By C. Roy Woodruff
Anger is the emotion that is generally most apparent when we try to strike back at the curve balls of life. It is the most difficult emotion to manage since it can be either a time bomb waiting to explode inside the self or a missile directed toward others. Listening to stories from forcibly terminated clergy and their spouses at Ministering to Ministers Foundation (MTM) Healthy Wellness Retreats for Ministers and Spouses has reinforced my awareness that the response of anger is often both appropriate and dangerous. The challenge is to recognize the appropriate use of anger while minimizing the destructive potential of unmanaged anger that can damage the self and others.
Many of us, self included, grew up in a church and/or family environment which disallowed expressions of anger as unchristian and unacceptable. To express anger was considered a sinful act. Such a position,however, is contrary to scriptural teaching throughout both the Old and New Testaments. The book of Habakkuk, obscure though it may be, is a back and forth confrontation between an angry man and a defensive sounding God. While God responds to the angry complaints he does not chastise the man for his anger. The better known character of Job openly expresses his anger at the undeserved catastrophe of his life, much to the displeasure of his friends, but God chastises his friends and acknowledges Job’s integrity. Proverbs cautions against a quick temper but not against anger appropriately expressed, i.e. He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly (14:29). Ecclesiastes adds to this wisdom by stating, Be not quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools (7:9). A classic New Testament verse on anger says Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger (Eph. 4:26). The clear instruction is that it’s possible to be angry and not sin as long as we resolve our anger and do not hold onto it by internalizing it, becoming depressed, or bearing a grudge.
Holding onto our anger blocks access to our spiritual center, preventing healing. The key resources of faith, such as prayer and forgiveness, become unavailable to us when we need them most. Thus, the title of this article: A Response to Anger: It’s Hard to Pray to Heaven When You’re Mad as Hell! Essentially, anger is a response to a perceived threat. We need to understand what the threat is and from where it is coming. For one who is forcibly terminated, this would seem obvious. The threat is the loss of a job and is embodied in those who are leading the charge, whether it’s an infamous “gang of three,” the congregation as a whole, or a bishop in a hierarchal church structure. True, but not so fast. There are deeper threats which are internally triggered by fear to which our anger can blind us. These threats will be there long after the job and the people involved are gone. In The Rage Within: Anger in Modern Life, Willard Gaylin, M.D., helps us understand the complex core of anger and the internal dynamics that can fuel our anger long after the sun goes down. Let’s look at three.
Betrayal – This dynamic is set up by a complete loss of trust in those to whom we have looked to for affirmation and support. The usual response is outrage, connecting at a deep level with primal fears of abandonment and increased by any past experiences in childhood or later stages of life. Response to betrayal can include a sense of worthlessness, rejection, powerlessness, and deception. One may become angry with themselves for having participated in the deception and not recognizing or attending to the signals of deteriorating relationships. Gaylin writes, “Betrayal is capable of generating the most direct and explosive outpouring of anger.” Without adequate management, this explosive anger can be misdirected at one’s spouse, children, and friends. It is the “kick the dog” syndrome, except it usually isn’t the dog that gets kicked.
Humiliation – Being a minister in a religious community is a public and often high profile position. It can be accompanied by a sense of pride in oneself and noted approval by others. Losing that status through forced termination can contribute to public humiliation. Gaylin calls public humiliation “the ultimate degradation.” In Asian cultures, it is called “losing face” and is a profoundly distressing experience that threatens one’s integrity, provoking deep anger. In my observation, in certain cases, it can be compounded by guilt and shame. Guilt may be felt when one realizes that his/her action, or inaction, contributed to this loss. Shame is a deeper and more enduring dynamic that touches the core of the soul, taking longer for the restoration of the self but also hoping for personal renewal and growth when explored.
Grief – I would say that what may be felt as anger is often grief. A pastor in distress over his job once said to me, “I’m beginning to see that what I thought was just anger is basically grief over what has been lost and cannot be regained as it was.” The bad news is that grief can be one of the most deep and painful emotions. The good news is that given time and space, grief does lessen and heal. Anger is clearly a part of the grief equation, but it can fade when we reframe the loss to grief.
There are other dynamics involved in anger. The above three, however, are enough to let us know that while anger is a normal and healthy response to a threatening situation, anger that takes root in our personality garden, like an invasive species, will eventually destroy the health giving, spirit nurturing, and relationship enhancing “species” that are there as part of our inner order ordained by our Creator God. We need to listen to scripture when it says that normal, justified anger is appropriate as a “first responder” emotion to injustice, insensitivity, or unfairness in our life experience, but that we need to manage the
emotion and move beyond it. While anger can initially help us to regain some sense of power, protect our rightful interests, and motivate us to useful action, unresolved anger contaminates our being and becomes a self-destructive rage that limits or eliminates our prayer life. It can cancel our ability to use the gift of forgiveness that can free us and enrich the relationships that matter. Remember Ecclesiastes: Anger lodges in the bosom of fools!
Being “mad as hell” is more than a euphemism. It is a representation of a constricted spiritual state of being that can bring temporary release but long-term deterioration in the physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational dimensions of our lives. We need, therefore, to learn from the emotion, share it responsibly with selected others, let it go, renew our spiritual center, and move on with our lives in God’s grace.
Reverend C. Roy Woodruff, Ph.D., was a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, where he did his graduate study under Dr. Wayne E Oates. He was Executive Director of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors in Washington, DC for 15 years. He served as a member of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation (MTM) Board of Trustees.