Anger is a wonderful, powerful, amazing, informative, life-giving, protective resource. Or at least it can be. Anger can be a redemptive sword, when it’s wielded by love.
“Anger is a surgical weapon, designed to destroy ugliness and restore beauty. In the hands of one who is trained in love and who can envision beauty, the knife of righteous anger is a weapon for restoration.” – Allender & Longman
We’ve too often seen anger as the enemy, while all along it was begging to be our teacher. We’ve loved to pray and sing emotional ballads like, “Break my heart for what breaks yours,” but have we dared to sing, “Enrage my heart for what enrages yours”?
That sounds crazy, right? And scary.
As Christians, as cross-cultural workers, we’re way more comfortable with holy sadness than holy anger. And that’s not without cause; sadness is safer. More tame. Anger can destroy. Anger can harm deeply. Anger is like electricity — or fire. Both have tremendous potential to destroy, and even kill. But they also reveal, energize (literally), and make magic.
Have you flown on the fire of a jet engine, propelled through the night sky like a populated comet? Have you ever activated a dozen tiny suns with the flip of a switch? These miracles are astounding, and possible due to the power of white-hot fire and lightning fast electrons flowing on demand.
To be sure, arsons exist, but so do steel magnates. They both harness fire for their own purposes; one to destroy, the other to build. I’ve seen the burns and tissue damage wreaked by a lightning strike, but I don’t scream and run away every time I see an outlet.
Again, anger is just energy. It’s an emotion, neither good nor bad, neither healthy nor dysfunctional.
“Feelings are information, not conclusions.” – Greenberg
“Feeling angry or annoyed is as human as feeling sad or afraid.” – Greenberg
We have to be careful, at the start, that we don’t moralize some emotions as good, others as bad, some as holy, others as sinful. That’s not accurate, spiritually or scientifically. [See The Gaping Hole in Modern Missions.]
It’s also important to distinguish between the feeling of anger and the actions of aggression. The two are not the same thing. Greenberg offers this helpful reminder:
“Anger should not be confused with aggression, which comprises attacking or assaultive behavior. Feeling angry does not mean behaving aggressively, and people can be aggressive without feeling any anger at all.” – Greenberg
Chances are you’ve been hurt by someone who acted aggressively. Perhaps their anger/aggression left wounds you’re still recovering from. Chances are you’ve hurt someone in similar ways. So I understand if all this talk about the goodness of anger feels like bile in the brain.
In my ministry as a pastoral counselor in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I hear all the stories. I hear terrifying stories and sad stories. I hear stories that make me livid and stories that make me hug my kids a little tighter.
Early on, I assumed that my main job was to help angry people feel their sadness. After all, I feel sadness early and often; it’s my default setting, and it’s easy. But now I realize that just as often, my job is to help sad people feel their anger.
Accessing the motivating, informative energy of anger has been pivotal in my own journey of healing. It has propelled me to have HARD conversations, it has steeled me for necessary conflict, and it has helped me surface on the other side, grateful. I am grateful for the gift of anger; without it, I fear I would have gotten stuck in my own depressive hole.
I used to think that anger and love were separate things, but now I realize that anger can be separate from love, but it doesn’t have to be. Anger is sometimes the energizing force that results from violated love.
In his book on extra-marital affairs, pastor and clinical counselor David Carder goes so far as to say that the partner who was cheated on MUST get angry:
“The language of anger is never pleasant; however, it is not only OK to say it with intensity and force, but it is absolutely necessary for true recovery to occur. People do not get better until they get mad.” – Carder
Anger as a Sword (that we desperately need)
Tolkien understood the strategic use of anger, and when the Fellowship needed salvation, he gave it to them, in the form of a furious wizard. When faced with an ancient evil from the deepest shadows, the men, hobbits, dwarf, and elf fled for their lives. There was no escape until an old man with wisdom and anger stood firm.
The scene unfolds on a bridge under the mountains, with enemy hordes on one side, the Fellowship on the other:
“The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring [his sword] gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.
‘You cannot pass,‘ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.‘
The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.
From out of the shadow a red sword leaped flaming.
Glamdring glittered white in answer.
There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The Balrog fell back and its sword flew up in molten fragments. The wizard swayed on the bridge, stepped back a pace, and then again stood still.
‘You cannot pass!‘ he said.
With a bound the Balrog leaped full upon the bridge. Its whip whirled and hissed.”
In the film, the emotion of the scene overwhelms. Gandalf stands between the darkness and his charges. He is fighting with all his might, not for his own honor or power or kingdom; he is fighting for his friends.
He looks back at his friends, slowly and compassionately, fully aware of what he must do. He raises his staff and sword, slams them into stone, and screams at the fiery evil, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”
At that point,
“A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog’s feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness.”
