Author: Rev. Russell Smith, Madeira-Silverwood
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:4-7)
“[Love] is not irritable or resentful.”
Irritation and resentment are nuanced variations on the core emotion of anger.
Anger is a tough subject. It is a basic human emotion. Generally, anger is a reaction to a situation where we feel wronged. It stirs up energy so that we can meet the perceived wrong. When we are angry we feel alert, alive, and poised for action. Anger makes us feel powerful.
And anger can get addictive. In the moment, the energy release of anger feels good. It is easier to mindlessly indulge the reaction of anger than it is to question our perception of events. Over time, anger can become our default response to any situation that is frustrating, uncomfortable, or challenging. As it becomes our default response, it settles down into our persona as instinctive irritability and a reflexive resentment.
There are great dangers to this kind of addiction to anger. It creates emotional havoc for the people we care about. It creates new conflicts where they didn’t exist before. It drives people away from us and fosters isolation, which then further feeds our anger and resentment.
These dangers are why the Bible warns against unhealthy use of anger:
“In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27)
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. ” (James 1:19-20)
“Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.” (Proverbs 29:11)
“Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.” (Psalm 37:8)
What then are we to do with anger?
One misguided approach is to try to make it go away. This involves denying the anger and trying to cover it up behind a veneer of niceness or stoicism.
The problem with this approach is that all the energy of anger must be released somehow. If we try to deny the anger, then that energy turns inward and eats us up inside. Unaddressed anger calcifies into resentment which often manifests in physiological symptoms (like high blood pressure and heart attacks), avoidant and addictive behaviors, or sometimes numbness and despair.
The real problem is not the feeling of anger, but rather, how to act upon it in a loving way.
Scripture teaches that the loving response to our anger is first to express anger to God in prayer. I know that may sound strange; we think that prayer is only about thanksgiving and praise and gratitude. However, prayer is also about entrusting our whole lives to God. That includes our anger.
The psalms give us a picture of this. Psalms teach us how to pray authentically. Many times in the psalms, we see David expressing his anger and asking for God to act. Take for example this selection from Psalm 35
“Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and armor; arise and come to my aid. Brandish spear and javelin against those who pursue me. Say to me, ‘I am your salvation.’ May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay. May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away; may their path be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them. Since they hid their net for me without cause and without cause dug a pit for me, may ruin overtake them by surprise— may the net they hid entangle them, may they fall into the pit, to their ruin.”
A key thing to note is that in the prayer, David entrusts his anger to the Lord. David doesn’t act in anger, but rather asks the Lord to act on his behalf. Put another way, the psalms of King David teach us to vent our anger to the Lord so we don’t vent our anger out on other human beings.
Try it sometime. When you feel anger heating you up from inside, get away from the person you’re angry with, go take a long walk, and while you’re walking tell God how angry you are with that person. Have an honest conversation with God.
But then listen. Listen to the still small voice within. Listen to the nudge of the Holy Spirit.
When I have practiced this prayer of venting anger to God, I have often received a gentle reminder to consider the position of the other person – what they are going through and their life experience? In those moments, I find God nudging me to consider that maybe the other person was having a bad day or they were doing the best they could.
Sometimes, God suggests that I might be angry at something imaginary. It’s really easy to assume we know what other people are thinking or intending. We read between the lines of what they say and we wind up conjuring a nonexistent scenario in our minds. From time to time, God reminds me that I’m not very good at mind reading, so I should just take things at face value.
After expressing your anger to God, you may still feel some burn. That’s where Jesus’s teaching helps us release anger:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
Try praying for the person you’re angry with. Specifically, pray blessing for them. If you just can’t bring yourself to do that, pray that they would grow in the fruit of the spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22-23. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” If the person you are angry with is growing in in these qualities, then your problems with them will disappear.
When I have practiced praying for those with whom I’m angry in this way, I’ve found that God subtly redirects my thinking. My attention moves off the person I’m angry with and moves to God who works in the world. This shift in what I’m paying attention to changes my thinking completely. Unexpectedly my prayer of anger shifts to a prayer of gratitude for God’s great works.
And that is a third way prayer helps us release anger to become more loving: gratitude. Gratitude displaces anger. Regularly committing to a practice of prayers of gratitude will inoculate our minds against selfish anger.
Give it a try – for 21 days, end each day by writing down 5 things for which you are grateful. Physically write them down, don’t just rehearse them in your mind. The act of writing focuses your mind more upon the practice. Then use that list as the basis for a brief prayer of gratitude in the evening before you go to bed.