This talk was prepared for a meeting of the Bishops’ Spouses of the Church of England, and given at Lambeth Palace on November 4th 2017. It is published here with permission. It was written for a specific audience, but others may find in it something of interest.
The idea for this talk took shape around a conversation with Caroline Welby about "things we have in common". Amongst our emotions, anger can be one many of us have difficulty with. How to allow it to be, how to express it and how to manage our own and others' responses to it. I'm going to speak about anger, drawing on my experience personally and as a psychotherapist. It isn't meant to cover everything, but to trigger thoughts about our own wisdom and quandaries.
I want by way of introduction to describe two scenarios that may ring bells for many clergy families. One is fictional, and in the way of all good fiction, therefore truly human. The other is fact.
The book is Ice, by Ulla Lena Lundberg (highly recommended, by the way), set in 1947 in the Åland archipelago far to the north between Finland and Sweden.
The newly appointed young pastor Petter and his wife Mona and baby Sanna have just arrived at their new parsonage. Petter heads off with a lift to the local shop while Mona moves furniture, gets bedding sorted and starts unpacking their goods. Sanna
is crying now, … and soon she'll be crying inconsolably, while their supposed protector, for whom Mona has left a salaried position, is off in the village making himself popular with the locals.
We have probably all uprooted and moved, and maybe changed jobs, for the sake of our partner’s vocation. Although we may find joy or at least compensation in the process, this can still be burdensome, as we are finding our satisfaction around the shape of what is more obviously for our partner. He or she receives in addition the recognition which can make the upheaval more rewarding. A move can provoke upset, hurt or anger; with partner, or with the church, or indeed with God. This can happen again and again, and we may get used to it, or it may become increasingly hard to bear.
I like the character Mona in Ice, because she is very straightforward in her responses, anger and delight shining from her. She and her husband are both thrilled with their new life, but Mona is clearer in the way she acknowledges the cost involved. She gets angry, and it helps them both to recognise the complexity of what they have taken on, and the fact that living a Christian life doesn't provide clear answers.
And now to the second story. It's called Tomatoes.
Once upon a time there was a good Christian wife doing her best to manage uncomplainingly her home, her three children, her growing professional life.
Her husband let her know he had invited some overseas visitors for dinner in a few days time. Not what she wanted, but there you go. She shopped, she cooked, he laid the table, and they had a very nice evening. He made coffee. She cleared up. She was tired.
The next day the couple were in the kitchen with their children. The husband said there were some more visitors. They are very nice people. She’ll like them.
Something flipped. Another straw had been added (actually more than a straw, it was like a brick). Tomatoes were thrown. Words were said.
“I think I'll take them to a restaurant” said the man.
"Tomato throwing" entered the family lexicon.
In this talk I would like to explore briefly six themes; repression; what is anger; bereavement; anger with God; God’s anger; the viciousness of saintliness.
The event I've just described confirmed a real change in the way Graham and I communicated. I didn't need to throw tomatoes again. I had learnt that my “good” behaviour was causing me increasing problems. I wanted to be helpful, amenable, uncomplaining. So I consistently agreed to things I didn't want to do, without telling Graham I didn't want to do them. I had, without realising it, become increasingly angry. But because I saw myself as someone who didn't get angry, I hadn't noticed. I had just got more exhausted.
This is what repression is. We feel an ordinary human emotion like anger, and don't allow ourselves to register it, because it is “bad” or “unChristian” or “not what women do”.
We might be avoiding punishment, especially if we have had early experiences of being punished for our anger, or avoiding an unwanted conflict with someone because conflict scares us.
Meanwhile our anger goes unacknowledged, which of course might in itself be infuriating. In the end it is likely to erupt in one way or another. Terrible rows take place, which seem out of proportion, but carry a history of upset and anger. Irritation with the children, with parishioners, with the woman keeping you on hold as you try to sort out a query with the bank. Physical symptoms like backache, irritable bowel or eczema can be exacerbated. You might be suffering from a pain in the neck in more ways than one. Depression often has repressed anger as one of its causes.
What makes you angry? The lack of funding in the NHS, the way our prisons are managed. My husband having forgotten to put the recycling out. The stabbing of a young man on our streets. The anonymous person who was nasty to my daughter. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices. The driver who pushed past the traffic lights so that I couldn't move. The destruction meted out on the Earth. Political folly locally, nationally and globally.
Thinking about and speaking out my responses and feelings has been such an important development for me, as it makes me more honest with myself and with God.
2. What is Anger?
Anger is an emotion. A feeling. We all have feelings, it is part of the commonality of being human. We all get annoyed, irritated, exasperated. Our responsibility is not to try not to feel angry. It is to notice our feelings and decide what to do with them. Of course if we are absolutely enraged, it's harder to manage, harder to put the feeling to good use, harder to avoid damaging someone else with it.
