It seems like anger is the topic of the day. Earlier, my wife and I were discussing the Christian response to anger on More2Life Radio. Shortly after I got off the air, I came across an article titled, The Furious Mysteries in which America’s Fr. James Martin reflects on what we are to make of Jesus’ displays of anger in Scripture.
It’s a terrific question. What does Jesus’ anger teach us about how we should manage ours?
Anger, Wrath & the Divine Longing for Justice
Many people think that anger is a sin. There’s a lot of confusion about what constitutes anger, which is a gift from God, and wrath, which is anger’s more diabolical cousin. In Broken Gods: Hope, Healing and the Seven Longing of the Human Heart I argue that wrath is a distortion of the divine longing for justice. What do I mean?
At the dawn of creation, God created within the human person a bone deep desire to see that God’s plan for life the universe and everything was fulfilled. This divine longing for justice, which is one of the seven longings of every human heart, was given to us by God to to help us keep and protect–and, later, restore–the balance that God created at the beginning of time.
Anger is our bodily response to the experience of injustice–it is the God-given, gut-level reaction that says, “This is not right!” What many people refer to as “righteous anger” represents God’s call–through our body– to prayerfully seek solutions that allow his will to be done, justice to be established and proper order to be restored. Righteous anger always leads to an intentional, proportionate, appropriate response that seeks to heal the injury and build up the body of Christ. In each instance, Jesus’ anger in the Gospels presents an example of just that. I believe this is the key to unraveling with Fr. Martin cleverly refers to as “the Furious Mysteries.”
The Furious Mysteries–Jesus’ Anger in Scripture.
Jesus sometimes got angry, but he was never wrathful. He didn’t overturn the money-changer’s tables because he was having a bad day and lost his cool. He did it to see that God’s intentions for the temple would be respected. He knew that any lesser attempt to demonstrate that his Father’s temple was not a shopping mall but a place of reverence would have simply been ignored. As dramatic as it was, his behavior was an intentional, proportionate, and appropriate response to the merchants’ attempt to rob God of the honor he was due. Jesus’ display of righteous anger was an intentional effort to restore right order to the temple where His Father, not commerce, was to be the main attraction.
Likewise, when Jesus referred to the scribes and pharisees as “You snakes! You den of vipers” (Mt 23:33) he wasn’t calling them names to be cruel like some internet troll. He knew that using such colorful language was the only way to shock them out of their prideful belief that they could save themselves with their obsessive-compulsive adherence to the rules. He knew that they were so convinced of their own righteousness that the only way he could shake them out of their complacency and open their hearts to the message of repentance was to compare them to the things they would never want to be, the exact opposite of what they thought they were trying to be; “whitewashed tombs” filled with “death and dry bones” and “snakes”, representing the personification of Satan, the ultimate example of pride, himself! Sometimes, Jesus anger was shocking, but in every instance, Jesus’ anger represented a conscious effort to see that God’s will would be done and it was always ordered to the godly good of the person/people on the receiving end of it. His displays of anger represented an intentional, proportionate, appropriate attempt to work for the good of people whose behavior would be their undoing.
Wrath: Anger that Wounds
But unlike righteous anger which is always intentional, proportionate and appropriate, the deadly sin of wrath represents a response that is reactive, disproportionate, and out of order. Rather than responding to God’s call to restore justice, wrath makes us behave in manner that makes the existing offense even worse!
While I generally like Fr. Martin’s article, I would gently disagree with his somewhat fuzzy distinction between wrath and anger. He argues that Jesus anger wasn’t sinful because “Jesus is never angry on behalf of himself” while our anger “is more frequently of the selfish type, the result of an offense to ourselves.” He supports this idea by pointing out that when Jesus was being tortured and crucified, he did not express any anger. Indeed, he went “like a lamb to the slaughter” (Is 53:7) and even forgave his executioners.
The problem I have with this interpretation is that it suggests people are “selfish” when, for instance, they stand up to an abuser. I’m sure Fr. Martin didn’t mean this. In fact, he says as much when he writes, “Of course we need a healthy love of self and a care for the self. So sometimes a strong response to injustice is justified.” But I counsel too many people who are confused on this point exactly because of fuzzy distinctions like this. If the only difference between righteous anger and wrath is that righteous anger serves others and sinful anger serves me, then when, exactly, is it OK to offer “a strong response to injustice?” There is an unhealthy attitude among too many Christians that says that if I set boundaries of any kind or stand up for myself in any way, I am being selfish–after all, look at how Jesus dealt with his abusers!
I would argue that this view, though well-intentioned, almost fatally misses the point. So, what is the real difference between anger that is sinful and anger that is not?
Why Didn’t Jesus Become Cross on the Cross?
Remember that anger, properly ordered, is a God-given, gut-level response to an experience of injustice. We can think of injustice as a situation or relationship that is “out of order” (i.e., not in line with God’s plan). Seen in this light, Jesus did not express anger when he was being tortured and crucified because he knew he needed endure this suffering to restore the right order that existed between God and humankind. Although it was not right that we should cause him to suffer, he willingly submitted to that suffering so that the Father’s plan could be fulfilled and the order between Heaven and earth could be restored–a task no one else but him was able to accomplish. By contrast, the suffering of an abused wife, for instance, is unjust because it represents a disordered relationship between man and woman, a relationship that directly contradicts Gods plan for marriage. Moreover, the wife’s anger at her abuse and her attempts to either stand up to her abuser or escape him represents a just response to abuse because it attempts to call the marriage to godly order.
In short, what makes a display of anger either righteous or sinful is not whether I, personally, benefit from it but whether or not the way I am expressing that anger represents an honest, intentional, proportionate, and appropriate attempt to see that God’s intentions for a particular situation or relationship would be fulfilled. While wrath offends God’s plan by making a bad situation worse with our reactions, righteous anger seeks to heal wounds, restore relationships, and re-establish godly order. To discover more ways our deepest desires–and even our darkest desires–can reveal God’s incredible plan for a grace-filled life, check out Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.