Tithing our anger

November 17th, 2015

Your anger is too valuable to waste.

I will confess, there is something particularly smarmy and preacherly about telling people what to spend their anger on, as if we have a finite supply and must budget it carefully to cover all the outrages of a sinful world. Yet we do make judgments about what is worth our emotional energy, either in expressing anger or inhibiting it. We can use it up. Psychologists call it “ego depletion.”

Dogs often howl at passing ambulances and bark at mail deliverers. You can yell at them to shut up, but they just think you're joining in, and bark all the louder. Yet it is difficult to resist shouting at a dog for doing what is in its nature. It is a feedback loop.

This analogy describes public anger and culture war: meaningless noise made at imaginary threats, and useless appeals to reason with creatures incapable of it. Social media amplifies all: the siren, the howling, and the shouting: red coffee cups, blue and black dresses, illegal immigration, the “gay agenda.”

Of course, in the emotional economy, the things I think are “worthy” of my anger are going to be different than the things someone else believes are a bargain. I save my anger for the predatory lenders exploiting people’s desperation at 400% interest, the private school administrator who kicks out a depressed and bullied teenager because she is a lesbian, and the motorist who just tried to run me off the road because I’m on a bicycle.

Someone else may spend their anger on the cyclist who makes them late to catch the next red light. In their shouted profanity I hear the howling of dogs, the neighing and braying of barnyard animals. My anger, though, is righteous fury. I am ready to call down fire and burn them up (Luke 9:54).

I’m sure someone will object to my use of the word “dog” to describe another human being for whom Christ has died. Truly, God loves all God’s creatures — humans as well as dogs, wolves as well as sheep, even the wolves who dress up in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). God even loves foxes and weasels like King Herod (Luke 13:32), bureaucrats and politicians who use public funds to enrich themselves and their cronies and who prefer injustice to inconvenience. God even loves vipers (Matthew 23:33), religious snakes whose toxic theology poisons people’s souls and ties up heavy burdens for them. God even loves unclean, omnivorous swine (Matthew 7:6) — although Jesus warns that if you try to feed them your precious pearls, they may just tear you limb from limb like a living garbage disposal. (I never lived on a farm, so I had to learn fear of hangry pigs from Deadwood.)

God loves everyone, and Jesus died for all. But, as I’ve indicated with biblical evidence, there are people and situations that are not worth our time and energy. It takes a level of wisdom to discern when to refrain from arguing with a fool according to their folly (Proverbs 26:4) and when to engage them (26:5). If we do not steward our anger, we’ll find that people will nickel and dime us until we have no emotional energy left over for doing justice.

Part of the task of the preacher and prophet is to help people be good stewards: of the earth, of their finances, and of their emotional energy. Directing a community’s healthy anger toward the evils and injustices that break God’s heart is in the preacher’s job description. It is naive to think that princes will willingly and graciously abdicate their thrones. They must be hauled down (Luke 1:52). Yokes cannot merely lifted from the shoulders of tired people. The yokes must be broken (Isaiah 58:6). When we commit in our baptismal vows to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” we are recognizing that oppression comes in many forms, and must be resisted. It will take many members with many different gifts in many different arenas to do God’s justice work. Our anger must be deployed strategically, and we will not all fight the same battles or spend our anger in the same way.

Anger has an important role to play in the life of faith. People who do not admit anger into their spiritual repertoire are living a faith unknown to Jesus or the prophets who preceded him, and unknown to the authors of the Bible.

Yet being good stewards of our anger, as individuals and communities, is an important skill that only comes with practice. Like our money and our time, we become better stewards when we realize our anger is a gift, not meant only for us, but for the ones with whom we are called to share. If we could tithe our anger to those who need it most, if we could spend just ten percent of our emotional energy for the people who are unjustly imprisoned, whose rights are trampled, who live in fear of physical danger, I believe we’d find that God satisfies our hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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