Sunday, May 15, 2011

Freestyling with J--The Anger Chronicles

Hello all, J. here. JE is not tired, and might have already posted an entirely separate item for today. This post is not me trying to help her out. Rather, it’s me trying to work something out, specifically, what is the place of anger in the life of a follower of Christ? (If you don’t want to read ramblings, perhaps you should move on. I understand. Really. Perhaps you would prefer some of our lovely posts regarding the bathroom? Otherwise, let’s proceed to the caveats.)

Now. Let me start by being completely up front. I am not a biblical scholar by any means. As a child, I had a great illustrated Bible (in essence, a Bible comic book), and my retained knowledge of the Bible finds its genesis (see what I did there?) more from that version than I should admit. I have read the entire Bible (non-illustrated) once and various parts many times. That said, I do not read Greek/original versions, I have no historic context in which to place subtle elements and am generally just relying on my own comprehension of the words on the bare page. So any Bible references I make should be taken with a grain of salt and the knowledge that I am ignorant rather than trying to twist passages to fit an agenda.

So, you ask, “Why does someone who has incredibly little knowledge of the Bible desire to walk around in the deep end, just asking to drown in things of which he does not know?”

Hi. I’m Jonathon Melton. Do you know me? Srsly. This is what I do. I generally find that by walking around asking people about stuff I don’t know (typically in a sarcastic/annoying way), I eventually, sometimes painfully, learn just enough to be dangerous. ( But not in a Sarah Palin way. More in a “failed Jeopardy contestant” way.)

Also, I do not deal with anger well. I tell people I know this, and many of them do not understand. But as my wife, Derrick, James, Carter, my Dad and likely my sisters can attest, when I allow myself to get angry, it gets ludicrous pretty fast.

My dad probably understands this best. He’s got the same problem. I, depending on your perspective, learned/inherited it from him. For him, once he’s angry, he isn’t looking to calm down. A part of him, likely the largest part of him, is looking to ESCALATE the situation. You see, at that point, the anger is like a drug. The adrenaline, etc. just makes you feel so powerful, etc. that you just want more of it.

At that point, I actively LOOK for reasons to increase my anger, even twisting your words to make anything you say an attack against me. And I’m pretty good at it. I’ve best described the resulting mental state as “I will cut off my own arm, even if I can’t beat you with it. I’ll cut off my own arm just in the hopes that I can bleed on you.” In some perverted reality it even makes sense-- if I can destroy me and you, I’m still winning, because, in that mental state, I am convinced that I will be able to recover faster than you will.

Now, the problem with this is, after years of disavowing God, I’ve come to accept that faith is one aspect of human conception of reality (That is a long story that I will share with you if you ever want to hear it, but it’s outside the scope of this post.). And my faith is as a follower of Jesus Christ. Yes, that Jesus Christ. The guy who, despite being divine and souped up on omnipotence, allowed himself to be sacrificed for the sins of us all. The guy who, at least in one gospel, asked for the forgiveness of his persecutors, “as they know not what they do.”


Notwithstanding this obvious contradiction, anger obviously has a part to play in the human experience. I happened on this today, while running. Now, I don’t run easily. I am what some would call “efficient,” but most others would call “lazy.” Nevertheless, my “efficiency” has left me with a “surplus” of “food energy” stored on my person. As Dr. Hiter (JE’s dad) points out, this would be a plus if a famine were around the corner, as my ancestors obviously PWNED during famine conditions and passed on their genetic gifts for dealing with such circumstances to me. That said, I’ve been fat for a while, and the famine hasn’t happened yet. Thus, I have reluctantly started running. And I run faster and feel better when I listen to angry music and work myself into a (for me) mild anger while running. Say what?

So, how do I, as a follower of Christ, square being angry with my perception of God?

For me, I guess I think back to the only instance I can remember of Jesus getting mad—the money changers in the temple. Now, depending on the gospel, Jesus: (1) “drove out” the money changers, saying that his Father’s house is a house of prayer, not a den of thieves; (2) turned over tables and chairs and drove out the money changers, again making the house of prayers/den of thieves statement; or (3) drove out the money changers with a whip of cords, overturned chairs and tables and poured out coins, commanding that the traders not make his Father’s house a “house of trade.”

So. What do we make of this? Some people might say that the Bible was written after the fact, meaning that people might justify things that were done as “God’s will” (e.g. David killed Goliath. Rather than saying that maybe violence wasn’t the answer, you dress up the act of killing with God as a justification). And, this holds some appeal. God as human having a human moment of anger, permits God to experience how human failings begin. And for God to truly be among his people and experience it, wouldn’t he have to allow himself to be imperfect? From this perspective, anger takes the place among all human failings, another reason to be thankful for Jesus’ sacrifice, able to take comfort that even the Almighty lost his temper now and again.

While this vein holds some appeal, I can’t really wrap my mind around it. The logical contradiction of a perfect being allowing itself to be imperfect does not compute. By that I don't mean to say that it has to compute logically. I imagine that logic is no barrier to God. But it is a barrier to my understanding of how God would have me, a (relatively speaking) logical being, serve and worship him.

If Jesus’ actions were not a moment of imperfection, then anger must have some place in the life of a follower of Christ. But to stop there misses the nuance, perhaps.

