Christian Anger In The Church 

 

In many smaller Christian groups there's a lot of anger; both on the individual level and also on the group level [e.g. ecclesias or groups of ecclesias against others, etc.]. How are we to cope with this, we who seek to emulate the gentle kindness and grace of the Father and Son? Anger in itself is a purely natural reaction, and is seen in both God and His Son. The issue is, how to "be angry and sin not" (Eph. 4:26)? God "made a path for His anger" with Egypt, by bringing plagues upon them and slaying their firstborn (Ps. 78:50 RV). Anger has to go somewhere, for otherwise it burns within us and rises up ultimately into extremely damaging and inappropriate forms of behaviour. I say 'inappropriate' because pent up anger has a way of bursting forth upon anyone in its way, who may likely be nothing to do with the cause or object of the initial anger. Anger is a form of energy, and as such it must be harnessed. Throughout the Old Testament, we often read of God being "provoked to wrath" by human sin, and His anger burning. There's very little said about this in the New Testament; and I wonder if this is because the ultimate path which God made for His anger was in giving His Son to die for human sin, rather than endlessly seeking to punish human sin and be hurt by it. Immediately let's take an obvious lesson: don't waste your anger energy on endlessly fighting those who provoke you, but use it positively. Throw it in to some project or other for the Lord. For anger is to some extent reflective; whilst we remain horns locked with a situation, both our opponent and ourselves are feeding off each others' anger. Hence the wise advice of Prov. 22:24,25: "with a wrathful man you shall not go: lest you learn his ways". Disengage from anger situations.

But that's easier said than done. There are some situations which physically we can't just run from. We may live with someone in family or church life who provokes our anger, and just walking out isn't the right option. In this case, I have some suggestions which may or may not be helpful; they're simply things which have helped me:

Understand their anger

They're defending their territory perhaps; they may consider you a wolf in the flock because you interpret Scripture slightly differently from them, worship differently, hold a different view of something which is important to them (e.g. the role of women in the church), baptize people whom they wouldn't baptize, fellowship believers whom they don't fellowship. In all these cases, you are perceived as having entered their territory, disturbing their vision of life; and anger is often in fact self-defensive. A clash of value systems leads to 'war'; an inclusive person often simply can't be within an exclusive system without it leading to anger on all sides. Whether or not one quits the system depends upon each individual case and the responsibilities to others which one carries; but at least understanding anger and the psychological processes at play can assist in it hurting us somewhat less. It may help to put yourself in their shoes. What do they think of you? A good exercise is to say out loud the thoughts you suspect they have about you- e.g. "I am sure he's not really a brother in Christ. His behaviour is so non-Christian. He's not honest nor straightforward. He's just here at this conference to get support for his wrong positions". And you'll likely realize that these are the very thoughts you have about them. As they see themselves as defending the flock, as defending Biblical and spiritual principle, so likely do you- even if the choice of wording may vary slightly between you. And who knows, as you struggle to forgive your opponent, they may in their better moments be going through just the same for you. We need to realize a basic psychological truth- that those who hurt us the most are those most similar to us. It makes an interesting exercise to list the similarities between Jacob and Esau, and Jacob and Laban. These men hurt each other- because they were so similar to each other.

Change the structure of your relationship with the person[s]

Those raised within a religious group grew up dependent upon it for meaning and validation. And yet it's only natural that one progresses to the phase of contra-dependence, where one seeks to be independent, to break free... and yet in religious groups, one remains tied to the group by a belief that there is "truth" here which must not be abandoned. And so conflict situations develop, with their attendant anger. If it were merely a stamp collector's club, one would resign and forget it. But because of the sense that the church is none other than the house of God, we remain. All I can say is that we must learn that God's validation of us is of supreme importance, and not that of men. Whilst we may remain within the group, the structure of our relationship with others in the group changes when we learn to take our personal worth from the Father and Son and not from man. We won't seek, as overgrown adolescents, conflicts to prove ourselves, define our patch. We will be secure in the Father's love. And we may be well advised to develop that patch, those talents God gave us, in a way unique to us. So that instead of spending hours of angry energy replying to angry emails, we spend that time instead e.g. developing our own ministry, be it baptizing people, caring for a specific need group, pushing for change in specific areas, etc. This doesn't mean we cease to be sensitive to our aggressors; sensitivity is part of the spirit of Christ, and "as much as lies within us, if it be possible, we should live at peace with all men" (Rom. 12:18). Paul's inspired wording tacitly accepts that we often cannot live in peace with others because it's not possible given their failures; but we can change our attitudes, this is the point.

