Column: Our Problem with Anger

By Drew Williams

I recently came across a statistic that 80% of drivers admitted to having some type of road rage during the course of a year. This included behaviors such as blocking drivers from changing lanes, purposefully running drivers off the road, and even using weapons to cause harm to a person or vehicle. Furthermore, 50% of drivers admitted to resorting to rude gestures, shouting and aggressive driving in reaction to another driver doing that to them (which I guess could mean that 50% of us started it!).

The most aggressive drivers in the U.S. traverse the streets and highways of Miami, Florida. To this “claim to fame” the City of Miami responded ambiguously, “Miami has a very diverse, dense population, including a large community of senior citizens who have a very different driving style from younger drivers.” Rounding out the list of top five cities are New York City, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. At the other end of the spectrum is the city with the most courteous drivers: Portland, Maine. I was curious about what distinguished the good people of Portland from the fray, but, alas, my hopes were dashed. The Washington Post covered a news story that went viral surrounding some “diner rage” at Portland’s now infamous Marcy’s Diner. It appears that the Diner’s owner threw food containers at a father whose two-year-old daughter was behaving as we all know hungry two-years olds can, with the commentary, “Either she goes or you go!”. So, what are we to do with all of this anger?

Jesus famously said the following as part of a teaching referred to as the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:22). How reasonable does this sound? How doable is that? Does my inability to “keep calm and carry on” bar me from the abundant life that Jesus is offering?

What Jesus is inviting us all into is a life in abundance that is actually more profound, much more positive and deeply personal. What Jesus was doing was exposing a very superficial understanding of God’s commandments. Jesus had prefaced his “But I say to you…” with “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21).

The deeper application of the prohibition not to kill is much more profound. There is, if you like, a curve that leads to murder. Of course, we should not murder (I believe we can all agree here) but God is equally interested in everything that appears on that curve before it gets to causing physical death. Within the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is talking about the unrighteous anger of pride, vanity, hatred, malice and revenge. These are the things that matter to God when He said, “You shall not kill…” The deeper question is: What is the true state of your heart? How do you react to things that happen? Do you find yourself flaring up into a raging temper when a person has done something to you? Do you feel anger against a person who has done nothing against you? And what do you do with that anger?

Jesus didn’t just limit it to feeling angry. Again, his message was: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” The word “fool” used here comes from Aramaic word “Raca” and means “empty.” Empty-headed, block-head or bonehead would give us the modern idiom. It is also possible that Jesus was referencing the Greek word for “fool” that expresses contempt for someone’s heart or character. The point is that there is more than one way to kill someone! Anger and insults are ugly symptoms of a desire to get rid of someone who stands in our way. We may not have literally killed someone, but it is not so unusual that we “murder” one another in our hearts and minds. We can cold-bloodedly kill someone’s reputation. We can snuff out somebody’s confidence by unkind criticism. We can conduct a kind of character assassination by deliberately looking for fault. We know that it is possible for our flesh to get out of bed on a Monday morning and carry on while inside our spirit can be broken by the angry words and actions of another. The evidence is all around us.

The writer Norman Vincent Peal described such an instance: “Once walking through the twisted little streets of Kowloon in Hong Kong, I came upon a tattoo studio. In the window were displayed samples of the tattoos available. On the chest or arms you could have tattooed an anchor or flag or mermaid or whatever. But what struck me with force were three words that could be tattooed on one’s flesh: ‘Born to lose.’ I entered the shop in astonishment and pointing to those words, asked the Chinese tattoo artist, ‘Does anyone really have that terrible phrase, “Born to lose”, tattooed on their body?’ He replied, ‘Yes, sometimes.’ ‘But,’ I said, ‘I just can’t believe that anyone in his right mind would do that.’ The Chinese man simply tapped his forehead and said in broken English, ‘Before tattoo on body, tattoo on mind.’ Words have the power to break our spirit and kill our sense of worth.”

So, is it enough that I simply try as hard as I can to refrain from anger? Do I grip the wheel of my car on Greenwich Avenue and think happy thoughts? And if Jesus himself got angry from time to time, then how on earth am I expected to suppress my true feelings? Next week I want to attempt to respond to these questions and open up the beautifully positive nature of Jesus’ teaching and the grace in it all that is deeply personal.