Yet again, I found myself seething as I got up from the table and walked out the door. My heart was pumping fast, my hands were shaking, my jaw was clenched, and my eyes were bulging out of my head. Why was this happening again?
I think am an Angry Missionary. Maybe you are too?
Anger. It’s not something we like to talk about a lot. The imagery I’ve engrained of a missionary is someone maybe like Mother Theresa…gentle, kind, loving, quiet, patient, enduring, strong, docile. When I think of her, or any of the other iconic missionaries I’ve read about, I don’t think about anger. And yet, when I talk to other missionaries, here and around me now, this is what I hear:
“I used to be a nice person.”
“I never used to struggle with anger like this before.”
“This country is making me lose my testimony.”
“I don’t know who I am anymore, I feel so angry.”
“Everyone around me is angry and I just find myself falling into that too.”
Why might a missionary in particular struggle with something like anger? First let’s look at what anger is.
Anger, according to Christian counselor and author David Powlison, is the emotion we feel when we identify something that we perceive as 1) not right and 2) important enough to care about.
What types of things can cause anger to rise up within? A simple Google search pointed to a number of things that may occur throughout, if not define, the missionary experience.
- We experience unmet expectations. We have expectations about what life would be like here, who we would become, how quickly we’d become that person, how much we can get done in a day, when we’d see the fruits of our labors.
- We experience loss. Loss of friends as they transition in and out, loss of donors, loss of security, loss of careers, loss of schedules, loss of comfort and familiarity, loss of freedom, loss of control, loss of identity.
- We experience stress. When the home office tells us to add just one more thing to our plates, when donors drop and needs keep rising, when we set foot in any government building to process paperwork, when we walk down the street and horns are blowing and people shouting.
- We experience or bear witness to injustice. When we see murders and robberies of the material poor that go unsolved and untried, corruption that contaminates every aspect of life, people dying way too young of treatable diseases simply because of where they were born.
- We feel unheard and misunderstood. When the people we came to love reject us and betray us, when we mispronounce words as we fumble through yet another greeting, when people assume they know who we are or what we want by nature of our skin color or passport, when sponsors back home ask, “How was your trip?” while we are back home on furlough.
- We experience fear. When we think about what could happen if one of my children got seriously sick in this country, when our home and personal sense of privacy and security has been violated by a home invasion, when we don’t know what to expect any given day.
I laughed as I read through the list and realized that I’d experienced pretty much every single one of these triggers within the past two days. By nature of our lives overseas, we missionaries probably find ourselves living lives that are chock full of things that could easily set anyone off into a fit of rage or downward spiral of bitterness. While some might see those reactions as justifiable, is that really the path we want to take? Are we slaves to our circumstances or emotions or do they simply reveal what is already in our hearts? What does your anger reveal about you?
Think back to the last time you were angry. Why were you angry? What wrong happened? Who/what are you trusting in to right that wrong? How did you react? Why did you care so much? Which ones of your values were violated? Was your response to anger constructive or destructive?
In your anger are you placing anything above God? Your rights? Your will? Your feelings? Your plans?
We often hear in church about righteous anger. When I think of righteous anger, my mind always goes straight to the story in the Bible with Jesus flipping over the tables at the temple (Matt. 11:15-18). The market people had violated the sanctity of the temple, and Jesus came in and uprooted that sin while also preaching the truth to those present. So, what about me? Am I acting in righteous anger when I am red-faced, shouting and rolling my eyes at the man in uniform outright asking for a bribe along the road?
While there might be a genuinely righteous reason for getting angry (i.e. corruption), often times what I find as I’ve allowed the Spirit to search my heart, is that there is usually also an element of my own sin coming through too. My soul was rightly grieved by the sin, but my flesh was also pricked. My pride has been offended, my feelings have been hurt, my ego has been bruised. I want what I want. Instead of being angry at the presence of sin, I tend to get angrier about how the sin affected me…my plans, my day, my happiness, my sense of self. Rather than going after the sin itself, I sometimes get side-tracked and go after the person. At my weakest moments, I want to unleash a mouth full of sass and glare with ice blue eyes that have been likened to piercing daggers. I begin to plot evil against one of God’s beloved.
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against a spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
Jesus knew this and responded accordingly. He too experienced unmet expectations, loss, fear, stress, injustice. He too was most definitely misunderstood. And yet in His anger He did not sin. In confronting the sin of others, He did not allow himself to fall into the trap of committing sin himself.
Anger is an emotion meant to help us identify when things are not going right and to move us towards action to make it right. That is a big part of our role as created beings here on earth, to be His Hands and His Feet in bringing about the good and perfect and redemptive will of God. However, anger that reacts in uncontrollable, selfish, pitying, passive aggressive, self-righteous, bitter, and argumentative ways does not honor God, but man.
How then can we use our anger to honor God? In the same way that we lay our lives down before God, so must we do with our anger. Our anger must become a servant, bowing down before the God Most High. We are not to become servants to our anger, nor slaves to our circumstances. Only to God.
When we give our anger to God for Him to use in His ways and in His time, we will see that our anger becomes controlled, correctly motivated, and directed along the path of true justice. It isn’t supposed to just simply go away or get stuffed down in hard to reach places of our hearts, nor should it completely overpower us. In submissive anger we can show mercy for the sinner, just as God did for us, while still speaking truth about the wrong that occurred and taking actions to make it right.
Anger must point people towards God, not away. While it highlights and makes known the destruction that has been caused and how it has offended God, it must not destroy any more through words or deeds. Anger misdirected leads people down the path of despair. Anger submitted to the Will of God leads people down the path of hope and redemption.
To be an Angry Missionary is not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be an oxymoron.
The wrath of God is inseparable from the love of God. There cannot be anger, if there is not first love. God’s anger is aroused when His love is violated by sin in the world. As missionaries, God has placed a heavy burden on our hearts to love the people of the nation where He has brought us. When we commit to loving His people the way He loves them, asking Him to break our hearts for the same things that break His, we will get angry. But it’s how we use that anger, for His glory and purposes and not our own, that will truly define our life overseas.