Identify those parts of you which they hurt by their anger

Imagine a man walking with two close friends one evening in a city centre. A thug attacks him, pins him to a wall, and extracts his wallet and money from him. Afterwards, the man's not angry with the thug who did the damage, but with his friends who stood there and did nothing. What was hurt within the man? Surely his expectation of something better from those whom he thought were his friends. This is especially relevant to those who consider themselves in Christian brotherhood with each other. The Biblical ideals of Christian fellowship are such that we can assume that they are all attained within the brotherhood which we're in. But just as we personally are imperfect, so are our brethren. The man's friends in the example simply didn't love him as much as they should have done. There's no explaining that away. Their fear of consequences led them to betrayal. Like the Holocaust happened because good people did nothing. The New Testament teaching about Christian unity is an ideal, but it seems to me that realistically it's unattainable, and certainly has never yet been achieved on earth in the last 2000 years. People enter the church often with too high expectations, attracted by the love and unity they see, inspired by the idealistic Biblical teaching about it, and not realizing that actually, the ideal is far from achieved. In groups like our own, there is the impression given that all are equal, a priesthood of all believers. In churches like the Catholics, megachurch Pentecostal and Orthodox, there's far less anger between members because the expectations are laid upon the priesthood, the very visible human leadership, rather than upon each other as in a far smaller congregation. Feeling let down or betrayed by those we assumed were 'with us', one for all and all for one, is perhaps the largest single cause of anger between Christian believers. It helps to recognize that we as individuals aren't as strong as we think; we are far more fragile, woundable and sensitive to betrayal than we think. Realizing this will at least decrease the surprise factor in the anger we feel at being let down by others. If we sit on a chair and it collapses beneath us, we'll likely be angry with the chair. We expect chairs to hold us up. But if we approach the chair suspecting that it may possibly collapse, the surprise factor will be less. Our anger at such betrayal incidents is largely rooted in our shocked surprise. If we accept that chairs do collapse- partly because of our overweight- and friends do betray, brethren aren't perfect, trains run late... then the surprise factor will be far less.

But... does this mean, then, that we adopt a cynical view on people, never fully giving ourselves in trust to others, never trusting them, retreating inside our shells hurt and wounded to never love again? This isn't healthy, neither is it the intention of life in Christ. For Christianity isn't a religion for lone individuals; the whole nature of being in Christ is that we are baptized into His body and learn of Him by our experience in His body. So how practically can we achieve a balance between a naive assumption that everyone in church life is our loving committed-to-death-for-us brother on the one hand; and a distrustful self-defensive-lest-we-be-hurt attitude on the other? The answer may simply be that we must recognize that our brethren and friends in Christ are imperfect, just as we are, and such betrayals aren't to be unexpected. And to frankly accept that there is a risk in every relationship we enter into: marriage, having children, having brothers or sisters in Christ. And yet enter relationships we must; to try not to is to deny our humanity as well as God's intention for us in Christ. Or we could consider the idea of boundaries. Human cells are surrounded by a membrane, a boundary, which allows helpful things in and excludes others; and allows the cell to excrete and also to communicate and bond with other cells. Recognize that we have boundaries; there are some things about ourselves which we will share with others, and other things which we will not. Just be aware of those boundaries; they can't be too hard as to let nothing in to assist us and stifle our communication to others; nor too soft as to let others dominate us by their anger. In practice, we define our boundaries according to our value system, our core focus. And here we're up against the hard question: What is that, for us? Is it the seeking of God's glory alone, or a system of values centred around membership of a church group and acceptance with them? If our focus is unswervingly upon God's glory and not our own, then somehow the whole question of how to define boundaries will somehow find its natural and healthy solution.

