by Dr. Ralph Blair
This booklet is an expanded version of his address on anger at connECtion95, the summer conferences of Evangelicals Concerned at Kirkridge and Mills College, June and July, 1995.
©1995. Ralph Blair, 311 East 72nd Street, New York, New York 10021
In a promo for New York City’s Lesbian and Gay Community Center, cartoonist Howard Cruse depicts a gay guy asking his lesbian friend: “Where’s the meeting for people who’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore?” She consults the Center’s schedule and replies: “Hm—Depends on what night of the week it is.” Gay columnist Bruce Bawer rightly objects to the fact that “many gay leaders and commentators persist in encouraging us to celebrate rage.” Of course, lesbians and gay men are not the only people who are feeling angry these days.
According to the Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at Southern [Baptist] Seminary: “The whole Christian Right movement feeds off of a ‘theology of resentment.’“ [Ken Chafin] A prominent evangelical journalist reports that “Moods of … anger dominate the conservative evangelical subculture.” [Rodney Clapp] Evangelist Luis Palau warns: “I fear the Age of the Angry Evangelical is upon us. That we are getting to be an angry bunch isn’t merely a caricature created by the so-called ‘secular humanist media elite.’ Evangelicals are getting far too angry about far too many things, … we American evangelicals are now known nationally (and internationally) by our anger.”
And how did the angry evangelicals react to Palau’s concerns? Harping on the so-called “gay agenda,” one asked: “Has [Palau] never heard of prayers for God’s judgment on the wicked?” Said another: “Clinton is vile … Yes, I pray for our president … but most of those prayers are imprecatory.” A U.S. News poll finds that most people who say they hate President Clinton call themselves “born again” Christians. Just before last fall’s elections, the Capitol Hill Prayer Alert urged voters to pray down evil upon the Democrats on the group’s so-called Philistine List, “enemies of Christianity and/or biblical morality.” The prayer warriors were told: “Don’t hesitate to pray imprecatory Psalms over them!” This kind of “make-my-day religion” gives rise to placards proclaiming: “God hates fags” and “Thank God for AIDS,” the popularity of Frank Peretti’s novels of politico-spiritual warfare, the fundamentalist flavor of apocalyptic rhetoric in the self-styled militia movement, hateful messages on the Internet, and the increasing incidence of religiously-motivated hate crimes.
Following the Oklahoma City bombing, the publisher of a mean-spirited conservative news magazine, World, referred to “a Christian friend” who told him that even though the bomber had gone “too far,” he could “understand the frustration he felt at what’s going on in Washington.” The publisher himself then offered, as illustrative of “what’s going on in Washington,” what he termed the “loathsome” effort of “the federal government to put its great weight behind the homosexual lobby.” Nonetheless, even he lamented “an oddity of the evangelical subculture that we keep attracting to ourselves a small cadre of Rambo-type vigilantes who are certain that they have to be God’s defenders. They talk tough, they swagger about, and they constantly imply that a clenched fist and the business end of a gun are the ultimate expressions of even God’s power.” As this publisher saw it, they do “get their doctrinal details right” and they are “unblemished with a single compromise of any kind” but, he argued in military metaphor, instead of relying on guns, they should use the “sword” of the Bible and “prayer, a weapon … against [God’s] and our enemies.”
But of course, it’s not only the religious right that’s raging out there in Limbaughland. Others are gathering grievances and venting spleens in Liberaland. There are angry combatants on all sides of the so-called Culture War, which, like any war, is hell. It was Gloria Steinem who said: “Rage + Women = Power.” It was James Baldwin who said: “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” The names of leftists like Al Goldstein, Larry Kramer and Leonard Jeffries are synonymous with rage.
Literary critic Harold Bloom is distressed by what he terms “the School of Resentment” made up of leftists who dismiss with contempt everything produced by what they disparagingly call “dead white European males.” According to Bloom, this “School of Resentment” is “destroying all intellectual and esthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences, in the name of social justice.” Says Nobel laureate Saul Bellow: “The rage of rappers and rioters takes as its premise the majority’s admission of guilt for past and present injustices, and counts on the admiration of the repressed for the emotional power of the uninhibited and ‘justly’ angry …. We can’t open our mouths without being denounced as racists, misogynists, supremacists, imperialists or fascists. As for the media, they stand ready to trash anyone so designated.” Even a liberal New York Times reporter documents what he calls the “thick glue of piousness” by which angry leftist multiculturalists push what he notes is “a sizable industry of exaggeration.” [Richard Bernstein] In the view of John Leo, “multiculturalism has evolved into a harsh faith, strong on punishment and eager to monitor isolated phrases for signs of heresy.”
And there are angry anarchists of neither right nor left. The Unabomber asserts his motivation in a single word: “Anger.”
Even without any narrowly defined political rationalization, anger is a commonplace in pop culture. According to Barbara Lippert of Adweek, commercials are being invaded by “mappies—mail-bashing angry professional women (of a certain age).” The hottest shows on daytime television are shouting matches in which people go “nose to nose, fingers jabbing the air, the bleep machine struggling to keep up … ‘Shut up!’ ‘You shut up!”‘ [Richard Zoglin] The studio audiences and millions of viewers cheer and boo them on. As another critic observes, “insults, complaints and psychobabble fill the airwaves, as television and radio talk shows spread a new gospel of hyperbole and anger.” [Michiko Kakutani]
Russell Baker says that “Anger has become the national habit.” Mort Zuckerman speaks of “a visceral anger” in America’s soul. According to Michael Kinsley: “For several years now, the most powerful … force in American politics has been a free-floating populist rage.” Time magazine headlines “The Politics of Anger” with a cover photo of a belligerent Newt Gingrich behind big bold letters: “MAD AS HELL.” Anna Quindlen decries “The Politics of Meanness.” America’s Roman Catholic bishops denounce what they see to be a national “culture of violence.” A national survey of young adults aged 16 to 29, conducted by MTV, found that the word that best described this age group is “angry.”
But, of course, Americans don’t hold the patent on anger. You’ve heard of Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda, Burundi, Northern Ireland, South Africa and the Middle East as well as downtown Detroit, Brentwood, Waco and Oklahoma City. In Diana Trilling’s words: “We live in a world which runs with the blood of hostility.” And each of us can be one of the world’s trouble spots.
Rage is nothing new. A psychohistory of the last two centuries is entitled The Cultivation of Hatred, but hatred’s older than that. Anger is as old as Adam and Eve—thinking they needed things to be otherwise. It’s as old as Cain. Anger’s as early as a newborn’s cry, in Kant’s words: “more wrath than lamentation.” Karl Menninger noted that “the human child usually begins life in anger.” There is, though, something rather new about the way we view anger in our own age of rage. “Rage is now brilliantly prestigious.” [Bellow] Today, rage is all the rage!
According to the psychiatrist who wrote Listening to Prozac, our “capacity for resentment and mistrust seems limitless.” [Peter D. Kramer] And although the American Jewish Committee’s expert on hate groups concludes that hate is “the most serious of human conditions,” he notes that “there is no comprehensive field of study devoted” to it and says “there should be.” [Kenneth S. Stern]
PAUL ON ANGER
In his Ephesian letter, the apostle Paul cites the Psalms in urging Christians who get angry to get over it as soon as possible. He knew that anger can easily and quickly become sin. He adds: “Don’t let a day end still angry.” He goes on to urge that Christians get rid of all “bitterness,” which commentators explain is “the temper which cherishes resentful feelings” [Abbott] and “which harps on past grievances, real or imagined.” [Mitton] He urges that all “rage” be put away, by which be means all violent outbursts of “anger.” Paul urges that Christians get rid of all “persisting resentment which will not forget, with the antagonism and even hatred it gives rise to,” as an exegete puts it. [Mitton] Another explains that such anger is a “settled feeling of gnawing hostility.” [Lincoln] Paul urges that they stop all “quarreling … and shoutfing] at each other.” [Mitton] He urges that they throw away all “slander,” by which he means “abusive and sneering words spoken about other people in their absence,” as one scholar points out. [Mitton] Paul then adds that they should discard all “malice,” by which he seems to be summing up all “bad feeling of every kind” toward each other.
Now Paul knew very well that it does no good to merely command a feeling to go away. He wasn’t telling Christians that they should never feel angry. He was commanding them not to allow the angry feeling to become the settled sin of grudge, bitterness, malicious gossip, hostility, open and passive aggression, rage.
WHAT IS ANGER?
Anger is an emotional response to one’s belief that something or someone needs to be otherwise. As Epictetus knew long ago: “No living being is held by anything so strongly as by its own [perceived] needs. Whatever therefore appears a hindrance to these … is hated, abhorred, execrated.” The degree of anger—from mild to wild—depends upon the degree to which one thinks it needs to be otherwise. Without such a thought, there could be no angry feelings. As you’ve heard all your life: It’s the thought that counts. And it’s the thought that accounts for the feeling of anger. It’s the thought that accounts for any feeling.
Anger comes in many forms. If we stereotype anger in only its more obvious forms, we’ll misread it in all its other forms.
Anger has a wide range of internal experience: annoyance, irritation, resentment, indignation, acrimony, rage, fury, animosity, bitterness, hate.
Anger has many behavioral expressions. They range from stony silence to noisy attack: pouting and sulking, blaming, nagging, mean-spirited gossip, griping and complaining, refusal to listen, refusal to forgive, refusal to drop it, sarcasm, hostility, retaliation, revenge, murder, terrorism, war and even suicide. Anger always readies one for aggression. It may be directed against other people or against oneself or even against virtually everything and everyone including God. And it may be aimed “on target” or displaced onto anything or anyone.
Now it doesn’t matter if the belief that causes the feeling is true or false, realistic or unrealistic, rational or irrational—the feeling in any case will be real. It will be really felt. In the words of Simone Weil: “Whenever someone cries inwardly: ‘Why am I being hurt?’ harm is being done. The person is often mistaken when he or she tries to define the harm, and why and by whom it is being inflicted. But the cry itself is infallible.” Our tears are real, no matter how contemptuously Tweedledum tried to dismiss Alice’s in Through the Looking Glass.
That fact, though, can complicate resolution. For the very real experience of any feeling seems to confirm that the belief that prompts the feeling is true, realistic and rational. But both true and false beliefs produce real feelings. Both rational and irrational thoughts result in real feelings. Therefore, feelings alone seemingly reflect truth, whether or not they’re grounded in truth. That’s why we must never trust our anger to be certainly reflective of a true interpretation of anything. We must never trust any feeling to be certainly reflective of truth. Rather, we must identify what we’re telling ourselves and challenge that belief in order to determine the level of self-evident trustworthiness of the belief that inevitably brings on the feeling.
So anger is secondary to a belief—the belief that one needs something or someone to be different. But anger can also be defensively secondary to the unwanted stress of other feelings. These feelings, too, are prompted by beliefs.
If you think you’re in danger, you’ll feel fear and anxiety whether or not you’re truly in danger. If you tell yourself that you need always to be completely safe, that for example, you must never lose your job or never get sick, you’ll easily feel anger as secondary to the fear if you do lose your job or do get sick—even though your demand for such absolute safety is unrealistic.
