But in real life, anger is the reaction that incinerates marriages and disintegrates families. It energizes gossip and guns down classmates. It divides churches, turns friendship into enmity, and erupts in road rage. It is the stuff of every form of grievance and bitterness.
— David Powlison, Good and Angry
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
— Letter of James, 3:19-20
This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
— Letter of James 3:15-16
Habits are formed by repetition over long periods of time. Not all habits are good. In my previous post I spoke of the need to evaluate habits acquired during COVID19.
To live under COVID required a change of habits. Those changes seemed abnormal at first. We no longer participated in a spin class on Friday. Our favorite organic restaurant offered only take out. The small group we led no longer met, except by Zoom. Trips to the store required advanced preparation, post-trup sterilization, and waiting in line at Costco for hours.
And then there was use of discretionary time. We are empty nesters. This means we had larger portions of undesignated time.
As we moved into the early stages of sheltering at home (being at the bottom of the risk pool at age 65), we were mostly at home. From home I worked, counseled, “Zoomed”, corresponded by email, made phone calls, and prepared for online worship services. When I went into public spaces, I entered with questions ever before asked – was this clean? Were people wearing masks? How closely together were we?
Each day of my recent years I check out the news and opinion pages. The novelty and mystery of the virus stoked my curiosity. Heightened interest compelled me now to check for the latest every morning and every evening (and some time in between). The latest meant news, blogs, tweets, posts, and data sources. Communication with medical personnel in my own family got thrown into this as well.
Podcasts had been my staple during my regular workouts. With the pandemic I expanded my feeds to include discussions about the virus, public health policy, and government lockdowns.
The weeks turned into months. Flattening the curve turned into stopping infections. Racial unrest exploded. Politics took control of the science and public health debates. “Mostly peaceful protests” burned down private businesses.
Morphing into something else
What had started as curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge became a regular sip of hot anger and bitter name-calling. A few months into this routine I realized I was ingesting a diet of daily tidbits of anger,10 minutes at a time: pundits of indignation, tweets of denunciation, posts of defiance, partisan finger-pointing, texted argument, and spoken cancellation.
I freely acknowledge that my interest in the news may not be the concern of the majority. However, I sensed that lots of people were tracking developments. Like a crowd that forms when a fight breaks out on the street, more and more people were gathering to cheer on their side in the virtual war.
Even some parents of young children whom I knew, people who hardly have the time to do much more than glance at Facebook, were drawn into the competing narratives.
Anger was everywhere.
Then, our most recent grandchild came. After delaying our trip, we looked over the risks of travel, spoke with our MD ad a few others, and decided to make the journey to be of help. During those two weeks of grandparenting, we immersed ourselves in the joy of a newborn and happy play with her older sister. I stepped back from keeping up. Checking in took place once a day, for five minutes. It was an attempted fast from anger.
Guess what? Rage met me just outside the front door of their home. I encountered anger in the grocery store. Following the one-way signs on the floor of the aisle, I turned a corner to come face to face with a mask. On it were these words: “It’s called science, stupid.”
Daily walks confronted us with the sprouting of ever more yard signs. These were different than previous years. Most of them were assertive, resistant, and emotive.
Over the months, my daily keeping up became an addiction. I moved from twice a day to 5 or 6 times a day. Turning off notifications did not help. New habits formed, habits of finding an adrenalin surge in clickbait.
What was the attraction?
It was anger. Our media culture and public life was loaded up with rage: accusations, protests, tearing down statues, anarchy and autonomous zones, political demagoguery, contempt and prejudice.
Contention was everywhere. Virus minimizers and virus maximizers waged war and name called in every media available. Prolonged lockdowns were answered with a fury of resistance. Conspiracy theories erupted, angrily informing us of what was “really going on” — with Big Pharma, with Trump, with Biden, with the Chinese Communists. Of course, media, being a business, exploited the strife for their own revenue. So did others.
Political leaders on both sides used the anger of their mob to gin up support for their ideology. Institutional leaders of the academy and business kissed the ring of the social justice warriors with virtue signaling, cancellation, censorship, and cowardice.
Even the church became a rage machine. Weekly ministry involved dealing with debates between pro-MacArthur and anti-MacArthur, the resistance versus the “sheepies”, absolute freedom of religion and nuanced freedom of religion, masks and anti-masks, not to mention critical race theory (CRT) and anti-CRT.
What started as daily attention to news for the sake of being informed, became the drip drip drip of caustic discord. Sure, I still worked out, did shopping, took walks, spoke with our kids, led worship, and cared for people. But the ground note of my life was becoming negative, and my mood was turning surly or despairing. I had indigestion of the soul.
I reflected on what Scripture says about anger. I looked out at the angry country I lived in.
I realized that anger is powerful because it is rooted in moral clarity. We rage against what is wrong, whether done to ourselves or to others. Such rage seems oh so right, so definitely righteous.
Anger is addictive. It hooks us because it feels so good. It feels good because we are so morally right in our anger.
