Good & Angry – David Powlison

I have been angry lately. Really angry. Angrier than I have ever thought I could have been. I am angry at injustice. I am angry when the strong take advantage of the weak. I am angry when a system denies help to those in need. I am angry with an anger that is consuming, hostile and destructive.

Dealing with emotions is not as valued as it should in Christian circles – especially among men. We prefer to hide our feelings and pretend we are good. We avoid talking about it in public because we fear others will see us as weak. We subtly think that being strong implies not being emotional. Feelings are for the weak, but rationalism and intellectualism for the strong. Those who are able to “suck it up” are those who make an impact.

I wonder if this is even truer in honor & shame cultures (i.e., Eastern cultures). We are not vulnerable because we do not want to lose face. Leaders (parents especially fathers in patriarchal societies, teachers, clergy, business leaders, civil authorities, etc.) rarely confess their mistakes, and if they do, it may even not be well perceived by others, and they may lose their position.

So we sweep sadness, depression, anger, and everything else under the rug. However, denying our emotions does not mean being healthy nor mature. It may actually be the contrary: it is a sign of immaturity.

Anger is common to all of us. We get irritated when our children do not listen to us. We complain when life turns sour. We explode in anger when someone steps on our toes. We seek revenge when hurt by someone else or by “life.” The Bible does not present anger as intrinsically evil. In fact, God is at times described as truly angry.

Ezek 7:8 “Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations.”

In his book Good & Angry, David Powlison helps us to understand what anger is and how to “redeem anger, irritation, complaining and bitterness.” The author starts describing the different forms and reasons for anger. It does not always come out violently. It may be venting, complaining, ignoring and even being depressed.

“[Anger] is the stuff of every form of grievance and bitterness” (p. 8)

There are many reasons why we get angry, but according to Powlison, it comes down to one principle:

“At its core anger is very simple. It expresses ‘I’m against that.’ It is an active stance you take to oppose something that you assess as both important and wrong” (p. 39)

“Anger is about displeasure” (p. 39)

We get angry when we evaluate a situation as “important and wrong.” For example, I would get angry if someone bullies one of my kids. The importance of the situation triggers the intensity of the anger, and evil the desire for retaliation.

How then is anger good or bad? If anger is the result of the violation of what we assess as wrong, it implies it is subjective to our personal standards. Anger is a reaction based on “underlying desires and beliefs” (p. 53). We usually do not have time to assess our motives before getting angry. Instead, it reveals what is already inside us: what we love, what we live for, what we are afraid of, etc. For instance, you may get upset if someone cuts you off when driving. Your immediate thoughts might be “who does he think he is?” Was the driver’s behavior evil? What if he was in a hurry because his wife next to him was about to give birth?

“Anger goes bad because of a demand” (p. 57)

Anger turns bad when we operate in what Powlison calls “godlike mode” (p. 53). When we are the ones who set the standards of justice and demand others to bow before them. If someone steps on our toes at work for example, we may build up anger because our kingdom is endangered.

Anger is good when we desire justice against true evil, which is the violation of God’s standards. God is rightly angered when we worship something else. God is rightly angered when we hate one another. The wrong done against God and others is what the Bible calls “sin.” Sin is not only the violation of a standard but also “relational betrayal” (p.112). God is truly angry when we lie, cheat, gossip, abuse, rebel, lust, act in hypocrisy, feel entitled, etc. Sin is what ought to anger us. Now this said, the difficulty for us is to figure out how to get there. How do we discern if we are right to be angry?

“When anger goes right, there is always something higher” (p. 58)

“Anger is the justice emotion. Anger is the deliver-the-oppressed-from-evil emotion. It stems from the needy. All of us come wired with a sense of justice. We can override it or pervert it.” (p. 63)

Maybe some of us wonder if we should even get angry. Or perhaps we just want a method to control our anger. But dealing with our anger is more than seeking to feel good and happy. It is about removing what perverted our anger – or in other words, removing our godlike mode – to embrace God’s desire to see justice in this world.

“When anger runs amok into temper, grousing or bitterness, you don’t just need to technique to calm yourself down. You don’t just need your circumstances to change. You don’t just need other people to change. Your core motives must change. The god you worship [my will be done, my kingdom come… or else) must be overthrown.” (p. 54)

Powlison names good anger – our target – “constructive displeasure of mercy” (p. 72).

  • Anger finds its origin in mercy because it seeks to reestablish justice for the oppressed. It seeks good in bad situations. It seeks to “call out the wrongdoers, but holds out the promises of forgiveness” (p. 72).
  • “Mercy is a response to feeling displeasure” (p. 72). When a situation is unjust, it is wrong to feel pleasure or indifference. Rather, feeling displeased is being angry.
  • Lastly, mercy seeks a positive outcome to displeasure, and not destruction (bad anger).

