No one likes to be angry, but we all do become angry from time to time–and we all have to contend with the anger of others fairly regularly. Christians have a difficult relationship with anger. Intellectually, we know that anger is a natural part of the human experience; it is an emotion like any other. But we also know that anger can be sinful.
Lisa Hendey has a terrific post about an angry week she’s having and the poor fruit that struggle with anger is bearing in her life. She asks for prayers and I’ll certainly be offering up a few for her, but her comments prompted me to offer some musings on anger and how to manage it…gracefully.
Anger or Wrath?
Properly ordered, anger is actually an emotional gift God gives us, prompting us to take effective action in the face of an injustice. Righteous anger spurs us on to identify the problem and make a plan for resolving it. In this sense, anger isn’t a sin at all but rather a blessing. Wrath, or sinful anger, is another story. In my latest book, Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart I explore how wrath is a really distortion of the Divine Longing for Justice–one of the seven longings that God has hard-wired into each of us that is intended to lead to our perfection and draw us closer to him, but has been distorted by sin.
Wrathful anger causes us to respond to problems, offenses, disorder, and injustices in ways that make the existing situation worse for ourselves and/or others. That’s why it’s sinful. Anger, itself, is just a tool. If we wield it in a manner that helps us clarify the nature of our problem and then take active, intentional steps to resolve it, then it is righteous, godly anger that does us credit and gives God glory. It is this kind of righteous anger that our Divine Longing for Justice is intended to fuel. It is measured. It is intentional. It is proportionate. It is productive. It is for this reason Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice.
If, on the other hand, we wield our anger in a manner that causes us to lash out at others, pile on misery, or injure ourselves in some way, then we are using our anger in a sinful manner that adds to the already existing injustice. Popularly speaking, the word “wrath” tends to conjure up images of Ghengis Khan burning down a village in some violent rampage, but wrath doesn’t have to be so dramatic. Most expressions of wrath are much more pedestrian and banal. We pick at our spouse’s smallest failings. We pout and mope. We yell at our children just for being children. We engage in self-indulgent habits and behaviors that give us momentary, albeit self-destructive, relief that does nothing to respond to the problem-at-hand. All of these things are common examples of how wrath can wreck our day and rule our life.
The Way Out
When we experience wrath, we often try to control it by shaming ourselves or trying to squelch it altogether. “I shouldn’t feel that way. Just stop it already” we day to ourselves along with other messages of self-recrimination. But these approaches inevitably fail. As I argue in Broken Gods, the only healthy way to resolve our struggle with wrath is to do the following.
1. Step Back and Back Off.
Remember that what is driving your wrath is not your weakness or badness or brokenness, but rather a sign that you are responding–poorly–to your Divine Longing for Justice. Something in your life is out of order. Something is amiss. Beating up on yourself doesn’t solve that. It only makes things worse. Stop picking on yourself. Instead, direct your emotional energy toward addressing your divine longing for justice.
2. Pray and Think.
Once you have reconnected with the divine purpose of your anger (i.e. the longing for justice), take a moment to ask God for clarity. What is the problem that you are reacting to? What is the injustice that needs to be addressed; the problem that needs to be solved? Write down your thoughts about what, exactly, you think is wrong.
3. Pray and Plan.
Now ask God for clarity about what he would like you to do to address the problem. Ignoring it is NOT an option. If that was going to work, you wouldn’t be struggling with wrath in the first place. In the words of Pope St. Gregory the Great, “thoughts seethe all the more when corralled by the violent guard of an indiscreet silence.” Once wrath has been engaged, the problem has gotten to big to ignore. Make a plan. What do you need to do to address it? What resources do you need to gather? Whose help do you need to enlist?
Now DO something to enact your plan. Focus the energy you were directing toward wrathful behavior and self-recrimination toward taking initial steps to address the problem that is provoking your reaction.
5. Evaluate and Adapt.
Finally, check in periodically to make sure your plan is working well and the problem is being resolved. Adjust your plan as new information becomes available so you can maintain steady progress. Traditionally the virtue of patience is the antidote to wrath, but patience doesn’t mean “just letting things go.” It means being willing to take action and then allow the good efforts you are making unfold and take effect in your life. A flower doesn’t grow faster by yelling at it or shaming it for being too slow. Give your efforts the time they need to germinate and blossom. Practicing patience in the face of your anger means making a commitment to evaluating and adapting in response to new information as you intentionally work to address the injustices in your life and resist the temptation to rash actions. Patience doesn’t eliminate anger. It trains our anger so that it can be an effective tool that motivates us to respond effectively and intentionally to the injustices in our life.
Be Not Afraid
We don’t have to live in fear of our anger, and we don’t have to beat up on ourselves for getting angry. Instead, we need to make friends with our anger by embracing the divine longing for justice that is driving the anger. When we can do this, we can wield our righteous, godly anger as the powerful tool it is meant to be; a tool that helps drive our efforts to create order out of chaos, peace out of conflict, and restore justice in our lives.
For more help learning how to identify the divine longings that drive the parts of yourself that you like the least and how these parts can become the engines of your perfection in Christ, check out Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart. Or, if you are struggling with ongoing problems related to anger in your life, contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn how our Catholic tele-counseling practice can help you find the justice and peace you are seeking.