Andrew D. Lester
Westminster John Knox,
308 pp., $28.95
To live in a world permeated with evil is enough to make you angry. Those we love can arouse deep anger within us as they purposely or unknowingly hurt us. People unleash enormous wickedness and suffering on the world at large, and suddenly we find ourselves sucked into evil's vortex. How should the Christian respond? Is it legitimate to become angry, either over our own pain or the suffering inflicted on others?
At first glance, the New Testament exacerbates the conundrum. Both Jesus (Matt. 5:22) and Paul (Eph. 4:27) teach that anger is inappropriate or at best should be short-lived (Eph. 4:26-27), but both clearly became angry at times (Matt. 22; Gal. 1). Our experience and the Bible both suggest that there is legitimate anger and sinful anger. How are we to distinguish them?
In this book, Andrew D. Lester, professor of pastoral theology and pastoral counseling at Texas Christian University's Brite Divinity School, helps the Christian community reliably navigate the stormy waters of anger, offering a wise and practical "theology of anger."
Too many Christians, Lester believes, have been taught that anger is always sinful. "One friend said that he didn't hear this explicit message from the pulpit, 'but it is what I heard implicitly, a part of the air I breathed [at church] but never named with words directly'—a common report from the Christians with whom I minister." Therefore many Christians, Lester notes, assume that anger is sinful and should be absent from the spiritually mature.
Lester admits that "anger that is expressed destructively toward others, ourselves, or God adversely affects our spiritual journey. Anger's power can destroy our health, our relationships, our community, and our sense of God's presence and grace." Yet Lester argues that the capacity to become angry, an attribute of Jesus himself, is a significant aspect of humanness, rather than sinfulness. That is, when we read the Bible and historic pastoral theology carefully, study Jesus' life, and examine the results of neuroscience research, we will see "that anger has its origins in creation, not our sinfulness … Anger is connected to embodiment and is a basic ingredient in the imago Dei, actually a gift from God." How so?
Lester cites Genesis 1:31, where God blesses creation and declares that "it was very good." Included in God's blessing were "the visceral, affective, emotional aspects of our existence as embodied creatures." That is, before the Fall, human beings had the ability to become angry—a reflection of both their physiology and their moral character.
Lester is more than aware of the distorting effect of human sin on the blessings of creation. He also notes that anger easily becomes a tool for evil, rather than blessing, in a world inhabited by fallen people. Still, Lester insists, anger is a gift in at least three ways.
First, the physiological and psychological ability to become angry prepares "our minds and bodies for actions that contribute to our physical and psychological survival." Second, the ability to "activate our capacity for anger" in appropriate situations continues to protect and preserve our "physical, mental, and spiritual health."
Third, a proper anger—one that reflects Jesus' occasional angry responses to evil—motivates us to speak and act when we may be tempted to remain silent and unresponsive to the vast needs and troubles of a world infected with sin. Happily, positive character traits such as "hope, courage, intimacy, self-awareness, and compassion" are birthed as we exercise a discerning, holy, loving anger.
The key to dealing with anger, then, is to recognize that we possess "the freedom to choose which events will activate our capacity for anger as well as how to express it." Lester insists, I think wisely, that simply expressing anger whenever it surges is as unwise as never expressing it at all. Maturing Christians are those who are able to discern and "decide what makes us angry."
Biblical writers ground the anger of God in the foundation of his love.
"Because God's love is heavily invested in the creation, that love becomes threatened when an aspect of the creation is being hurt or when God's desires for the creation are neglected," he writes. "Thus we may conceptualize God's anger as a response to threats to those in whom God is invested, and for whom he desires abundant life."
Similarly, love will stir anger within the disciple of Christ, particularly in the face of evil. At the same time, love will govern how we display and direct our anger. Apart from the bridling effect of love, anger spills over into self-righteousness and revenge.
As Lester puts it, "If separated from love's guiding light or foundational principles, anger's destructive powers will lead us into unethical behavior even as we try to confront unethical behavior."
Lester has provided the church with a helpful handbook on the nature, purpose, and wise use of anger. In addition, he reminds us all that anger is similar to spiritual dynamite. It is absolutely essential for certain demolition projects, but can blow up in our face if handled haphazardly. Lester's insights may deliver some readers from false misconceptions of anger that have harmed both them, their neighbors, and their enemies.
Christopher A. Hall is professor of biblical and theological studies at Eastern University.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Angry Christian is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More information is available from the publisher.
More on Andrew D. Lester is available on the Brite Divinity School web site.
Elsewhere on the Christianity Today International site is a collection of articles on anger from Christianity Today and its sister publications. Articles published since that page was compiled include:
Hulking Rage | An epidemic of anger at the Cineplex. By Jeffrey Overstreet (Books & Culture, Sept./Oct. 2003)
Wrath Control | Pop psychology teaches that restraining anger will only make you sick. Not according to Jesus. By M. Blaine Smith (Christianity Today, Feb. 12, 2003)
Righteous (and Other) Anger | The author of The Enigma of Anger cannot commit to a "messiah who doesn't knock over tables." (Christianity Today, Nov. 13, 2002)
The Enigma of Anger | Reflections on a sometimes deadly sin. By Garret Keizer (Books & Culture, Sept./Oct. 2002)
Taking It Personally | What do we do with all this anger? By Edward Gilbreath (Christianity Today, Sept. 14, 2001)
Release a Handful of Anger | A simple exercise calms the spirit. By John Trent (Christian Reader, May/June 2000)
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Home delivery of new issues in print with access to all past issues online.
- View the complete archive.
- Join now and get print issues access to archive PDFs.