The heat rose to my face and the pain started to permeate my entire stomach up to my throat. I couldn’t breathe. My entire body felt hot and numb at the same time. “How could he?” I thought. “How could someone I loved, that loved me, inflict such devastating pain and not be aware of it?” How could there be such absolute lack of empathy? However, I had learned by now that anger is not a sin, but rather how I handle it makes the difference between love and devastation. I walked away, and asked what we can each ask in such a moment, “What am I really angry about? What am I defending?”
Pv24:28-29 “ Don’t speak against someone without a good reason, or you will appear foolish. Don’t say, “You hurt me, so I will do the same to you.”
I’ve learned that anger can be good and loving or incredibly destructive. When I see someone I love making choices that hurt them, I get angry. This is loving anger. I am not angry at them, I am angry at their choices. Yet, destructive anger goes after the person not the problem. Being on the receiving end of this anger can feel like all the love in the world is gone.
I recently watched a loved friend get caught in his own lies and the actions he was not proud of, his unloving and self destructive choices, were exposed. Lies told out of shame and fear of judgment only lead to more lies, shame, blame and ultimately white hot anger. Anger at himself that he then turned on me.
“You may believe in God, but if God’s love is an abstraction, if what you’re really looking for, for your significance and security is people’s approval, or a good reputation, or status, then, when anything gets between you and the thing you have to have you become implacably angry.” – Tim Keller
As I watched the friend I love hurt, and out of his pain, hurt me, I did not retaliate. I knew there was no use. The battle within him was too loud. I knew I had contributed to the pain he was feeling, but I was also aware that there were things there that I could not own.
Pv16:32 “It is better to be patient than to be a strong soldier. It is better to control your anger than to capture a city.”
I wanted to fix what was broken in my hurting friend, even with each blow of bitterness dealt me, but have grown to learn that this is not my role. I could see what he was so desperately trying to defend, but he could not yet see it. I’ve watched him do this before to others. I knew the motions but feeling them on my own skin felt so different. I’ve learned, no matter how much you love someone and desire for them to know God’s love for them, if they do not love themselves and believe that they are lovable just as they are, they won’t believe you. At the end of the day we all choose which voices we will listen to, which wolf inside of us we will feed.
What makes us angry is not what happened to us but what we tell ourselves about what happened. As I sat across from my friend, it hurt to hear him tell the version of the story he was telling himself. A story in which he was the victim, he was not good enough and where I did not love and accept him for who he is. Despite my loving words and actions over two years he would choose to believe the worst of himself and even of me. He chose to believe rumors over the truth of experience.
As I listened to a lesson on the healing of anger by Tim Keller I was so impacted by these biblical truths about anger and love and how connected they are. Keller breaks down anger into three levels that I recognized all too well. As I listened something began to happen, it began to disarm my anger and compassion began to flow into the deep places of hurt. Compassion for the person who had hurt me and for myself. He describes these levels as follows.
Level 1 anger is the day to day stuff that irks us but we let go of because it’s really insignificant in the large scheme of things. Level 2 anger leads to more of level 1 anger as this anger is rooted in betrayals, injustices and disappointments that we have not forgotten or forgiven. This anger breeds resentment toward people to whom we attach value similar to those we didn’t forgive in the past. Lastly, level 3 anger is what Keller describes as low level anger towards life and God. When things don’t go as we would have wished, as disappointments come there is a low level of anger towards life and God that makes it hard to forgive the level 2 and level 1 wrongs.
Anger is at the root of a lot of problems. But the bible offers solution. Keller goes on to describe the keys to being angry well. The first is admitting we are angry. I was hurt that my friend did not trust me enough to admit his anger but rather allowed resentment to build until I was the direct recipient of all of it.
Admitting anger is vulnerable but it’s also the only thing that creates the possibility for reconciliation. When we don’t own our anger we destroy our ability to reconcile. This made me profoundly sad. It made me think of relationships, both romantic and platonic that have grown cold, most likely due to unexpressed anger. Admitting anger is facing pain. If it is level 2 anger, it is not only facing present pain, but also past pain. Admitting anger, as difficult as it can be, helps me to forgive. I am able to forgive what hurt me now, as well as what hurt me in the past. It helps me to detach someone’s hurtful actions from my self-worth and instead turn to God for my affirmation.
Eph4:26 “When you are angry, don’t let that anger make you sin, and don’t stay angry all day.”
It took me a long time to truly internalize that anger is not a sin. Only recently have I started to learn that anger can in fact be loving. Loving anger, as Keller describes, has precision and order to it. Loving anger targets the problem not the person. I’ve learned the art of slow anger over more destructive, explosive anger or no anger. I’m learning to ask, “What am I defending?”
I’ve learned that it’s not about what someone does to me when they are angry but the story I tell myself later about what it means.
Yet, the most powerful lesson of loving anger has been that of turning, not to myself or the other hurting human, but to God instead. The God that loves me even when I am angry at Him. I killed Jesus and God still loves me. He takes the anger I deserve at an infinite cost to himself and he loves and forgives me. This melts my anger. It drives me towards forgiveness, self forgiveness and forgiveness for those who do not know what they are doing in their pain when they hurt me.
When I am softened by the knowledge of how God responded to my rage and anger, than when other people wrong me, I can do the same. I have been wronged, but I wronged God. He responds with immutable love and gentleness that comes at an infinite cost. So I forgave my friend and wished him well. I pray for him and trust that God will lead Him to be able to face his pain one day and release his anger, making space for God’s love and forgiveness.
For more on this topic, check out Tim Keller’s sermon, The Healing of Anger.
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