Jesus had, and has, feelings. As he approached Jerusalem in Luke 19, he was sad and wept. He is upset at what is happening, and is going to happen. Then he was angry: verse 45: he went into the temple and began driving out the traders, with these words:
Scripture says, “my house shall be a house of prayer”, but you have made it a bandits’ cave.
He speaks his anger but he also acts on it, and in this case very forcefully.
People who are effective are often making effective use of their anger. They turn their anger about neglect of the climate, the suffering of sick children, the lack of welcome for refugees, the degradation of torture into active campaigning for justice, work to alleviate poverty, fundraising for issues they care about and so on.
It can be particularly tough to manage your anger when you feel powerless to make anything change. The situation may be one which you can't change, for instance we can feel angry about an accident or a bereavement. We can feel angry about world events and our powerlessness only adds to the anger or despair. This can express itself in depression, lashing out against others, despair, turning against oneself, or indeed self harm, though that can of course have multiple causes.
Sometimes there is nowhere to express this anger. It can be helpful to find a safe space and to explore the feelings. This can be with a friend or in your prayer time or in therapy, but sometimes even that isn't possible. Many people don't want to burden others with impossible feelings and they don't really know how to manage. It can sometimes be helpful to find a private place in which to rail against the situation. Being isolated in a box - literally in the car (if you're on your own) or metaphorically on paper or on the Internet; can provide space to shout, to rage against God or against your circumstances. Even a run or a game of squash can let off some aggression.
Anger frightens some people. This can lead to expressing your anger in your imagination; for instance complaining to your partner. This can be trivial - “you haven't put the bins out”; or bigger - “you scheduled a meeting on our date night”. If we do this imaginary complaining too much it can lead to another complaint: “why don't you ever listen to my complaints?” This can be hard for a partner who hasn't heard what's going on in your head. The anger needs to be expressed. Your partner needs to hear what it is that is troubling you. Of course one of the things which might be troubling you is that your partner isn't noticing, or thinking about what might be troubling you. This can be a fair or an unfair complaint, but it's another one which needs to be expressed.
God also needs and wants to hear our complaints. We need to articulate them or we might not even know they are there. This is particularly pertinent for me at the moment, as I struggled with it on retreat a few months ago.
Some dear friends of ours, Annie and Alan Hargrave, lost their son Tom to cancer when he was only 21. Alan has written a moving memoir, “One for Sorrow” (SPCK) about his and his family's experience going through this terrible bereavement. There's an honesty here about the cost to one’s faith of living through trauma, and the particular pressure on clergy.
He talks about anger:
A common symptom of grief is anger. I have seen this a hundred times in the people I meet in the course of my ministry. People who do not recognise anger as a normal part of grief and thus let rip on some poor, unfortunate person who becomes a focus for their anger. Yet, despite knowing all this, I realise now, looking back, that it is exactly what I did, too. Thinking my anger was righteous, justified, when in fact it was just my inability to cope, my being overwhelmed by grief and pain, all my defences down, shattered, unable to take any more. And maybe it was, too, my misplaced anger at God, who wasn't tangible enough to shout at in any satisfactory way.
Alan apologises -
so to all those of you who had to cope with my anger and bear the sharp edge of my tongue, I am truly sorry.
Bereavement can be particularly hard for someone who is publicly a Christian. Beginning to return to work after Tom’s death, Alan attended a discussion led by an ordinand.
He talks about pain and suffering, but then reads a passage from the Bible which says that, despite the suffering, everything will turn out hunky-dory in the end. ‘Well,’ he asks, looking round at us expectantly, smiling, ‘what is our response to that?’ No one says anything. I tell myself to not say anything either. ‘If you can't say anything helpful, Alan, don't say anything at all.’
I count to 60. I bite my lip. In the end, the silence is too much for me. I cannot bear it. I cannot keep it in. The anger wells up and overwhelms me. So, finally, I blurt it out, saying: ‘It's complete bullshit.’ Just as I thought, it isn't helpful. There is a stunned silence. No one knows what to say. After a while I walk out and go home.
We all, under duress, can get it wrong. And if there has been a terrible bereavement, we're likely to get it more wrong, more often, than we usually do. It's an added, often unacknowledged, burden to bear in the wake of a death.
4. Anger with God
Yes, anger with God. Another tricky one. We sometimes try to talk ourselves out of it. We know perfectly well that God is good and God listens. Lucky people like me tell themselves they have nothing to complain about. I'm not living in poverty, I'm not a refugee, I haven't, thank God, lost a child. But if I don't tell God how I truly feel, I am not being honest with God, and my relationship with God is the poorer for it.