Oh that more leaders would have the courage to stand firm, full of love and anger, willing to protect the helpless, and to speak to the Shadow!
These are the times when we need the sword of anger. What a dangerous shame to reach that point, to need the power of a bright sword, and to leave it in its scabbard. Anger is the sword that we keep sheathed because we have no idea how to wield it. We’ve only seen people hurt by it. But if we could figure out how to use it, to wield it sparingly, but well, we might realize how much good it could do.
When we lose access to flaming, holy anger, we lose access to so much. We need a revolution in how we as the Church think about, talk about, and experience anger.
“Righteous anger warns, invites change, and wounds. True anger is paradoxical in that it has the strength to inflict pain, but it burns with the desire for reconciliation. It is bold, but it is also broken.” – Allender & Longman
What if we used anger to protect, not to control? With the aim of blessing and restoring relationships, not for revenge? What if anger were an expression of solid love, not malice or contempt?
“[Righteous anger] wounds for the greater work of redemption. It is full of a strength that is neither defensive nor vindictive, and it is permeated by a sadness that is rich in desire and hope.” – Allender & Longman
Our Incompetence Damages People (and the Church)
We don’t know how to wield anger, and we can’t fathom that someone else might. So we run away from it, we bury it, we criticize it. But just like outlawed grief, outlawed anger is dangerous.
“Anger that is driven underground eventually bursts out in uncontrollable and destructive ways.” – Greenberg
When you cancel out anger (your own or others’), you rob yourself of vital information. Information that could help you to see a situation or respond to a situation. Instead of denying or blocking anger, we need to get curious about it. What is hurting? When did it start hurting? As Greenberg says, we “should not be too afraid of receiving its message.”
“Each time people control or cut off a significant experience of anger, they not only cut themselves off from important information from within, but they also cut themselves off from others.” – Greenberg
Failing to give space for anger is terribly invalidating, and unloving.
“Invalidation of a person’s most basic feelings is one of the most psychologically damaging things one person can do to another.” – Greenberg
What would have happened if someone in those Catholic dioceses had felt a burning against the injustice of child abuse? Imagine if some leader somewhere would have pulled a sword on those pedophiles and screamed, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”
It should not have taken an investigative journalist. It should not have taken decades.
What if someone at USA Gymnastics had heard about Larry Nassar’s perverse, ongoing sexual assaults of its gymnasts and, with fire in their bones, done whatever was necessary to communicate: “NOT ON MY WATCH!”
I’m so grateful for Rachael Denhollander and her tremendous courage as a survivor, to protest and advocate. But it shouldn’t have had to be her. It should have been some adult years earlier who got angry, and in their anger, determined to protect young women instead of an organization.
Gary Thomas, theologian and author, recently penned a powerful article about the church’s complicity in domestic violence in Christian marriages. The title of his article? “Enough is Enough.” He might as well have called it, “You Shall Not Pass!”
Calling on church leaders to stand with wounded women, to stand against abusive men, Thomas writes:
“Christian leaders and friends, we have to see that some evil men are using their wives’ Christian guilt and our teaching about the sanctity of marriage as a weapon to keep harming them. I can’t help feeling that if more women started saying, ‘This is over’ and were backed up by a church that enabled them to escape instead of enabling the abuse to continue, other men in the church, tempted toward the same behavior, might finally wake up and change their ways.”
Anger is present in our churches. Anger exists in our missions. But our anger is usually aimed at the people who are upsetting the status quo, threatening the “way things are,” and calling evil things by their true name.
But what if, instead, we were energized by a blazing love to protect the vulnerable, to defend the weak and the powerless?
What would that look like?
It would look like Gandalf, fire in his eyes, standing alone and sacrificing himself to save his friends.
It would look other worldly, because it is. It would look like the Kingdom of God among us, flipping the world upside down, giving honor to the weak, protecting the throw-aways.
It would look like the Church caring about the children on the outside.
It might look like offended religious men, sitting around a table trying to figure out how to solve this “problem.”
It would look like Bonhoeffer, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Martin Luther.
It would look like Paul, defending the magisterial beauty of grace.
It would look like a pastor calling the police as soon as he hears about abuse, refusing to keep things “in house.”
It would look bright, shimmering. It would look like hope to those bound in the darkness; a glimpse of the rising sun.
But to those who thrive in the shadows (religious or otherwise), it would terrify, reminding them that their reign will end. Justice shall be King.
It would look like all these things and more, for
It would look like Jesus.
Torn Asunder, David Carder
Enough is Enough, Gary Thomas
The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman
Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings, Leslie Greenberg