Monday, October 29, 2012

Making Peace with Anger in the Process of Forgiveness

As noted in the previous post, one of the greatest challenges I've found when setting out on my own journey of forgiveness has been letting go of the fantasy of what I wanted forgiveness to be in favor of accepting the truth. A big part of learning to look at myself and my circumstances realistically encompasses the challenge to tolerate discomfort as well as accepting aspects of myself that I didn't particularly like. I was taught to avoid anger, yet I had to come to terms with the idea that anger was part of the full spectrum of being human, and that it was only considered negative because I'd been taught to place that label on it. As the Bard said in Act II in Hamlet in response to Rosencrantz, “There is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”

I'm not advocating for moral relativism but rather for a pragmatic realism, well within a Christian concept. I believe that this quote applies well to the argument that all human emotions are gifts to us and wise teachers for us, if we can train ourself to be aware of them. How we feel tells us something about the state of our own heart and our motivations, and that gives us cues about our spiritual state. We should be able to harness that to allow emotions to reveal our true nature to us so that we can change. For the Christian, this awareness allows us to yield those yet unperfected parts of us to God for His help in transforming us. When we feel an emotion that causes us discomfort, we can either resist and deny it, or we can respect and deal with it.

Base Feelings as a Seed of Temptation and Not Sin Itself

John noted that to have hatred in one's heart for a brother was to be tantamount to murder (1 John 3:10-15), and Jesus noted that following temptation from arousal into lust was just as bad as committing adultery (Matthew 5:27-29). Some people simplify this concept too much, treating negative emotions themselves as sins instead of the potential seeds of sin (which we have with us always because of our fallen nature while our holiness is yet a work in progress). The problem is not the basic emotion or natural feelings. Our problems start when we feed and nurture feelings by giving into temptation by focusing on them too much. Denying our emotion sometimes only intensifies them, and we tend to feel them whether we deal with them when they occur or whether we put them in a box in our minds to deal with later. If we fail to acknowledge why we have the emotion in the first place by denying that they exist, we miss their benefit. I think that the wisest thing to do involves feeling them, but then making a choice about what we will do with them. If we make the wrong choices, one of which can be denial, they become the seeds of sin through temptation. (Denying emotion is not the same thing as making a choice against dwelling on an emotion.)

In the case of noting hatred and lust as just as bad as acting on these ideas, the Bible was not talking about the emotions that underlie them. It speaks of emotions mixed with motive through yielding to temptation. The first chapter of James tells us a bit about this process of how sin develops.
But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. James 1:14-15 NKJV
The person whose body responds to the powerful physical/emotional process of sexual arousal (which can sometimes be triggered quite innocently) has a choice. I once asked my father how he dealt with this kind of thing, and he said, “Well, I'm not dead!” He told me that he saw no sin in recognizing that and admitting he'd inadvertently taken notice an attractive woman, noting that sometimes, it can be difficult to avoid (though he never made a habit of “noticing”). He didn't fault himself continue to think about the attraction or t's source. He made a choice to go no further than to acknowledge, “There's a good looking woman.” An attraction need not progress to arousal leading to lust or acting on lust. We're all tempted which is not a sin unless it is conceived, and we can resist temptation.

Unexpressed Anger as a Source of Bitterness Leading to Sin

Likewise, we can consider hatred as a a stop along the way between temptation and sin that is acted out. Here, anger comes in as the emotional seed that brings temptation. Consider that someone has wrongfully hurt you and you become angry. Whether that person is an authority figure who will severely punish you if you express anger in any way, a loved one who will withhold love and care if you express that anger, or if you yourself feel so uncomfortable with anger that you deny that you feel it as such, you're still experience and express the anger in some way. Whether you've “banked it up” to deal with at a later time or you ignore it or deny it, know that it will find a way to be expressed, directly or indirectly. It either creates a wound that either heals through direct healthy expression, is aggravated by direct unhealthy expression, or it is banked up like a walled off abscess in the body (encapsulated, inflamed tissue that starts to die so becomes a source of active, painful infection). Passive aggressive behavior also allows less healthy expression by mutating the direct anger into a less threatening behavior toward the source of anger or even another person who reminds one of the source by getting angry or critical concerning any other matter, save the one that instigated the anger in the first place. People also express anger in this way when they take things or feel entitled to things as a way of soothing their anger. (They hurt me, so I'm going to steal their pen or their lunch because they owe me for hurting me.)

Consider that the person who hurt you is someone who is regularly in your life, and you say nothing to them about your anger. They may hurt you in the same way, either because you do not set a boundary to tell them to stop, or perhaps it is because they don't even really know that they did anything to hurt you. What they did may be their standard of what is normal, too, if it has been their experience that the people who love them best in life actually do the same thing to them. They may not care if they hurt you and may have intended to hurt you deliberately, but if you do not address it, you never get that piece of information. This gives you temptation to build a grudge against them or to esteem in an unfavorable way. If they inadvertently hurt you again at some point as we all tend to do with one another in relationships, rather than seeing that infraction as something insignificant and unrelated, you might follow this additional temptation as “evidence” that they are a horrible person. You may also continue to follow this trend all the way through to hatred, a more well formed opinion with volatile potential for violence that could be acted out. Had the anger been expressed through confrontation soon after the first offense occurred, the whole progression might well have been halted and love for that person could have been preserved.

In John's example of hatred being tantamount to murder in terms of motive only, he wasn't talking about the initial experience of anger. Hatred and anger differ, as a person can be very angry at someone they love but still love them deeply. They can even love someone but not like to be around them very often, just because they like different activities or might have different personality traits that don't blend very well. These differences might be cause for anger but don't negate the love that a person can have for them. In this case, hatred is the fruit of being enticed which grows by unhealthy expression, not the initial seed of the temptation that anger can bring. This was not a verse about anger but about hatred as a conceived motive that mars a pure heart of virtue.

The Bible, Anger, and the Refrigerator

Those who teach and believe that merely feeling anger at all (different from feeding and indulging anger) are not teaching Biblical truth. (Please take note that I've only listed single references and am not remotely scratching the surface of all the verses that discuss these admonishments. Even the Apostle Paul notes that we can “be angry and sin not” (Ephesians 4:26). We should not feed our anger (Matthew 5:22-24) and should seek to resolve it quickly when we do feel it ( Ephesians 4:26), and we should be of the attitude that keeps us from easily getting angry and should not readily act on it (James 1:19-20). We're told not to be angry without cause (Matthew 5:22). We are to “put it away from us” (Ephesians 4:31), but this is very different than denial. These Scriptures all encourage us to resolve the anger directly with those who have hurt us and concerning the specific things that have created discord. But none of these things are a vilification of the emotion of anger itself. (It's only our thinking that makes anger bad, and we can actually use it as a motivation for good – something that improves our relationships.)

If you find something smelly and rotten in your refrigerator, to rid yourself of it, you have to notice its presence, touch it or the container that it's in, and dispense with it by moving it into the trash and out of your kitchen, and then you have to clean up the residual. This is anything but the opposite of pretending that the rotten item isn't there. Pretending that it doesn't exist is a way of lying to yourself and others. (Building on this analogy even more, if the nasty thing in the fridge had been thrown away before it became a nasty thing, the process of dispensing with it would have been much less involved and not nearly as unpleasant.) How is this example any different than the denial of anger?

Anger ventilated often hurries toward forgiveness;
and concealed often hardens into revenge.
Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

More about anger, it's function,
and more resources to explore the topic further
coming in the next post.  (Click HERE to link to it.)