  Indeed it is very difficult to call it 'forgiving' - passive forgiveness of an institution (see the feature articles The power to initiate forgiveness §11-13 and Should forgiveness be unconditional? §4) is often no more than a humorous tolerance of its foibles, which perpetuates its mistakes and wrongdoings.

Very few outside leaders are in a position to forgive another institution at an active, transformational level.  It would only be possible if that erring organisation had extremely authorative leaders who are willing to receive forgiveness, external help on reformation and renewal, apology and sorrow, and to embark on the long-term education of their members to realise and acknowledge that the institution has led them to behave wrongly.  It is hard to think of any cases where this has happened. 

As we shall see below, Jesus' own anger was largely directed towards the way institutional values corrupted people, rather than towards the people themselves, although people will tend to take it personally unless they are able to repent of the wrongdoings their institutionalism has led them to.


14   Jesus and anger

Mark’s Gospel, which was the first to be written, shows how Jesus got angry, with an over-needy leper (1.41- here the word for anger – orge – is also sometimes translated as ‘full of emotion’, but look at the context in v.43), with the Pharisees (Mark 3.4-5):

Jesus asked (the Pharisees), "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?"  But they remained silent.  He looked at them in anger and, deeply distressed, said to the man with a shrivelled arm, "Stretch out your hand."

and with the disciples (10.13-14):

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he was furious. "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them."

Notice the contagious element, even for Jesus, in response to the withdrawal of the Pharisees and the abusive behaviour of the disciples.

Interestingly, in the same way that Chronicles rewrote Samuel, naming Satan rather than God to make David sin, when Matthew and Luke wrote the Gospels, with Mark’s on the table in front of them, they named other people – the Pharisees or the disciples – as being angry, rather than Jesus.  It can be a shock to discover how strong Jesus’ emotions and passions were.

In some of his parables Jesus describes the Master (God) as angry (Matthew 18.34, 22.7 & Luke 14.21). He angrily cursed a fig tree, not in a fit of pique but as a sign of the unfruitfulness of the Jews’ use of the temple (Mark 11.12-25 – Mark carefully places the fig-tree story around that of the cleansing of the temple.)  He rebuked Peter as Satan (Mark 8.33).


15  What did he get angry about?

I hope that we can see, and take seriously, how Jesus got angry.   It’s an encouragement to be less fearful of our own, or of other people’s, because of this. But it is even more important to see what he got angry about.

He wasn’t angry because he wanted to repossess anything taken from him, personally.  He wasn’t angry about personal sins to do with money, or slavery, or adultery, or even big exploitations like the Roman Empire.  He was angry about a love of rules which quenched the Spirit, generated a hideous pride, treated worship as a human activity ‘performed well’, prevented healing, brought no fruit, sought a cosy security rather than living by prayer and dependence on God.   He was angry about institutional attitudes.  His anger was the way he broke through a pompous religious front.

For Jesus, anger took place in a relationship, and rather than being defensive – either belittling people, or walking away from them – he challenged them into a deeper relationship.  His anger was active and creative, focussed on the next step others need to take.

In other words, God’s high value on relationship is so high that the main cause of his anger, as Jesus, expressed it, is the devaluing of relationship and withdrawal from it.

We can compare this briefly with the centrality of forgiveness for Jesus.  A rather strange passage in the Gospels speaks about the one ‘unforgivable’ sin:

Jesus said to them,  "And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.   Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12.31-32. The parallel in Mark includes: "is guilty of an eternal sin.")

Of course it is always attractive to speculate about which activity he meant.  For some on the moral right-wing, the passage has even been taken to refer to 'the sin that dare not speak its name' (that is, gay sex).  But since Jesus allowed people to speak against him personally, yet be forgiven, to speak against the Spirit would seem not to be a behavioural action at all, even towards the God in heaven. 

The context of the passage has to do with recognising the Spirit of God at work in Jesus, driving out evil spirits. To blaspheme or speak evil against this Spirit is not simply a failure to notice something. It must be an inward-facing act, a deliberate silencing of the spiritual voice inside that leads one to reach out to God (through Jesus) in repentance.

In other words, what cannot be forgiven is the refusal to step into relationships where forgiveness, and qualities like righteous anger, are gifted. Although it would be a philosophical way of speaking, and foreign to Jesus’ language, it is nonetheless helpful to put this by saying that the form of action is the same as the content of the attitude – you cannot receive forgiveness if you insist you have no need to receive it.


16  For us today

These examples of Jesus show us the key aspect of anger for us, today.  Anger that reacts by withdrawal or by retaliating aggressively or violently is always, always deeply sinful.  Anger which breaks through pretence and shows a desire to see people improve, and tries to help them improve, is more like God’s.   I find it an increasingly significant part of an awareness of God to affirm divine anger alongside the enormity of divine grace and forgiveness - it can be a step in the processes of forgiveness.  Think, for example, of the proud or shy church members who put on the pretence of faith, yet are unwilling to step into a deeper relationship with God. Do you really think Jesus isn’t angry with them?

This is why Jeremiah sometimes reached a point at which he communicated God’s anger to others, and could say:

Their ears are closed so that they cannot hear ... I am full of the wrath of God, and I cannot hold it in.  Pour it out on the children in the street and on the young men gathered together; both husband and wife will be caught in it, and the old, those weighed down with years. (Jeremiah 6.11)

Paul, in Ephesians 4.26, quotes Psalm 4 (‘In your anger do not sin’) and tells the readers not to stay angry.  He is actually addressing the brawling and slander the church seemed to be up to (4.31), and rightly tells them to get rid of all of this.

Let me emphasise that he does not want us to pretend to be so holy that we never appear angry – do realise that by avoiding recognising or admitting our anger, we sin as much as by remaining locked into it, cursing others all the time.  Anger  is usually a sin, but it will not be forgiveness if we pretend we have no need of forgiveness.

Beverly Harrison makes a telling observation about Christian church members:

Anger, directly expressed, is a mode of taking the other person seriously ... We Christians have come close to killing love precisely because anger has been understood as always being a deadly sin. (The power of anger in the work of love, Union Seminary QR #36 p 50)

Paul’s way of discussing anger follows directly on from his wonderful phrase ‘speak the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4.15, 25).  He is telling us: if you are angry –and you will be, don’t pretend – ask yourself,  "Am I eager to love this person more and more each day, and stay with them, to see them improve and prosper?  Am I willing to stop seeing them as wrong, straight away, and endeavour to empower them, redirect them, kick-start their mess?"

If you cannot say yes, truthfully, if you want to see them squirm or suffer any humiliation, then your anger is unhealthy and sinful.  If you want to grow spiritually in any way at all, you must apologise and stop it.

But if something is going on which gives you the energy and zeal to stay with someone and discover a new and godly direction or resource in their lives, both with them and on their behalf, then rejoice, and don’t be alarmed that you have strong passions.

The main question to ask yourself is:  "Am I angry with him or her in order to repossess what they have taken from me ... my name, dignity, love, property, or whatever?  Or do I somehow see that their evident need to take from me leads me to want to help them to possess the good things they deserve for themselves, rather than by hurting me?  Can I handle the energy being released, and redirect it?"

A word of caution though: we’re not there very often!   But I hope very deeply that this encourages us to be less frightened of anger – others’ and our own – and therefore be in a better position to examine it with strength, patience and authority, testing it to see if it is a spiritual resource and even (very occasionally!) ‘righteous’ or not. n

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