Stop Being Slaves to Anger

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An action plan for our time.

It’s no secret that there is a lot of anger in the world today. And the news on any given day tends not to help.

“Anger can act as a useful emotion, one that supports our Christian lives. Unfortunately, for many of us anger doesn’t serve us but enslaves us. It lures us into sin or plunges us into depression,” Bert Ghezzi writes in his book, The Angry Christian: A Bible-based Strategy to Care for and Discipline a Valuable Emotion. “We can triumph over this condition. The power of the Holy Spirit combined with the strength that comes from Christian personal relationships can transform angry Christians. The Lord desires peace for us, so that we can respond to every situation with righteousness and love.” Ghezzi, popular author of more than 20 books about faith, saints, and spirituality, talks a bit about anger and his book.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: This book is a reissue. What have you learned about anger from the feedback over the years?

Bert Ghezzi: The Angry Christian first appeared in the 1970s. Many readers applied the Biblical approach and learned how to control and use their anger. Some calmed down without anger eruptions, but others, who mastered out-of-control anger, continued to struggle with forms of anger such irritability or resentment. The strategy proposed in the book does not work like magic. Learning how to discipline anger takes time, practice, persistence, and grace, and may even continue over a lifetime.

Lopez: Why is our culture “so boiling with anger”? Is it now more than ever, or does it just seem that way somehow?

Ghezzi: I doubt that anger boils in our culture more than ever. But it is roaring at a very high pitch. In an article titled “America’s Anger Is Out of Control,” Time magazine declared that  “rage uncorked becomes rage indulged, and rage indulged becomes rage applauded—and pretty soon anyone with a gripe decides it’s OK to crank the dudgeon machine up to eleven.” I’m not equipped to explain the causes of the high level of rage around us, but I can describe it.

On the national scene, we are angry over social, political, and economic matters such as immigration, racism, the environment, income inequality, sexual harassment of women, unemployment, and more. On the personal level people are angry because of broken relationships, divorce, job loss, chronic illness, deaths of relatives or friends, rejection, failure, and so on. (Need I mention idiotic behaviors such as road rage or fury over someone cutting in at a checkout line?) And anger in the Church, especially over the child-abuse sex scandal.

I brought back The Angry Christian with the hope that, if readers applied the Biblical approach, they would lower the anger level in their lives and so contribute to lowering the anger level in our culture. This is not “pie-in-the-sky,” because God has made starting small a spiritual principle. After all, he started the vast Christian movement by becoming a baby.

Lopez: What does Scripture teach us about anger?

Ghezzi: The Bible teaches a three-fold approach that shows we can express our anger and use it for good: Be angry; express anger under control; replace bad anger reactions with good behaviors.

Scripture and the Church direct us to express our anger. The best practical advice says that we must not suppress it. In the book, I use the illustration of a man finding a tiger in his home and trying to control it by confining it in the basement. But that doesn’t work. The tiger will roam and roar around and will ultimately break out. Suppressed anger works the same way. If we push anger down, it roils around inside us, looking for a way to erupt. And it will.

In several places Saint Paul warns us against rage. We must not let our anger get out of control or let it control us. Paul also teaches us to channel our anger into good behaviors such as patience and self-control. Abiding by these scriptural restrictions, we can employ anger for good purposes or to oppose evils.

Lopez: What’s the difference between righteous and unrighteous anger?

Ghezzi: Anger is righteous if we direct it against wrongdoing and control its expression. Anger is unrighteous if we direct it against something good, or if we allow it to get out of control or to control us, or if we use it to express dissatisfaction at not getting our own way.

A scriptural illustration fleshes out the distinction. In Mark 3, Jesus dealt with Scribes and Pharisees who opposed him. Because of their hardness of heart, they interpreted the law in a way that would prevent the healing of deformities on the Sabbath. Jesus plainly condemned this attitude. He became angry and directed his anger at them as he prepared to heal a man with the withered hand:

And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Emphasis added.)

The Lord’s anger arose as a natural response to a difficult situation. It gave him a tool to deal with those who opposed a good act he intended to perform. His anger was righteous in that he directed it against the wrongdoing of the Scribes and Pharisees.

Lopez: Can you really be good and angry at the same time?

Ghezzi: We must not jump to the conclusion that anger is always bad. Often it may trouble us as a problem. But anger is a normal part of our human nature in the same way as our hands, our sight, or our desires. We receive it as a God-given gift designed to help us get through challenging situations. Consider the example of Mike, a student at a state college, a new Christian with a history of problematic anger. One term, he enrolled in an anthropology class and soon discovered that the professor reveled in debunking the faith of religious students. At first, Mike roiled with rage but kept it in control. Then one day he got fed up with the teacher’s ridicule. He blew up and shouted his objections to the delight of both the professor and his fellow students.

After reflection on his bad behavior, Mike resolved to use his anger for good. He decided that when the professor mocked him, he would channel his anger into endurance. He told the other students that he would no longer defend his faith in class. If anyone wanted to talk about religion, he said he’d be glad to speak with them in the student lounge. During the next 12 weeks, the professor did not cease his mockery. Mike still got angry, but he transformed it into endurance. Like Mike, we can be angry and good at the same time.

Lopez: You write that “the Holy Spirit and the body of Christ transform Christians to the core.” How can you be so sure?

Ghezzi: The Church and Scripture teach that when we put faith in Christ we become radically transformed. At Baptism, we enter into Christ’s eternal sacrifice, dying to our old self and rising to a new life. As Saint Paul says, “You have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” The agent of that change is the Holy Spirit that we receive at Baptism, and the transformation that we experience is total and ongoing, affecting our whole being, including emotions such as anger. We can ask the Holy Spirit to help us deal with rage, irritability, or other forms of anger and expect him to help us change our behavior.

Lopez: You write, “Overt expressions of anger are sometimes right, loving, and necessary for Christians. Telling persons about their wrongdoing while letting them know we are angry about it can spur them to repent.” How do we know if we are expressing our anger with love? Is that something everyone should do?

Ghezzi: Love demands the best interest of the other and cannot tolerate the self-destructive consequences of wrongdoing. When someone does something seriously wrong, an angry word that brings repentance may show more love than a word of kindness. Is it a role for everyone?  Sure, we all encounter situations where some correction is needed. And if we do it with anger, we must do it right. We know we are expressing anger with loveif we are sure that we are not acting out of pique or resentment, we are clearly concerned for the good of the person we’re correcting, and we express our anger with control.

Once, a friend asked me to accompany him while he corrected a young man. He patiently and gently presented his concerns, but the young man rejected his advice. Then my friend challenged the man with controlled anger. Even though the man still resisted the correction, the very next day he began to make the changes my friend prescribed. Doctor Benjamin Spock, known for his permissive approach to childrearing, says that a loving parent should express anger when correcting a child, so that the child will know that the issue is resolved.

Lopez: How can anger be our servant?

Ghezzi: We must stop regarding anger as a problem. Rather we should consider anger our servant. A servant helps, and anger can help Christians to always do the right thing. A servant anticipates needs by instinct, and anger ought to serve Christians instinctively, without their having to deliberate about it. When we are learning to apply the three-fold Biblical approach, for a short time we may have to figure out how we are going to respond to anger. But gradually we will be able to react spontaneously with good behavior.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.


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