anger: what is it good for?

No emotion is unacceptable or unproductive or pointless or meaningless.

No emotion has any moral content whatsoever.

All emotions may be welcomed, noticed, felt to the full, permitted to take the time they need.

No emotion needs to be held tightly or milked or framed or preserved.

These are tenets of mindfulness — among other things, an openness to emotion, to let emotion speak, to let it come in, to let it pass, without judgment, and without trying to make the emotion do anything such as stop or get stronger.

Whether the biblical writers understood emotions and motivations / intentions as distinct things is uncertain. It seems to me that Jesus, for one, tied actions back to motivations when he talked in the Sermon on the Mount about such things as lusting after someone or hating someone being as wrong as adultery or murder. I don’t see much evidence that the distinction between emotions and motivations was clearly defined — kind of like our own ordinary talk about such things. I think that’s important to keep in mind when looking at what the Bible teaches or does not teach about emotions.

For example, sometimes we use the word “anger” to mean more than the emotion — to mean hateful and evil intentions and actions, including violence, shame, judgmentalism, malice, dismissiveness, and so on. Perhaps Bible verses mentioning anger, calling us to put it aside, repent from it, avoid it, might have motivations and intentions and actions in mind, too.

One verse in particular seems to get at the distinction between sinful motivations and morally neutral emotions — “Be angry, and do not sin…” (Ephesians 4:26a)

How does one be angry, without sinning?

For one thing, it’s useful to think about emotions as offering us information. A former pastor, Bob Hopper, once preached that anger comes from a blocked goal, fear or anxiety from an uncertain goal, and despair or depression from a goal that seems impossible. Looking at emotions this way can help us think about or work on our goals wisely.

Maybe I’m angry because Amy is doing something I don’t like. My anger can reveal to me that my goal is for her to be a certain way. It’s not possible for me to make her be or do anything. I can ask — I can use various tools to try to persuade — I can model — but I can’t make it happen by my own will and effort. If my goal is a matter of mere preference or convenience, I can work to let go of it and accept her the way she is. If my goal is a matter of sin and righteousness, I can hold onto the conviction of what is right, AND accept her the way she is, AND trust and hope that, with my efforts and with her own and with God’s work, she will move in the direction of what is right.

If I just buried my anger, OR if I took it out on her, what would I learn? Nothing useful, either way.

Maybe I’m angry because of some injustice against me. Maybe it’s an imagined injustice. Maybe some current circumstance has restimulated feelings from another time of real injustice. I can work to accept and metabolize the old feelings and do more healing work on that past episode, sitting compassionately with that wounded past self. I can work to recognize the difference between the current situation and the old one — work to correct my perception of the current reality and thus my interpretation of it. I can preach truth to myself.

Or — maybe the injustice is real this time. And if I squelched my anger about it, swallowed the unjust situation, I would be betraying myself. I would be saying I’m not worth defending, not worth providing for, not worth protecting, not worth considering, not worth respecting.

If, on the other hand, I welcomed and listened carefully and compassionately to my anger, I might notice that the injustice is real, and take steps to address the situation. There’s nothing wrong with working for real justice, even for yourself. “Love your neighbor as yourself” makes self-love a high standard, not a low one. (Otherwise it would mean to treat our neighbors with as dismissive and contemptuous an attitude as we apply to ourselves in the name of selflessness.) It can be an amazingly loving thing to accept, welcome, and compassionately listen to your own anger (or any other emotion, especially other “forbidden” ones) — it’s an inner voice that has so often been squashed and squelched and denied and negated and condemned.

Or, I might decide that I am strong enough, secure enough, certain enough of my safe, warm, and beloved status with God my advocate and father, that I can set aside this injustice. Yeah — that looks a lot like the result of the squelching of the anger above. But the motivation — the meaning of the setting aside — is entirely different. One is saying and feeling that I deserve no better. The other is saying and feeling that I already have everything I need, including the justice that really matters.

Another part of being angry without sinning can be emotional release.

There’s some study — or more than one — I came across that claimed that the idea of catharsis — physical expression of anger redirected in some safe way, like punching a pillow — did not reduce anger and aggressive behavior. I don’t really know what to think about that. Perhaps whether or how much cathartic activities help release anger depends on factors that were not investigated in this study — things like the will to change, respect for others, etc.

So — I still believe in the usefulness of cathartic action. I try to go to my room and punch my bed and yell. I encourage Amy to do the same. We talk about drawing angry pictures, and sometimes we do. Some people split wood, use a punching bag, buy thrift store dishes to break; for a while I used a dart board. (A punching bag felt too much like hitting a real person, and I couldn’t stand the thought of breaking dishes that someone could have actually used.)

I also have a listening partner. We agree ahead of time that when we have a listening time, the listener will maintain unconditional positive regard, won’t be shocked, won’t judge, won’t be worried, won’t offer advice, won’t psychoanalyze, won’t go off on her own related story. One talks, and maybe cries, laughs hard, yells, acts out / role plays, hides / trembles, throws punches or kicks, screams into a pillow — anything like that. The one talking can deal with current situations, or track them into the past situations whose associated feelings the current one has dredged up again. She can think out loud about possible solutions. She can say the most ridiculous and impossible things that she would never say for real, but that occur in her deepest heart and mind anyway.

Again, it may seem that, if hating someone is tantamount to murdering them, that verbalizing or acting out anger about someone, even to a listening partner, would be validating hatred. I don’t think that’s true. For one thing, anger is not hatred, even though they are often linked. For another, if the feeling is already inside, denying it or keeping it inside isn’t going to get rid of it. Expressing it gets it out, confesses / admits it — releases it — not like freeing a lion from a cage, but like defusing a bomb. And that’s the ultimate intention in listening partnership. We desire to love our neighbor, whether our child or parent or friend or coworker or spouse or acquaintance or whoever. These angry (or other) feelings are in the way. Acting to release the feelings frees us to love the way we want to.