At the temple, Jesus’ anger is not the intoxicating anger that I describe in myself. Rather, it seems to have been more of a protective anger. And, as we learn in the immediately following scriptures, Jesus expelled the merchants at a time when the chief priests and scribes were already seeking to destroy him, and the expulsion of the merchants likely increased their desire. For a person who knows what’s coming, knows of the desires of the priests and, is maybe experiencing the beginnings of the sorrow described at Gethsemane, moving against the money changers might be something you’d be willing to let slide. I mean, right after he throws out the money changers, Jesus goes and heals the sick. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just let the money changers do their thing and focus on healing the sick? Wouldn’t a rational person, mind unclouded by anger, decide that there are some battles you just don’t pick?

But Jesus, angry—by John’s account, as we’d say back home, FIRED UP—is motivated to act for the glory of God. He doesn’t hurt anyone (although he might threaten it, depending on if John’s right about the whip and upon whom, the oxen or the money changers, he’s using it). He has a hissy, throwing tables and chairs and allows God’s house to be for prayer, not exploitation.

So, maybe, the place of anger in the life of a follower of Christ is to short circuit your logic, to give you the impetus to do right when it’s not convenient or in your interest, to stand against injustice when it’s not easy.

If so, the trick is to walk that line. It’s not about intoxication, feeling powerful or anything to do with you. It’s about loving God and your neighbor so much that you feel the wrong to them, or the injustice, and react to right it, even when it might be stupid to do so.

Or. Have I entirely missed the point?


Anonymous said...

You always ask good questions. I, like you, struggle with my temper, and other aspects of my behavior. It was once explained to me that sin is anything that drives a wedge between us and God. So, I would offer that a more refined version of the question is when does anger drive us away from God, and when is anger just anger? So Jesus anger at the money changers, one could easily argue, was not sinful. Although I submit, with some caution (like you, I have few credentials in the biblical scholar column), that Jesus anger with Peter (as I recall more than once) may have been more of the sinful kind. I think when my temper drives a wedge between me and other people, then it's "sinful". When my temper causes me to be a force of destruction rather than a force of positive change, then it's sinful. But I would contrast this with my anger when I see injustice. Anger that might cause me to get up and do something about it. The anger I feel when I see someone who is being abuse to another, and that anger fuels me to intervine. In those cases, supressing the anger might actually be the sin.
Above Jonathon, remember that you, like the rest of us, are simply human. We do the best we can with what God gave us, and we spend our lives trying to do just a little better (and somedays, simply no worse) each day.
Good luck man.

J Melton said...

@Irreverent Economist--In your dichotomy of destructive change versus constructive change, isn't then the "sin" of it in what you choose to do with the anger? I like that notion, because anger becomes another emotion in the human experience to which we must respond. But my question is where is the line of the choice? Isn't destruction sometimes necessary for construction to occur (and not in a "We had to destroy the village to save the village" kind of way)?

Anonymous said...

Those are good points. I think we are saying something similar: anger which simply hurts is not useful (is sinful), while anger which eventually leads to something positive is acceptable. But then I pause and wonder if it is OK to make the argument that the outcome justifies the anger (slippery slope arguements etc). So, what are men like you and I to do? I've tried anger management classes...apparently to little avail. So you started this...what's the answer? Part of me says: "you know, I'm human. I'll try better, I'll take it under advisement, but these are my failings and hey this provides everyone else with the opportunity to show what good people they are by forgiving me :D" Really, see, I'm just going around giving everyone else a chance to get into heaven for being so forgiving. Right?

dad H. said...

Hi, both (all!) Y'all,
I'm not a bible scholar, either, but I am something of a student of the Bible and of theology in general, right now. I have to tell you that I know of no Biblical injunction against anger. Jesus said "if you call a man a fool", you've already committed murder, in your heart, and that's a pretty close second to "anger", but calling Anger a Deadly Sin (capitals on purpose) comes from the Medieval Church, not the Bible. Especially in the old Testament, there are numerous times where human anger is used by God. In the New, Paul got angry several times.

IMHO, the sin (which after all, simply means "to miss the mark") in anger lies in the intent. So: which is worse? Using anger to get your body around the track a second or seventeenth time, but hurting nobody else, or letting the body God gave you get fat and lazy and possibly even dying early (and certainly missing many opportunities to do good works), while pretending not to get angry? I opt for getting in shape.

J Melton said...

@Irreverent Economist--My answer is that I have to examine the cause of the anger, like I would examine other feelings, and to determine what I can to do react to it. This means not falling victim to the "intoxicating anger" or anger for its own sake as an overwhelming emotion. I might posit that this is the difference b/w constructive anger and destructive anger (although, I haven't really thought about it fully, and the time I have thought about it was after a vestry meeting so it's late). I think the other part means bringing the same humility to my anger that I try to bring to other aspects of my life in Christ. I try not to judge others, and I try to live the orthopraxy/not orthodoxy part of our denomination with the same humility--i.e. the constant recognition that I could be wrong. It's hard to be intoxicatedly angry when self-righteousness is absent.

@Dr. Hiter--You make excellent points all, and I am happy that you decided to comment. I agree that there is no express prohibition against anger, but the type of anger that I describe/sometimes feel precludes me from loving my neighbor as myself (or as Jesus did, depending on your gospel of choice).

I agree that getting anger-ed up is positive if it gets my lazy but to push through a run, but I'm always cautious of letting that feeling out to play. Perhaps if I let it out to play in such constructive situations, it wouldn't become it's explosive cousin, but I could also see the opposite result. So, I guess I was just kicking around how much line I should give myself, reminding myself to be cautious, and contemplating whether I could create an analytical structure that could help me "hold the line," if you will.