Shame And Anger

There's a definite link between shame and anger. Take a man whose mother yelled at him because as a toddler he ran out onto the balcony naked, and shamed him by her words. Years later on a hot Summer evening the man as an adult walks out on a balcony with just his underpants on. An old woman yells at him from the yard below that he should be ashamed of himself. And he's furiously angry with her- because of the shame given him by his mother in that incident 20 years ago. Shame and anger are clearly understood by God as being related, because His word several times connects them: "A fool's anger is immediately known; but a prudent man covers his shame" (Prov. 12:16); A king's anger is against a man who shames him (Prov. 14:35). Or consider 1 Sam. 20:34: "So Jonathan arose from the table in fierce anger, and did eat no meat the second day of the month... because his father had done him shame". Job's anger was related to the fact that he felt that ten times the friends had shamed him in their speeches (Job 19:3). Frequently the rejected are threatened with both shame and anger / gnashing of teeth; shame and anger are going to be connected in that awful experience. They will "curse [in anger]... and be ashamed" (Ps. 109:28). The final shame of the rejected is going to be so great that "they shall be greatly ashamed... their everlasting confusion shall never be forgotten" (Jer. 20:11). Seeing they will be long dead and gone, it is us, the accepted, who by God's grace will recall the terrible shame of the rejected throughout our eternity. Their shame will be so terrible; and hence their anger will likewise be. Because Paul's preaching 'despised' the goddess Diana, her worshippers perceived that she and they were somehow thereby shamed; and so "they were full of wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesians" (Acts 19:27,28). It's perhaps possible to understand the wrath of God in this way, too. For His wrath is upon those who break His commands; and by breaking them we shame God (Rom. 2:23); we despise his desire for our repentance (Rom. 2:4).

We take shame, however, from how we understand our community / society; from whom we take validation and meaning. Our validation should be from the one God who justifies us, who validates us, and gives us the only meaning worth having. There's significant Old Testament emphasis upon the fact that those who are truly on the Lord's side shall not be put to shame. It was prophesied of the Lord Jesus that He set His face like a flint, "that I shall not be ashamed" (Is. 50:7). Perhaps His lack of destructive anger was because He didn't let Himself be shamed by men, instead taking His self-worth and values from God's acceptance of Him. To avoid "anger" in the wrong sense, we need to avoid being wrongly shamed. And we can do this by ensuring we ourselves aren't led into shame, due to placing too great a value upon the opinions of men. Our shame should be before God for our sins against Him, and not before men. Hence the prophets often criticize Israel for not being ashamed of their sins before God (Jer. 6:15). Our shame before men leads to anger; our shame before God is resolved in repentance and belief in His gracious forgiveness. Thus Jeremiah recalls how his repentance involved being ashamed, and yet then being "instructed" (Jer. 31:19). It's through knowing this kind of shame before God that we come to a position where we are unashamed. Thus Joel begins his prophecy with a call to "be ashamed" before God for sin, and concludes with the comfort that in this case, "my people shall never [again] be ashamed" (Joel 1:1; 2:27). In this sense we can understand the comment that the Lord Jesus 'despised the shame' of the cross (Heb. 12:2). He 'thought against' it [Gk.], he refused to be shamed before men, even though naked and bedraggled and humanly defeated; for He believed that He was being 'lifted up' in glory from God's viewpoint. Paul could say that it mattered very little to him how men thought of him, for the Lord's judgment was all that mattered (1 Cor. 4:4); and the Lord Jesus gave somewhat the same impression, for He evidently "regarded not the person of men" (Mt. 22:16). If our value, validation, self-worth etc. are dependent upon men's opinions of us, then we're likely to be easily shamed; and this sets us up for all manner of anger feelings, and makes us the more easily woundable by those whose acceptance we crave. Quite simply- if God has accepted us, then don't let ourselves be shamed by men.

