God wired anger into our emotional DNA to connect us to his righteousness, and it can be a purifying fire that causes us to address injustice and fuel holy change. Healthy anger accomplishes that work – emphasis on the word “healthy”. But we live in a culture where unhealthy anger seems to be in the very air we breathe. It corrodes relationships, distorts communication, and destroys lives. Those of us who are church attenders may have picked up some other messages about anger that may seem at first to be countercultural, but are equally destructive: “Old Testament God got angry and wiped out sinners, but New Testament Jesus was always peace-loving except that one time he turned over the tables in the Temple.” These kinds of assumptions are not only theologically inaccurate, but also communicate practically that the best way to deal with anger is to either deny you’re feeling it or to view it as a sin.
I believe epic proportions of corruption in Christian quarters are being cultivated and condoned by irascible Christians who have a Stoic view of anger, not a Christian view of anger.
Stoicism is a philosophy that says anger is always wrong. It sees anger as unreasonable and useless. But Stoics have no passion for Jesus Christ. What impetus do Stoics have to clear out the temple of God? Why should a Stoic care if thieves and money changers turn a Christian organization into a business that sells anti-Christian products? What is to a a Stoic if a Christian institution self-destructs? Why be outraged if religious corporations appeal to religious defenses to hide religious corruption? What’s the big deal, from a Stoic perspective, if God’s name is thereby taken in vain?
They don’t see their culpability because they’re patting themselves on the back for not being angry.
Dr. Sarah Sumner tackles the topic of anger in Angry Like Jesus: Using His Example to Spark Your Moral Courage (Fortress, 2015). There are many good books out there that address the contours and effects of anger, but I haven’t seen many for a popular audience that ground the subject of anger in accessible theology.
Angry Like Jesus makes a compelling case that much of contemporary Western Christendom’s approach to anger is based in Stoic philosophy. The ancient Greeks and Romans embraced the idea that self-mastery was the highest expression of humanity, and that developing indifference to both pain and pleasure was the pathway to that goal. In practical terms, a Stoic approach means that a display of passion is a sign of moral weakness. If you’ve ever faced loss, suffering, or injustice and have been met with a tidy spiritual cliche from a fellow church member that’s communicated you should grin and bear it as a good Christian would, you’ve probably seen stoicism at work.
Sumner has a PhD in Systematic Theology from Trinity International University, and knows both original languages and how to think through the whole of Scripture. And mercifully, she also knows how to speak to everyday people like you and me. This combination means that she can address how the Bible speaks of anger in a relevant and relatable way. With chapter titles like “Doesn’t The Bible Say Anger Is Sinful?” and “What Caused Jesus to Be Angry?” (hint: it wasn’t just moneychangers in the Temple), Sumner offers us a decidedly non-Stoic approach to the subject. Her chapter about the relationship between anger and hell is worth the price of the book.
Saying “no thanks” to Jesus means saying “no thanks” to forgiveness and restoration. It means saying “no thanks” to life. In effect, it is to lie by saying God’s vengeance against evil should not apply to you because you, not Jesus, are the one who is sinless.
So you see, God opposes the proud not because God is prejudiced or arbitrary or unfair. God is none of that. God opposes the proud because the proud refuse to be honest. The proud don’t tell the truth about their sins or about God’s sinlessness. Defying truth like that in such an outrageous ultimate way makes God’s wrath burn.
Is it too much for God to require us to be truthful?
Only a liar would say yes.
Sumner weaves her own story of burying her own anger in hidden disordered eating while of living as a nice-girl Christian into the book, but the key figure in the book is Jesus. The core of Angry Like Jesus follows him through fifteen separate recorded incidences of anger, revealing that anger is integral not only to his divinity, but his sinless humanity.
Throughout the book, Sumner addresses the ways anger can lead to sin and destroy lives both by its expression and by our attempts to stifle it by our Stoic attempts to strive for a state of Christian angerlessness. Many of us in midlife are surprised to discover that we are angrier than we realized. Midlife’s changes, losses, and shifts expose what has been lurking just under the surface of our first-half lives all along. This book could be a helpful read for those who are seeking to shed the Stoicism and discover how to be angry like Jesus.
Cover photo by Connor Misset on Unsplash