When I was little, I used to watch the beginning of “Saturday Night Wrestling.” It came on after “The Wonderful World of Disney,” I think, and so the T.V. was already on. It was usually locally televised from the Sportatorium in my native Dallas, high quality local theater at its finest. I regaled to the antics of Nature Boy Ric Flair, the Von Erich brothers, the Great Kabuki, and, of course, Andre the Giant, as they yelled at the television camera, infuriated each other, seemingly ready to tear each other apart in the ring. When they got in the arena, they seemed to inflict great pain upon each other, so much that I might be tempted to wonder how anyone could survive it.
Except that, even then, I knew it wasn’t real. What always amazed me, though, was the crowd. Their faces twisted and contorted in rage. Yelling awful things that the microphones never picked up on hard G-rated late 1970s Metroplex T.V. Shaking their fists in their own apparent desire to inflict pain. Even at an early age, it baffled me that the live audience seemed to not be in on the joke, seemed not to understand that this was theater, and seemed unable to control their rage.
Americans are a lot like that now, aren’t we? We’re an anxious, angry lot. Stratfor CEO George Friedman has likened the collective American psyche to that of adolescence: a high degree of self-confidence, bordering on arrogance, in our abilities, coupled with a great measure of insecurity and doubt. This internal conflict, this lack of contentment and peace in our personal lives, creates disquietude and anger. I’ve observed this before, but the 24-hour news media thrives on this collective angst, always giving us something to worry about, something to be outraged about. I was watching a TED talk by David McCandless on data visualization this weekend that was fascinating. He was demonstrating visually the greatest peaks of anxiety and outrage over the last decade in our nation, fueled by media coverage. Do you know what the three greatest peaks of collective national outrage in the last two decades were? Swine Flu, Avian Flu, and SARS. These were interspersed with meteor collisions, the Millennium Bug, and killer wasps, as potential catastrophes capturing our collective angst and ire. In fact, only 9/11 was a source of outrage that now, looking back, any of us would say was worth the concern.
We live in an amazing country with incredible potential to be global leaders who seek the common good. But, we waste an enormous amount of time being angry with each other, on both a local and a national level. And, Christians aren’t immune. We just mask it in Bible language, calling it being “prophetic” or “discerning.” Russell Moore, author of Onward, notes that anger is a unique sin, unlike, say, adultery, because we can justify it in self-righteousness. But, Christian anger is never self-righteous. God gets angry, but He is slow to anger, and His anger is always motivated by a desire that the objects of His anger would repent, be forgiven, and be restored. By contrast, as James says, “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” It seeks to destroy, to decimate, to have its way, to obliterate the rights and positions of other in order to assert its own. The anger of man is much more about using power to conform another to one’s will than it is about being a motivating force to pray, or to seek justice.
Righteous anger is really reserved for things like human trafficking, abortion, and extreme poverty and its affects: extreme lament over the fact that innocents suffer in a broken and fallen world. And, righteous anger spurs on compassion, prayer, a heart for change, and a desire to see justice done in the lives of both the victims and the perpetrators. And, that’s about it. I would argue that righteous anger is not about the things that make me angry most of the time: politics, the guy who cuts me off in line or in traffic, the things I see in the media that raise my blood pressure. Those things are at their core mostly about the loss of my personal power or prestige. I am clearly not achieving the righteousness of God through that anger.
I think I’m particularly passionate about this one because it’s an issue I’ve always struggled with, high-hanging fruit on my sanctification tree. Are you like me? I don’t want to be the angry guy, and I sure don’t want my kids to follow my lead. James 1 gives me some ideas on how to put myself in a position where the Holy Spirit can work on my heart and my anger. James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” I think these are sequential, meaning that one brings about the other. You notice how most “debates” these days are just people talking at the same time, louder and louder, until one gets so mad that they shut down, walk off, or beat up the other one? If I’m quick to listen, and slow to speak, I may just hear something that might spark some degree of understanding, or compassion, or mutuality. At the very least, I’m conveying a desire to listen, not just to get my point across, a respectfulness that the other person senses and that tends to de-escalate the nature of the debate or disagreement.
Mostly, I’ve found that it’s about putting my flesh to death, and reviving my spirit- i.e., what it’s always about. I put my flesh to death by avoiding things that tend to flare my frustration when possible, like watching too much news debate, over-indulging in social media, and following politics as information and collaborative problem-solving, rather than as entertainment and competition. I revive my spirit by basking, marinating in God’s Word daily, letting it transform my heart through admonitions like James 1, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” “As much as it depends upon you, be at peace with all people,” and “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Anyone who spends much time around me knows that anger and frustration are still a part of who I am. But, God has transformed me by the Holy Spirit, and He is still transforming me daily. Being able to allow my kids to walk through that transformation with me, and seeing His power molding and shaping me, gives them hope and encouragement. It’s one of the greatest lessons I can teach them.
One way or another, we’re teaching them, through our anger or other sin, or through our humility and willingness to be transformed. What will it be?