Childhood Issues

Whilst Freud's emphasis upon childhood influences may have been overdone, there's no doubt that they play a significant part in our personality structure. Many members of small Protestant groups grew up within the group or a similar one. Often this upbringing involved obeying rules which never made any sense; but protest and reasoning wasn't possible. The desire to protest was often quashed beneath a genuine, loving desire not to upset genuine, loving parents who held misplaced ideals. If the religiously-raised child failed, they felt shame for having let the side down, disgraced the family. This shame often leads to anger in later life. The desire to protest is still there in those who were raised within the community; but they protest by [e.g.] holding non-standard views on a matter of Biblical interpretation or practice, exposing what they know to be a weak point within the community etc. And these are the conflicts, the wars, which lead to anger situations. But often in religiously-raised children there's a willful desire to be the provocateur. Nothing much can be done to change all this in others- but to understand all is to forgive all, according to a French proverb. Anger has to feed upon something- and that something is often the shame induced in the person's childhood by the very community which they both love and hate, and whose acceptance they both crave and disdain. Whilst the cards we were dealt from birth can't be changed, we can change from where we take our values and validation. They must come from God, and not men. Whether they shake their fist at us or drown us in accolades, we will be unmoved- if God is for us a personal reality, and His judgments and opinion of us is paramount. It is this which gives us the ultimate freedom, the freedom to not get angry in response to others' anger. Because of the very direct and focused relationship of Jesus to the Father, He was the ultimately 'free' person and could forgive more than any other. For He wasn't looking for human validation; He had this from the Father. And so do we, if we will take it.

Dynamics

All groups, be they a church or a denomination, are ever changing. At the point of our entry into them, they have certain club rules, statements of faith (written or unwritten), expectations, boundaries of who is in and who is out, and perceived founding fathers / pioneers. Over time it is inevitable that positions shift. Statements of faith and constitutions are ammended, the pioneers reinterpreted; and these changes arise from individuals changing, processing, developing, testing paradigms and overthrowing them. Change is painful. It always involves conflict between those who enshrine the status quo as truth, and those who are led by the Spirit; those who fear, those who take their value from the acceptance of the majority view- and those who have shaken free of fear. These conflict situations exist within all churches and denominations in some form at some time. It's inevitable that we will face the anger and growth pains that come with them. As with all the spiritual challenges which God gives us along the path to His Kingdom, holding the 'right' or 'wrong' position may not always be of the essence; rather it is our integrity, holding fast to the freedom with and for which Christ has set us free, which is important. And in the total experience, we are led to seek our validation, our value, our acceptance, not in men but in the Father who gave His Son for our justification in His sight.

When All Is Said And Done

In the end, when all these psychological tricks and trials and attempts have been tried, the ultimate answer is in God. David spoke his anger to God. That's my explanation of his imprecatory Psalms, wherein he wishes all manner of evil judgments against his enemies. If those Psalms were to be dynamically translated, I suspect expletives would have to be used to convey the force- bearing in mind that in David's time, expletives weren't used, but rather aggressive language of cursing. But why does David put all this anger and 'bad language' into prayers to God? He knew that God sees and knows all things, nothing is hid to Him. All our lives are lived in His presence and are effectively prayer to Him. Quite simply, David was unburdening his anger upon God. We need to share and verbalize our anger with someone. And the Divine 'someone' is there for us in this 24/7. We can't make people love us or accept us. But God does. If He is believed in by us as real, then we'll be thrilled at His acceptance and love for us, to the extent that the anger and hurt of others is simply not what it is for those who have no God to believe in. And one final thought. If in all our hurt at others' anger against us, someone else bothers to contact us and let us know they're thinking of us- be it by letter, phone call, SMS, email- it can move the hardest, hurtest heart to tears. But there is that Divine 'Someone' for us, feeling for us, with us, even weeping for our hurt, with more understanding and insight than anyone else on earth. This isn't just a comforting close to this discussion of the difficult and irresoluble problem of anger; it's an utter reality. He is there, there for us; God is with us, Emmanuel, in His Son. Do we believe in His utter reality...? "Jesus loves me [that's where I like to put the stress in the song], this I know, for the Bible tells me so". Here, then, if we will allow it, is the ultimate issue of all our theology, Bible reading, meditation and reflection: "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth; who is he that shall condemn?" (Rom. 8:31-34). Is that all really not quite enough for us?