Mark Twain wrote that anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything into which it is poured. Similarly, Anne Lamott has said that nursing a grudge is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. Both writers are getting at essentially the same thing. Anger, when released from its cage and allowed to run wild, backfires and devours the angry person’s soul.
A few times in my life, I have been hurt deeply by others. Have you? Whether betrayed, stolen from, lied to, gossiped about or bullied, sometimes it feels more natural to cling to anger, to wish ill upon the offending party, and to start fighting fire with fire. It is easy to excuse and exempt ourselves from the biblical command to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us. We replace grace with grudges. We tell ourselves that if we stay angry toward those who have harmed us, we can keep power over them. However, nursing a grudge accomplishes the opposite. Nursing a grudge invites those who have harmed us to keep power over us.
Frederick Buechner agrees:
Anger… To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a King. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.
Like a poisonous berry, resentment goes down tasting sweet. But the sweetness is only momentary. It’s only a matter of time before it starts working against us. To survive, we must find a way to expel the poison, to get the toxic anger out of us.
All forms of anger are not equal, and not all forms of anger are wrong. According to the Bible, it is possible to be angry and loving…furious and full of grace…all at the same time.
Just as there are toxic forms of anger, there are also healthy ones. Rather than steal and diminish life like poison or a wildfire, healthy anger leads to life-giving outcomes. Compelled by love, healthy anger resembles the Spirit’s fruit of patience. It resists the impulse to strike back or seek revenge. It leaves justice to the courts and to natural consequence. It leaves both the discernment and execution of ultimate justice in God’s hands. And yet, where possible, healthy anger is also harnessed to destroy.
Whereas toxic anger destroys the good in order to promote evil, healthy anger seeks to destroy evil in order to promote and protect the good.
This is why the Bible doesn’t merely allow anger; it commands it.
Be angry, and sin not. (Psalm 4:4; Ephesians 4:26)
Many of us were told in childhood, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all!” Truth be told, most of us would rather be around a nice person than an angry person. Nice people are pleasant and unobtrusive. They rarely stir the pot, are easy to please, and are low-maintenance. But nice people aren’t always healthy people. Nice people, in their niceness, can sometimes work against the purposes of God.
Jesus wasn’t always nice.
Sometimes Jesus was the furthest thing from nice.
Once a pastor from Harlem said that the traditional “Sunday School Jesus”—the purely gentle Jesus meek and mild with no fire in his eyes—wouldn’t last more than two hours in his neighborhood.
Jesus is humble, gentle and kind. But Jesus is also a consuming fire who gets in our faces and sets us straight. Sometimes Jesus, not in spite of the fact that he loves us, but because he loves us, puts us in our place.
Jesus got angry.
Appalled by corrupt worship practices and attitudes, Jesus flipped tables over in the temple. The Son of God having a tantrum in church. Can you imagine? He called people names like hypocrites and whitewashed tombs and children of the devil—especially when they used religion to bully and abuse and control people. When Peter, one of his closest friends, tempted him to pursue comfort over faithfulness and power over self-sacrifice, Jesus got so worked up that he called Peter “Satan.” Peering into the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Jesus got madder than a rodeo bull. Death, the wages of sin and the last enemy of those who have been redeemed from sin, infuriated Jesus. When Jesus returns again to make all things new, he will bring his recompense with him, to repay Satan and bullies and perpetrators of injustice for their evil (Matthew 21:12-13; Matthew 23:13-39; Matthew 16:23; John 11:17-44. Revelation 22:12).
In these and other instances, Jesus shows that it is very possible, even God-like, to get steaming mad. He shows that it is possible to lose our cool without losing our character. Sometimes anger, when released from a place of health and love, is a furious force that accomplishes constructive and life-giving outcomes.
When the Apostle Paul wrote, “Hate what is evil, cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9), he was advocating for the healthy, love-driven kind of anger. Hatred toward evil, according to Paul, is a by-product of love for the good. Because we love what is good, we naturally abhor things like abuse, theft, disease, depression and death. We hate injustice, poverty, dishonesty and spin. We hate seeing children neglected, spouses abandoned, the elderly and poor forgotten. And we hate these things, we get angry about them, because we feel protective of the excellent, pure, lovely and praiseworthy things that they threaten and contradict. It’s a holy kind of anger. It’s anger compelled by shalom, the wise and healthy person’s vision for the world as God intended it to be, for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. It the kind of anger that says, “I want more. I want better. I want health, life, goodness, protection, truth and beauty for the people, places and things that God loves…for every soul and square inch that God intends to redeem.”