Habits of the Heart: Anger

Like fear, anger appears to be trending in our time, especially during this overwrought season of looming elections.

It’s no coincidence that anger and fear run together. Both arise in response to threats, real or imagined, and each comes naturally as an impulse to survive. Fear famously evokes the inclination to fight, flee, or freeze, and if you choose to fight, it helps to be angry. Anger gets adrenaline pumping and primes the body for combat in all sorts of ways. Plus, it feels better to be angry than afraid. Anger feels powerful, active, and assertive. Fear feels weak, passive, vulnerable to things beyond our control. No wonder fear metabolizes so quickly into anger.

It doesn’t take much to make some people angry. Any small slight will do, since every offense can feel like a threat.

Several kinds of people are especially prone to anger. Insecure folk are easily threatened, and therefore quick to get angry. Some people use anger to intimidate others, and the more it works the more it becomes their go-to approach for getting what they want. Then there are those who stir up other people’s anger for their own purposes. One result is the long and sorry history of scapegoating, blaming some particular group for the problems we face and taking all our frustration and anger out on them. Demagogues often get elected that way.

Any of these motivations can become a habit, which is why many people seem so habitually mad. “Mad” is an interesting word in this context, appearing as it does at the intersection of anger and insanity. We don’t think straight when we’re furious. “He drives me crazy!” we say, more literally than we realize. Then we apologize for things we say and do under the influence of rage. “I didn’t mean it. “I was just so angry!”

Habitual anger does not bode well for individual health, personal relationships, or democratic society. Chronically angry people are prone to all sorts of ailments, and they’re unlikely to be thoughtful, either in the sense of considering the feelings and interests of others or in thinking clearly about important issues.

Anger can motivate in constructive ways, as when prophets cry out against injustice, but as a chronic condition, a habit of the heart, anger is dangerous. That’s why there are all sorts of warnings about it in the Bible.

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” The letter to the Ephesians sums it up nicely. Momentary anger is unavoidable, and legitimate anger may motivate us to right some wrong. But anger slides into sin when it becomes chronic and takes on the cold, condemning spirit of the “Accuser,” which is another name for the devil.

By contrast, the psalmist describes the Lord as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” If anyone has a right to be angry, surely it is the God who made us and watches us daily making a mess of things. But God is love, and loves seeks reconciliation and redemption. Men and women made in the image of God need to find the grace to do the same.

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