Many years ago, when I was starting out in ministry, I was sitting with a group of clergy at our weekly bible study. This was not a typical study week and a couple of the pastors were really struggling with anger towards their mentor who had come out publicly as supporting an issue they disagreed with. As they vented, a wise older pastor cut them off and said, “What gain do you get from being angry?” Of course, they responded that they had every right to be angry, they had a righteous anger because they felt betrayed. The older wise pastor called them out, saying, “It sounds as if your anger is not about the kingdom; rather, it is about you.”
Watching this, for me, was something incredible. As the banter went back and forth, the two upset clergy did not want to give up their anger and the others were just getting annoyed. Eventually the two pastors left. And we began to talk. The wise pastor said, “Anger is a useless emotion. It is the epitome of human depravity, and when we sink into fits of anger, we close ourselves off to listening for God.”
I thought that was interesting, because so often God is equated with being angry. So, I took some time to study how and why God gets angry and how we get angry. The analogy I like is to think of a little boy playing in the street. The mother runs out and is angry at the child because he is playing in the street. The little boy is angry because his mom won’t let him do what he wants. So often when we get angry, it is because we are not getting what we want and holding fast to a myopic, self-centered understanding of the world.
Think about it: the boy is angry because he can’t do what he wants. From his viewpoint, he is being safe and not hurting anybody. But from the mother's standpoint, she knows it is a busy street and that her son will not always pay attention. Moreover, she knows that if he gets hurt, it will hurt a lot of other people, herself included.
When we look at the stories of God getting angry, all of them center around us doing something that is focused on our own self-interest over the divine or even over the betterment of the community. This is no more explicit than the only time that Jesus gets angry in the New Testament. Jesus had gone up to Jerusalem for Passover when he went to the temple and found that it had been taken over by a marketplace. In what must have been quite a spectacle, Jesus drove everything out of the temple with whips, turned over the tables and ruined the money.
Jesus’ anger was not only a result of the temple and the faith being used for profit. What you see in the dialog that followed was that he was not only angry that it was happening, but also because the people did not understand why this was wrong. Of course, you can imagine that the people in the market were extremely angry that he had just disrupted their lives. We can understand the rationalization, but that does not make it right. They were disrespecting God and putting the temple in danger.
El Greco, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (National Gallery, London)
In fact, historically, this passage is connected with the destruction of the second temple around 70 CE. It was destroyed by the Romans because of a revolt, but to many at the time, the destruction was really linked to a lack of faithfulness. This furthered the rise of Christianity, as Christ becomes the New Temple, as it states in John 2:21.
Regardless, as people, I agree with that pastor. Anger is not a useful emotion. So often when we get angry, we stop thinking, and more often than not, really hurt others in unintended ways. This anger is different than the anger that comes from God. The anger that comes from God, like the anger that comes from the mother, is not really anger at all, but a deep passionate love and desire that we live the full life that he created for us.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen