The Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and Counseling
By Andrew D. Lester (Westminster John Knox Press 2003, 2007)
Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice. And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you." Eph. 4:31-32
The Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and Counseling is one in a genre of books that has appeared in recent years determined to sanitize anger by redefining and stripping it of all its nasty bits. While it is written from a pastoral theology perspective and is designed to take anger off the list of Seven Deadly Sins, many of its assumptions and conclusions pose problems for me as a Christian clinical psychologist.
Andrew D. Lester, the author, explores many aspects of anger and concludes by suggesting that "good Christians should be angry" so that they can "resist evil, confront injustices, or protest radical suffering."
This is troubling, especially in a world that has over-reached itself in anger. And before anyone rushes to explain that this anger is for social, not personal, injury, let me hasten to say that it was not anger but forgiveness offered through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that saved South Africa, my birth country, from a bloody holocaust.
At best, The Angry Christian helps to relieve the guilt of those who are angry at the world around them; at worst, it reinforces the belief that one can remain angry as long as one believes that the anger has a "just" cause.
At the outset let me say that I fully endorse a number of Lester's assertions. The underlying premise that the emotion of anger is not sin, in itself, comports with Ephesians 4:26"In your anger, do not sin," and I have preached this for most of my life. The feeling of anger is merely a signal alerting you to a violation that has occurred. It is what you do with it that matters and could lead to sin.
The Angry Christian makes some problematic assertions about whether anger is good for us. Even our "sanitized" anger elevates blood pressure, increases cortisol, affects the immune system, and increases the risk of heart disease. If it doesn't, then it isn't anger. Laboratory experiments have shown that even subtle forms of anger, well below the threshold of aggression, can impair problem solving and learning. Woe betide our children if they are encouraged to become angry Christians.
Anger is often treasured as a virtue. We think of it as the springboard to justice and the path to honesty. It is a sad fact that people have often got to be made angry at some injustice in order to get them to act to remove it. But there is nothing more destructive.
Lester writes at length of the effectiveness of anger in promoting social change, but psychologists who have to contend with the consequences of prolonged anger arousal disagree.
Anger's main function is to help us when we are in a desperate back-against-the-wall, physical fight where our lives or the lives of the ones we love are in danger. But how often are we in such a situation?
When we're angry and not in a physically life-threatening situation, anger tends to be a disorganizing emotion. We get too intense. We say things we want to take back later. We hurt the ones we love. Malachy McCourt is credited with having said, "Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die."
The work of Carol Tavris (another resource neglected in The Angry Christian) clearly shows that the ventilation and catharsis of anger often amplifies the emotion by rehearsing it rather than releasing itacting angry reinforces anger. Indignation at injustice does not have to sustain an angry state of arousalbut let's call it indignation, not anger!
The Angry Christian mistakenly supports the view that being made in the image of God gives us the right to be angry. Such an approach relies on the assumption that being made in the image of God means we have been created to imitate God in every aspect of his nature.
God himself says: "I will not carry out my fierce anger For I am God, and not manthe Holy One among you" (Hosea 11:9). With these words, he puts a long distance between his anger and ours. Like it or not, "the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God" (James 1:20, KJV).
As with many books in this vein, The Angry Christian turns to the concept of "righteous anger." He believes that "In many situations, anger is the most loving and, therefore, the most Christian response."
Not in my life or those around me! I can think of scores of people who would jump at this idea just to take out their revenge on others.
Stehan W. Hinks addressed such thinking by writing, "Our hearts and minds are deceptive, and we need to think at length through this issue. Can we not deceive ourselves into validating our angry response by believing it has a righteous cause?" Yes, we can.
Anger is necessary for our survival, and I thank God for it. But I have to constantly be aware of its unreliability and distortions. As with sexuality, we have to learn how to control it and express it in healthy ways. Only when I am acting righteously can its expression be good.
Dr. Archibald Hart is dean emeritus and senior professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary Graduate School of Psychology.
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A review of the first edition of The Angry Christian, The Gift of Anger, praised Lester's acceptance of anger.
The Angry Christian is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote that anger is often a mask for mere self-righteousness.
Other articles on anger include:
Righteous (and Other) Anger | The author of The Enigma of Anger cannot commit to a messiah who doesn't knock over tables. (November 18, 2002)
Wrath Control | Does restraining your anger make you sick? Not according to Jesus. (February 1, 2003)
To Russia with Fury | Sometimes charity means anger. (October 9, 2006)