Friday, 26 February 2010

A brief theology of anger

Is Gordon Brown a bully? That is a question that has received a great deal of media attention this week. Is he in the habit of grabbing staff by the collar, shoving them out of way or throwing things across the room? Does he shout, lose his temper and generally intimidate the staff at Number 10 - resulting in several employees phoning bullying help-lines?

It is unlikely that the truth behind these accusations will be easy to ascertain. This FNT article does not intend to explore the allegations to understand what’s true or false. Instead of considering whether or not Gordon Brown needs to book himself into an anger management course, this article introduces what the Bible has to say about anger.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:22,22a) Challenging words! However, later in the book of Matthew (21:12,13) we read of Jesus, overturning the moneychangers tables in the temple – now if that’s not a display of anger I don’t know what is!!

So what are we to make of this? Was Jesus guilty of hypocrisy, saying one thing yet doing another? That would seem unlikely! Instead, it is common for commentators to use these two passages to distinguish between two types of anger - bad anger and good anger. It’s also a distinction that many anger management courses make.

Bad anger is anger that is unreasonable, hateful and often selfish in its origin. Its outcomes can be abusive, violent and usually uncontrolled. It’s the anger of road rage, someone in front of us makes a mistake, no one expects us to be happy about it, but surely it’s unreasonable to get so worked up about it and wrong to think hateful thoughts and shout unkind words. After all, what good does it do anyone? I suspect it was bad anger that Jesus was comparing to murder.

Good anger is the anger that Jesus displayed the day he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. It wasn’t selfish, he was angry because what they were doing was wrong. The motivation behind good anger is pure. It’s not unreasonable, selfish or hateful. However, it’s not simply motivation that is important, it’s also how the emotion of anger is outworked. I would suggest that Jesus’ actions were appropriate, controlled and achieved a positive outcome. Surely it’s OK to be angry when we discover that MPs have been abusing the expenses system. However, that doesn’t mean a hateful and abusive, even violent, response is appropriate – that wouldn’t lead to a positive outcome. When we learn that countless children are dying each day because they are living in abject poverty, anger would certainly seem to be an appropriate emotion. But, what does that anger motivate us to do?

The Bible doesn’t just talk about our anger; it reveals a God who gets angry. Many people seem to have a picture of God that resembles the behaviour that Gordon Brown is being accused of, a God who lashes out when he gets annoyed. That’s not the picture the Bible paints. God’s anger is not unreasonable and random, it’s reasonable and specific – God anger is directed at sin (Romans 2:5-8). We may struggle to understand the ins and outs of the outworking of God’s anger, but we have to trust him, acknowledging his perfection and goodness, accepting that his actions are more appropriate than we can imagine and are leading towards a positive outcome. The Bible certainly reveals a God who is able to control his anger (Psalm 103:8,9). We’d be in trouble if he couldn’t!

Phil Green, Public Theology Research Assistant

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