I’m honestly not sure that prayerful repentance accomplishes emotional release. Perhaps it can, depending on how it’s done. If it can be tearful, or get one laughing hard, or if it can involve some safe yelling and punching. I don’t think a prayerful repentance is fruitful if it involves trying to put a lid on these unpleasant feelings, trying to shed them without going through them first.


7 thoughts on “anger: what is it good for?

  1. Love the listening partner thing! I have been working lately on trying to let my emotions flow through instead of getting stuck, but I’m not very good at it yet! Good essay. Thanks!

    • Christen, it is for sure a practice. It is hard to discern, sometimes, the difference between an emotion that is slow to leave and one that we are trying to hold onto.

  2. Hi Marcy
    I am going to try to respond bit by bit to your essay
    If anger is just an emotion, then surely the mere fact of its having arisen is not wicked/evil/etc. It is normal to be angry on occasion. One definition of it I read is that anger is what alerts you to the fact that your desires have in some way been thwarted. Why we should need such a violent emotion for the purposes of giving us this kind of information is one of the stranger parts of our constitution.
    People are temperamentally put together differently–so that some people find anger arising easily and others not. It is also possible to train yourself, however, to respond with less anger to situations. And this is what makes anger also something having to do with our character, I think,
    this, I think, is where that saying about being angry and not sinning comes into play. We can find anger arising over something–but then we can note the anger, analyze it, determine if it pointed to something real or illusory, and then make a plan to deal with the issue involved–we ought to do this before the sun goes down on our anger. Because if we let anger simmer and keep feeding it by justifying the fact that we have a right to be angry–which we may, in some cases, then the anger itself becomes a motivation instead of a messenger–and anger is a very blunt instrument for dealing with the issues around which it has arised. Sometimes people say that we ought to be angry about, say, social injustice–but anger is not very smart. A strong love and will to practise justice is much more useful and does less collateral damage.
    One thing I have noted is that we can predispose ourselves to be angry. For example, one of my pet peeves is people who drive on a highway about 5 to 10 mph under the speed limit and you cannot get around them. I find it very annoying and I can get a little angry–but if I give myself plenty of time to get somewhere instead of starting out late, I find that I can drive slowly behind such a driver and not be angry at all! As you noted, we have to have a clear sense of what it is that we think we deserve, what counts as an injustice, what counts as an affront, and what things can be forgiven, forborne, or dismissed, If we have a low threshold of tolerance for being interfered with, then we shall be angry a lot. If we can teach ourselves that others populate the world along with us and have their own agendas too, it makes things easier–easier to love others, pray for them, work with them, etc. Even our children–very hard to detach from them. We want what is good for them, what will cause them to flourish, what will keep them from harm–and sometimes what will reflect well on us. Many different things going through the old brain when it is time to discipline them.
    Catharsis is a hard one–but the old (1970’s) advice to “vent” probably does more harm than good–to us and others around us. It is not that we pretend not to have anger or be angry, it is that, recognizing our angry feelings, we have the freedom to decide what to do with them. Of course, that ability comes with practice. The bottom line, I think, is what anger does if it is not controlled. And it can be–and ought to be–if we want to do good. Anger can alert us to a problem, but then it has to relinquish its power to something deeper and more trustworthy–love, charity, justice, temperance, courage, and the like. If it is not, then we become like many of those we meet who are simply angry–not about something in particular but their persistent anger has gone deep into them and transformed their whole character.
    Much more to be said–good insights!

    • Fr. John,

      Good points. It is good to be slow to anger, and that slowness is something that can be developed.

      From a therapeutic / pastoral care standpoint, though, I think it’s far too easy to, in the name of such development, try to push aside anger that does arise — to be afraid and ashamed of it, worried about it, dismayed by it. I think a radical acceptance and embrace (not a death grip) can be a fruitful path to developing a slowness to anger, a path that begins with compassion for oneself.

      In the same vein, thinking especially about abusive and oppressive situations, while it is certainly possible to let anger grow bitterness and resentment and defensiveness, it is important to allow sufficient space — no one can name for anyone else how long they are allowed to be angry about something. Again, it’s not good to hold onto anger on purpose — but it’s also not good to silence and squash it on purpose. Just letting it be is not the same thing as feeding and clinging to it. And no one can know for anyone else which is which.

      I woud really prefer to think in terms of acceptance and mindfulness rather than of control on the one hand or wallowing on the other.

      Venting can be done in fruitful or unfruitful ways, I think.

      And noting that one has a right to be angry doesn’t have to lead to feeding the anger — although allowing it may let more in, that’s not the same thing. It can instead lead to better self-care, better interpersonal effectiveness, acting with self-respect.

      Perhaps “The Dance of Anger” would be a good book for a discussion group… I haven’t read it, but have heard of it. On the other hand, I tend to be wary when there’s suddenly a slew of similar titles — the dance of this and that other thing.

      • bottom line — it is possible to be mindful about anger — accepting, neither clinging nor squelching — AND work on the various things that tend to go along with anger — issues of self-respect, control, respect and compassion for others, and so on. And shaming or condemning someone for being angry, or still being angry, or being angry again, is not as fruitful as leaving the anger alone, instead encouraging the person to learn from it and to wisely work on the other stuff, and to love / embrace / accept their whole self, even the inner voice that is angry. Anger doesn’t respond well to disapproving opposition, but a gentle answer turns away wrath, and an accepting, warm, connected, unperturbed, safe presence can help to melt it.

  3. Pingback: Blog year in review | Becoming Three

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