So let us, when relevant, remember the psalms: here are three examples.
Psalm 44: Wake up, O God! Why are you asleep? Do not cast us off for ever.
Psalm 88:1-3; Lord my God, by day I call for help, by night I cry aloud in your presence. Let my prayer come before you, hear my loud entreaty; for I have had my fill of woes, which have brought me to the brink of Sheol.
v 7: Your wrath bears heavily on me, you have brought on me all your fury.
v 13: But as for me, Lord, I cry to you, my prayer comes before you in the morning.
v 14-18: Lord why have you cast me off, why do you hide your face from me? From childhood I have suffered and been near to death; I have born your terrors, I am numb. Your burning fury has swept over me, your onslaughts have overwhelmed me; all day long they surge round me like a flood, from every side they close in on me. You have taken friend and neighbour far from me; darkness is now my only companion.
This may be the prayer of a man who has fled into the bush in fear for his life in South Sudan. Of a woman in Ethiopia who can't find enough food to feed her family. Of a child at home who is abused in their bedroom every night.
But of course we cry to God in the more mundane circumstances of everyday life. It can also be my prayer, on retreat in August and grappling with my sense of the nothingness of my spiritual life, trying to find some presence or life in my prayers, in my relationship with God.
I go on, as others have gone on before me…
1: Save me, God, for the water has risen to my neck
2: I sink in muddy depths where there is no foothold; I have come into deep water, and the flood sweeps me away
3: I am exhausted with crying, my throat is sore, my eyes are worn out with waiting for God.
Can we allow ourselves to pray these difficult prayers? This will involve us admitting how intractable life can be at times.
13: But as for me, my prayer is to you, oh Lord. At an acceptable time, oh God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.
“At an acceptable time” I find that infuriating: No, God, I want your help NOW, please just get on with it. When we feel truly desperate, for whatever reason, it just isn't honest to mess around with “if it be thy will” or “in your own good time”.
We know the truth of that theoretically, but the honest statement of our need or desire is more authentic. It does not do to deny how hurt or angry or desperate we feel. It does not do to deny how strong my desire is, even if all I can pray now is “something's got to change, God, I can't stand this any longer”.
The psalms go to and fro as we do:
Still in psalm 69:
16: Answer me, Lord, in the goodness of your unfailing love, In your great compassion, turn towards me.
A nice, acceptable prayer. But then comes:
17: Do not hide your face from me, your servant;
answer me without delay, for I am in dire straits.
It's very direct, a heart-to-heart communication with God. I'm not sure I'd dare to put those kind of words into the intercessions at church, it seems too demanding, maybe too self-seeking.
But no, I am mistaken. For God wants us to tell God our troubles, to be honest about how things are for us, to ask God for what we want or desire. We don't have to be desperately ill, or starving, in a war zone, or in prison to ask for God’s urgent attention.
If we don't appeal to God, then we may end up in our misery needing a more urgent prayer such as verse 20: “I am in despair; I looked for consolation, but received none, for comfort, but did not find any.”
5. God’s anger
We hear in various parts of the Bible about God’s anger. We know God is full of love, but he strikes us down, allows bad things to happen, then helps us up. In 1633 George Herbert in his poem Bitter Sweet encapsulates this, and says he's going to follow God’s example.
Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.
Compassion and anger are the two scribal traditions. In Mark1:40-4 we can see that having problems coping with Jesus’s anger has been around from the earliest days.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “if you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose, Be made clean!”
In the Revised English Bible, instead of moved with pity, the translation says Jesus was moved to anger.
This discrepancy comes from the two manuscript traditions between which translators have to choose. Usually the more difficult reading is the earlier one. It seems likely that the scribe found the thought of Jesus’ anger troublesome, and changed the word in the later version to pity.
Jesus, we realise, had compassion on the man. His anger was with the leprosy, for the pain and damage it caused.
God does get angry, but often God is surprisingly not angry. Did you see “the Mysteries” - a modern multilingual South African take on the medieval Chester mystery plays? It was on in London a few years ago. After the flood, Noah and his family are singing and dancing and drinking beer as they celebrate their return to dry land. God walks in and a sudden embarrassed silence falls… God looks round, face impassive… and picks up an empty beer bottle and a stick… and then with a smile begins to beat out a cheerful rhythm. The party resumes with relief and renewed vigour.
We sometimes expect God to be angry, or harsh, and it can be such a welcome surprise to find God forgiving and full of compassion, or even willing to initiate a celebration.
A friend from university, Veronica Zundel, is a writer. In the magazine Christian Woman back in 1988 she says some people
tend to present God’s anger as a detached cold abhorrence punishing evil because it's his job to do so, without feeling any passion about it. If this is righteous anger, I don't much like the look of it. It seems more like the distaste of God than his wrath.