If you think that you’ve been abused or rejected by people who mean much to you, you’ll feel hurt, whether or not they did or meant to do what you tell yourself they did or meant to do or whether or not it’s realistic to think that they “should” have behaved differently. When our egos seem to be on the line—which, of course, can be always—we’re apt to be very quick to overinterpret someone’s words or behavior and to impute dark motives where they don’t exist. A clinical professor of psychiatry cautions that “it’s easy to overemphasize our ability to accurately perceive what others mean. As a result,” she says, “there’s so much misunderstanding that goes on, with paranoia being the extreme example.” [Leslie Brothers] Notice though, that the hurt feelings which result from such interpretation of alleged wrongdoing might, themselves, be a clue that the interpretation that hurts is erroneous. Where is she usually coming from? Who is he really? Are they who you had thought they were from experience all along or are they merely who you’re now disappointed to think they are? The surprise itself should tell you something. Since your perceptions, though, override their intentions, so far as your experiencing is concerned, their intentions can’t control your perceptions, but neither do your perceptions reveal their intentions.
At any rate, as Francis Bacon said: “No [one] is angry that feels not … hurt.” If I tell myself that people I like should never ever behave against my own agenda or my own perceived best interest, if I see others only in terms of my own “needs,” I’ll get angry as secondary to the hurt—even though my expectations are unreasonable. My unreasonable expectation that others should always admire me and cater to my every perceived need will lower my self-esteem which is already overtaxed by a defensively grandiose view of the self, and reduce or even eliminate my ability to empathize with them. When that empathic bond is severed, I’ll easily detest them and trash them for “injuring” me and not giving me all I tell myself I need from them, all I tell myself they “owe” me. It is, of course, very painful to be so narcissistic. No wonder narcissists rage. It is also very painful to have to deal with such narcissists. No wonder Martin Luther said that “anyone who would be so obstinate a saint as neither to bear nor overlook any evil word or gesture or any frailty is unfit to be among people.”
If I hold someone else hostage to my perfectionism, I’ll aggress against that person when I see that he or she doesn’t live up to my demands to be my idol. If, in my self-centered self-scrutiny, I think I must be perfect and conclude I’m not or that I’ve behaved imperfectly, I’ll feel shame and guilt feelings whether or not my evaluation is true. Since I don’t like the stress of feeling guilty and ashamed, I’ll get angry as a defense against those feelings—even though my perfectionism is irrational. If I think I must singlehandedly accomplish what actually takes the cooperation of another, I’ll feel frustration when I try to do it alone. Since the stress of frustration is uncomfortable, I’ll react in anger. In corresponding with a good friend [Cecil Dawkins] who complained about the failings of the church, Flannery O’Connor wrote: “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”
So, if we don’t identify our irrational expectations and assessments and if we fail to successfully challenge them, we’ll feel the unwanted feelings of fear, hurt, shame, frustration and anger—a combination for depression. And since we don’t want these uncomfortable feelings, we’ll get angry trying to get even.
It seems as though we’re trapped inside the feelings of guilt, fear, hurt, frustration and anger. We don’t know how to escape. That perception itself scares and frustrates us. And indeed, we cannot escape so long as we continue to block all means of escape by nursing, rehearsing, rationalizing and even institutionalizing our irrational thoughts that entrap us in the feelings.
We’re calling these feelings unwanted. After all, who wants feelings of fear, frustration, hurt, and involuntary anger? But there’s another anger that’s different. Unlike involuntary anger, voluntary anger can be very much wanted. Some people think of anger as a solution. Anger becomes their last word. They define themselves and you in terms of their grievance against you. They angrily insist on having even a so-called “right” to their anger. You never hear them insisting on having a “right” to feel frustrated, or anxious, or hurt, or guilty! In fact, they angrily insist on a “right” never to feel frustrated, anxious, hurt or guilty! Why the difference? Well, unlike these other emotions—as well as unwanted anger—there is an anger that can be used as a weapon. But in order for anger to be used as a weapon, it has to be converted from an involuntary effect into a voluntary effort. It must become a kind of hate. Hate is willed anger. Hatred is the anger we decide to hold on to. Hatred is planned. And this willed anger is what we don’t altogether dislike. It’s this retaliative anger to which we claim a “right” because it’s this anger we claim to be right. But it is just this anger that Jesus equates with murder!
Such anger can be expressed as a cold shoulder or in-your-face fury. Each expression is the calculated revenge of self-righteousness. Ironically, this deadly willed anger can give us a rush. Says Dennis Miller: “I vent, therefore I am.” Lord Byron said that “hatred is by far the longest pleasure; / [We] love in haste, but [we] detest at leisure.” As Eric Hoffer saw it: “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents …. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.” C. S. Lewis called such anger “the anesthetic of the mind.” He put these insightful words into Screwtape’s mouth: “Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate.” Demon Screwtape might just as well have said the same about the other unwanted feelings. The more we feel frustrated, hurt, and guilty, the more we’ll seek relief in anesthetic anger.
Frederick Buechner knows that “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun.” Here’s how he describes it: “To lick your wounds, smack your lips over grievances long past, … to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.” But Buechner warns: “The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
It’s tempting to get our teeth into anger because by getting our teeth into anger we try to get our teeth into the person that we say makes us angry. But, remember, it’s our own thought that accounts for our anger. We’re not made angry by what’s outside our thought. In all your life, only one person has ever made you angry: yourself. And in all your life, you’ve made only one person angry: yourself. So, in effect, in anger we do succeed in getting our teeth into the one who makes us angry. Though we aim at sinking the teeth of our anger into someone else—the one we mistakenly think makes us angry—our anger sinks its teeth into ourselves. The other person may escape our bites, while the very one we want to vindicate and relieve winds up badly bitten—maybe even mortally so. The cheap thrill of such anger can cost us more than we ever intended to spend.
This pleasure-trap of anger is set in private as well as in public, and just as surely in a snit or a sulk as by screaming and shouting and slugging. It may seem that we’re safe so long as we don’t express hostility openly, but sullenly nursing a grudge sets the pleasure-trap of anger just as dangerously. We dare not pamper pet peeves as though they’re pet poodles. Pet peeves make poor pets. Sooner or later they’ll turn against us and chew us up while we’re feeding them.
So though, in our anger, we intend to do ourselves good, actually we do ourselves harm. Trying to relieve stress with anger adds new stress to old stress. And the new as well as the old is bad stress. Nothing is solved when the so-called solution is itself a serious, even deadly, problem.
ERRONEOUS BELIEFS ABOUT ANGER
A fundamental fallacy about anger is the notion that there’s something good about anger. But a spiritual director with many years of pastoral experience warns: “Anytime we find we’re angry, full of irritation or resentment, we’re on the wrong track.” [Eugene Peterson]
The truth is: “Anger is lethal.” [Faith Baldwin] Research has found that anger is “potentially the most damaging of emotional reactions.” [Flinders, Gershwin and Flinders] The prohibitive price of anger includes physiological, psychological, interpersonal, social, economic, and spiritual costs. Some are obvious costs; others are hidden costs.
Anger dangerously raises heart rate, increases high blood pressure and contributes to the clogging of arteries. According to studies at Harvard Medical School, when people with heart disease become angry, they more than double their risk of heart attacks and the danger lasts for hours. Anger depresses the immune system by raising cortisol levels. Anger-associated hyperacidity contributes to gastritis and other stomach problems. No wonder we’re asked: “What’s eating you?” And we all know that anger keeps us awake at night.
Anger blocks reason and rational perspective and—in a phenomenon known as “flooding”—it becomes practically impossible to process experiencing in any useful way. Chronic flooding reorganizes beliefs, interpretations, and memories, making it even more difficult to understand what is happening or what has happened. Anger, “more than anything, deprives us of the use of judgment, for,” in William Penn’s words, “it raises a dust very hard to see through.” Someone else has said that “no one can think clearly when his fists are clenched.” [George Jean Nathan] This observation should give us pause in an era in which the clenched fist is a symbol of “authentic” self-respect.
Anger reinforces one’s sense of helplessness, embarrassment and failure. It reduces and can even destroy effectiveness in relationships at home, with friends, and at work. Not surprisingly, people personalize and fear another’s angry outbursts as well as her passive aggression. So they try to defend themselves by hostile counter-attack or distancing. Communication breaks down and relationships are lost. The person who is angry finds himself isolated from friends, family and co-workers. Psychiatrists Frank Minirth and Paul D. Meier go so far as to assert that “holding grudges is the main cause of depression.”
Society, as well, pays a high price for all our anger-induced aggression—from international warfare to rape and domestic violence and even to rage and revenge for being “dissed” on a dance floor. It is estimated that, each year, there are some fifteen hundred deaths on the nation’s highways—directly connected to somebody’s angry outburst behind the wheel.
And anger exacts its sad toll in wounded and hardened consciences and spiritual deadness. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized, Christians are not at all exempt from “The sin of resentment that flares up so quickly in the fellowship [and] indicates again and again how much false desire for honor, how much unbelief, still smolders in the community.”
So the idea that anger is healthy, that it’s good for us, that it should be celebrated, is false. Anger’s good for nothing.
Now I want to be clear. I said that anger’s good for nothing. I did not say that disagreement, disapproval, discerning opposition, displeasure, dislike or even disgust are good for nothing. These are viewpoints—thoughts, value judgments—not emotions. We cannot function without evaluating, without making value judgments. But, of course, value judgments—like any thoughts or beliefs—are relatively informed or misinformed. Well-informed and considered value judgments which may be expressed as disagreement, disapproval, discerning opposition, displeasure, dislike or even disgust should not be confused with the emotion of anger or with the choices such as hate or revenge. Such evaluations can be clearly insightful perceptions that can effectively lead us to useful intervention and problem-solving. Blinding anger gets us nowhere.
Here’s another erroneous belief about anger: “If you’re mad, you’re bad.” But anger is amoral since anger is an emotion. You’re neither bad nor good simply because you feel anger. Those who, as children, were scolded or ridiculed for expressing anger—as well as those who, as children, learned that their parents would let them have their way when they ranted—may have difficulty changing their minds about what such experiences taught on anger.
Another erroneous idea about anger is illustrated and reinforced by notions such as these: “she makes me angry” and “he infuriates me.” The New York Times ran a series entitled: “What Makes Us Angry?” New Yorkers responded by saying that the homeless made them angry, traffic made them angry, graffiti made them angry and even trees made them angry. But the homeless can’t make us angry. Trees can’t make us angry. We make ourselves angry by what we think about the homeless, the trees, or anything else. Our anger is our emotional response to what we tell ourselves about the so-called stimuli. It’s not so simple as stimulus-response. It’s stimulus – interpretation – response. This has been known all along. The first century philosopher Epictetus taught that we’re “disturbed not by things themselves but by the ways we think about them.” Seneca wrote that “our aches and pains conform to our beliefs; we feel as miserable as we think we are.” A century later, the Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, said: “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” Pioneer psychologist William James stated it this way: “Belief creates the fact.”
Another fundamental fallacy on anger is the notion that some of us are simply “angry people.” The rationalization goes like this: We’re angry because we’re biologically angry and we can’t help that. It’s not our fault. Of course biology plays a part in predisposition to expressions of anger, but except for certain instances of brain damage or mental disorder, it isn’t true that biology alone makes us angry. Of course testosterone plays a major role in aggression, but without a particular interpretation there would be no need for a particular expression of the testosterone-facilitated aggression. Our interpretation of experience can just as well modify physiology by lowering our testosterone level. People who are easily angered do release less prolactin than those who are not so irritable and impulsive, but getting angry and expressing anger is more complicated than that. Sleep deprivation contributes to the experience of anger, but anger’s about more than the need for rest. Moreover, anger is what we feel; it is not what we are. So it doesn’t help to think in terms of being “an angry person.”
