Bulletin :: March 2000

Counsel to Angry Lutherans
by Paul Anderson

Every stream in Lutheranism has its share of angry people-those who have been disenfranchised or patronized or ignored, mainly for doctrinal reasons. Many renewal-minded people have been tolerated at best or resisted as heretics at worst. Some evangelical Lutherans have wondered what has become of the Gospel. Some orthodox people feel pulled up by the roots. Others have prayed for decades for God to light the fires in their church, only to see resistance win over change time and again. One thing I often hear when I do congregational missions is, “Where has our church gone?” Many are concerned about the homosexual agenda in the ELCA that doesn’t seem to go away, even after it is voted down. People are upset-and angry. They ask, “What can we do?” Here is some advice to those who are asking that question.

Anger is a God-given emotion, and there are some things worth getting angry about. The inability to get angry seriously limits us from responding properly to injustice or untruth. Florence Nightingale was known for her anger against inadequate hospital care. William Carey was angered by the inhumane slave trade in Africa. The anger of African-Americans riding in the back of the bus led to some much-needed change. Positive anger can be a motivation for dealing with personal and social wrongs; it can make civil wrongs into civil rights.

The Bible commands us to be angry at things that anger God, like the erosion of the authority of Scripture in the ELCA or the politicizing of the Gospel or the attacking of the Fatherhood of God or a misapplication of grace. Not to be angry with what we have seen happening in the Church over the last several decades is the kind of tolerance that is intolerable. Should we counsel people not to be angry?

Ah-that’s the rub. If God gets angry, then it can be godly to get angry. The problem is that our anger often leads to sin. Anger is an emotion, a response to a threat to our lives, our character, our opinions, our convictions, our property, and our time. What we do after that emotional response determines whether we sin or not. Anger turned out leads to aggression, like with Cain who killed his brother. God commanded him to bring his desires under control. He chose instead to put his brother out of commission. Anger turned in leads to depression. Jonah was depressed because God didn’t do things his way. He was the passive-aggressive kind, the kind who often says, “I’m not angry, just hurt.”

I was meeting with the staff of a church in the Midwest. I suggested that we go around the circle and pray for one another. Donna (not her real name), to my right, was first. She said, “I need prayer for my arthritis.” I quoted the context of the James 5 passage on healing: “Therefore, confess your faults to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (v.16). I asked if anyone had anything to confess to clear the deck before we prayed. Donna said, “I do. I am angry. I am angry with the Lutheran Church. I’m angry with our bishop.” Then the pastor said, “So am I.” Another person said, “I am, too.” So they confessed their anger, which opened the door to a wonderful time of praying, not only for one another but also for the Lutheran Church.

In our failure to deal with our anger, we easily get cynical or hard or passive or judgmental-or sick. We get reactive rather than proactive. We adopt a negative agenda, and we become known for what we are against rather that for what we are for. We define ourselves by our opposition rather than by our proposition. It is neither healthy nor godly, “for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). The admonition of Jesus to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” came in the context of suffering and injustice (Matt. 10:16). This is not an easy assignment, but it is essential to keep our spirit free.

Clench your fist for a moment. That is often the posture of angry people. And even if the fist is not clenched, the heart is. It blocks our ability to receive from God, and we can only walk in righteousness as we receive from God’s Spirit the righteousness that is outside of ourselves. That is why James wrote, “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:19, 21).

A pastor friend had the only growing church in his ELCA cluster. Yet because of his renewal emphasis, which his bishop did not agree with, he heard from his bishop only when it was to correct him. This did not endear the bishop to this pastor in the slightest. He had hoped for some word of encouragement, but it never came. He felt cut off, like many in renewal-based churches do. He had to deal with his anger, lest it turn into cynicism and block his ability to receive. Too many hurt pastors have let their circumstances muddy the stream and have polluted the people they were feeding, who then adopted their critical spirit. There aren’t many promises connected with complaining. That is why Paul urges us…

In other words, deal with your anger right away. Paul admonishes us to put away anger, because anger neglected leads to bitterness. One can have anger without sinning, but he cannot have bitterness. Bitterness is anger gone to seed. It eats away at the soul like a cancer, affecting both the body and the spirit. Donna’s arthritis might have been connected, at least in part, with her responses to life. After confession and prayer, she felt freer and lighter. We are not responsible for what people do to us, but we are responsible for our responses.

One way to deal with our anger is to forgive those whose actions brought on our anger. We need to forgive individuals, and we need to forgive institutions. The latter is more subtle because of its impersonal nature. Unforgiveness can settle under our skin like a tumor and remain undetected for years. We might balk at forgiving an institution that continues the activity that arouses anger. We may feel that there needs to be confession first. But forgiveness must often be unilateral, such as the words of Jesus from the cross, His first “order of business”:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Forgiveness does not mean that…

…we overlook the offense
…we lift the responsibility from the erring party
…we feel forgiveness
…we do not fight for the truth.

Forgiveness means that we release the other to the justice and mercy of God. We are not taking the law into our own hands; we are inviting God to take it. Our only option is to hold onto anger-and play God.

Destructive emotions need to be dealt with, although removing them can be painful, even as the removal of a tumor from the body is both painful and essential. When my car overheated on the way to the desert, I thought I could make it over the top of a hill and coast down. Paying $488 for blown head gaskets was a painful way to learn that I should have stopped and let the engine cool.

Damage to a piece of metal is one thing, but damage to people is far more costly. Anger not properly discharged leads to hostility. While anger is an emotional response, hostility is an ongoing attitude, one that endangers those who hold it as well as its object. Anger is energy; it is a fire that burns within us. When we say, “That really burns me,” we are closer to the truth than we may realize. You will pay a high price for bitterness. Even if anger is justified, it can still ruin “the engine.”

The history of dissenting groups is that their hearts often remain clenched long after the reason for the dissent has disappeared. According to one analyst of history, it takes a protesting institution a generation to get rid of its negative spirit, even if the cause is a valid one. Breakaway groups often maintain a feisty spirit. They tend to be defined by their opposition, and capable, positive people will not follow a negative agenda for long. Reaction feeds into the hands of Satan himself, who is the prime example of a reactor. He is not a creator. He takes what is good and turns it bad. So we resist the devil when we confess our hostility.

Perhaps this prayer echoes your heart need:

“Dear Father in heaven, I acknowledge that I am angry. I am sorry that my anger has led to complaining more than to praying, to cursing more than to blessing. I have closed my heart off to your love as well as to the love of people who differ with me. Teach me how to overcome evil with good, remembering that ‘without faith, it is impossible to please’ You, and that ‘love believes all things.’ Your Son said that ‘the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church.’ Let that be true for the part of the Church that I love dearly. Through Jesus Christ my Lord, Amen.”