Why I can’t stay angry (even though I want to)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Sometimes I get angry. 

I get angry when a young woman describes what it felt like to watch men stand up and leave the sanctuary when she approached the podium to give her first sermon. I get angry when evangelical leaders show more concern for protecting the powerful at Sovereign Grace Ministries than protecting vulnerable children. I get angry when my most reasoned arguments are dismissed as “emotional” and “shrill” or when people question my commitment to my faith because I accept evolution or support women in ministry. I get angry when confronted with Jamie Wright’s real talk about the sex trade in South East Asia or when a young gay man cries into my shoulder as he recounts being turned away from his church.

I get angry when I overhear people at a restaurant talking about how they hope the verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case will “teach those people to show some respect.”(Yes, this happened.)  I get angry when, like Paul, “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."

(And it’s not just noble stuff either. You should see me when we lose our internet connection.)  

I don’t think  anger is inherently wrong. Anger is part of what it means to be human, to be empathetic, to be engaged, to recognize sin for what it is, to be tenderhearted and vulnerable,  to be awake in this world. Throughout Scripture we encounter a God is angered by injustice and the neglect of the poor.  Jesus expressed anger at those who exploited the poor and vulnerable, who harmed children, and who “shut the door to the Kingdom in people’s faces” through religious legalism and exclusion.   As N.T. Wright has said, “To deny God’s wrath is, at bottom, to deny God’s love. When God sees humans being enslaved… if God doesn’t hate it, he is not a loving God.”  

We are right to be angered by inequity and injustice, whether inflicted upon ourselves or on other people. And we have to be very careful of telling other people—particularly those in the process of healing— when they ought to be angry, when they ought to forgive, or when they ought to “move on.” 

But if Jesus is our example, if being fully human and fully God looks like this carpenter from Nazareth, we know that the evil within ourselves and in this world cannot be conquered by hate but must be overcome with love. 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” Jesus says in a particularly annoying part of the Sermon on the Mount, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."

I struggle with this….like, big time. 

A skeptic who is prone to cynicism, and a contemplative who is prone to indulgence, I find myself sinking into a state of bitterness from time to time. I lose hope—in myself, in others, in the Church, in God.  I forget that we know the ending to this story and that it involves a lovely bride and a big banquet, and instead I assume the worst of other people, expecting the worst from this world.   

But I know from experience that bitterness weakens a strong argument. 

It breaks down dialog. 

It gets in the way of change. 

It weighs me down. 

Anger, I think, is meant to wake us up, to provide clarity and direction. It’s meant to be a starting point, the gun that sounds at the start of a race, a catalyst. 

Bitterness lulls us back to sleep. It paralyzes us with “why bother?” and “it’s no use.” It grabs us like a rip tide and pulls us away from shore. Eventually, it drowns us. 

As a wise friend recently said, “Anger is suppose to be a flash fire that burns away the chaff and leaves clarity in its wake. To linger in anger or to make anger and wrath the first choice response is to burn out the humanity within you.”

I recently bumped into a fascinating article about how Martin Luther King Jr. processed and harnessed his own anger, which was certainly justified and certainly real. The article, written by Hitendra Wadhwa back in January, is entitled “The Wrath of a Great Leader,” and it quotes extensively from Dr. King’s autobiography. 

Recalling a particularly frustrating negotiation around the bus boycott in Montgomery, Dr. King wrote that “on two or three occasions I had allowed myself to become angry and indignant. I had spoken hastily and resentfully. Yet I knew that this was no way to solve a problem. 'You must not harbor anger,' I admonished myself. 'You must be willing to suffer the anger of the opponent, and yet not return anger. You must not become bitter. No matter how emotional your opponents are, you must be calm.'"

When his home in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed by white extremists, he wrote: "While I lay in that quiet front bedroom, I began to think of the viciousness of people who would bomb my home. I could feel the anger rising when I realized that my wife and baby could have been killed. I was once more on the verge of corroding hatred. And once more I caught myself and said: 'You must not allow yourself to become bitter'."

“You must not allow yourself to become bitter.”

I’m writing that on a sticky note to put above my desk as we speak. 

Dr. King didn’t tell his followers not to be angry. He told them to turn their anger into constructive (nonviolent) action.  In a 1968 article he said, "The supreme task [of a leader] is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force."

 Or, as Ghandi famously said, "I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power that can move the world." 

As Christians work to find our prophetic voices in this culture, as we engage the world and one another in areas of disagreement, we must take these words to heart. Like it or not, we are called to a higher standard; we are called to forgive, to be peacemakers, to extend grace to those who don’t deserve it. 

And even as I type those words I don’t want to do it—not for Mark Driscoll, not for the folks defending Sovereign Grace, not for those jerks at the restaurant. 

I’ve been thinking lately that the hardest part of fundamentalism for me to leave behind is the part  that equates rightness with righteousness, the part that makes "winning" the goal. 

Because I like winning arguments. 

No, I LOVE winning arguments. 

No, if I could marry winning arguments and cuddle with winning arguments every night while we watched ’30 Rock’ reruns together, I probably would. 

And yet I feel God’s presence most profoundly when I give up—not on making the argument,  but on winning it. I know God’s love with more certainty, not when I’ve proven it, but when I’ve experienced it and when I’ve extended it.  I find the most peace when like Dallas Willard I “practice the discipline of not having to have the last word.” 

It’s possible, I suppose, to win an argument and lose your soul. 

Jesus said we are to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, and that bugs me because I like people to know I’m wise, that I’m not some naïve girl they can toy with, and I’ve convinced myself that the only way to prove my wisdom is to strike with venom in my teeth, to cause pain. 

But Jesus doesn’t say we are to be naïve. He doesn’t say we are to be stupid as doves or naïve as doves or obnoxiously cheery as doves (no offense to doves here). He says we are to be harmless as doves.  So if I’m going to become this awesome Jesusy-snake-dove creature, I guess I’m going to have to find something else to do with all this venom….like donate it to the antidote bank or something, as snakes do. 

After all, the words Jesus promises at the end of this journey aren’t “Congratulations! You were right!” The words Jesus promises at the end of this journey are, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” 

Good. Faithful. Angry. Hopeful. Wise.  Harmless. Cunning. Gentle. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not telling you not to be angry. You may be in an important season of healing in which anger is healthy and important and necessary for growth. 

And I’m certainly not telling you to stop making the case for justice—for women, for LGBT people, for the poor, for the marginalized, for the abused, for yourself. 

I’m telling you why I can’t stay angry, even though sometimes I want to. 

I can’t stay angry because it debilitates me. It makes me unhappy and it makes the people around me unhappy. 

I can’t stay angry because I genuinely believe change is possible, and so I need to practice seeing that capacity for change in myself, in the Church, in those with whom I disagree, even in my enemies. Only then can we draw it out together. 

I can’t stay angry because on good days I believe that love wins. 

And I can’t stay angry because even on bad days I can’t get rid of the stubborn hope that maybe someday this little mustard seed of faith in me will grow into a tree after all. 

Pope Francis recently told the enormous crowds who had gathered in Rio for World Youth Day, “You are often disappointed by facts that speak of corruption on the part of people who put their own interests before the common good. To you and all, I repeat: Never yield to discouragement, do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished.”

Reminds me of Jesus' words, "Do not let your hearts be troubled."  

I’m not telling you not to be angry. 

I’m telling you not to give up hope. 


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