Where did all my anger go?
I started work with a new therapist recently. It’s been about 5 years since I did any dedicated personal work and having severely damaged my spine in that time, I knew that the ways in which I have processed stress have had to change significantly. The trouble with therapists is they are not only naturally insightful, they are trained to be insightful and they are even paid to be insightful. It means that whatever you thought you were coming to talk about is rarely what you end up talking about.
I thought I was coming to talk about how I process stress, but I have ended up talking about where I put my anger. Admittedly they are linked, but as a Christian leader I feel a lot more comfortable talking about how stressed I feel, than how angry I feel. This, it transpires, is a problem for me and It could be a problem for you too.
Anger has a bad Christian press
I am known to have an ‘even keel’. That means that I present a pretty consistent mood and generally stay well away from the extreme edges of emotional expression. It is something I have always felt happy about and something I admire in other leaders. After all, the bible doesn’t exactly wax lyrical about anger. James 1: 19-20 says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”
Like many Christians, I have seen anger, if not as a sin, certainly a gateway to making serious mistakes. Rather than accept that it as core part of being human, I have treated it as an emotional extra or an inconvenient visitor. American Psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin wrote, “Feeling angry is a universal human phenomenon. It is as basic as feeling hungry, lonely, loving, or tired.” It is certainly not an emotion that we can or even should try to live without.
Yet, I know that a as much as I want to believe anger is a God given emotion that is essential to my wellbeing, I am struggling. Nobody wants to be known as an Angry Pastor- it’s an oxymoron isn’t it? You can see the dichotomy that plagues so many Christians: being even tempered at the expense of a more honest and human reaction to provocation. It looks virtuous but is it? The trouble is that whilst we can have lots of cerebral discussions about how to manage anger and whether we want it or not, anger is. If is not given a voice, it simply finds other ways of expressing itself.
There are three really common ways in which anger finds a voice in our lives anyway:
Body Rage: Anger can express itself physiologically through tension headaches, muscle pains, digestive complaints, migraines, depression, skin problems and and even more serious health conditions like heart attacks.[i]
Self-attacking thoughts: If anger feels unsafe to express to others we can become expert at inverting it onto ourselves. Anger begins to fuel our inner critic and our inner world can become very hostile and impatient whilst we are sweetness and light to everybody else.
Victim mentality: We identify our own anger in the behaviour of other people; making us the victim and them the accessor. We play a passive role in life as the victim of other people’s hostility when it is really us who are angry! When I look at these three categories I am convinced that rather than living ‘anger free,’ anger has been there all along, its just been expressed in my life in unhealthy ways, particularly in self-attacking thoughts.
Changing our relationship with anger as Christians is a complex journey, but it has to begin with the permission to actually be angry. I think the best starting place for this is in the life of Jesus, who was both perfect and at times angry: Mark 3:5 “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.”
Expressing anger aids our emotional health
I like the NET translation of Ephesians 4:26 which simply says, “Be angry and do not sin.” It feels like more than the passive permission of the NIV translation (in your anger). Perhaps taking this instruction to heart will help me to uncouple my desire to be emotionally honest without being disobedient to God. There is no doubt in my mind that our natural resistance to anger is impacting our collective emotional and mental health. As researchers Clair Cassiello-Robbins and David Barlow write in their paper Anger: The Unrecognized Emotion in Emotional Disorders; “Anger appears to be an important and understudied emotion in the development, maintenance, and treatment of emotional disorders.”[ii]
Look out world: I am going to try to be a bit more ‘angry pastor’ and a little less ‘Mr Even Keel’. If you have any reflections or ideas on how to healthily express anger as Christians we would love to hear them so get posting on the social channels.
Will Van Der Hart, 03/08/2019