Here’s another fallacy on anger: it’s good to vent anger. I don’t mean we should suppress anger. The alternative to venting anger is not suppression. Studies show, though, that venting anger is even more harmful than suppressing it. Studies also show that venting one’s anger does not accomplish the intended cathartic effects. Instead, venting anger produces unintended and undesirable side effects. Venting is counterproductive. The whole idea of a so-called cathartic venting is based on the misleading picture of anger as steam that has to be released or else it will explode. “Letting off steam” before one “blows up” or “boils over” are common expressions that perpetuate this fallacy and even encourage the venting. It should not be surprising that venting reinforces the beliefs that lie behind the anger and thereby fuels the anger. And venting isn’t always noisy. Sometimes we try to vent quietly. We “stew.” We privately ruminate over grievances. But rumination, too, makes us angrier because our uncritical muttering to ourselves strengthens the interpretations that made us angry in the first place. And it does not help if we nurse and rehearse our grievances in front of co-conspiring friends and so-called therapists. Unchallenged venting reinforces and perpetuates anger-causing interpretations
Memory is closely associated with the venting of anger—whether in ruminating on one’s own or ruminating with others. But there is reason to seriously question the validity of the memories that are thus reinforced and that then trap us in our anger.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Freud’s conclusion that even hypnosis does not help to recover memories. Experimental research now confirms this. A Stanford neuropsychiatrist points out that “Under hypnosis people can experience themselves as retrieving a memory when in fact they are creating it, and also develop an inflated conviction that the fabricated recollection is accurate.” [David Spiegel] Remembering is an act of reconstruction, not reproduction. All memories are highly personal filling in of the-gaps in terms of our perceived self-interest. Repeated retelling makes things seem so even if they’re not. According to the head of neurology at Harvard Medical School, “every memory is a fragile reconstruction of what the nervous system actually witnessed.” [Marsel Mesulam] Indeed, every time we think about anything we’re recreating from bits of sensation and interpretation from fragments scattered all over the brain. As the Stanford neuropsychiatrist puts it: “We see things in a context. We select what we observe, and then we may distort that for a purpose.” As a psychotherapist who hears the “same” events recalled and reported by different participants, I see this all the time. And there are ideological and cultural pressures that also contribute to the ways in which we construct memory. Even the form of the questions we ask influences our version of reality.
Now if all this is true, you can see how very difficult it is to try to resolve anger by depending on unexamined rumination, that is, on rumination unexamined from outside the brain of the ruminator. It’s even more dangerous when quacks of the so-called repressed-memory movement enter the picture. As one psychologist warns, they “tend to view problems in terms of a presumed history of abuse and so by looking for abuse, expecting to find abuse, it’s no surprise when they uncover abuse.” [Michael Yapko] Says Wendy Kaminer: “If you’re unhappy, as many people are, and angry with your parents, as many people are, it is not a great leap to go from seeing yourself as someone who has been a victim of metaphoric abuse to seeing yourself as someone who has been a victim of actual abuse.” But many co-conspiring “abuse counselors” couldn’t care less whether or not what is “recovered” is true. As one of them puts it: “I don’t care if it’s true. What’s important to me is that I hear the [inner] child’s truth, … We all live in a delusion,” he rationalizes.
Wise ones have always known what the experimental research now uncovers. G. K. Chesterton said that the past is not what was, but whatever seems to have been.” Andre Gide marveled over the “degree [to which] the same past can leave different marks—and especially admit of different interpretations.” As Joyce Carol Oates notes in Them: “history in fictional form—that is, in personal perspective, … is the only kind of history that exists. George Eliot got it right when she wrote that “memory [is that] frail faculty [that] naturally lets drop the facts which are less flattering to our self-love.” And although the philosopher George Santayana warned that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” he nonetheless also knew that one’s “memory may almost become the art of continually varying and misrepresenting [one’s] past, according to [one’s] interest in the present.” In the words of Virginia Woolf: “The things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important” than what we think we remember.
Mistaken beliefs about anger include these: that anger’s good for us, that other people and things make us angry, that some of us are simply angry people, that it’s good to vent anger, and that we can accurately remember what led to anger.
WHAT ABOUT RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION?
If we see anger as an emotional response to an irrational thought that we need something or someone to be otherwise, and if anger’s a weapon we try to use to defend ourselves subsequently, maybe something called “righteous anger” would be O.K. After all, if our anger is “righteous,” we’re not only morally permitted to indulge it, we’re morally obligated to do so. Right? But when it comes to so-called righteous indignation, we could make use of Big Daddy’s nose for mendacity.
Righteous indignation can be sanctimonious camouflage for hypocrisy. We so easily attack others for doing what we’ve already done or would do if we thought we could get away with it. That’s what those men who caught the woman in adultery were doing when they threw her down in front of Jesus. What were they up to when they caught her in the act? We pretend in righteous indignation that we are pure and perfect and even politically correct. But don’t we exaggerate, distort and demonize others for self-serving purposes? Don’t we tend to reduce a person to nothing but the real or imagined slights? Don’t we then abuse our abusers? Don’t we give ourselves every benefit of the doubt while reading into others the worst of motives? Don’t we, as lesbians and gay men, too often posture an all too self-serving victimization, an all too self-serving world of black and white?
A quaint example of the hypocrisy of this self-righteous anger comes from the pen of the 18th-century Anglican priest and hymnwriter (“Rock of Ages”), Augustus Montague Toplady. “Gnatstrainers,” he wrote, “are too often camel-swallowers; and the Pharisaical mantle of superstitious austerity is, very frequently, a cover for a cloven foot … I know of a lady, who, to prove herself perfect, ripped off her flounces, and would not wear an earring, a necklace, a ring, or an inch of lace. Ruffles … [and] Powder was anti-Christian …. A snuff-box smelt of the bottomless pit. And yet, under all this parade of outside humility, the fair ascetic was—but I forbear entering into particulars: suffice it to say, that she was a concealed Antinomian. And I have known too many similar instances.”
Well what do you make of today’s outbursts of righteous indignation? A disgruntled passenger on the QE2 recently complained that the yet not completely refurbished luxury liner was “a floating Bosnia.” Don’t you smell a lawsuit? The R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company pleads in full-page ads: “If the government gets its way, the pursuit of happiness will no longer be [our] inalienable right… [and] we won’t have any choices left to do anything …. If the country is to remain free, the people have to fight against” bans on smoking. R. J. Reynolds as “freedom fighter?”
Just how reasonable or even useful is the concept of righteous indignation? Does the term “righteous” add anything meaningful?
In over two decades of doing psychotherapy, I have heard thousands of experiences of anger. Virtually all of them were immediately rationalized as righteous indignation by the person who was angry. Sadly, a few of these people refused to revise their rationalization. They rather nursed and rehearsed the festering grudge until it became a deadly part of who they themselves became.
But understand that this anger was not always merely postured as righteous anger. It was profoundly felt because the precipitating hurt, fear, frustration, shame, or guilt feelings were really felt but unresolved. The self-pity that masked as righteous indignation in order to overcome these unwanted feelings never permitted the critical thinking and cognitive restructuring that could resolve them.
Christians seem to be especially tempted to engage in a militantly righteous indignation. Of course Moslems, Jews, and secularists can all be pretty militant themselves—not to mention people of all other divisions. But when a Christianity Today editorial admits that “there is something about Christians that can be very harsh,” [Steve Brown] we recoil in recognizing ourselves because, as Christians, we profess to follow the One who instructed us to turn our cheeks to enemies we’re under orders to love and lose count forgiving. In his Thoughts on the Revival, Jonathan Edwards discusses Christians who “speak of almost everything that they see amiss in others, in most harsh, severe, and terrible language. He says they claim “we must be plain hearted and bold for Christ, we must declare war against sin wherever we see it, we must not mince the matter in the cause of God and when speaking of Christ.” Edwards sees in such righteous anger “a strange device of the devil” and assesses that this is “to overthrow all Christian meekness and gentleness … and banish humility, sweetness, gentleness, mutual honour, benevolence, … and an esteem of others above themselves, which ought to clothe the children of God all over!”
Why are Christians so tempted to indulge in such righteous indignation? Why do we so easily come up with a “just war” theory for even the slightest of slights? Why do international “pacifists” clench their fists in interpersonal warfare? Why do 40% of pastors report that they get into a major clash with a church member at least once a month? Dorothy L. Sayers listed “censoriousness” among “the Seven Deadly Virtues” of what she lamented “many people take Christian orthodoxy to be.” The vicar can write to Lady Chatterly that “in my vicarage pill-box I could show [the righteously indignant Christian] virgin hearts soaked in hate more lethal than your unlawful love; godly lips disseminating malice fouler by heavenly kingdom laws than your four-letter words.” [D. C. Barker]
One reason Christians so readily engage in so-called righteous anger is that we project our own anger onto a god created in our own image, mistaking that rationalization for the imitation of God. We pretend to reflect God’s own anger. But we thereby misunderstand and misrepresent the “wrath of God.” Our anger is not God’s; it is our own. Our own otherwise scenarios are fallible; God’s are not. We cannot understand the “wrath of God” by thinking of it as our own wrath writ large. Paul Tillich explained that the wrath of God “means the inescapable and unavoidable reaction against every distortion of the law of life, and above all against human pride and arrogance. That reaction, through which man is thrown back into his limits, is not a passionate act of punishment or vengeance on the part of God. It is the reestablishment of the balance between God and man, which is disturbed by man’s elevation against God.” God’s wrath is not aimed at a personal destruction; it’s aimed at interpersonal reconciliation. We see it throughout the Bible.
Christians get righteously angry when we project our own faults onto others. In this sense, righteous indignation is the defense mechanism of reaction formation. Thomas a Kempis wrote: “Endeavor to be always patient of the faults and imperfections of others, for thou hast many faults and imperfections of thy own that require a reciprocation of forbearance.” Said John Greenleaf Whittier: “Search thy own heart; what paineth thee in others in thyself may be.”
Another reason is that righteous indignation can very nicely mask seemingly Christian virtue gone sour. The practice of Christian discipleship itself can degenerate into “too keen and bitter Resentments [of] Splenetick and Revengeful” Christians, as Thomas Traherne put it in the 1600s. Said John Henry Newman a century ago: “A man may be most austere in his life, and by that very austerity, learn to be cruel to others, not tender.” And Joseph Addison wrote: “Zeal is a great ease to a malicious man, by making him believe he does God service, whilst he is gratifying the bent of a perverse revengeful temper.” All well said and convicting.
Yet another reason we Christians are easily tempted to righteous anger is that we can be so steeped in a simplistic absolutism that all too self-confidently defines boundaries between right and wrong. We angrily project our own cocksure prejudices and priorities into cosmic proportions and even onto what is then labeled “God.” The Christian right ends up promoting Jerry Falwell’s “mighty man,” Frank Peretti’s politico-spiritual warriors, and what other right-wing Christians applaud as “the clear-cut moral universe of the Power Rangers.” Likewise, Christians on the left project their own “melodramas of victimhood,” as Camille Paglia calls them, and the politically correct versions of absolutism that call forth their own trendier sacred hatred. By contrast to the right and the left, Jesus “cut people a little slack,” as one Southern Baptist pastor puts it. [Cecil Sherman] A student of early Christian writings has shown that the wise saints recognized why God is always much more willing than we are to make allowances for sin. It is because God alone sees who we are and who we’ve been and who we may become. Unlike us, God understands the depths of our temptations and the extent of our sufferings. [Roberta Bondi]
Notice that righteous indignation is anger that insists on being right—whether on the right or on the left. It doesn’t want to change its mind about its needing to get its own way. Thus, most “righteous” anger is self-righteous anger. And in such a battle of wills, to need to be right means that anyone or anything that gets in its way must be wrong. We don’t stop there, though, because we have devastating labels to slap on whatever thwarts getting our way. From the right, an accusatory label might be: “the gay agenda”—with all its pro-family indignation; from the left, an accusatory label might be: “homophobic”—with all its indignation of compassion. Many in Christendom have no lesser label than “sin” or “sinners.” And using such labels for what gets in my way can seem to make my way even more right and my anger even more righteous.
That’s why it really doesn’t help when we’re warned by a Pauline commentator that anyone who “would ‘be angry and sin not’ [as the apostle urges] must not be angry with anything but sin.” [Thomas Seeker] Everything the righteously angry are angry about tends to be, by definition, “sin.”
Self-righteous indignation makes it rather difficult for a self-styled saint to cope with other people’s faults—real or perceived. My self-righteous anger demonizes the other person so it is hard to recognize my projected image of myself in this “other” and easier to toss the other” out beyond the pale of empathy and forgiveness. Moreover, my demonizing this other person makes me the abuser and makes the other person—my “abuser”—now the abused. I now no longer hate that other person only for what I say was done against me but for what I now continue to do against him or her. Now I no longer have simply the Christian responsibility to forgive that person but have the responsibility to forgive myself. But to forgive myself means I must confess my sinning against “the other.” That, I self-righteously refuse to do. No wonder someone wrote that “the highest and most difficult of all moral lessons is to forgive those we have injured.” [Joseph Jacobs]
Is there then no truly righteous anger? Was Bonhoeffer right in rejecting all distinctions between “righteous indignation and unjustifiable anger?” Was W. H. Auden right when he wrote that “righteous anger” is a “dubious term?” I think they were. Veteran pastor David H. C. Read warns that “‘righteous anger’ is a slippery concept.” Unsure of “our own facts and our own motives”—not to mention those of others—the concept of righteous anger, Read says, “can be used to justify anything from sheer rudeness to the most subtle of ego trips.” Such anger is, of course, the motivation of terrorists who go far beyond Read’s warning. With reference to Paul’s urging that we not sin in anger, Read speaks from a lifetime of pastoral ministry when he notes: “It is possible for us to be angry without falling into sin—but it is very difficult.” Luther knew how very dangerous was his own righteous anger. He described it as “the devil clothed … in the Godhead.” The Bishop of Edinburgh acknowledges that “The anger I know best is my own and it is rarely righteous.” [Richard Holloway] Can’t we all honestly make the same confession?
There is, nonetheless, I think, a need for a rightly energized concern for a fallen world in which nothing is as it really should be. And so “a righteous anger that is absolutely on behalf of others and is a proper desire to redress the balance of injustice against the poor and the weak,” as Holloway phrases it, is called for. But he adds again: “it is almost impossible for us to avoid self-righteousness here.”
Yet the Hebrew prophets and Jesus himself railed in truly righteous anger against all the abuses of religion and injustices against the helpless, “the other.” But that’s just it. They spoke a decisive no as genuine judgment against evil inflicted upon others. Theirs was not an excuse to indulge self-righteous irritation and self-centered agendas. In his “Christmas Sermon,” Robert Louis Stevenson puts it well, as usual: “the truth of [Christ’s] teaching would seem to be this: in our own person and fortune, we should be ready to accept and to pardon all; it is our cheek we are to turn, our coat that we are to give away to the man who has taken our cloak. But when another’s face is buffeted, perhaps a little of the lion will become us best.” Our anger is much more likely to be truly righteous when we’re engaged on behalf of “the other” with whom we have no particular identity or vested interest than when our “righteous indignation” is on our own behalf. But we must all face the fact that most, if not all, of our so-called righteous indignation expresses our own self-concerns. When we get as worked up over the injustices suffered by our enemies—or at least by neighbors we don’t much like—as we do over what we and our friends suffer, we’ll be getting closer to Jesus’ commandment (after Leviticus) about loving the neighbor as ourselves.
Even virtuous rage,” though, needs “temp’ring,” as Alexander Pope put it in On Mr. Gay. Sober recognition of the practical concern for the other’s welfare requires something besides mere emotion. Others can best be served, not with a mere emotion of anger—however righteous—but by a wisely-willed concern. Such wise concern is, as Aristotle described it, disgusted “with the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right objective and in the right way.” In other words, it’s always a matter of focus and purpose and proportion and what is fitting. The philosopher added, however: “Not everyone can do that.” An English divine commented that anger “becomes sinful and contradicts the rules of Scripture when it is conceived upon slight and inadequate provocation and when it continues long.” [William Faley] Said another great preacher: “Hate hypocrisy, hate cant, hate intolerance, oppression, injustice; hate Pharisaism; hate them as Christ hated them, with a deep, living, godlike hatred.” [F. W. Robertson] Now note: none of these appropriate objects of hate is a person.
Chesterton spoke of the consistency between a “love for humanity and a hatred for inhumanity.” Christina Rossetti wrote of “noble indignant aspiration and the perpetual protest of baulked latent power.” And there’s Henry van Dyke’s “O cleansing indignation … [that saves] from selfish virtue … [and] purifies the soul.” In his Essays on Voltaire, Thomas Carlyle observed that “it is unworthy of a religious [person] to view an irreligious one [with anything but] regret, and hope, and brotherly commiseration.” Such worthy wrath looks more like sadness than anger.
It is modeled more by Jesus weeping over Jerusalem than by his overturning the tables in the temple—not because one is a more authentic picture of Jesus’ own compassion than the other one, but because our anger is not the anger of Jesus. Madeleine L’Engle writes: “We are creatures who sin. I don’t think that makes God angry. On the contrary, I think that makes God incredibly sad.” A New York Times review of Bruce Cockburn’s performances catches this spirit when it states that he “cries out against human cruelty, greed and thoughtlessness in a voice that even when raised in righteous anger, usually sounds more saddened than enraged.”
Surely a realistically sober analysis of and heartfelt concern for the welfare of others is more effective than what usually passes for righteous rage. As Auden puts it: “the more one relies on [righteous anger] as a source of energy, the less energy and attention one can give to the good which is to replace the evil once it has been removed.” Writing to a homosexual friend back in Ireland in 1931, C. S. Lewis observed: “I suppose that when one hears a tale of hideous cruelty anger is quite the wrong reaction, and merely wastes the energy that ought to go in a different direction: perhaps merely dulls the conscience which, if it were awake, would ask us ‘Well? What are you doing about it? How much of your life have you spent in really combatting this? In helping to produce social conditions in which these sort of things will not occur!?”
In contrast to the righteous rage of the clenched fist, theologian Karl Barth gives an alternative picture of Christian response to injustice: “To clasp the hands in prayer,” he says, “is the beginning of our uprising against the disorder of the world.” Such prayer is to be lived out every day in action and in that “desire [which] never ceases to pray even though the tongue be silent,” as Augustine wrote.
Of course nothing is as it should be in this fallen world. But don’t you think that sadness, “hope and brotherly commiseration,” the rolling up of our sleeves to do some good, and earnest action in living prayer are all far better responses than all this world’s “righteous” raging?
WHAT REALLY CAUSES ANGER?
What really causes anger? That depends on the level of explanation we explore. We’ve already said that we make ourselves angry by thinking we need it to be otherwise. The more we think so, the more angry we’ll feel if it’s not otherwise. All this is true. But let’s go deeper.
Why is it that we think we need things to be otherwise? We think this because we’ve sold ourselves a fantasy of an otherwise scenario that seems to answer our perceived need. If the otherwise scenario is this wonderful answer to our need, why wouldn’t we want it? Why wouldn’t we “need” it? As Robert Louis Stevenson looked down from the great wind-swept bridge high over Edinburgh’s snowbound railroad yards, he thought: “Many … aspire angrily after that Somewhere-else of the imagination, where all troubles are supposed to end.” But Stevenson knew that such a “Somewhere-else” was not to be found even in the tropical paradise of Samoa.
As with all fantasies, our otherwise scenario is an unmixed bag. We want it, over against both the mixed bag of our actual reality and the unwanted unmixed bag of our awfulized and personalized view of reality. Naively buying into the distorted or ill-understood negative interpretation as well as the distorted and ill-conceived positive interpretation of the otherwise scenario, why wouldn’t we think we needed that scenario? Failing to acknowledge that the otherwise scenario is nothing but a fantasy we’ve concocted out of our own wishful thinking and that it’s desirability is entirely dependent on our bogus ability to predict how we’d experience things “if only” they were otherwise, we get angry when they don’t go that way, when in George Eliot’s words, “nothing is so good as it seems beforehand.” And yet every disappointment and every pleasant surprise we’ve ever experienced should be evidence enough that we poorly predict our experience. Moreover, the fact that every one of our anticipation’s tends to be unbalanced in a too-positive or a too-negative way should alert us to the unreasonableness of our prediction.
Failing to recognize the otherwise scenario as a fantasy, that it involves unrealistic expectations for self and others—indeed, flies in the face of experience—we unavoidably make ourselves feel angry. Having confused a perfectionistic scenario for a real-life option, we hold ourselves and others hostage to fantasies. But C. S. Lewis suggests, in his Chronicles of Narnia, that only the truly ignorant would look around in this world for that “Island where Dreams come true.” Things in this life are, of course, never the perfection we imagine they should be. Do we even know how to imagine true perfection? And why do we think we’d know how to live with it? Distracting themselves with their merely imaginary versions of perfections, people haven’t recognized true perfection when standing right beside it—as in Eden or Galilee!
Well, as we’ve said, understanding the causes of anger depends on how deeply we delve. We can make ourselves angry whenever we believe that things need to be otherwise. Of course, otherwise always means our ways. It’s easy to think that things really do need to go our ways because we’ve loaded these otherwise scenarios with only what we think we want and with nothing we think we don’t want. But because these scenarios are figments of our own self-serving imagination, they have no basis in reality. Since the otherwise scenario flies in the face of reality, it fails to fly at all in the real world. But it keeps flying around and around in our heads and so we get angrier and angrier.
We start out in an effort for self-enhancement but we end up, in effect, in self-entrapment. What’s the trap? The trap is our short-sighted self-centeredness itself! We try unsuccessfully to escape the emotional stresses of this trap by repeatedly insisting that things really do need to go our way and by awfulizing and personalizing when they don’t. But we thus get only more entangled in the trap of self-centeredness. This is well expressed by a novelist: “I was so obsessed and consumed with my grievances that I could not get away from myself and think things out in the light.” [Anzia Yezirrska] We soon repackage this anger as righteous indignation—the rationalization for our self-righteous anger at not getting our way. But, in the novelist’s words: “I was [then] in the grip of that blinding, destructive, terrible thing—righteous indignation.” Thus, anger is caused by short-sighted self-centeredness and excused by self-righteousness—all to no avail. The anger with which we end is only the rationalization of the anger with which we begin.