But anger is poisonous. Self-righteousness sweetens the bitterness with a sense of moral superiority and certitude. Indignation stops our ears to hearing anything that contradicts our conclusions. It makes the whole world and every person in it an enemy or a friend, a moral beast or a saint. Self-righteous anger is condescending and self-congratulating. Angry people act as judge, jury, and hangman.
Man’s indignation and rage do not accomplish justice. Angry people do not love or serve. They destroy. Groups of angry people feed each other’s fury. They become a mob. Mobs do not build houses for the poor. Rather, they maim, assault, cancel, and kill. Just ask the French who lived through a reign of angry people for less than a year, but the memory is etched into their national soul.
Does that sound like much of the USA in 2020? Really, after all the protests, lootings, and demands for justice are we any closer to righteousness? Not at all.
What am I becoming?
There is a theory that the dark dictator Joseph Stalin died of arsenic poisoning. What makes arsenic poisoning so effective is that it accumulates in tiny harmless doses. Apparently, some of his comrades noticed that he wrote lots of letters and licked the stamps when he posted them. By putting a little bit of arsenic on each stamp, they killed him one lick at a time.
Whether this is true or not, the principle is – you can be poisoned slowly. Without intending to, I was feeding on anger. A new habit was rooting itself in my daily life. I wondered, if this continues for five or ten years, what will I become?
What will I do with this habit of ingesting the poison of anger? What habits will form my heart in the years ahead?
Check the diet
First, I have had to evaluate the tone of most of what I read. There’s news, and then there is indignant news. Indignant news is soaked in “whataboutism”, “gotcha” accusations, destruction of property, intimidating people if they speak against the norms of the left, and emotive labeling of opponents (all the phobias and isms). Add to this conspiracy theories, and the tub-thumper who makes allegations about a fraudulent election without having to prove it (and indeed, losing almost every court battle because of the absence of proof).All of these and more have a single aim: to stir the fires of wrath.
Resist the poison
Second, I filter out the angry stuff. Filer is a weak word. In fact, I will have no part of it nor will I allow it to take root in my soul. I am done with it. It is that simple.
Displace the evil with good
Third, most importantly, I am fighting it. By that I do not mean engaging in vitriolic counter arguments. Not at all. By that I mean displacing anger with something good, pulling weeds and planting flowers. Using the Scriptures and prayer I drive back the poisonous vitriol. I find two truths helpful and effective.
God’s justice and man’s rage
Number one is the conviction that God will accomplish justice in the earth in his time and with perfect, impartial, thoroughly factual evaluations. Anger is a response to a moral wrong. One does not fight anger by becoming morally indifferent. I displace human corrupted and destructive anger with the holy opposition of God to all evil.
No one will get away with anything. Every lie will be exposed. Every hypocrisy will come into the light. True motives will be seen.
As Miroslav Wolf says, knowing the God of justice will act then, gives me reason not to mobilize my anger now in the hope of justice. Utopian visions of justice will destroy. God’s anger will cleanse and purify. In its wake will e righteousness and peace.
God’s love and man’s hate
Number two, though more important, is the story of the love of God for angry people. Yes, the message of Christianity is a message that speaks of anger. God is slow to anger and desires to rescue us. While I would certainly have cancelled out people who acted toward me the way we all act to the living God, God acts to rescue us from our anger. His evaluation of the self-righteous anger of humanity is that it is rooted in our anger toward him.
But God, though rightly offended, is good. He chooses to send his Son to bear the sin. He does this by absorbing the angry we bear to him while satisfying his own anger in a sacrifice of himself. He loves the angry and saves the angry from their sin and from his anger.
Contrast God’s way of treating his enemies with the new hell of being cancelled. There is no mercy for those who deserve cancellation. No path of redemption is available.
This is love. Rather than drinking the cup of human indignation news, I will feed my heart with the immeasurable love of God in Christ. Anger cannot stand up against the torrent of the love of God revealed in Christ and at the cross. His love melts the angry heart.
War versus the Anger Machine
God calls his people not to be overcome by evil. Rather, we are to overcome evil with good.
How do I do that? I represent his peace-pursuit in my community. Anger feeds the partisan mob. Overcoming this evil means I seek to diffuse the anger, build mutual understanding, and do good. That God’s people would ever be part of ginning up the “resistance” on the right or the left seems utterly contrary to the God of all grace. I believe God has placed us here to lower the temperature, help people see the truly big issues, and to show respect to those who differ with us. To that end I, as a citizen, have become part of Braver Angels.
This also shows up in how I treat people. The most effective way to kill anger is to pursue love for others. I do not think people can be angry and love the people around them. Angry people do not give help to the needy, nor do they support others as they care for a dying loved one. I want to cultivate love for people.
God’s Love and Good Works
I do not want to become an increasingly angry, partisan, politically wound up man. I have to stop drinking the crack of clickbait. But more than that, I want to root myself heart in the love of God revealed in Christ. We did not love him but he loved us and gave his Son for us. Remaining in touch with his love is a habit that will empower me to resist the raging anger of man and, instead, to serve and do good to others.