Anger comes in a number of forms. We typically think of the garden-variety in-your-face anger–fuming, yelling, cussing, ranting. It’s when I verbally (and perhaps even physically) destroy you.
But there’s also its opposite–the so-called silent treatment, where I refuse to acknowledge that you exist anymore. It’s when I murder you in my heart, because you’re not worth the time of day.
More sophisticated is the anger that manifests itself as despair and defeat–anger wounded, anger playing the victim. It’s when I simply can’t believe that you would do this to me. How could you?
I could go on, but suffice it to say that anger shows up in a number of ways. But not only does anger have various expressions, it is also a most fertile emotion, giving birth to a number of other emotions and dispositions that remain long after the anger itself has passed (at least for the time being):
Bitterness. Resentment. Cynicism. Suspicion. Loneliness. Obsession. Impatience.
Anger is an extraordinarily powerful (and complex) emotion. It can readily overpower us and rule our lives–especially in its subtler, more sophisticated forms. (As a pastor, there are numerous times when I have pointed out to a counselee that they are seething, and they will say, “What? No, I’m not… Wait, I am?”)
Let’s face it. Anger easily consumes.
Not only that, anger is pretty much everywhere. For example, we are a hopelessly litigious society. Whether it’s a passing outburst of the angry driver late for work, or a life-defining, deep-seated wound from an angry parent’s relentless verbal abuse, or the infectious, smug and self-righteous cynicism of the angry professor, whose “great learning” has given them a privileged perspective, or the capable corporate executive who fumes over the “gross incompetence” of their employees, or the exasperated voter who rants at the hopeless corruption and cronyism of the establishment, anger is all around us.
And it raises the question: is it possible that this ubiquitous and often all-consuming anger is trying to tell us something?
Something about ourselves and perhaps even something about…God?
Consider two questions:
1. Does our anger give voice to just our preferences or to our just principles?
This is huge.
In other words, is our anger at bottom merely the temper tantrum of a child who refuses to eat their peas? Is my anger mere frustration that life isn’t going my way? Is “our” anger–you know, the anger of all of “us” (aka those who supposedly get it)–simply the anger of the mob, the anger of those who just happen to be in the majority (or elite minority) or who happen to share our identity and narrative?
Is our anger just my (or “our” elitist) preferences? If it’s not, how do we know? What (or who) justifies my/our anger? We may insist that we have the right to give voice to our anger, but can we insist that we have the right for our voice to be heard?
Let’s be honest: Most of us think that our anger is in fact justified (I usually do). But, again in our more honest moments, we also know that we adults can (and do) have temper tantrums. But even when we feel most justified, how can we know we are? How do we know when can we actually trust our anger?
Even if we can’t answer that question, the reality remains: we–every last one of us–at times do trust it. We sincerely believe we are justified in our anger: our anger, we are persuaded, is based on not just preferences but just principles.
But whose principles? Whose justice? Who has the right, who is qualified, to spell out what justice is?
When we feel just in our anger, we are actually saying that there is a moral order to the world and that the world–both others and ourselves–ought to live according to that order.
But, of course, a moral order implies–well, demands, does it not?–One who has ordered it.
So what is our ubiquitous anger saying? Is it only and ever voicing just my preferences? Or is it often–perhaps even ubiquitously–betraying just principles grounded in the moral order created by One who is Justice? Does our anger betray a longing for the Creator to act in justice and righteousness, to usher in an order of peace and reconciliation?
A second question:
2. Why is our anger (so often) all-consuming? Or: Are the injustices that involve us ultimately against (only) us?
As mentioned above, there is something intoxicating and enthralling about anger. It can consume instantaneously or corrode slowly. Anger, or her many children, can come to define us.
In the courtroom we catch a glimpse of it. What amount of anger is fitting when a teenage girl is abducted, violated and brutally murdered? Or when through gross medical malpractice a routine surgery leads to the unexpected death of a mother of three young children?
Even when a criminal offense has received its full punishment, is our anger to be assuaged? Even when a civil suit has been won and significant punitive damages have been awarded, is our anger assuaged? Should it be?
Why does our anger so often remain? Why can’t it be satisfied more easily?
There seems to be a limitlessness to our anger, almost as if the offense weren’t ultimately against us (or a loved one) but against someone far more important. Almost as if the offense were ultimately against One who is himself limitless.
(What is it about us anyway that gives us a dignity, a worth, that can then be offended? Why ought you or I be treated in certain ways and not in others? Who gets to decide how much we are “worth”?)
Could it be that the seeming insatiability of our anger points to a deeper, primal knowledge that our offenses against one another transcend ourselves? That any and all crimes against our finite humanity are more fundamentally crimes against His infinite divinity?
If so, what does this mean for the satiation of our anger? Unless the true Victim is identified and His justice is served, can we be liberated from our all-consuming anger?
What is our anger trying to tell us?