ANGER AND SELF-CENTEREDNESS
Anger and self-centeredness are two sides of the same coin. The one side, anger, can’t exist without the other side, self-centeredness. That should not surprise us. We see it all around us. Anger and self-centeredness; self-centeredness and anger. They always go together. They make a “lovely couple”—co-dependently at each other’s throats!
In unrequited self-centeredness and consequent anger, is it any wonder we’re stuck in a victimist culture unrealistically expecting quick-fixes for everyday problems of living? And if we don’t get what we want we lash out at those we blame for getting in our way, for keeping us from getting our way. This mentality is pushed by politicians, preachers, therapists, lawyers, journalists, advertisers, activists, lobbyists, entertainers and assorted gurus. The inflated coin of self-centeredness and anger is squandered on “ethnic cleansing” and racial rivalries, whining and raging psycho-speak, self-pitying litigation, an all-consuming consumerism, escalating expectations of entitlement, and explanations for unhappiness that reduce everything to interpersonal and intergroup power games. No wonder someone’s said that there are “none so empty as those who are full of themselves.” [Benjamin Whichcote] The combination of self-centeredness and anger has even darker implications. Said Samuel Johnson: “He that overvalues himself will undervalue others, and he that undervalues others will oppress them.” Said Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “He who begins by loving Christianity better than the truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or Church better than Christianity, and end by loving himself better than all.”
Keeping in mind that these last two quotations come out of the 18th century, we may nonetheless agree that we live today in what a University of California sociologist calls “a degree of self-centered moralism that is unprecedented in American history.” [Jack Douglas] In his book, The Rise of Selfishness in the United States, James Lincoln Collier has documented this pervasive shift toward self-seeking, self-enjoyment, self-indulgence, and self-gratification. As Christians, we’re caught up in spiritual narcissism to boot. A Yale theologian puts it this way: “The opening line of the Westminster Confession [that our chief end is to glorify God and joy in God forever] is now reversed, for the chief end of God is to glorify us and to be useful to us indefinitely.” [Leander Keck] And no wonder. Evelyn Underhill explains that “Most of our conflicts and difficulties come from trying to deal with the spiritual and practical aspects of our life separately instead of realizing them as parts of one whole. If our practical life is centered on our own interests, cluttered up by possessions, distracted by ambitions, passions, wants, and worries, beset by a sense of our own rights and importance, or anxieties about our own future, or longing for our own success, we need not expect that our spiritual life will be a contrast to all this.”
Does all this sound like the world in which we all live? Does it look like your own lifestyle? Does it matter to us that it sounds a lot like what the apostle Paul described as the lifestyle of “the last days?” In his final letter to Timothy, Paul warned that the primary characteristic of people in what he called “the last days” would be their self-centeredness. He then went on to spell out this self-centeredness in terms of anger (contemptuous, ungrateful, crude, cynical, unbending and unforgiving, slandering gossips, ruthless) as well as in terms of their being money-hungry, lustful, and pleasure-seekers instead of lovers of God. [II Tim 3:1-4] Calvin was careful to note that Paul here sees “self-love … as the source from which flow all the vices that follow.”
But, of course, what Carlyle called this “golden calf of self-love” never waited around to be worshipped only in what are narrowly defined as “the last days.” As one writer has said, all of “human history is the sad result of each one looking out for himself.” [Julio Cortazar] According to Brazilian theologian Helder Camara, such “Selfishness is the deepest root of all unhappiness.” Another states: “Nine-tenths of our unhappiness is selfishness.” [G. H. Morrison] After many years of mediating self-centered hostilities in “conflicted churches,” Eldon Berry says: “I have observed that most difficulties arise from situations in which people insist that others see life only from their perspective—not allowing the validity of other people’s different perspectives.”
But again, just as with anger, though self-centeredness is nothing new, there is today something about it that is rather different. Today’s rampant self-centeredness and individualism is self-righteously championed. As psychologist Sidney Callahan states: “In American culture there is an overemphasis on autonomy and liberty. The focus is always upon the imperial self’s rights and requirement for instant gratification and fulfillment: ‘Live free or die,’ ‘I owe it to myself,’ ‘I did it my way,’ ‘Look out for number one.’ Glorified self-centeredness creates a primary obligation to the self that crowds out other obligations. While other people may remain important, they can be seen to function mostly to fulfill the self’s need for satisfying ‘relationships.’”
We’re all too familiar with such self-righteously self-centered anger. It can be a thin-skinned “sensitiveness” that someone used to call “a sort of delicate-colored dress in which Selfishness tries to disguise itself.” [David C. Cook] Lewis called it “the loutishness that turns every argument into a quarrel … the restless inferiority-complex … which bleeds at a touch but scratches like a wildcat.” But it can be an even pathological self-absorption and inflated sense of entitlement, masked by a charm that hides unresolved shame. It can explode into self-righteous rage and coldly calculated revenge. Says Callahan: “No one is more angry than a narcissist. The world is not revolving around you all the time, and you get good and mad about it.” He adds that “narcissism has never been more prevalent than today.”
SUFFERING AND SELF-CENTEREDNESS
Suffering in self-centeredness is inevitable. According to historian Arnold Toynbee, suffering is “the essence of life, because it is the inevitable product of an unresolvable tension between [our] essential impulse to try to make [ourselves] into the centre of the Universe and [our] essential dependence on the rest of Creation and on the Absolute Reality.” We can make it even worse, so that George Orwell goes so far as to say that “on balance life is suffering.”
Among the many problems we create for ourselves by our self-centered buying into perceived needs for attractive fantasy scenarios, is a reinforcement of an uncritical evaluation of our experience of anything or anyone that is in any way even unpleasant or inconvenient, let alone painful or truly tragic. We here fail to appreciate that, in Vachel Lindsay’s words: “I know that Shadow has its place, / That Noon is not our goal.” So in trying to deal with anger, it could be useful to challenge some of our assumptions about suffering and our efforts to avoid the inevitability of suffering. Whether we’re wandering through the wilderness or settling the promised land, life in this world has been, for everyone, some kind of mixed experience, and it will be that for us. If anyone ever suffers—and everyone does—why do we demand that we ourselves escape such common experience? And yet we do make such demands. And when our demands are not met we get angry. Psychologist Larry Crabb sees the core problem of Western civilization in our “demand[ing] the satisfaction of a life that is working well.”
Psychologically, this self-absorbed naivete is dangerous. For example, Carl Jung warned that neurosis is always rooted in the “avoidance of legitimate suffering.” It was out of his concentration camp experience that psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl spoke of “the right kind of suffering [as] the highest achievement that has been granted human beings.” He saw suffering to be one of the three basic ways to find meaning in life and he went on to develop a psychotherapy around that. Indeed, Simone Weil spoke of the “indispensability [of the] transforming power of suffering” out of her own voluntary suffering on behalf of others. And, as another Christian saw it: “It is only suffering that makes us persons.” [Miguel de Unamuno]
According to Weil, “A test of what is real is that it is hard and rough. Joys are found in it,” she said, “not pleasure. What is pleasant belongs to dreams.” Dare we learn what Bonhoeffer said we must: “that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune?”
This must be why those who have lived life most deeply have prayed for even the very things about which we get most angry, thinking we need them to be otherwise. Listen to their voices. St. Augustine: “When all goes well with you … then find tribulation—if in any way you can—that having found tribulation, you may call on the name of the Lord.” Luther: “In ‘Thy will be done,’ God bids us to pray against ourselves.” John Donne: “O think me worth Thine anger … Burn off my rusts and my deformity.” John Wesley: “I am no longer my own, but thine. … Put me to suffering.” William Cowper: “Oh! make this heart rejoice or ache; / Decide this doubt for me; / And if it be not broken, break — / And heal it, if it be.” Christina Rossetti: “God harden me against myself, / This coward with pathetic voice / Who craves for ease, and rest and joys; / Myself, arch-traitor to myself, / My hollowest friend, my deadliest foe / My clog whatever road I go.” Robert Louis Stevenson: “If I have faltered more or less / In my great task of happiness; / If I have moved among my race / And shown no glorious morning face; / If beams from happy human eyes / Have moved me not; if morning skies, / Books, and my food, and summer rain / Knocked on my sullen heart in vain: / Lord, Thy most pointed pleasure take, / And stab my spirit broad awake.”
Thinking that we need things to be otherwise presumes that we know best what otherwise should be. More explicitly, it assumes that any pain or suffering is bad and is always to be avoided. When we find that we can’t avoid or escape pain and suffering in our lives, we tend to get angry. Today, we’re tempted to think too highly of such anger. Now I’m not saying that anger is unnatural. I’m not saying that it isn’t understandable. Indeed, it’s inevitable so long as we are in the grip of short-sighted and self-centered interpretation which is habitual with all of us. Almost by definition, our not wanting a situation will be, itself, a suffering. And so long as our experience of the situation is dictated by our sense of its being an unmixed negative, we’ll tend to live in our anger. It’s only when we can move beyond this usually immediate interpretation that we will be able to move beyond our anger. And while we may be able to hasten the move out of anger by changing what we’re telling ourselves, we’ll discover that even in spite of our totally negative and awfulizing expectations of a painful situation, it is often the case that the actual experience of what was so dreaded in anticipation turns out to be at least a mixed experience and in some cases, a surprisingly good experience that we could not have anticipated from what we predicted.
Suffering, said Oscar Wilde, is “a revelation. One discovers things one never discovered before.” He asked: “How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?” It was a hundred years ago this week that Wilde was thrown into prison for two years of hard labor for sodomy. While in prison it was very rough, but he regained physical fitness and became more spiritually alive. On his release, he told Andre Gide that it was in his painful prison experience that he learned the meaning of mercy. Wilde went on to advocate for prison reform in the few years he had left.
Last year we remembered the centenary of the death that ended Christina Rosetti’s loneliness. Yet she had penned that “in my weariness I find my / rest, / And so in poverty I take my fill. / … I see my good in midst / of ill, / Therefore in loneliness I build my / nest, / … And hope in sickening disappointment still.”
After Harriet Beecher Stowe’s son died of cholera and she said she was better able to realize what slave mothers must feel when their children were taken from them, she wrote that “his death [was] of such peculiar bitterness, of what seemed almost cruel suffering, that I felt that I could never be consoled for it, unless this crushing of my own heart might enable me to work out some great good to others.”
That “suffering has itself a place in the redemptive action of God” [Austin Farrer] should not be a new idea to Christians who have, as our symbol, an instrument of torture and execution. Christina Rossetti expressed it so well: “If grief be such a looking-glass as / shows / Christ’s Face and man’s in some / sort made alike, / Then grief is pleasure with a / subtle taste: / Wherefore should any fret or / faint or haste? / Grief is not grievous to a soul that / knows / Christ comes,—and listens for / that hour to strike.” And who among us living with HIV and AIDS in ourselves or in our dearest friends and family has not experienced even this plague as what Robert Hoppe—who, with his partner, died of AIDS—called “the worst and the best” of his life? But, of course, suffering in itself is no guarantee of anything but suffering. Not all troubles are “blessings in disguise”—though some have already proven to be so and others may yet be so. But these are troubles, nevertheless. Speaking out of her own experience with suffering, including the kidnapping and murder of her little son, Anne Morrow Lindbergh said: “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” All of these necessary additions involve, in one way or another, the re-working of what the sufferer says to self.
