Faith Practices for Spiritual Resilience: Anger

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Psalm 103

The Lord works vindication
    and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
    his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far he removes our transgressions from us.

Ephesians 4:25-29

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 

***

Y’all, we really need to talk about anger. 

Because we are angry. 

I see it everywhere. Coming off the heels of two political conventions, of cities exploding with rage over racism, off months of lost opportunities and plans and routines, off economic challenge and loss, off the constant escalation of media that profits off our fury, off debates about mask that spill over into every aspect of our days, off the constant crisis and chaos of this the year of our Lord 2020—we are angry. 

I am angry. They say to preach from your scars, not your wounds, but I have been more ragingly furious in these last few months without reprieve than I have been for a long time. So much of what I love—what I value—what I am called to do—was stripped from me in this pandemic. My work as a pastor shriveled to what I could accomplish through a screen. My wedding plans crashed and burned. Even something as simple as seeing someone being laissez-faire about their mask wearing can have me suddenly seething. 

I want to say it’s not like me. I don’t reach for anger, usually. I pride myself on being pretty calm and reasonable. And my anger doesn’t tend to look like those cartoon characters from my childhood. My face doesn’t go red. Steam doesn’t pour out of my ears. I’m not a yeller. 

In fact, it took me a few months to even realize I was angry. I wonder if the same might be true for some of you. 

Christians are taught not to be angry. From our earliest Sunday School days, we are taught that the epitome of Christianity is to be loving, and that how we act out that love is to be nice. We are taught, implicitly or explicitly, that anger is evil, shameful, selfish, sinful. 

Scripture—especially proverbs—is full of admonitions to be careful with our anger. It is easy to let that slide into thinking we ought never be angry. But no matter how hard we try, God gifted us with anger in our emotional toolbox, and it will come out. We can try to hide our anger, ignore it, deflect it, deny it. It’ll still come out, and usually sideways, hurting ourselves and others even worse than if we’d dealt with it head on. 

“Be angry,” Paul writes in Ephesians, “but do not sin.” Be angry. 

Anger is a spiritual practice. I’ll say that again. Anger is a spiritual practice. And in this storm we are walking through, this storm that is battering and bruising us, we have to learn how to practice our anger faithfully. 

Anger is like a fire alarm. It lets us know that something is wrong. Something is dangerous, is a threat to us or something that we need or something that we value. Anger alerts us to injustice, personal or social. The psychologist Marcia Cannon talks about the first stage of anger as a protective force, something that kicks in when we are threatened that gives us a boost of power to handle the situation.[1] This kind of anger is what makes you scold a child for putting their life in danger by running out into the street, or push back against a coworker who refuses to listen to your ideas, or snap at a friend who makes snide comments about a group of people you respect. 

The problem is, like any kind of power, we can become addicted to it, or dependent on it. If we go through life relying on that initial form of anger, we never learn what it’s trying to tell us, only that it helps us get our way. 

Practicing anger as a spiritual discipline means learning to listen to our anger. Anger is a wonderful tool for clarifying our values. We do not get angry about things we do not care about, although it may seem that way on the surface. There is usually a problem under the problem—something that takes aim directly at our sense of self. 

The angriest congregational meeting I can remember from my childhood was about remodeling a kitchen. People said things in that meeting that made me ashamed to be a part of that congregation. The problem, of course, really wasn’t about how tall the cabinets were going to be, or whether we’d buy an industrial dishwasher. The problem was about whose input was valued, and whether people’s money was being spent in ways they felt had integrity. It sounded so petty on the surface. But that anger was a warning bell—a warning bell that people’s core values had gone unaddressed in all the minutia of the building project.   

If we have the fortitude to dig deeply into our own anger, we can draw closer to God by learning to align our values with God’s values. Getting in touch with our anger can draw us closer to God as we clarify why we are angry and what we want to do about it. 

Another psychologist, Harriet Lerner, in her book The Dance of Anger, recommends that when we have been angry, we ask ourselves: “What about the situation makes me angry? What is the real issue here? …What, specifically, do I want to change? What are the things I will and will not do?”[2] Discerning the answers to these questions can help us move forward in ways that are authentic and healing. Or sometimes they can help us let things go. 

