Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Gift of Anger, Part One

They say that you realize how much language you truly know when you get angry. At least that’s what the villagers said to me the day I really lost my temper.

I had gone to great lengths to find tomato seeds on our monthly trek into the city, two hours away from our home in the bush of Africa. Who ever knew I would miss tomatoes so much? But being a southern girl who grew up on farm tomatoes, I had a certain wistful image dancing in my head of beefsteak tomatoes, red and juicy, and I had to try. 

After finding the precious seeds, I carefully tended the soil and saved water from the roof to make sure they were well irrigated each day. The tomatoes grew, and grew. My neighbors were insanely curious, and gave me daily updates on their progress.

One especially sweltering day, a gaggle of children sat crowded under the small banana-leaf porch we had attached to the front of our house. 
I decided to make a game to pass the time with them, and we had a grand time playing a homemade version of jacks. Might not sound grand to our technology-entertained iEars today, but it was a big hit that day, and everyone was shouting and laughing, squeezing in for a look at the contenders. The winners each earned a piece of prized candy. 

Predictably, word spread faster than a bushfire that I was handing out sweets. The part about earning it was left out, and I soon had a mob of smiling, begging faces asking for candy. 

It all began with a piece of candy.
One of those faces was my dear Kapili. She was grumpy most days, as would be expected from a girl not finished being a child but made to start working like a young woman. She was stuck in between life’s seasons, and I often showed her special attention to ease the transition. Today she was grinning from ear to ear, all little girl, hoping for a piece of candy. 

Kapili had unfortunately arrived late from the day’s work and the other children were heading home. I had long been out of candy when she came along, and with regret I had to tell her so. Turning away, she called me a few choice names and stomped off, accusing me of favoritism. (I believe she nursed in her heart the idea that she was truly my favorite, which made this event even more offensive to her.)

Awhile later, as the sun began to set, I went outside to water my beloved tomatoes. The small tomatoes had just begun to peek out the day before, and I couldn’t wait to see today’s progress. What I found instead was quite different from what I expected.

My lovely tomato plants were now a row of rough, choppy stubs, not a leaf in sight. Standing a few feet away was Kapili, a sly smile on her face, herding her father’s goats. 

The Peter Rabbit-looking watering can I carried in my hand went flying. Precious water sloshed everywhere. And my tongue let loose like the grand finale fireworks we watched with awe last Saturday night.

I was angry. I was shaking, and I was yelling. I was suddenly very fluent in the tribal language I had been studying for months.

I paused for breath long enough to create a millisecond of silence, and in that moment I heard someone laughing. I looked around, and the whole village had gathered to watch. One by one, they began to laugh so hard they had to grab their sides or the shoulder of the person next to them. “She finally knows how to talk! Well done! You know how to speak our language! You are truly one of us now!”

I was surrounded by admirers.

This only made me madder, and I stomped (ungracefully, reminiscent of a mule) back to my mud house and slammed the meager screen door.

Kapili had intentionally grazed her father’s goats on my hard-earned tomato plants all because of a piece of candy.

Hours later, after nursing my wounds and calming down, I began to reflect on the villagers’ response to my show of anger. I had always said benevolently, saint-like, to anyone who would listen, “I am not an angry person.” And I had intently sought to avoid anger at all costs.

The truth was, I was afraid of anger and all it threatened to take away from me. 

I had seen anger hurt people, destroy property, and it scared me. Anger ruined relationships. It was to be avoided.
I would not be known as an angry person. Ever. 

Well, today had proved that all wrong. I was exposed, and I expected something very bad to happen. I definitely expected rejection and expulsion from the group of people I had been trying so hard to love and serve, the ones to whom I so longed to demonstrate Christ.

What happened instead of rejection, however, was admiration. I was completely puzzled and bewildered.

My status in the village climbed higher, and I was shown more respect after that day. No one ever dared violate my property again, and one day soon after I came home to find the children had brought me literally hundreds of flowers they had collected from the blooming savannah. I looked outside to find the village alcoholic planting desert roses all around my house in the pouring rain, his gift to us.

For many months, I wondered what had happened that day. What had really happened. What was wrong with my understanding of anger and its place in humanity, in society?

I had no idea then that anger was a gift from God. 

In the coming years, I began to pore over God’s Word to discover what it said about anger. I engaged in conversations with people who I observed actually expressing their anger without damage to relationships. I was fascinated by them, amazed that anger could be expressed in a healthy way, without leaving a path of pain and destruction. I asked questions, and examined my limited and unhealthy understanding of its role in my life.

Here’s some of what I learned, and am still learning.

Anger is a built-in alarm system that tells us something wrong or unjust has happened.

When we push anger down, hide it, avoid it, we are not caring for our souls, and we are not caring for the world. We need anger to let us know something bad has happened.

As I began to understand this, I asked God where all the anger had gone in me, for all the injustices I had experienced in life. If I had not expressed it, what had I done with it? 

I learned that I had ignored it, but my body had not. Racked by migraines, my body was crying out for relief, for expression of all the pent-up anger I had ignored and neglected. Upon closer examination, I found evidence of anger in many places in my life. It was not serving a productive purpose. Rather, it was eating me alive inside. My anger alarm system was clanging, letting me know I needed care and healing.

When I learned to express anger in safe and healthy ways, not only my spiritual and emotional health were restored, but my physical health also improved.

Anger tells us where our boundaries are.

One of the chief sources of human anger is the violation of boundaries. Just watch drivers on the highway next time you are racing to an appointment. This type of anger can be very destructive if not handled honestly early. Under the surface, over time, as boundaries are violated over and over without open acknowledgment, this anger simmers and seethes until bitterness erupts like a volcano, destroying relationships. 

It is better to listen to your anger the first time and make sure your boundaries are clear to others early. The pain of drawing a boundary is slight compared to the loss of an important relationship.

Anger can be constructive, motivating us to respond to injustice in positive ways.

God has given us the gift of anger to alert us, to motivate us, to help us take constructive action against wrongdoing and injustice. When we experience anger at injustice and wrongdoing we are demonstrating our moral concern for the world. This very motivation has transformed the world throughout history as normal people have taken their anger and harnessed it to overcome injustice and suffering. God has followed anger with loving action again and again in Scripture, and he has given us anger for this purpose as well.

Anger is an emotion that makes us uncomfortable. But it is also a universal human experience, and understanding its purpose and potential for constructive change can improve our lives and our relationships. Next week I will offer some practical tips for responding constructively when we are angry. Get your watering cans ready!

In the meantime, leave your comments below and share your thoughts on anger's place in caring for our souls. Let's talk about it!


Anger is a built-in alarm system that tells us something wrong or unjust has happened. (Click to Tweet)

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