I was a college student living at a campus ministry house where I served as a student leader. A young woman came to the house one evening having an emotional meltdown. She had had them before. I was more an observer this time as another student attempted to calm her. All I really remember was that I was very frustrated with how this student approached the situation and must have commented within the hearing of my campus minister. After things were resolved, he asked a question that, up to that point, I had never considered and, to this day, have never forgotten: “Why are you so angry?”
If you haven’t noticed, there is a lot of anger in our culture today. It might even be called rage. It’s expressed every day on social media, either toward the government or bureaucrats in general, specific politicians or prominent officials. Toward “right wing” conservatives or “left wing” liberals. Toward pro-lifers or toward those in favor of a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. This anger has become intricately woven into the fabric of the decades-long “culture wars,” where battle lines were drawn broadly around freedom of religion, abortion, healthcare, patriotism, race, and the role of government in our lives. And now another cause for battle has been raised—for the country to remain closed or begin to open up in response to the current pandemic.
Of course, all of these issues are important in the sense of their effects on our lives, and, perhaps as even a stand for justice. But the question put to me by my campus minister all those years ago is quite relevant today: Why are we so angry? Why do many of us feel compelled to unleash our anger in a social media post? How can so many people of disparate positions be so angry, and why?
I do have a sense of justice and fairness when it comes to situations involving me or someone close to me, but I learned a long time ago that my anger was not rooted in that, but in my own insecurities. I was most angry at myself, but it boiled over onto others. As I have matured spiritually, I have made great strides, but I’m not there yet. As Paul declared, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15b) Whereas my anger used to boil over, now it is more of the low, simmering kind. I get frustrated with things, as my wife reminded me this very morning. But it still has the same root: insecurities reflected in perfectionism. I like things to go my way because then life is easier. When things go the other way, then I am confronted with them; they are obstacles to my happiness. So the natural thing then is to get mad. It once was to get really mad, like the time I mistakenly forgot to turn off the water while working on our washer and flooded our kitchen. I took it out on my wife who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wasn’t really mad at her; I was mad at myself, but it boiled over onto her. I was stupid and embarrassed at making such a mistake. Now, I’m just embarrassed by my reaction to it.
I think at the heart of my struggle with anger is the lack of grace toward myself. I couldn’t let myself off the hook for being imperfect, so I took it out on others for their lack of perfection. The more I have grown in grace toward myself, the more I have grown in grace toward others, and the less angry I have become. It has been a long journey which is not yet fully complete, but, oh, how far I’ve come! And the grace I’ve been increasingly able to give myself and then to others is in direct correlation with comprehending more and more how much grace I have received from the Lord when I have been so imperfect and undeserving.
Some might posit that Jesus became angry; so angry in fact that he started overturning tables in the Temple courts. They might also note that Paul expressed anger toward Peter when he began to avoid the Gentile believers out of fear of what his Jewish brothers might think. Both are true, but neither man’s life was defined by anger. It was an exception and very rare. Rather, their lives were defined by the fruit of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23). In the same way, Jesus said the world will know we are his disciples by the love we have for one another. (John 13:35) And, finally, Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. (Matthew 5:44-45) There may be a little room for anger at times, but not all that much, and certainly not what we witness often today from those who call themselves Christians.
This journey all started with a very simple but penetrating question: Why are you so angry? In the heat of the moment, I still try to remember to ask it. I wish more of us did.
© Jim Musser 2020 All Scripture references from the New International Version, 2011.