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How to deal with anger is a question I’ve often been asked by congregants seeking pastoral care.  So that’s a great topic for my second installment in this series of columns on resources for living.

The last couple of years we’ve spent much time focusing on emotional health and well-being in our classes and worship here at church.  Numerous studies show that our culture is experiencing an epidemic of mental distress, and was even before the pandemic, and that distress is manifesting in numerous unhealthy ways.  We have much to be angry about, so how do we as faithful followers of Jesus handle this natural emotion?

The Most Magnificent Thing is a children’s book by Ashley Spires and is a great resource on anger.  The girl in the book is building something for her dog, but she can’t seem to get it right.  The physical objects she constructs do not look like the image she has in her head.  Eventually, as her frustration and disappointment and, yes, anger, build, she smashes her thumb, causing great pain.  But then she steps away from the project, goes for a walk, interacts with neighbors, plays with her dog, eats some ice cream.  All of that calms her down, and she can return to her project and complete it.  There’s a lot in this book for each of us to learn.

Researcher Brené Brown has written often about anger in her various books.  Her Atlas of the Heart covers over eighty emotions, drawing together insights from her decades of work.  She provides a number of insights about anger.  For one, our propensity to it is often a matter of temperament that research shows is genetic.  She also is unsure whether anger is a primary emotion or a signal that we are experiencing other emotions—like fear, loneliness, grief, embarrassment, frustration (like in the children’s book), etc.—that are more difficult for us to identify or to own up to.  Anger can also be the compassionate response to an injustice.

Brown invites us to see anger as an “indicator light” that something in wrong.  So we should pause and reflect and figure out what that is.  Then, anger should be a “catalyst” for moving us to change, to address what’s wrong.

Of course there’s long been a debate whether anger can be positive or if it is always wrong?  The ancient Roman Stoics came down against anger and have had a deep, lasting influence on our cultural understanding of the emotion.  Stoicism has been popular again in recent years, and there are a handful of contemporary self-help books from this perspective.  Here is Marcus Aurelius addressing the topic:

There is nothing manly in being angry, but a gentle calm is both more human and therefore more virile.  It is the gentle who have strength, sinew, and courage—not the indignant and complaining.

But that was never the only view in our culture.  The Greek philosopher Aristotle taught that anger occurred along a spectrum between an excess and a deficit and that the virtuous person should be “angry at the right things and toward the right people, and also in the right way, at the right time, and for the right length of time.”  Aristotle labeled this type of anger the virtue of “mildness.”  In his Nicomachean Ethics, he discusses all the ways people can demonstrate an excess of anger in richly descriptive language about the irascible, choleric, bitter, and irritable people.

The most important contemporary philosopher working on the emotions is Martha Nussbaum.  She’s written about anger in a lot of her work and has one book focused on it entitled Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice.  She generally has a negative view of anger, as she thinks it mostly stems from challenges to our honor.  But she does think it has three uses: as a protection of dignity and self-respect, in taking wrongdoing seriously, and combatting injustice.  Anger is most useful when it transitions away from looking backwards at what caused the emotion and directs itself forward into problem-solving.

There are a host of books about how anger is an essential tool in responding to various injustices.  One I read many years ago about how to organize faith communities in response to social injustice is entitled Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Power Politics.

But maybe the best and most refreshing book of pastoral care I’ve ever read is Andrew Lester’s The Angry Christian.  Contrary to the Stoic tradition, Lester advises:

Our capacity for anger is one of God’s gifts, intentionally rooted in creation and serving important purposes in human life.  Though we can certainly sin with it, our anger also contributes to such life experiences as courage, hope, and intimacy.  Anger is not necessarily contrary to love and can actually function as an expression of love.  In fact, not being angry in some circumstances (such as in response to injustice and oppression) is to miss God’s claim on our lives.

Lester’s book then proceeds to help us better understand how anger works, how it is rooted in our Christian theology, and how we can best deal with it.  He finds anger to be a “spiritual ally” that we can handle creatively and that is intimately tied to compassion.

So, if you’re one of those folks trying to better understand how we as faithful followers of Jesus should deal with our anger, I highly recommend Lester’s The Angry Christian.



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