Anger

The sermon series continues with anger.

An angry person — not a person who happens to be angry at this moment, but a habitually angry person — is volatile, unreasonable, and suspicious. Hand in Hand and other gentle parenting resources say the same thing. When someone (child or adult) is in the grip of strong feelings such as anger, he is not able to access the rational part of his brain. There is no point, then, in trying to use reason to approach such a person. However, most of us have been raised to try to use reason — to “use our words” — when we negotiate with one another — we mostly haven’t learned other ways to deal with the angry, the tantrumming, the deeply sad or fearful.

Malice is a companion of anger — the desire to hurt, to exact revenge, to strike back, to lash out. One danger of anger, even anger that seems at first legitimate, against some injustice, for example, is that it can grow and solidify into a generalized rage that no longer has anything to do with problems and solutions but is only malice directed at anything that represents the enemy in any way. In the same way, anger can develop into contempt, in which the angry person no longer sees others as real and valuable people; there is no longer any possibility of love or ethics.

If we were, as Jesus taught, created to love one another, have patience for each other’s flaws, forgiving even imagined wounds — wait a minute. Is it useful to divide wounds and injustices into “real” and “imagined” categories? Is there perhaps a more useful way to think of the different kinds of wounds and injustices? I would venture to say that no one deliberately imagines a wound or injustice. Maybe they misinterpret something — maybe something about their past experience colors their perceptions — but that’s not exactly imagining. Perhaps a wound can occur that is a real wound to the one experiencing it, even though the one who seems to have inflicted it had no malicious intention?

But back to the idea that we were created to love and bear with one another and forgive wounds — if that is the case, where has all this anger come from that seems to have largely displaced love in the world?

Anger comes from thwarted desires — whether what we want for ourselves, or for others, or for the world, or whatever. Commercialism, of course, does not foster contentment or moderation and reasonableness in desire.

What about desires that seem holier, more just and justified, than the desire for the next best thing at the coolest store — what about anger at injustice, for example? Is outrage really necessary in order to get any work done against injustice?

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (James 1:19-20)

I think that anger that arises in us can give us useful information — it can reveal a thwarted goal we might not have known we had, and then we can decide what to do about that goal. Is it worth pursuing? Can it be tweaked? Is it unreasonable? And so on. The anger that arises is not the sin this sermon is addressing — Fr. John is talking about what we DO with that anger — do we feed it, foster it, hold to it with malice? I wish he had talked more about this distinction. I think some of us are so afraid of anger that as soon as it arises we try to push it away, squelch it, deny it; and that doesn’t help at all. We should work to mindfully accept every and any emotion that arises in us. Accepting that it is there is not the same thing as calling it good and holding tightly to it. We can’t make a good and wise response to our emotions without first noticing, welcoming, and listening to them.

Perhaps outrage is what sparks your interest and activism in some worthy cause. Then the task is to work to let go of any malice, and to seek instead to bring love to bear on the cause.

One tack is to deal with our desires — to aim to seek first the kingdom, and to trust that God will provide with the kingdom everything that we truly need. This is true whether your desires are along the lines of “First World Problems” (a problematic category!) or along the lines of truly basic and fundamental needs. In other words, in this case at least, it might not be useful to distinguish between mere entitlement and real need. The thwarting of either kind of desire is not justification for feeding anger and malice.

Another strategy is to consider who we want to be.

Is it the self God wants — our true self which we discover by working with Jesus — or is it the self which we are tempted to construct along the line of the models available around us — the false self of the competitive accumulation of things and positions? This doesn’t answer all the questions — I think — but it gets us a long way. If what we are trying to become is not who God wants us to be, then we are in for a life of frustration — as we give more and more attention to what cannot really satisfy us.

Not only will we discover the truth of Jesus’ comment about gaining the whole world and losing ourselves, but this will be a recipe for anger, as well. Every failure will remind us that we are falling behind in the competition. Every desire that is thwarted will remind us that others are getting what they want. But if we are seeking God’s will for ourselves, then we know that what He has begun in us He will bring to fruition. We will in fact become who we are truly are — and that takes away much of the frustration and a lot of the anger. We know that many of the frustrations of desire we experience cannot really wreck our peace — and so will not give rise to anger. Some of those frustrations may in fact be part of the discipline by which God leads us to ourselves.

These are meaty paragraphs.

There are those of us who can get caught up in excessive worry about whether we’re on the path of the true or the false self – we worry about what we are desiring, what we are working toward, where our attention is going, what counts as failure, what counts as peace, how God’s will works out in the world we actually live in. Self-examination is good — observation, reflection, and all that. Sometimes, though, we who are like this need to step back and look at things more simply. C. S. Lewis wrote to a little girl, “If you continue to love Jesus, nothing much can go wrong with you, and I hope you will always do so.” Or there’s Paul’s encouragement that Fr. John refers to — “He who began a good work in you will carry it to completion” or elsewhere, “He who promised is faithful, and will bring it to pass.”

I have been endeavoring to practice more mindful acceptance. To be open to experience, to be present in each moment, to accept whatever comes, including emotions, to embrace my whole self as I am, to trust Jesus, to aim toward him as well as I can, to be ready to be moved or turned or redirected, to be ready to repent. It is simple, and not at all easy. How much more I fall into patterns of listening too much to “should” and to comparisons and to internal criticism, to fear and shame and judgment, to trying harder, to taking on responsibilities that are not really mine, to will what can’t be willed — things that lead to the mire and not to freedom.

I choose the true self — I choose to work with Jesus — as he has chosen me. I will continue to slip in the mud a LOT, to have many many moments in the empty life of the false self. But I can — I really can — I hope I can — trust in Jesus to not let me live long in the false self, nor to weigh me down with condemnations, but to continually bring me back to him and my true self, with his easy and gentle yoke and his kindness. Oh that I would know that kindness more deeply, and be so much less susceptible to that awful heavy condemnation!

Meanwhile, we still face random frustrations that are real and sometimes really destructive — the world God made unfolds freely, under sovereignty, but not so that every evil thing is a lesson or a punishment. We can work to foster moderate and reasonable desires and expectations and gracious, flexible attitudes, so that we are less prone to frustration. But frustrations will still come — and some of them will be big, serious, chronic. What then?

We remember that anger, whether hot wrath or entrenched resentment, does not accomplish the will of God. However senseless it may seem in current circumstances, we must keep trying to live out of love with forbearance and forgiveness. May I add, or reiterate, that this strategy cannot be accomplished by mere willpower? Sometimes all one can do is recognize the bitter resentment, recognize the better way of love, and lean hard on Jesus, putting our hope in his ability and kind intention to shift us from one to the other.

Must it all be borne in silent acquiescence, as if we not only endure but condone and approve of things as they are? No, thankfully, no:

None of this means that we necessarily keep quiet. We must still speak the truth in love — love requires that the truth be spoken and injustice and unfairness be exposed.

The call to speak truth in love applies anywhere, whether in a relationship or a workplace or in some global cause.

Mindfulness — being present in each moment, considering each moment “an opportunity to become more fully alive,” cultivating gratitude — can help create an environment for our lives that is not conducive to anger. When anger does arise, as it does, of course, we can choose to neither push it away nor nurse it, but to be as willing as we can be to seek and extend forgiveness.

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