I like how Powlison ends up describing it with simplicity:

“[constructive displeasure of mercy] says ‘That matters. It’s wrong and offensive. I want to do something about it.’ But unlike just getting mad [bad anger], it says ‘That’s wrong – and I will be constructively merciful in pursuing whatever is just, whatever makes things right, whatever does good” (p. 73)

There are four characteristics of constructive displeasure of mercy:

  1. Patience: Needed not to burst in retaliation, but to be “slow to anger” just as God is.
  2. Forgiveness: Needed not to dwell on evil and let bitterness and vengeance grow.
  3. Charity: Needed to seek the good of those who have wronged us.
  4. Constructive conflict: Needed to build up without giving a free pass instead of tearing down. It is a constructive call to repentance.

These characteristics are impossible to attain without God, and we may not even be willing to do so.

I find this concept of constructive displeasure of mercy confusing. Powlison seems to say that anger is part of mercy. He sometimes uses both terms interchangeably. I do not want to nitpick, but it adds confusion to follow his thought process. Moreover, I do not believe anger is merciful toward the wrongdoers. Powlison often designates bad anger as repaying evil for evil (Prov 20:22, Rom 12:17, 1 Pe 3:9). And I agree that we are not called to take revenge, but to love our enemies in order to be merciful just like our Father in heaven is (Matt 5:39-45). No doubt about it, but repaying evil for evil would be evil not because punishing injustice is wrong, but because we – as God’s children – are called to forgive. We would act wickedly toward God if we were not merciful. But the condemnation and punishment of evil is just and right. In fact, Prov 20:22 tells us not to repay evil but to wait for God’s deliverance, implying God will act for us against our enemies. 1 Pe 3:9-12 encourages us to show mercy because “the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” Rom 12:19 says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’.” The idea is always the same. We do not retaliate because God will, and He alone is worthy of doing so. There is no mercy in His wrath, only punishment. Therefore, I think it is easier to understand Powlison’s constructive displeasure of mercy concept as the way we respond when our anger is “good” (meaning justified according to God’s standard of justice).

Until this point in the book, I wrote many times, “Where is the Gospel in this? Where is the power to change? How does the cross provide justice for my sufferings, and therefore be a source of healing?” And Powlison acknowledges the need for God to be at the center of the solution.

“Without the vertical dimension, at best one makes compromises born of a somewhat more enlightened and mutual self-interest” (p. 131)

At best without God, dealing with anger means to find a compromise where each finds his interest rather than building a loving relationship: “do what you want and let me do what I want” or “let’s not talk about it anymore.” Self-help promotes methods to feel better. It is not wrong, but there is no power to address the deeper issue of anger: we have usurped God’s throne and we make demands as if we were God.

The ground for addressing (bad) anger can be found in understanding God’s (good) anger and its impact. Powlison’s key to understand God’s anger is that His wrath is the result of His intense love. It is not just a threat nor unfitting.

“God’s anger is not unpredictable and mean-spirited. Far from being a contradiction to love, God’s anger comes from love. It’s the product of love betrayed (when he’s the one being done dirty) and the compassion for the victimes of injustice (when others are the ones being hurt)” (p. 111)

Understanding God’s anger helps us because:

  • God’s anger against our sins fell on Jesus. It is important to remember that we are not just victims. We are also offenders. We are forgiven because Christ received God’s anger in our place. Now we can embrace mercy for others in the mercies of Christ for us. When I struggle to forgive others, I remind myself how I have been forgiven. One helpful way was to ask myself if I have hurt others the way others hurt me, and to realize how much I needed grace and how much I need to give grace as well.
  • God’s anger against sin works to transform us into His image. The fact that He is angry against sin implies He is at work within us to get rid of our godlike mode. That’s our hope for being patient with ourselves and with others. God is much eager than we are to remove the wrong from us.
  • God’s anger delivers us from the pain of others’ sins.
    • God will deliver us from our enemies and bring them into judgment. The fact that God is really angry at injustice gives us room to grieve from the pain that was inflicted to us. Ps 94 is the Psalmist’s grievance as He laments, implores, and finds comfort in God. When I read this Psalm, I realized how much room it gave me to grieve as well and to find comfort in the fact that God was angry at the hurt done to me.
    • Some of us might have been hurt by genuine Christians, and we feel unsatisfied to think that they will not receive what they deserve because they are forgiven in Christ. This principle is for us: Grieving leads us to a place where we learn to accept suffering as a means of sanctification to teach us to love our enemies. God loved us though we were His enemies (Rom 5:8). He has extended grace to us, and we extend grace to others that we may be like Him.
  • God’s anger protects us from returning to a lifestyle of sin. We learn to fear God without being afraid of Him. We learn to be angry at sin the way He does and stay away from it.

