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“Slow to anger, abounding in love”

Since Aaron’s post about how transformative he’s been finding the virtues postures and practices, and the discussion it started about anger, I’ve been doing a bit of research. I’m troubled by Old Testament wrath / New Testament mercy ‘flip-side of God’ theology. I don’t believe God changed, ‘like shifting shadows’ as James says, nor that God has moods or gets provoked and vindictive.

So I looked up some Hebrew words for ‘anger’ used in the bible last week, and found that physical imagery is inherent in many – aph depicts flaring nostrils; charah and chemah are about heated indignation. God is often described (about forty instances across the Old Testament) roused to wrath of the nostril-flaring variety. This troubles me.

But something that puts God’s wrathful moments in context for me is the as-frequent phrase ‘slow to anger’, also written as ‘long-suffering’, and to me that deliberately illustrates exactly how I’d aspire to see myself deal with anger when it flares in me, in my true, most whole or healthy self, just as with moments of gluttony, selfishness, pride or apathy. Hence ‘be still and know’, ‘wait on the Lord’, and ‘flee from anger and bitterness’.

I think Jesus was doing this when he crouched and drew in the dust, instead of reacting at once to the people ready to stone the woman they’d caught in the middle of adulterous sex. I think he was asserting space for momentary, flared-up anger to diffuse, both theirs and possibly his own.

Also, the very fact that these are physical words presents their illustrative quality to me. I am not massively into turning everything into metaphor, but I do think it’s safe to say God is not being described to us as a being with actual nostrils to flare, or blood pressure to rise. Nor, I want to suggest, is angry action innate to God’s being – God is love. God is not justice, – God holds and wields all justice. But he does not simply hold and wield love. He is love.

I happen to agree with Christopher Jamison and the Desert Fathers he cites, that anger isn’t really a good sign of anything. I don’t think getting angry is ever really just about the thing that we think, in the moment, that it’s about. I think I, and all of us to a greater or lesser degree, are sitting on a big old keg of old hurts and injustices. And when we get angry about things in a particular instant, I think that keg of anger comes into play.

A couple of mooters pointed out to me the danger here of getting into dualistic territory: ‘anger = bad’; ‘getting frustrated = bad’. I’m glad to have the community round me to navigate this territory.

And righteous energy for a cause is true and a good thing – I’m a bit of a cause-carrier sometimes – but when it’s provoked by anger, I have to take time to think and to still that, until it has aired and become something more calm and constructive.

To stay in my anger is to sit in the murkier bits of my psychology. To feel it, acknowledge it, but to be slow to it and patient with it when it comes – these I think reflect a God of love – healthy care of myself and exploration of all my feelings and their roots, but also therefore enabling my outward actions to be wholly love.

This is ‘slow to anger’ – taking the space to consider both my own reaction, and also to consider whoever has provoked me as a whole human being, with more going on than I can justifiably feel irritated with. Love is not only for some human beings, according to what they’ve done. “To know all is to forgive all”. Even love for one person, a victim, I don’t believe should ever provoke us to retribution towards another. And that pause to bring us back to a place of complete love, I think, is what Jesus was doing when he wrote in the sand for a while.

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POSTED 24.06.10 BY: grace | Comments (5)

5 Responses to ““Slow to anger, abounding in love””

  1. On June 24th, 2010 at 11:45 pm Peter Thomas said:

    grace, very interesting comments and reflections on anger, graciously (no pun intended) and gently articulated.

  2. On June 28th, 2010 at 10:12 am grace said:

    thanks pete, I’m sorry to have missed your service on this last week, we were away in cornwall. thanks so much for such warm feedback!

  3. On June 28th, 2010 at 3:54 pm ianmobsby said:

    I have been reflecting a lot about what you have said Grace and also what Pete said in his homily.

    In the opening service, where Aaron and I opened up the exploration of virtues, spiritual practices and postures – we used stations to help to explore this, and used elements of a film called the Peaceful Warrior as an illustration and metaphor. This was, for us, a powerful illustration about the call to face ourselves, and the depth of challenge we all need to really be christian – sustained and supported through the love of God.

    I am now reading a book called the Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior that cam out after the book – and in it I have been struck by the stark phrase in it and I quote:

    People turn to God when their foundations are shaking, only to discover it is God who’s shaking them.

    This is what I think is going on in Moot. I see a God who is challenging us to go deeper into the faith, and also to be transformed by the Spirit, to be able to sustain a mission to spiritual seekers through an Arts Cafe Lounge.

    We can only do this, because in Jesus we have found a love so great that we did not expect or imagine was possible, and that this God is challenging us to follow in God’s love mission to the world. The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount are a calling to us – to get beyond the thoughts that distort – anger, fear and pride which not only distort us but distort the world, to be able to love the world as God loved.