Two British clergymen of the Victorian era made the point in their sermons. Said Charles H. Spurgeon: “In itself pain will sanctify no [one]: it may even tend to wrap him up within himself, and make him morose, peevish, selfish; but when God blesses it, then it will have a most salutary effect—a suppling, softening influence.” John Henry Newman’s caution is stronger: “Pain does not commonly improve us, but without care it has a strong tendency to do our souls harm, viz, by making us selfish; an effect produced even when it does us good in other ways.” A century later, Billy Graham told the grief-stricken in Oklahoma City: “At times like this, we’ll do one of two things: It will either make us hard and bitter and angry at God, or they will make us tender and open and help us to reach out in trust and faith.” The difference is in what we tell ourselves.
THE DEEPEST CAUSE OF ANGER
Now let’s delve to the deepest cause of anger—at least the deepest we can see.
What if all the many ways we think we need things to be otherwise are but substitutes for our one deep need for the truly Otherwise? What if, at its deepest, the desired different way is the truly different Way, the Holy? A biblical scholar puts it boldly: “We really do know that all of our other desires are but distortions of the primal desire for communion with God.” [Walter Brueggemann] “If [we are] not made for God,” asked Pascal, “why [are we] content only in God?” After all, according to William James: “There is in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there,’ more deep and more general” than all else we know. Said Toynbee: we are “confronted by something spiritually greater than [ourselves] which, in contrast to Human Nature and to all other phenomena, is Absolute Reality. And this Absolute Reality … is also an Absolute Good for which [we are] athirst.” And the Absolute for whom we thirst is not a vodka. There is, indeed, “a God-shaped hole in the human heart and nothing but God’s presence can fill it.” But sadly, as Augustine put it in his prayers: “the world falls in love with what You have created instead of with You …. as though the gift could ever be preferable to the Giver.”
What if the deepest cause of our anger is our failure to see that we really do need the truly Otherwise, that we need, not our own way, but the truly different Way—the Holy? What most deeply causes our anger, then, is our distorting self-focused fantasy which distracts us from the reality of others as well as the Reality of the truly Other. The problem is my myopic me—short-sighted, self-centered.
Our anger-inducing belief that we need it to be otherwise must go deeper—deep enough to be transformed into the anger-relieving belief that we need the truly Otherwise. “The evangelical question,” is this: “What do you think it will take to satisfy you?” [Brueggemann] If that question is approached only out of our short-sighted and self-centered point of view, we will misunderstand it and fail to go deeper to the relevant response. It is, at bottom, a spiritual question—perhaps the spiritual question–and it therefore must receive a spiritual response. But instead of depending on our own spiritual perspective which projects the merely fantasy otherwise,—whether in the constricting terms of “the gay agenda” or “the contract with America”—we must depend on the Spirit’s perspective and thus receive the gift of the Spirit’s revelation of the truly Otherwise. When we do that, we are grasped by the revelation that the satisfaction of our true need is, as Pascal said, “neither within us only, or without us; it is the union of ourselves with God.”
There are many good reasons for dealing more effectively with good-for-nothing anger. But in trying to do so, let’s be gentle and wise.
If, for example, we think we should never have gotten angry in the first place, we’ll increase guilty feelings that fuel anger. If we think we should overcome all anger quickly and easily, we’ll increase frustration and guilty feelings that fuel anger. If we think that we need to never ever again feel anger, we’ll increase anxiety and forecast failure that fuels anger. If we think that others need to be otherwise and that they need to fully cooperate with us in our efforts at overcoming anger, we’ll increase resentment, frustration, and hurt feelings that fuel anger. If we awfulize our anger we’ll deepen a sense of personal shame and helplessness that fuels anger. If we think that all our unsuccessful attempts at overcoming anger prove that we’ll always have the same difficulties with anger, we’ll feel anxiety and guilty feelings and even a sense of hopelessness, all of which can fuel anger. In short, you see, if we keep on telling ourselves that everything about our anger must be totally otherwise in our past, here and now, and for all time to come, we’ll fuel our anger in our very attempt to quench it.
IRRATIONAL APPROACHES TO ANGER
There are two basically irrational ways that people try to deal with anger: suppression and aggression. These are irrational approaches to the problem of anger and therefore they’re unsuccessful because they not only don’t resolve the anger, they actually perpetuate it.
Suppression of anger is a failure to acknowledge it. We tend to suppress anger out of a fear of rejection. We try to prevent our being seen to be weak, imperfect, out-of-control, or even unspiritual by pretending that we’re not really feeling angry. We suppress in an effort to self-enhance. But whether or not we “win” in terms of hiding our feelings, we lose in a number of important ways in the long haul. Merely hiding our anger fails to get rid of it. We remain angry.
Aggression may be open or passive. Open aggression is evidenced by all the noisy confrontational stereotypes of anger: yelling and screaming and bombing. Passive aggression is evidenced by all the quieter expressions of anger: sulking and avoidance and the “silent treatment.” Both the openly and passively aggressive are out to win a battle with the perceived enemy at the enemy’s expense. As with suppression, both the openly and passively aggressive are trying to avoid rejection and “save face.” But preoccupied with one’s own feelings, both the openly aggressive and the passively aggressive are insensitive to the needs and feelings of the alleged enemy, and unintentionally contribute to the likelihood of rejection by this now defensive “enemy.” The openly aggressive person expresses anger directly while the passively aggressive person expresses anger indirectly. Which approach is taken is a matter of what one thinks he or she can afford or get away with. Passive aggression, for instance, seems to expose the aggressor to less vulnerability than does a seemingly more risky open confrontation. A perceived advantage of passive aggression is isolation for nursing and rehearsing self-pity, “our worst enemy,” as Helen Keller called it. A perceived advantage of open aggression is the invigorating rush in the venting fury. Whether in open or passive aggression, we aggress in an effort to self-enhance. And again, though we may “win” the moment, we lose the far more important.
Some so-called therapies for anger are little more than rationalized open aggression. They fail to challenge, much less overcome, the short-sighted self-centeredness that gets rationalized as self-actualizing indignation and, more fundamentally, they fail to get beyond the anger-inducing fantasy that we need things to be otherwise to the anger-relieving revelation that we need and may receive the truly Otherwise.
RATIONAL APPROACHES TO ANGER
Rational approaches to the resolution of anger must take into account all that we’ve said about the causes of anger: that we make ourselves angry by thinking that we need someone or something to be otherwise, that we do so by uncritically buying into the supposed truth of our fantasy otherwise scenarios, and that this short-sightedness is due to our unrealistic preoccupation with ourselves as the center of the universe. Rational approaches to the resolution of anger will also challenge the irrational thoughts that bring on the unwanted feelings of hurt, fear, frustration, shame and guilt feelings for which anger is then used as a weapon of protective response.
If, as we’ve said, anger is connected with short-sightedness in self-centeredness, the ability and willingness to pull back and get a better perspective on things can help to get rid of anger. According to the psychiatrist who wrote Listening to Prozac: “The road back [from anger] is via attention to perspective.” [Peter D. Kramer] “Anger is a reductive emotion,” says novelist Wendell Berry. “Resentments, grudges, the desire for revenge—all emotions under this heading—are reductive. They reduce others to the size of that feeling. There is always more to the world and to life than those feelings can describe or be aware of.”
One improving vantage point is that of a sense of humor, seeing even tragedy in a broader context. A sense of humor can stop anger by even laughing off the hurt that is caused by personalizing. A sense of humor can heal that hurt with what Carlyle called a “warm tender fellow-feeling with all forms of existence.” A sense of humor can stop anger by countering the exaggerations of awfulizing, allowing us the good perspective to say to ourselves: “Oh, come off it!”—as Maurice Boyd has
pointed out. A sense of humor can stop anger by countering anxiety and be, as Sir Walter Scott said: “a safeguard [that] defends from the insanities.” A sense of humor can stop anger by relieving frustration, or in Marianne Moore’s words: “Humor saves a few steps, it saves years.” Unreasonable expectations about the everyday difficulties of life may be revised with a healthy sense of humor, but today, as George Will says, responses to “the disappointments of everyday life” tend to be lawsuits. Said D. L. Moody: “I have lived long enough to discover that there is nothing perfect in this world … [so] let us be done with fault-finders.” Said Luther: “It never fails: at times you do and say something that disgusts me and I do and say something that does not please you at all, just as one member of the body injures another, the teeth biting the tongue, the fingers poking into the eyes, etc.” He said that “whenever it happens, we should … not only bear each other’s burden, not only cover up failings and short-comings, but also excuse and extenuate them.” Those without the sense of humor to do this, Luther said, are “unfit to be among people.” Such people are “green hands in life.” [Robert Louis Stevenson] They don’t have sense enough to realize that “God didn’t make the sun for their candle, dogs for their pets, etc.” [A. Clutton-Brock] But in order to move into such a wider sense of perspective is not easy for one enmeshed in anger. As Lewis noted: “Hatred blurs all distinctions.” Nonetheless, a move into such a wider sense of perspective is worth the effort. Said Sir William Temple: “When all is done, human life is, at the greatest and the best, but like a froward child, that must be play’d with and humoured a little to keep it quiet till it falls asleep.”
If a wider perspective is needed, we dare not neglect the widest perspective. Pioneering Harvard psychologist Gordon W. Allport had this to say in his classic work on personality: “A case might be made for the potentially superior humor of the religious person who has settled once and for all what things are of ultimate value, sacred and unchangeable. For then nothing else in the world need be taken seriously.” Bishop Fulton J. Sheen used to say that a sense of humor is “closely related to faith” and another noted preacher said that “laughter … [is] almost a final theology.” [George Buttrick] Almost – but, of course, not a final theology, for as Reinhold Niebuhr observed: “the sense of humor remains healthy only when it deals with immediate issues and faces the obvious and surface irrationalities. It must move toward faith or sink into despair when the ultimate issues are raised.”
This wisdom brings us to the spiritual approaches to the resolution of anger. At bottom, the resolution of anger is spiritual.
SPIRITUAL APPROACHES TO ANGER
It was 200 years ago this year that William Romaine died. Romaine was a popular 18th-century evangelical priest in London’s united parish of St. Anne’s, Blackfriars and St. Andrews’-of-the-Wardrobe. In his classic Treatises on the Life, Walk, and Triumph of Faith, he writes of “the base selfish tempers, which rendered a [person] a plague to others, and often a burden to himself or herself and observed that there is a sense in which “Nothing is in [us], by nature, but selfishness …. we’re living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another.” He reminds us that “Every age has felt this malady, and complained of it. But no human means have been able to remedy it.” As we’ve been doing, Romaine is here thinking of the inseparable connection between anger and self-centeredness. He goes on to affirm what we are about to consider, that God “only, who made us creatures, can make us new creatures.”
In the late 19th-century, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote several prayers for his extended family’s evening devotions at “Vailima,” his Samoan island home. After his early death in 1894, his widow had them published. In his prayer “For Self-Forgetfulness,” Stevenson, too, saw anger linked to self-centeredness and knew that resolution required divine intervention. He prayed: “Accept us, correct us, guide us, thy guilty innocents. Dry our vain tears, wipe out our vain resentments, … If there be any here, sulking as children will, deal with and enlighten him. Make it heaven about him, Lord, by the only way to heaven, forgetfulness of self, and make it day about his neighbors, so that they shall help, not hinder him.”