Anger is like a fire alarm. It let us know when something is wrong. But like a fire alarm, if we just sit still and let it ring and ring and ring and ring, we are going to end up with hearing damage at the best and burn marks at the worst. When the fire alarm goes off, you need to determine if the building is on fire. If it’s not, you need to turn off the alarm. If it is, you need to get moving. 

Anger is like that. Sometimes we can figure out that the thing that we thought was threatening us or our values isn’t really, and then we can take steps to calm down and regain our equilibrium. Sometimes we realize that we have been unwittingly holding a value that we actually want to release. Sometimes we realize that yes, there is a danger. And then we have to decide how to make changes, and move forward, so that we can be safe.  

The problem is, so many of us are out of touch with our own anger that we can’t hear the alarm bells going off, and that just puts us in more danger. One challenge is that the experience of anger is unique to each of us. How we experience and express our anger is shaped by our innate personalities, by how we are socialized by gender, religious, and cultural messages, by how our families expressed anger when we were growing up. Some of us do look like those cartoon characters with steam coming out of our ears. But for some people, anger looks like manic energy or a cutting wit. For some people, anger looks like silence and withdrawal. For some people, anger looks like constant irritation and snippiness. For some people, anger looks like tears. For some people, anger looks like exhaustion and a whole lot of naps. And for some people—for many people—anger looks like clinical depression. One definition of depression is, after all, anger turned inward. If we do not learn to practice our anger, and to acknowledge and deal with it, it will swallow us whole. 

Dealing with the initial experience of anger is in healthy ways is unique too. Some of us go running, some of us vent to a trusted friend; some of us listen to calming music, some of us listen to angry music, some of us put ourselves into a quiet time out; some of us journal, some of us cry, some of us punch a pillow. There are lots of ways to exhaust that first burst of anger so that it does less harm. But most of us will be tempted, once we are drained of that initial, bodily, gut burst of anger to stop, because anger is unpleasant. Practicing anger faithfully means pushing through a little further. 

Dr. Cannon calls the second stage of anger the awareness and growth stage. This is where we take the lessons we have learned from our anger about what matters to us, what we are automatically moved to protect, and put them into play. Perhaps your anger at your spouse illuminated a need for more affection or respect. Perhaps your anger at your boss showed you that you need to advocate for a raise to feel valued. Perhaps your anger at yourself showed you that you need to live more authentically in line with your values. 

This is where anger can promote real, transformative change: we take the lessons we have learned and we pursue them. We ask for what we need. We make our values known. We make our integrity a priority. 

Even after all this, we won’t always get what our anger is telling us we need. That’s just the bummer of being human. But we will know that we have done what we could—all we could—to make it happen. 

Be angry, the Bible says. Be angry, but do not sin. Use your anger carefully, and use it to God’s glory. 

Because even God gets angry. In fact, the Bible has a lot to say about God’s anger. God gets angry at injustice, at faithlessness, at cruelty, at self-centeredness, at hypocrisy, at greed, at all the things that go against God’s own value system of compassion and love. Jesus’ words are frequently tinged with anger, and who can forget that time when he rioted through the temple with whip in hand? One of my favorite verses reminds us that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I have often read those in opposition to each other, as if God is not angry because of God’s loveBut that’s not what the verse says. It doesn’t say God’s love keeps God from ever being angry. It says God is slow to anger AND abounding in steadfast love. God is careful with anger, and always loves. It is possible—very, very, very challenging, but possible—to be lovingly angry. God models that for us—angry at injustice, angry at faithlessness, but always pushing not to punish but to redeem, to transform the situation so that God’s values become ours once again. 

Practicing anger faithfully means practicing loving anger. Anger that seeks to right wrongs and protect the vulnerable from harm. Anger that demands we be treated as the beloved children of God, and that others are too. 

To be lovingly angry is perhaps the greatest challenge of our emotional lives. It requires the marriage of two impulses that often strain against each other. But with perseverance, and strength, and practice, and most of all, with the grace of God, we can try. 

Friends, be angry, but do not sin. Take your anger to God, and ask God to help you listen to its wisdom. 

For the gift of anger, unexpected and spirit-filled, I give thanks. Amen. 


[1] Marcia Cannon, The Gift of Anger, p. 3.

[2] Lerner, The Dance of Anger, 13

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