    The discussion in Moot has centred of late around anger – and the difference between feelings and behaviour. I believe Christ does not call us into righteous anger – but at the same time – not into being a door mat. The calling is to follow a Christ who through the love of God is restoring all things into restored relationship. So I don’t think quoting what Jesus did in the temple overturning tables gives permission for us to do the same. Jesus is very explicit when he says remember this or do this – he never said do or follow what he did in the temple or at the Transfiguration….. His calling was the great new commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. And who did he mean by neighbour – he named the Samaritans twice in different stories. The Jews hated the Samaritans with utter anger. They were the offspring of Jews forced to marry Assyrian nobles to be an affront to the Jews. So what does Jesus do – he loves them and talks to them, eats with them, touches them – and opens up the gospel to them. He does not act in Anger. So this is our challenge – how do we react to people who make us very angry – when feeling angry may be utterly justified particularly in the face of injustice. Well – I think Jesus would make the distinction between punitive justice and restorative justice – that stoning someone out of anger is about punitive justice – where seeking to love someone and find a just resolution is restorative action.

    This stuff is hard to do in practice – but nevertheless – I do believe it is a calling for all Christians. And I think God is in the habit of unsettling and converting Christians in a whole of life way – not just in their thinking – through this calling to love, to be able to do this.

    My last point is more contentious. I have a question about male cultural norms in the UK. We have for years – as men – been culturally formed into a world view of Empire, colonialisation and power. In this form of culture pride and anger have been seen as positive attributes to do with maleness and power. i want to suggest that for men – including me – getting beyond our anger and pride is a real issue – as for many of us – we were brought up to see these as good things. I now want to question that in the light of what God is calling me and I suggest us to be.

    We have to do deal with the outcome of post-colonialization and Empire – which then feels very disempowered. As with fundamentalistm and nationalism – these can result again in pride, fear and anger. Men seeking new empowering ways to express pride and anger.

    I think Christianity is calling us to a different way – the way of love which is costly to live and be. Which requires a conversion of our hearts to get beyond our own ego, our own anger, pride and fear, to be able to live this way. This – I would articulate – is the challenge of the Gospel.

    So when we question anger – it is not to say that we don’t feel angry when we face or see injustice – its what we do with it – and I am challenged to take these emotions into love and seeking restorative justice

  4. On June 28th, 2010 at 7:54 pm artbizness said:

    I’ve always thought that splurging anger over the object of one’s frustration shows a lack of imagination. There are millions of ways to creatively respond to difficult situations that don’t include pouring out our bile on someone. It seems to me that people often have trouble owning some of the more negative ways of expressing their emotions, as if it’s someone else’s fault (“but he MADE me angry…!” or “Well, I think I have every right to be angry about that…!”) and often we don’t have a very nuanced understanding of the interaction between our emotions and the reactions we CHOOSE to make.

    I think we’ve been talking more about these subjects in moot because they’ve obviously hit a raw nerve, and I would be interested to talk to people about the reasons for that, be they cultural, sociological, emotional, therapuetic or anything else, as I think it’s important to be aware of, discuss the reasons for, and generally tease out what can be a bit of a blind spot. We need to be a community that faces the difficult questions.

    I would also suggest that it’s interesting that pride has been somewhat glossed over. I came across a great quote the other day, that I think hits the nail on the head, especially for a deepening community such as ours:

    “Shame is a hugely powerful emotion and tied to pride; it can be one of the hardest things to overcome. It’s an emotion that becomes more difficult, not easier, to deal with, the more we respect or love those closest to us.” – Scroobius Pip.

    Something that we would do well to heed, as I think Pride and Shame are often tied to anger, as Ian has said.

  5. On July 18th, 2010 at 12:15 pm David said:

    Grace, your post has been rattling around my mind for the last six days since i stuck my head inside the window of a black cab on Victoria Street and yelled a paragraph of nasty words, including two very bad ones, at the driver who had just cut me up and proceeded to beep at me for being in the way.
    I was shocked at the reaction I made, which, I’m sure, largely had something to do with the muggy warm weather and particularly frustrating morning I’d had.
    Regardless, i think there are a couple of the above points that have been helpful for me in processing this event. Firstly, ‘slow to anger’. I really feel like this is something quite important. It speaks of patience and therefore time to listen. Instead in my instance, i gave the cabbie no time to speak for himself, pushing all the burdens of my day onto him. It was an incredibly selfish thing to do, as it projected a pile of shit in one direction. I hope in the future i can get better at holding myself back, not allowing myself to get into such a frazzled state, and practice the more counter-cultural response of kindness rather than hate.
    I also really like Ian’s thoughts on empire and power. I really find this interesting…could masculinity in the UK be redefined through choosing to practice kindness rather than hate? I think it’s much more difficult to practice kindness as it requires humility….a direct contrast to pride.

    With regards to the cabbie, as soon as i heard the words come out of my mouth i realised what a major error i had just made and rode off as fast as i could. Mr taxi driver, if you are reading this, I really am truly sorry. I could buy you breakfast at the Regency cafe in Westminster and i could show you my wheels and you could talk me round your engine as a means of reconciliation.