Friday, September 18, 2009

Patient in Each Moment of Anger

If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow. -- Ancient Chinese Proverb

I have been thinking about this phrase ever since I saw it the other day on Facebook. It reflects a profound truth. If we let anger "get the best of us", it will do exactly that, taking away the best of us. But if we are well grounded and willing to walk with anger through the journey of where it might lead us, and if we look for the gift it brings, it may lead not to sorrow but growth.

I don't believe it's wrong to be angry. Anger can be healthy. It can lead us to take up an important cause for change, defend the poor and those who have been wronged, or to speak the truth in love. It can make a human institution or community a better place when it is dealt with openly and directly in appropriate ways. Anger is a gift. It is an emotion God gave us to be used for God's glory. When we are angry at someone, it is an opportunity to help us both to grow.

Yet anger is also spirituality's greatest enemy. It can lead to great brokenness in relationships. A recent children's sermon at our church reminded me that angry words are like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. Once you squeeze it out, it's very hard to put it back. Alternatively, stuffing anger away is not good either. It can overtake the heart and poison the soul. It can lead to a spiraling self-created sense of reality, such as believing that the whole world is against me.

Anger can make the world a better place or it can lead to drive by shootings. The question is not whether we are angry but how we deal with our anger. Unfortunately, many of us grew up in situations where anger was not dealt with appropriately or openly and we have a huge learning curve to become more healthy emotionally. I believe this healing can indeed come from God but for most of us, it is a long journey.

How do we deal with anger in a healthy way? I think it boils down to a few things. First, it's important to be patient with it. Blowing off steam might bring me temporary relief but as the proverb reminds us, it probably will cause some long term consequences. It's important to become a friend of ambiguity and trust the journey. It's not bad to be angry and maybe we need to wrestle with it for a while rather than trying to find the nearest lightening rod.

Second, it's important to take our anger to God. God knows our pain, so why are we so afraid to lay it before God's healing light? This is an important step. There are wonderful scriptural examples of wrestling with God and taking our true emotions to the throne. Prayer needs to move deeper because of anger.

Third, it's important to see anger as a gift for our learning. God gave it to us. What can it teach me? It is tempting to think we are the ones that are going to teach someone else a lesson. But if we are unwilling to learn from anger, and if working through it doesn't change us, we are not trusting the gift it brings. God gave it to me for a reason.

Fourth, it's important to deal with anger directly and lovingly. Perhaps the "lovingly" part probably can't happen until we've been through the first three steps. I think there's a reason "honesty" is not one of the fruits of the Spirit Paul lists, because how we express anger is of utmost importance. The scripture reminds us to "speak the truth in love." In Matthew, Jesus reminds us in a conflict to go to the other person directly and if that doesn't work, to take someone with you and continue the journey.

It is much easier but much less healthy and productive to triangulate others. Instead of talking with the person we are angry with, we pull somebody else into the drama. We talk about people rather than talking to people. This usually leads to pain and rarely solves the problem.

How can we become more patient in each moment of anger?