Anger Management

match Image courtesy Tara Moore,

Robert Fulghum is the writer of folksy essays like “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” In an essay from which he titles another one of his books, Fulghum tells the story of a small-town emergency squad, summoned to a house where smoke was pouring from an upstairs window. The crew broke in and found a man in a smoldering bed. After the man was rescued and the mattress doused, the obvious question was asked: “How did this happen?” The rather dazed and befuddled man thought a moment, then said, “I don’t really know. It was on fire when I lay down on it.”[1]

Today I want to talk about another kind of fire, not struck with a match, but lit on the flint of perceived slight or injustice. It is the fire of anger. Like the man in the smoldering bed, this fire can come upon us unaware, and catch us off guard. We find ourselves in flames, and don’t know how something so small became so big, perhaps can’t even remember how it started.

The apostle Paul was the great spiritual firefighter of the apostolic Church. He not only founded congregations, but also nurtured them through times both good and bad. Since churches are places where human faults come into conflict with spiritual values, Paul did a lot of firefighting. As Paul lays out for the Ephesian Christians some principles for living in unity and peace, he makes the liberating statement: “Be angry, but do not sin.”

Why is this statement liberating, you ask? It is because Paul makes a distinction between “anger” and “sin.” He doesn’t say, “Do not be angry because it is sin,” as if they are identical. Rather he suggests there is a difference between the state of being angry, and the actions that constitute sinful behavior.

Remember that Jesus himself experienced the emotion of anger, most notably in that instance during which he cleansed the temple, overturned tables, and drove out money changers.[2]

Through the centuries, some Gnostic thinkers have denied Jesus’ human nature, and have presented a picture of a rational Jesus, or a docile Jesus, or a Jesus who didn’t really get into human skin and feel the full range of human emotion. But this is a story that makes that picture of Jesus unlikely. Jesus didn’t make a whip of cords simply to fill some spare time. It’s difficult to imagine his instructions untinged by anger. Could Jesus possibly have said in a calm, even tone: “Take thou these things away. Stop thou making my father’s house a marketplace,” or “den of robbers” as Matthew, Mark, and Luke render his words.

Jesus was angry.  And the fact that he was angry frees us from guilt about experiencing the emotion of anger. Anger is a natural human response to stresses that confront us every day. The moral dilemma comes when, in a state of anger, we are tempted to make bad choices.

Anger-induced violence seems to be an epidemic in our time. Even when you put aside the instances of violence borne from severe depression and mental illness, it’s amazing how many seemingly ordinary people end up rendering bodily harm to others following in a way all out proportion to the perceived slight. Shoppers in fistfights over who should go first in a newly opened checkout lane. Sports parents breaking one another’s bones over disputed calls. Recently, we were lined up at a gate to enter a state park, a place of great beauty, and ten cars deep in line someone was blaring his car horn, upset about a short wait, and letting everyone feel his pain.

Experts say that new sources of stress contribute to our anger epidemic. Cellphones and pagers increase expectations that we can be interrupted anywhere at any time. Many of us start our mornings with dozens of e-mail messages that must be processed.   I suppose rage may even seem like a rational response to those expected to cope with a faster pace and larger workloads, stress-enhanced responses to high-stress stimuli.[3]

It’s like the tale Hemingway tells in a short story I read during my vacation, set in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The city is under siege, and the weather is hot. Inside a crowded bistro, a patron points a squirt gun, and surprises a few people with a spray of water. The squirt gun leads to a confrontation, which leads to a brawl, which leads to the shooting death of the man with the squirtgun. After the fact, the café’s manager laments the man’s death. He had been on the way to a wedding, a joyful event during a relatively joyless time for the city. He’d meant the squirt to be a playful joke. But, in the midst of high stress, the joke was taken as an insult, and anger led to murder.[4]

 When we no longer control our anger, when our anger controls us, we suffer. The direction in which we choose to channel our anger makes all in the difference in determining whether anger will be a foe or a friend.

Today, many are remembering what happened in the community of Ferguson one year ago.  As I’ve remembered, I’ve thought again about the example of Martin Luther King, Jr.  When he was fourteen years old, won a prize for a fine essay entitled “The Negro and the Constitution.” He was honored with the invitation to read the essay at the awards ceremony to be held some distance from his home. King traveled with his mother, and it was a long and exhausting day. On the ride back to King’s “Sweet Auburn” neighborhood of Atlanta, some white passengers boarded the already full bus. As was the custom in that time, the bus driver forced King and his weary mother to stand during the final 90-minute stretch. Struck by the contradiction between his speech and this circumstance, and saddened by the insult to his mother, King later said that this was the angriest day of his life.[5]

Whatever else some may think of him, there’s no denying that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a man with an amazing ability to control his anger. When his house was bombed, he said that we must ignore confusion and fear and do what is right. When stabbed by a woman screaming obscenities, with a wound that grazed his aorta, that would require the removal of two ribs and part of his breastbone, King sat back calmly, reassuring others that everything would be all right. When ambushed and pummeled by a convention intruder, he turned to face his attacker, and dropped his arms to his side. Fearing for the man’s life at the hands of an angry mob, he said, “Don’t touch him. We must pray for him.”[6] King was able to channel his anger into the work of non-violent social change, becoming the great champion of civil rights that he was. He was angry, but in his use of that anger, he did not sin.

I don’t underestimate the pressure that many of you face in your daily lives. There are situations that seem to be designed to create frustration, and personalities that seem to receive satisfaction from provoking others. When confronted with injustice and insult, anger is a natural feeling.

During these times, remember that Christ has called you to live on a higher plane. Every circumstance that prompts anger also presents a moral choice. Pray for the inspiration and strength of the Holy Spirit, choose the right kind of response. Be angry, but do not sin.

[1] Robert Fulghum, “It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on it,” New York: Villard Books, 1989, p. 5.

[2] Matthew 21:12-16, Mark 11:15-18, Luke 19:45-47, John 2:13-17.

[3] The problem of rage is analyzed in “Why everyone is so short-tempered,” “U.S.A. Today “ 18 July 2000, sec. A, p. 1, col. 2.

[4] Ernest Hemingway, “The Butterfly and the Tank,” The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, New York: Scribner, 1987, p. 429 ff.

[5] As related in historical photograph display in visitors center, Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historical Site, Atlanta, Georgia.

[6] King’s responses to violence against him are reported in Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning work “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988, pp. 161-62, 201-202, 243-45, 653-655.



~ by JohnH1962 on August 11, 2015.

One Response to “Anger Management”

  1. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.

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