Dare I say it? I am not the person I thought I was. Dare I admit it? I’ve done things lately I’m not proud of.
I thought I was a patient person, that I was self-controlled. But in the shadow of the coronavirus lockdown, a creature has emerged from the undergrowth, and it’s not a virus. It’s a tiger with a toothache.
Suddenly I’m madder than ever before, angry with the people I love most. What’s up? Sin? Yes, but why this sin? Why such anger at this time? Why has lockdown sparked meltdown on an unprecedented scale?
Why Are We Angry?
I’m not alone. Friends have admitted they’re not only isolating from outsiders, but also from each other, in-house, lest they go crazy. Maybe the Lord is doing something good at present, revealing things about us, exposing junk. Perhaps he’s revealing the fullness of himself, even in the midst of our struggles.
Plans thwarted make us angry. I had plans; you interrupted them; now I’m angry. Plans undone can be frustrating and coronavirus has done that—big time. But what about those times when someone zips in front of your car after you’ve waited 10 minutes to get onto the freeway? This exposes anger of a different kind. I’m angry because that driver slighted me. He’s really saying, “I’m so much more important than you that I shouldn’t have to wait.” And now we (secretly) hope for vengeance. Maybe he’ll get pulled over by a trooper. Maybe they’ll get a flat.
Where does this end? In rage! And suddenly a light flashes into the dark caverns of my soul. We are not as we should be.
What causes anger? It’s complicated, isn’t it? Of course! And we can’t possibly cover everything here. But what I’m hoping to do, at least, is to prod and poke into the specifics of what Scripture says about the roots of anger, because here we find exposure of what is ugly, but also of what is beautiful.
What Scripture says about the roots of anger exposes what is ugly, but also what is beautiful.
David Konstan, in his brilliant 2006 book The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, notes that we have inherited much from Charles Darwin when it comes to thinking about emotions. For Darwin, things were external and irrational. This is the outlook we have tended to adopt.
But as Konstan notes, emotion generally––and anger in particular––has more to do with perceived motives of others, and also their positioning in regard to us. If a woman is shoved in the back, she may feel either mad or thankful, depending on circumstances and perceived motives. If shoved because she hasn’t shuffled forward in a grocery line, she will be rightly livid: “How dare you touch me!” But if she was crossing the street and someone saved her from a passing car, she would be overwhelmed with thankfulness.
What was the root of anger in the eyes of the ancient Greeks? For Aristotle, a main cause was a person’s perception of herself and how others viewed her. Anger comes when you feel slighted that another has placed himself above you. At this point, Aristotle says, we become infuriated, and we then long for the pleasure of seeing the other lowered.
How does Scripture compare? It matches well, at least to start with. Why is the wrath of God being revealed, according to Romans 1:18–32? Because puny humans are treating God, the Creator, as if he were less than they—an image of mere animals, birds, and creeping things. Why was the king in Matthew 18:34 enraged when the forgiven servant failed to forgive? On one level, it was because the servant fancied himself as superior even to the master. Why was the master angry at the guests who turned down his invitation to feast in Luke 14:21? They considered their own business more important than his, and so despised him. And why was the older brother angry—refusing to join the feast––in Luke 15:28? He was indignant that the younger brother, living life below him, had suddenly been honored above him.
All this, I think, shines a spotlight on the dark recess of our souls, especially in the context of lockdown. Why should my children bother me, why should my roommate interrupt me, when he or she could bother a “lesser person” in the house, like my wife or another occupant? Am I not far more important than these people? Is not my time most valuable? And so the blackness of our souls is revealed.
The subversive message emerging over and again is that God is love. He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger.
But what do we really learn from Romans 1 or Matthew 18 or Luke 14 or Luke 15? Each story has a deeper narrative of a God who starts or finishes in ways that push contrary, where possible, to anger—indeed, that push toward mercy. He was the one who forgave the man’s monumental debt. He was the one who invited nobodies to his feast. He was the one who welcomed the younger brother back like a king.
The subversive message emerging over and again is that God is love. He is gracious and compassionate, and unlike us he is slow to anger (Neh. 9:31; Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Ps. 86:5, 15; 103:18; Joel 2:13). And in his Son he has offered forgiveness and life forever, for all who will humble themselves and run to him.
Putting Others First
As I am coming out of lockdown, I’ve been challenged to think what I can learn. Rather than simply thinking, Oh well, that season’s over,” what can I gain from it?
Here’s my answer: others have dignity, too. Others are just as important as I am. And isn’t this scriptural?
In humility count others more significant than yourselves. . . . Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant. (Phil. 2:3, 5–7)
The very act that brought salvation teaches us in other ways, too.