Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Anger Management

The topic of anger came up recently....I lost my temper.  And what usually happens happened: the strange mixture of yelling and silence, the pacing back and forth, the attending to tasks one wouldn't otherwise think of doing, the seemingly clever repartee, the flashing of probing looks, and the tense waiting for all of it to work its magic to persuade the other person to capitulate.  It was all a bunch of nonsense I should have outgrown years ago, because as always with such outbursts of anger, the person I was really angry with and who really needed to capitulate was myself.

There is valid righteous anger, where one is angry out of a genuine concern for the welfare of the recipient and the healthy restoration of all relationships involved.  It was with righteous anger Jesus overturned the money-changers' tables in the court of the Gentiles in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus was genuinely concerned for God and His relationship with us.  The very things meant to turn us back to God for needed mercy the church officials exploited to line their pockets--officials such as Annas who would quite soon delight in the crucifixion of Jesus.  And all of this was going on before the eyes of Gentiles--perhaps some who had come seeking the one true God--many who likely turned away in disgust at this spectacle of hypocrisy.  Jesus was angry, and He had every right to be so.  But He didn't use anger as a weapon for self-promotion, nor did it devolve into one.  Jesus' love for God, the observers and even those guilty parties was too deep for that.

Genuine righteous anger never becomes all consuming because its motive is love.  Unfortunately, even righteous anger can turn ugly in inexperienced hands, which pretty much encompasses all of us.  The fact of the matter is the most diabolical weapon wielded by those pursuing self-interest is "being right".

The anger Jesus expressed that day just before Passover two thousand years ago was righteous and rare--not the kind of anger most often consuming us, and certainly not the anger I allowed myself recently.  Jesus speaks to this far more common unrighteous anger in His so-called Sermon on the Mount.  Here's what He had to say, "You heard that it was said in ancient times, 'You will not murder.' Whoever murders will be liable to judgment.  I say to you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever says to his brother, 'brainless!', will be liable to the Sanhedrin [a judiciary body in Israel]; whoever says, 'Fool!' will be liable into hell."

Much could be said about this powerful teaching, but for the present I would have us observe one thing. If left unchecked, unrighteous anger will always escalate to some form of murder, be it literal killing--as in the case of Cain murdering his brother Abel--character assassination, or some variant of cruel subjugation of the recipient.  And for this reason the escalation leading to this end is a step-wise dehumanization of the recipient.  This is why Jesus teaches that the judgment becomes progressively more severe as one continues to vent one's anger with increasing venom; it is why one can with cold indifference, turn away from one's spouse after one's finished, or leave him or her devastated, or in thankfully rare situations, easily pull the trigger of a gun.  Because we have--perhaps without realizing it--dehumanized the other person to the degree he or she becomes in our mind nothing more than an object to be vanquished.

When we approach arguments by seeking to manipulate the issues, the presentation of the issues, or in any way intimidate the other person, we are in effect dehumanizing him or her.  This is why such arguments end badly and will raise themselves up again at some later time with a renewed and well-fed vengeance.

In order to avoid these unpleasant fates, we would do well to execute a little bit of anger management.  Unfortunately, in the heat of anger it is often too difficult to be objective because that's the way unrighteous anger possesses us.  We should try anyway, and if we can't, we should later, after we've cooled down, seek to understand what made us angry in the first place.  I'm telling you, 99.99% of the time it's because we were really angry at ourselves for some reason such as we decided for some self-serving motive not to do something we should have.  And instead of owning up to it we attempt to cover up our guilt by becoming angry with the disappointed person, and it quickly goes downhill from there.

When we discover the origin of our anger--regardless of what it might be--we need to reconcile with the other person so that the specter of dehumanization flees, and relationships are restored.  This is why the very next thing Jesus says is, "If, then, you present your gift upon the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and first go, be reconciled with your brother, and then upon returning, present your gift."