Faith Baldwin once replied to a correspondent who had asked about international peace prospects by saying: “Peace … begins in the individual. No family at war with itself can be at peace with the community; no community continually warring among its people can be at peace with another country. A summit conference begins in the family … Discussion is fine….. Anger is lethal. I think we should work for international peace by working for peace in the home …. I think in the international longing for international peace we have to remember where it begins; which is in the human heart and spirit.” A week before this, one of the foremost theologians of our century, Karl Barth, answered the same inquirer. Barth, too, focused on the significance of hostility at the individual level. In his post card reply, Barth wrote: “Well, here is your little Timothy; tell him (more by your example than by your words) what is the matter with faith, hope and love; teach him how to become a peacemaker in his next surroundings, a pleasant individual before God and before his neighbors. … that will be your contribution to international peace.”
Across the years, the wiser ones have known that all self-centered anger must finally be resolved within the individual human spirit open to the reconciling intervention of the Spirit of God. So now as we look at spiritual approaches to the resolution of anger, I don’t think we can improve on the theological framework Barth gives in his warm, if fractured, English: “tell [your little Timothy] what is the matter with faith, hope, and love.”
As you know, Barth got this early Christian triad—faith, hope, love—from the beautiful 13th chapter of Paul’s letter called I Corinthians. “Together these [three] words embrace the whole of Christian existence.” [Gordon D. Fee] Here’s a portion of this text with which we may frame the spiritual antidotes to short-sighted and self-centered anger. Paul writes: “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror. But the time will come when we’ll see reality whole and face to face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth, but the time will come when I shall know it as fully as God now knows me! Meanwhile, faith, hope, and love endure, these three; but the greatest of them all is love.” [1 Cor 13:12f, a conflation of renderings by Peterson, Phillips and Cassirer]
We yet don’t see anything clearly. Kierkegaard knew that it was a “duty of our understanding to understand that we don’t understand” very much. We don’t fully understand even ourselves and our own motives and actions, much less others and their motives and actions. We have but partial awareness of our present lives as well as of our remembered pasts and anticipated futures, the roads we take and the roads never taken but too readily fantasized, news we call “bad” and news we call “good.” From our self-centered short-sightedness, we can’t see anything in clear focus. But we too often think we do. And then we get angry. We don’t see God and God’s Way clearly either. But we too often think we do. We don’t get it. So we get angry.
It’s O.K. that we don’t now see clearly because, really, we don’t now need to see clearly. Real living is not yet done by seeing. Real living is done, for now, by faithing. And as Luther knew: “Faith does not require information, knowledge, and certainty, but a free surrender and a joyful bet on [God’s] unfelt, untried, and unknown goodness.” So faith is a spiritual antidote to all our short-sightedness that fuels anger.
Faith is also a spiritual antidote to our self-centeredness that fuels anger. To Paul’s way of thinking, the object of Christian faith is God. Such daring confidence is not “confidence in confidence alone” as Julie Andrews sang it, and it isn’t the self-confidence that “look-within” gurus advise. Christian faith, as one Bible scholar puts it, “pushes the reason for one’s existence out beyond oneself … to find that reason in an inexplicable, inscrutable and loving generosity that redefines all our modes of reasonableness.” [Brueggemann]
How did the ancient Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day deal with irrational belief that needs things to be otherwise and the consequent anger and other painful emotions? They improvised with the four Platonic virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom and justice. But these remedies could be problematic in themselves. After all, courage failed, temperance was a difficult balance to keep, wisdom tended to be merely pragmatic, and justice was easily offended as well as offensive. Their solution was a kind of life-at-more-than-arms-length self-reliance maintained by will power. The Stoics and the Cynics advised: be independent of external circumstances through self-discipline. Paul is borrowing terms from these philosophers as well as from the mystery religions when he, too, states: “I have learned to be self-sufficient in every situation in which I find myself,” adding, “I have learned the secret” for coping with all the ups and downs of everyday living. But self-reliance for Paul was relative. To the Cynics and Stoics, their own self-reliance and detachment was all they had. Paul’s self-reliance was rooted in his prior reliance on God, for, as he explained, “I have the power to face all such situations in union with the One who continuously infuses me with strength.” [Phil 4:11,13, translated by Gerald Hawthorne] That’s Paul’s faith.
Faithing beyond feelings based in our own depressingly short-sighted and self-centered interpretations of our circumstances, we “discover more of the power … of a prayer-hearing God,” as John Newton testified during his wife’s last illness. This Anglican priest and hymnwriter (“Amazing Grace”) lamented: “I see no present prospect of her recovery, … medicines seem insufficient.” But he faithed: “I know it is not an Enemy hath done this.” He freely acknowledged his “discontent” and shared that “I feel for myself [and] I pray … that her sickness may be sanctified to both our souls.” Faithing beyond the anxiety and anger, he wrote that “faith is strengthened by affliction …. Upon this ground Habakkuk could sit down and rejoice under the loss of all. He could look at the blasted fig tree and the withered vine, see the herds and flocks cut off, and every creature comfort fail, yet says I will rejoice in the Lord. 1 will joy in the God of my salvation.” It was not until after his wife died that Newton ever preached on this text from the 3rd chapter of Habakkuk. He had saved it to strengthen him through what he knew would be the deepest loss of his life. Grasping onto that Deep Good Will, we can afford to doubt the ultimate reasonableness in our own wills, and live out what Stevenson called the faith “of the childlike, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure.” Bonhoeffer allows that “of course, not everything that happens is simply ‘God’s will,’ and yet in the last resort nothing happens,” he notes, “‘without your Father’s will (Matt 10:29), i.e., through every event, however untoward, there is access to God.” Said another: “There are no disappointments to those whose wills are buried in the will of God.” [F. W. Faber] “If God’s will is your will and if God always has His way [with you], then you always have your way also.” This was the comforting outlook of Hannah Whitall Smith, yet another Christian who endured a lifetime of suffering. Such a courageous confidence in the mysterious goodness of that Spirit’sWill that is indeed like the wind that blows where it wills, is not confined to only our very worst circumstances. It’s for everyday aggravation as well. Here, for example, is an entry from the Journals of John Wesley: “Monday, the 27th of August, 1787: I thought when I left Southampton, to have been there again as this day; but God’s thoughts were not as my thoughts. Here we are shut up in Jersey; for how long we cannot tell. But it is all well; for Thou, Lord, hast done it.” If faith can be the antidote to the annoyance of being “shut up in Jersey,” surely faith can answer any need to have anything in our day-to-day ups and downs be otherwise.
We may now move on to the second antidote to anger, which is hope, by way of what one New Testament writer says about faith: Faith “celebrates the objective reality for which we hope, [faith] is the demonstration of [what is] as yet unseen.” [Heb 11:1, translated by William L. Lane]
In the same poignant letter from which we’ve quoted John Newton, he refers to “the unspeakable blessing of having a hope in God.”
Hope, in the Christian sense, is not the wishful thinking that spins fantasies of “hoping” to have things go otherwise. In fact, in Christian hope, we “find what is beyond [such] hopes.” [Clement of Alexandria] Neither is Christian hope denial dressed up in its Sunday best. Hope, in the Christian sense, is not even what a University of Kansas psychologist researching what he calls, “hope” defines it to be, i.e. “believing you have both the will and the way to accomplish your goals.” [Charles R. Snyder] “Indeed,” as a Bible scholar explains, “biblical hope most often has little suggestion about how to get from here to there. It is rather a celebrative conviction that God will not quit until God has had God’s way in the world.” He says that this “affirmation is a warning about our self-sufficiency, which imagines that in our own power we can have life on our own terms—now and in time to come. Hope is an act that cedes our existence over to God, who is able to accomplish far more abundantly all that we can ask or imagine.” [Brueggemann] Christian hope resists settling for less. Christian hope resists resignation.
Christian hope is, then, a sense of perspective. It’s the bigger picture. In fact, it’s the biggest picture we can know about. Given what we’ve said about anger’s lack of perspective, fostered as it is by short-sighted self-centered viewpoints, Christian hope is a spiritual antidote to anger. The conviction that “God will not quit until God has had God’s full way in the world” is an affirmation which this biblical scholar himself suggests “is an antidote to the deep despair that sees no way out of our present vexation” or anger.
As the biggest picture, hope takes seriously the fact that we make a serious mistake when we take the limits of our “own field of vision for the limits of the world.” [Arthur Schopenhauer] But that’s exactly the mistake we do make when we tell ourselves that we know we need it to be otherwise in this particular way or that, and thereby make ourselves angry. A Georgetown Jesuit reminds us that in trying to interpret our lives and our needs, we, of course, “must start from somewhere … [in our own] presuppositions, biases, and values.” He then states that, “it is, after all, only God who enjoys the view from nowhere; the view without context or particularity. Only God escapes the circle of interpretation.” [Kevin Wildes]
Now naturally, we can’t see from God’s view so we can’t really explain things from God’s view. But we don’t need to. We’re already stuck in too many explanations and they’ve usually led to anger. Besides, “Hope is not an explanation of anything.” [Brueggemann] Hope reaches beyond explanation. Christian hope looks to that “view from nowhere” to be the view of the truly Otherwise of the whole world’s greatest need. And so, in the hopeful words of George MacDonald: “Because thine eyes are open, I can see; / Because thou are thyself, ‘tis therefore I am me.”
The all-inclusive perspective of biblical hope is higher and deeper and wider than all our disappointments and fantasized remedies. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to contrast what he called “finite disappointment” with “infinite hope.”
David’s hope was of God’s presence in “heaven and hell”—or Sheol, the abode of the dead. “If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there.” [Psalm 139:8, NASB] But that was too daring a vision of hope for some ancient scribes. They refused to finish the psalmist’s sentence and left it dangling: “If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou ….” One exegete comments: “God in Sheol, totally unexpected, is the reality, beyond all definitions, all logic, all syntax, all expectation—acquainting us with the glorious surprise that there is no place foreign to God’s healing love and presence.” [Robert McAfee Brown] And if the hope is of God’s presence even in the abode of the dead, why not, as the 23rd Psalm hopes, in all our times of “deepest darkness?” Listen to the words of John Greenleaf Whittier: “I know not where His islands lift / Their fronded palms in air; / I only know I cannot drift / Beyond His love and care.”
But even in God’s presence, things can be terrible. Elie Wiesel tells of the SS hanging two men and a boy before the assembled prisoners of the concentration camp. Being heavier, the two men died quickly but the death struggle of the boy lasted half an hour. “‘Where is God? Where is He?’ someone behind me asked.” The boy’s agony continued. I heard the same man asking ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.’” Paul’s hope was in the crucified Christ. He preached “Christ crucified.” And he wrote, in hope: “I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths—nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Rom 8:38f, NEB]
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul again borrows from the Stoics and even from Jewish apocalyptic to recommend that everyday circumstances be seen in such a perspective that they not, as such, engross and determine the Christian’s life experience at its deepest. [I Cor 7:29] The hope of the new age is anchored Otherwise.
