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May 17, 2020

Anatomy of the Soul: Anger

Passage: Psalm 10

Late last month, when it seemed like the pandemic was really taking its toll on everybody, Bailey and I decided that a sermon series on the Psalms would be a good idea. Not only was the Psalter Israel’s and the church’s prayer book and hymnal, but these ancient words have a remarkable way of being as resonant today as they were when they were written. We’ve quoted him before but he bears quoting again: John Calvin, who was one of the forebears of our “branch” of the “family,” Reformed Christianity, dubbed the Psalms: “An Anatomy of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” It’s a gift that the Scriptures give voice to our experience, even the messier aspects of it, even the parts we’d rather sweep under the bed along with the dust bunnies. 

When Bailey and I divided these topics up, she called anxiety (“That’s my thing!” she said, excitedly). I claimed anger because that’s my favorite. And by “favorite,” I mean it’s one of my greatest flaws, it’s something with which I struggle, along with its comrades: impatience, irritation, thin skinned-ness, and many others. My anger often cloaks other emotions like sadness or hurt. I think one reason for that is there are gendered aspects to this. In our culture it’s one of the few socially-acceptable emotions for men to express, so it tends to dominate. And it’s a hard thing to talk about. Even as we explore this topic, I know this might stir up some intense memories for you if you grew up in a household in which anger was a very destructive force, your anger or someone else’s. 

In thinking about how fundamental anger is to us, to inject a little levity here, what comes to mind is a clip from the Disney movie Inside Out. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It’s about a young woman named Riley and the interactions of personified emotions in her head: sadness, joy, fear, disgust, and, of course, anger. Here is a clip about anger (voiceover by Lewis Black). 

Prayer is one thing that helps me when I get lit up — coworkers, friends, and family have probably heard me utter the words from that Carrie Underwood song, “Jesus Take the Wheel,” with a few cuss words thrown in there. But I’ve also learned a lot from Buddhist mindfulness practices. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote something that truly challenges me: 

When we get angry, we suffer… When someone insults you or behaves violently towards you, you have to be intelligent enough to see that the person suffers from his own violence and anger. But we tend to forget. We think that we are the only one that suffers, and the other person is our oppressor. This is enough to make anger arise, and to strengthen our desire to punish...Then, we have anger in us; we have violence in us, just as they do. When we see that our suffering and anger are no different from their suffering and anger, we will behave more compassionately. So understanding the other is understanding yourself, and understanding yourself is understanding the other person. Everything must begin with you.

I hear notes of God’s mercy in what he writes, that mercy that it takes a lifetime to practice.

The Bible has a wealth of wisdom for us on this topic. I grew up hearing that verse from Ephesians, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (4:26) There’s also that one from Proverbs: “A fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back.” (29:11) There’s a host of other ones that seem to steer us in the direction of tempering anger in the understanding that, like a brush fire, a little bit can ignite quite a blaze. 

But what about when you are being genuinely wronged? Or even moving beyond the interpersonal, what do we do with our anger when someone else is wronged? When we ourselves or some other person (or persons) is the victim of blatant cruelty or injustice? 

Well, the Psalms are chocked full of expressing that sentiment. If you were with us last week, we talked about lament as a prayerful response to feeling grief. Because we trust in God’s nearness and faithful presence and because we trust that God truly hears her children when we cry out. Lament is a holy response to injustice, and many Psalms voice anger — rage especially — when the writer or the writer’s people are being persecuted, pursued, oppressed, killed, or otherwise harmed. God, through the lens of Psalms, is a God of justice. God is invested in whether or not humans adhere to standards of right and wrong. And the Psalms often summon or petition God, to paraphrase Psalm 10, “Come down here and do something! Hold evildoers accountable! Enforce justice! Be the God you said you would be!” 

How many of you, when Melinda read this, nodded your heads or thought to yourself, “That sounds about right!”? These words are timeless descriptions of the tyrants of any age:

Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
    under their tongues are mischief and iniquity…
Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless…
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
    they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

These words fit the crises spawned by this pandemic. There are a myriad of examples of how people already brutalized by our systems are yet again the victims of government ineptitude in the handling of all this. Just take one: how all these states that are prematurely telling people to go back to work are doing so at the expense of the poor and downtrodden. I’m thinking of how that meat plant in South Dakota staffed by refugees is now one of the nation's largest hotspots for the virus. We as people of faith are called to the holy work of lament, to voice our anger, to pray our anger, and to channel our anger in the direction of action and in the cause of God’s justice. 

When we think about the unjust, racially-based murder of Amhaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, that is worthy of our lament! It bears pointing out that public outrage over his killing by two white men exerted pressure on authorities to act, finally. Lament, to quote Michael Jinkins again, “holds the earth to the standards of heaven.” When similar incidents happen and there is outcry from people of color, it is important to listen to that anger and strive to hear what is behind it, and to learn from it.

Maybe this is one way of summarizing it: when our anger is the result of a bruised ego, we should find ways of managing it because, when acted upon, it can be harmful to others and spiritually toxic for ourselves. But when our anger is a consequence of love for neighbor or for ourselves, then it can be “fuel” for living faithfully as God’s justice-seeking people. 

The poet and artist Jan Richardson uses two metaphors for anger that I find really compelling: a map and a messenger. She writes:

As with any emotion, anger can be a map. Within the landscape of our life, the presence of anger reveals where our passions lie, whom we love, what we consider important… Anger is also a messenger. It always has something to tell us about who we are and how we are connected with those around us.

It’s worth reflecting on some questions: do we pay attention to our anger as a map, do we learn from it as a messenger? What does our anger spark for us? These are important questions not only in terms of spiritual growth, but also because there is nothing we experience, even anger, that is ever outside the reach of God’s redeeming love. 

I’ll leave you with the words of Jan Richardson’s poem, “Anger is a woman.” 

Anger is a woman
who has learned
that pleasantness
is not the way to peacefulness,
that silence
is not the way to strength.
Anger is a woman
who has learned
to breathe from her belly;
who waits at your door,
bringing you offerings;
who knows your true name
and gives it back to you.
She has lived on the streets.
She knows prisons
and alleys
and mud.
She has seen hungry children
and broken women
and desperate men
and spoken to them
in their own tongues.
They gave her a song.
She sings it to you.



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