A dispassionately angry God doesn't strike me as at all lovable. I feel a lot more in common with one who gets so furious he could spit. I prefer the biblical God who is always telling his people that their sacrifices stink, or to put it in contemporary terms their behaviour really gets up his nose.
She is highlighting our tendency to remove passion from God. In fact, as we know, God cares deeply and feels passionately.
6. The Viciousness of Saintliness
Sometimes anger can be taken out on others under the guise of holiness. Mrs Jellyby is a great parodic character in Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Her charitable energy is given to a misguided scheme to resettle impoverished Britons in Africa. One wonders whether the Mrs Jellybys of this world are driven by rage at those closest to them. Their virtuous dedication to good causes takes their life over, becomes an excuse to neglect spouse and children. This punishes, and at the same time avoids responsibility to, the family under cover of an activity which allows them a clear conscience.
The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, discussed the concept of “martyr for right” in one of his letters:
There is the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence…
[The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York; pp. 262-4]
One of the indicators that anger may be a (possibly unconscious) element in the behaviour of someone apparently good, is that we feel inferior or guilty when we are with them. Thomas Merton highlights how the “martyr for right” thrives on making others terribly wrong, and therefore the guilt of the person they are with, is triggered.
Think about a notice at church requesting help with the autumn market.
Two different people can give the same notice with very different effect. I expect you can think of someone, person A, maybe a very committed church member, who triggers feelings of inadequacy in others. Compare them to someone else, person B, in the same environment, whose company leaves you feeling good about yourself.
Person A gives the notice and you hear in their tone of voice what a lot of work they are doing for the autumn market and at what cost, and you guiltily think you ought to offer your help (or you feel guiltily relieved that you're not going near it with a barge pole). Person B gives the notice and you think how glad you'd be to help, it'll be fun, or how sorry you are that you can't manage it.
Saintliness is hard to achieve, because the more one tries to do the good, the right thing, the more likely it is that we will resent the effort, or get trapped in feelings of self-righteousness.
I have drawn together various situations in which anger plays a role. I hope to have shown that anger in itself is not such a bad thing. It's an emotion every human being feels in a range of circumstances. It causes trouble when it is allowed out uncontrolled, or when it has been so thoroughly controlled that its only outlet is through a potentially damaging explosion. If we allow ourselves to feel it and express it, however, it can be relieved of its power to hurt, and thus used to find creative solutions to difficult situations.
Let us end where we began. With a passage from the novel Ice. It is the young couple’s first summer in their new home, and the summer visitors start arriving.
Petter’s parents arrive, and he
stands on the steamboat dock and receives them with a warm smile and a hearty welcome, while he timidly wishes there was a custom that required parents to keep their distance during the first few years of a child’s marriage.…
Petter is keenly aware that Mona is not happy, although she controls herself. … He suggests his mother will help with the housework.
Mona snorts. As if she'd want to have her mother-in-law pottering around in her kitchen! She cleans frenetically before they arrive, sure that the old lady will criticise and complain…Mona is angry, angry, angry before they come, takes Sanna by the arm, … snaps at Petter when he comes in…, lies awake at night foaming and steaming. When he's fallen asleep, she lies awake repeating to herself, 'And here I'm supposed to be their servant and cook their meals and take care of them from morning to night. Not a moment’s peace all day long while you can at least take a rest now and then and have a really good time as their guide in this beautiful weather! And I slave on, have the coffee poured and meals ready whenever it pleases them to saunter in. All you have to do is sit down at the table. Cook, maid, hired girl all in one, but their chamber pots they can carry out themselves!'
Petter is timid about his anger, and so it gets concealed behind his smiles and his hearty welcome. It is left to Mona to feel the injustice, the imposition, that can come alongside a perfectly legitimate arrangement for a visit from relatives. But here even she is caught in that trap that many of us might recognise. She can't complain to her in-laws, but she also wants to protect her husband from her feelings, so she lies awake when she's desperately tired, feeling the outrage and mulling over the unfairness of it all. She draws a limit, however, “their chamber pots they can carry out themselves!” I hope this thought allows dear Mona to fall asleep.
As the story continues, we realise that Petter’s difficulty is that he can't draw a line. He finds himself unable to say "no! That's enough!" in trivial and in more significant ways. He suffers the good pastor’s shadow, getting taken advantage of because he can't bear to refuse to meet other people's demands, maybe because he thinks he has to be good, and be seen to be good all the time. The result of this is that he is drained by his kindness and pastoral duties and hasn't got enough time for his wife and child, nor yet for himself.
Does this sound familiar?