“To really solve the heart of conflict you must seek God’s mercy. Our conflicts are fueled by usurping God’s place. The grace of Jesus Christ forgives and reinstates God’s rule in our hearts.” (p. 139)

“The more deeply you get to the heart of your participation in conflict, the more you will understand with joy the mercy of God to you. And you’ll become correspondingly merciful and patient toward others in their sins” (p.142)

Practically, Powlison gives us eight questions to dismantle our anger and redeem it to constructive displeasure of mercy. It takes intentionality to overcome anger. It does not happen overnight. The questions are:

  1. What is my situation?
  2. How do I react?
  3. What are my motives?
  4. What are the consequences?
  5. What is true?
  6. How do I turn to God for help?
  7. How could I respond constructively in this situation?
  8. What are the consequences of faith and obedience?

As we go through these questions, we must be willing to point the finger at ourselves: how am I responsible for this situation? Am I demanding people to treat me as if I was God? Am I willing to repent and ask God for help?

Before concluding, I’d like to get back to a few “what ifs” I had while reading. What if our anger is actually justified? What if we were truly victims of great and repeated evil? If you are in that case, you would probably feel angrier if you hear “Your anger is bad because you want revenge!” and I say: you are right! And that’s why I appreciated Powlison’s section addressing those tough cases.

First of all, it is important to grieve. What it means is that we must acknowledge what has been done to us, weep our pain out, and recognize our brokenness in the light of a God who is compassionate toward us. He knows best what brokenness means. After all, Jesus was broken on the cross because of our wickedness. If He did such a thing while we were rebels, how much more can He sympathize with us now that we are in Christ. Rom 8:31-32 says “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Nothing can separate us from the Love of Christ – not even sufferings and death.

“It is refreshing to admit, ‘That suffering will mark me. I will never get over it’ ” (p. 173)

“There is something deeply refreshing in being able to say that what is broken can’t be fixed as good as new.” (p. 175)

“There is a place to cry out to God, ‘Where are you? Why is this happening to me?’ […] It makes all the difference in the world that such things are said with a grief that needs God, that believes he is good, that he loves him.” (p. 181)

However, we must not dwell on the hurt forever. We must not stay victims even though it can sometimes feel good. Grieving is necessary to move on. I agree with a pastor told me grieving might be the bridge between being forgiven by God and forgive others. The experience will never go away, but we must not be defined by it. We must not let it consume our thoughts by “fruitless remembering” (p. 177). We will not let pain, hopelessness, and hatred dominate us because of the love of God. Slowly, we can redeem this evil by small acts of love.

“Forgiveness is a conscious choice formed through knowing God’s mercy to you. It clearly recognizes that what happened was wrong. It makes no excuses for what happened. And then it lets it go.” (p. 86)

“Great suffering produces great anger, great fear, and great despair in part because no great solution is possible. But small kindnesses matter a great deal” (p. 177)

And it is more than just dealing with our anger. Forgiving is one thing. Being restored is another. We must take time to deal with the damages of injustice. For example, if you were bullied for a long time, you probably need to recover from a constant feeling of being dirty, degraded, and exposed. The solution is again in the Gospel. When we remind ourselves of who we are in Christ, we can finally live in peace, kindness, and joy. Our pain won’t define who we are and how we act.

“When the reality of who you are in Christ takes root, you can learn how to live well. You can stand with dignity in the face of wrong.” (p. 178)

Good will eventually come out of evil.

Now you may not feel taking your laptop and start processing. Let me show you how this is important: we must deal with our anger not to reproduce what was done to us on others. In the Hunger Games movie series, a resistance movement fights against the power in place that oppresses them. At the end of the series ** spoiler alert **, the resistance triumphs, and the heroine Katniss Everdeen is given to execute the Hunger game mastermind. But instead of killing him, Katniss kills the leader of the resistance, now the leader of the new regime. Why? Because the oppressed has become the oppressor.

Powlison points it out: we are hypocrites when we are conflict: “[we] harshly accuse others of harshness. [We] get angry at angry people. [We] proudly judge proud people. [We] gossip about gossips” (p. 144). I have realized it as well. I am destructively angry at those who hurt me. Worse, I get angry at anyone who stands with them. I get angry at people whom I categorized (too quickly for sure) as similar. I am reproducing what was done to me. Don’t we all do that? If we do not agree, let us watch the news or read social media. Those who claim to fight for the poor and disadvantaged are themselves intolerant and oppressing. There is no construction – and don’t get me wrong -, it may be because the other side(s) have not given room for discussion either. But this is the reality of what we do when we do not take time to reflect on painful experiences. We think we are ok, but we are not. We need the Gospel. We need Jesus to redeem our anger.

 

In conclusion, let me quote Powlison’s final words:

“The final word is that anger is going somewhere. It will someday be perfected. Then it will be swallowed up in joy […] Why is this? […] Where there is no evil, you will find no anger.” (p. 234)

One day, God will end evil. We will finally be redeemed. We will finally find peace and joy. Justice will finally triumph to our greatest joy and to God’s glory. And that’s why we are hopeful now even in the midst of the worse injustices.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s