And though Christian hope is oriented to that great mystery which is often disparagingly called “pie in the sky by and by,” the future for which Christian hope waits is just as fittingly this coming afternoon or tomorrow morning or next week. For though there is deferred gratification in Christian hope, there is also the immediate gratification of the hoping and the daily calling. In Barth’s post card he tells of the time that Luther was asked what he’d do if he had reason to think that the world was about to end. Barth says Luther replied: “I would go, plant and cultivate a small young apple tree, and then wait and see.” In his comments on hope written from within the Nazi imprisonment from which he would never be released before death, Bonhoeffer wrote: “some Christians think it impious for anyone to hope and prepare for a better earthly future. They think that the meaning of present events is chaos, disorder, and catastrophe; and in resignation or pious escapism they surrender all responsibility for reconstruction and for future generations. It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; in that case, we shall gladly stop working for a better future. But not before.”
Christian hope gives us a perspective for all of us and from now on. Together, we look forward in hope. And this brings us to Paul’s third word: love.
In the meantime, and for all the mean times, we have faith and hope and love. But in the age to come, faith will yield to sight and hope will yield to realization, but love, Paul reasons, “never ends.” [I Cor 13:8] Therefore, Paul urges: “Make love your aim.” Says Dame Julian: “The true hope is in the endless love.” Indeed, as Karl Menninger puts it: “Love is implicit in our hoping and in our believing.”
Anger is a symptom of the failure to experience God’s love and therein love God and all that God loves. Love, then, along with faith and hope, is the spiritual antidote to anger. “Love transforms the impulse to fight into the impulse to work or play.” [Menninger]
Contrary to what pop psych preaches, we all do love ourselves. We all try to advance our own perceived welfare. Jesus assumed as much when he said that the Law and Prophets are summed up in love of God and love of others—even enemies. He called on his followers to love all the others as the followers love themselves. The problem is not that we don’t love ourselves; it’s that we don’t like ourselves. We love ourselves so inordinately that we can’t stand it when we don’t like ourselves and when others don’t like us either. Short-sighted self-centeredness makes us painfully aware of all that we think is unlikeable in us, of how that’s “bad” for our image, and of all our unmet felt needs. Our anger is our response to the effects of this foolish self-love that is itself, our attempt to cope with the anxious belief that we’re unloved and unlovable.
Toynbee observed that “love is the only spiritual power that can overcome the self-centeredness that is inherent in being alive.” He was echoing Paul who said that Christian love is not self-centered, that it doesn’t insist on getting its own way or its own rights. Such love, he said, neither loses its temper nor nurses a grudge. It isn’t touchy and it isn’t quick to take offense. It keeps no score of wrongs. It’s patient and kind and can stand any kind of abuse. [I Cor 13:7f]
The Heidelberg Catechism instructs, after Jesus’ own commentary, that I am not observing the Mosaic commandment against murder unless, as a Christian, I “protect my neighbor from harm” and I do not “belittle, insult, [or] hate … my neighbor—not by my thoughts, my words, my looks or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds—and [that] I not be a party to this in others.” How can we love this way? Certainly not by ourselves. Christian love is not self-generated; it’s fruit of God’s Spirit. Robin Scroggs reminds us that “To come to know God as the one who accepts us in all our messiness is the basis for a transformation of our character into one which can truly love our enemies, which can avoid the resentment that leads to anger. That God is like the father of the prodigal son, who cares about nothing except to welcome him back into the family. That God … ‘proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners (i.e. living in a world of anger and resentment) Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8).” To receive the good news of such a God of grace instead of the threats of a god of grudge is the best spiritual antidote to the silly self-serving anger that separates us from our truest selves, from the truest sense of others, and from the Truth who is our loving Lord.
We can then pray with Bonhoeffer: “Give me such love for God and others, as will blot out all hatred and bitterness.”
Now “love is its own reward,” as Thomas Merton said. And “Love still is love, and doeth all things well, / Whether He show me heaven or hell.” [Christina Rossetti] Nevertheless, love yields an array of benefits besides. According to psychiatrist Karl Menninger: “Love cures people—both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.” Perhaps one of the reasons that loving others as we love ourselves can be so healing of our anger at others as well as with ourselves is the fact that, as Jung knew, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Don’t we know that? Bonhoeffer agreed that what we despise in others is never “entirely absent from ourselves.” And so, he said, “brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others.” Those who refuse to see their own sin mirrored in the sin of others refuse to grant such extenuations. But do they not get it or do they refuse to get it? Or, “unloved,” is it impossible for them?
Love frees us to begin the process of healing estrangement by feeling with those who we think have injured us, those we fear as our enemies. Love frees us to see them empathically, mirrors of ourselves. And “to know someone,” says one Christian thinker, “to know a gift, we have to love. Hatred, scorn, and irony do not know that to which they refer. They know only their own caricature of it.” [Jacques Ellul] That is a sobering word to all of us who confuse the sins with the sinners themselves. We tend not to do that with ourselves and our own sins. When it comes to our own sin, we very easily “love the sinner and hate the sin.” With others, we too easily hate both sin and sinner.
Bonhoeffer urged that “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” Such compassion is literally a suffering with them.
Love overcomes anger not only by helping us to identify with others but also by making it possible for us to live out “the final form of love, forgiveness.” [David Augsburger] In the words of one novelist: “Only the silence and emptiness following a moment of forgiveness can stop the monster of deadly anger.” [Mary Gordon]
Bonhoeffer provides a moving transition that combines identifying with others and forgiving them. He writes: “Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.”
Besides being fairly uncommon today, genuine forgiveness is poorly understood. For example, in a recent New York Times column by A. M. Rosenthal, he attacks what he terms “the forgiveness policy” on terrorism but defines it as “the habitual intellectual playing down or rationalization of terrorism.” That’s not forgiveness. That’s explanation. If the alleged offense can be explained and thereby justified, there’s no need of forgiveness, so such would not be a “forgiveness policy.” Another example comes from a news conference held by black ministers in New Jersey. They met with a Republican political consultant who had boasted that he had bought the clergy’s suppression of black voters in last November’s election. He was now seeking the ministers’ forgiveness after apologizing for his rhetoric. One of the ministers said: “For us not to be forgiving of genuine repentance would be a contradiction and un-Christian. But let it be understood by all that forgiveness is not forgetting.” To that, the other ministers responded with a hearty “Amen.” But that’s not forgiveness. For one thing, as D. L. Moody put it bluntly when he said that he had no use for the attitude that says “I will forgive, but not forget,” forgiveness “is not to bury the hatchet with the handle sticking out of the ground, so you can grasp it the minute you want it.” Of course we don’t literally forget a painful incident—at least for a while—but we’ll never move on if we reserve the right not to forget it. We never will forget if we insist on holding it over the head of the “forgiven” offender while we suck on our grudge. If we can’t literally forget it, we can at least drop it. And if we do that with compassion, we may, in time, not remember much about it. If, as David said, “the Lord does not deal with us according to our sins,” [Psalm 103], why do we deal with others according to their sins?
Sadly, some people these days are rationalizing against forgiveness. They’re doing so in self-righteously angry and politically correct terms of victimism. As it’s expressed by an angry religious feminist: “Not all of us agree that forgiving is always the ‘Christian’ thing to do. … forgiveness, “she insists, “is not always warranted. … Forgiveness can be dangerous.” As she sees it: “it is repentance that starts the forgiveness ball rolling, not the other way around.” [Mary E. Hunt] But is this how Jesus saw it? Is this what Jesus did? Did his executioners get “the forgiveness ball rolling” by repenting or did Jesus, in the middle of the horror of execution, make excuse for all of them as he cried out to his Father on their behalf? [Luke 23:34] And the one who called himself “the chief of sinners” urged: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has already forgiven you.” [Eph 4:32-5:1]
Another example of this current anti-forgiveness sentiment within Christian circles of all places, is a highly political statement that asserts that “The biblical teaching on reconciliation and forgiveness makes it quite clear that nobody can be forgiven and reconciled with God unless she or he repents …. Nor are we expected to forgive the unrepentant sinner.” [Kairos Document] But again, this is an argument that is driven by a politically self-serving agenda. It may be politically correct but it is unbiblical. Biblically speaking, the indicative of grace always precedes any imperative. Exodus comes before Leviticus. Calvary precedes Christianity. In the Bible, the Lord forgives for his own sake: “Come back to Me for I have already redeemed you.” [Isaiah ‘44:22. Isaiah 54:8; 43:25, etc.] Forgiveness in the Bible is not conditional upon repentance, reform or restorative justice. No wonder Martin Luther said that “the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins is the most important of all, both for us personally and for our relations with others.”
Justification by grace through faith is the pattern. Repentance follows forgiveness, not the other way around. Reform is thanksgiving for mercy, not mercy’s price. And if restorative justice were possible, forgiveness would not be necessary.
Hear Charles Williams: “The intention to do differently may be passionately offered; it must never be required—not in the most secret recesses of that self which can only blush with shame to find itself pardoning, and with delight, at the infinite laughter of the universe at a created being forgiving another created being. The ancient cry of ‘Don’t do it again’ is never a part of pardon. It is conceivable that St. Peter reidentified love between himself and his brother 490 times a day; it is inconceivable that each time he made it a condition of love that it shouldn’t happen again,—it would be a slur on intelligence as well as love. To consent to know evil as good only on condition that the evil never happens again is silly …. All limitation of pardon must come, if at all, from the side of the sinner.”
Pastoral therapist David Augsburger calls attention to the fact that “Much too much ‘forgiving’ … accepts a person on the basis of his or her admitting inferior behavior, inferior feelings, and inferior worth.” In what he calls “one-up-forgiveness,” Augsburger says that the so-called “forgiven person is aware, consciously or unconsciously, of being in a morally subordinate position. Permanently indebted, he or she must live out the repayment …. Such forgiveness comes at too great a cost,” he says. “It is no gift at all, it is earned and earned and earned. Once indebted, one is forever indebted.” He cautions that “superior ‘forgiving’ puts the offender down in a covert, hidden alienation.” Augsburger calls this “the forgiver’s subtle revenge.” In contrast to such false forgiveness, true “Forgiveness refuses superiority. Forgiveness repudiates inferiority.”
Contrary to false forgiveness and its consequences, Augsburger points out that “The goal of forgiveness is reconciliation.” Since this is true, he notes that “one cannot do the real work of forgiving alone.”
But this doesn’t mean that the offended party can’t start the forgiveness process toward reconciliation. As Augsburger says: “One can respond again to the other as a precious, valued and prized person. One can initiate conversation, invite real communication, and do all that is within one person’s power to create a genuine trusting-risking friendship.” Nonetheless, he knows that “it takes two to reconcile.”
Going further with his critique of false forgiveness, Augsburger writes: “Unfortunately, it is the self-liberating side of forgiveness that is frequently valued to the exclusion or the omission of the reconciling concern for the relationship. If I forgive another because resenting would be self-destructive, and withholding forgiveness would cut me off from right relationships with the One whose forgiveness is needed beyond all, I’ve missed the whole point. No matter how noble or splendid I may feel, it is not at all what Jesus intended. The goal of caring, of confrontation, of forgiveness is not self-salvation, it is reconciliation. … The goal is community restored, not private perfection maintained.”
There are irrational ways to retain anger and rational ways to resolve it. We can change our minds about meanings and thereby change unwanted feelings, including anger. But at its deepest, anger gets resolved in reconciliation through faith that latches onto the love of God, and hope that looks out into the love of God, and love that, in forgiveness, lives out the love of God. Isolating short-sightedness and self-righteous self-centeredness, with all its symptomatic anger at not having things otherwise, is resolved in centering our priorities—indeed, our very selves—not in ourselves, but in the Community of the Truly Otherwise, Emmanuel, God’s presence with us all.