Lester: Threats to Self and Values Evoke Anger

Andrew Lester, Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Andrew D. Lester. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

During my chaplaincy training in a psych ward, I had an elderly patient who had an anger management problem. He frequently got into altercations with other patients and would get violently angry when staff members served him the wrong foods. In talking with him, he claims to have murdered a man and have served 7 years in jail for this crime. He also ruminated about assaulting annoying patients but, being partially paralyzed with a stroke, was physically incapable of acting on his ruminations. Efforts to work with him on his anger problem proved ineffective.

Introduction

Being curious on how to work more effectively with such patients led me to Andrew Lester’s book, Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally.  This book is a popular version of a more detailed and technical book: The Angry Christian: A Theology of Care and Counseling also by Westminster John Knox Press (2003).

Defining Anger

Lester observes that we get angry when we feel threatened.  While we could be angry because of a physical threat, most often we get angry because of psychological threats:  threats to our values, our beliefs about right and wrong, our expectations about the way good people should act… (14). When threatened: The intensity of our response depends on the amount of personal investment we have in the values, beliefs, and means that are being threatened (28).  Following this “threat model” of anger, our first responsibility when we get angry is to recognize that we feel threatened and to identify the nature of the threat (29).  Anger always has an object.

Anger Model

In copying with anger, Lester presents a 6 step model:

  1. Recognize anger;
  2. Acknowledge anger;
  3. Calming our bodies;
  4. Understanding why we are threatened;
  5. Evaluating the validity of the threat; and
  6. Communicating anger appropriately (62).

This list sounds suspiciously like how other authors suggest speakers cope with hostile questions—anger is often suppressed and expressed in a devious manner [1].  Lester notes that anger is often camouflaged as procrastination; actions that frustrate, embarrass or causes others pain; nasty humor; nagging; silence; sexual deviance; and passive-aggressive behavior (88-89).  My chronically angry patient, for example, was probably abused at some point—probably in prison—and this abuse returned as uncontrolled anger (84).

Does God Express Anger?

Does God get angry?  Did Jesus get angry? [2]  Lester notes that Jesus was fully human and is portrayed in the New Testament as a person with the full range of human emotion, including anger (46)  For example, Jesus asks:

Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill? But they were silent.  And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mark 3:4-5 ESV).

Lester observes that God is not normally thought to be vulnerable, but following the threat model of anger God’s values—justice and love [3]—are sometimes threatened in ways that could evoke anger.  Lester believes that God’s wrath is particularly associated with defense of his compassion and love—neither arbitrary nor capricious like other gods of antiquity (56).

A biblical scholar would note that God wrath (in the form of curses) is required by the Mosaic covenant:   But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you (Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV).  If covenantal obligations require God’s response to transgressions by the Nation of Israel [4] in the form of curses, then how much more would God’s wrath be poured out on those Gentiles, such as the Canaanites, that ignore him and trample on his law and gospel?  Lester’s threat model is helpful in biblical interpretation, for example, in the conquest of Canaan and, later, the Jewish exile to Babylon—even if postmodern sentiments are offended.  In effect, values (laws and treaties) undefended are not really values.

Outline of Book

Lester’s Anger is a short book written in 7 chapters, including:

  1. Reconsidering Anger;
  2. Why Do We Get Angry;
  3. What Does the Bible Say?
  4. Did Jesus Get Angry?  (And What about God?);
  5. Dealing with Anger Creatively;
  6. Anger Can Be Destructive; and
  7. Anger as a Spiritual Friend.

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by conclusions.

Assessment

A lot more could be said about Lester’s work.  I was impressed by Lester’s comment about the role of anger.  Anger always has an object.  Some objects of anger are righteous; many are not [5].  Like Jesus himself, a good Christian should express appropriate anger at injustice, idolatry, and innocent suffering (58,109).  Looking around today at the blatant immorality and abuses of human dignity, where is the indignation?  Where is the outrage?  Anger is sometimes appropriate.

Footnotes

[1] See, for example, review (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-8o).

[2] Also see post (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-75).

[3] Lester (55) cites:  O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 ESV)

[4] Consider the commissioning of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 3:18-21 ESV).  Even God’s prophet must honor the boundaries that God lays out for him or his salvation will be at risk.

[5] The Apostle Paul reminds us:  Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil (Ephesians 4:26-27 ESV).

Lester: Threats to Self and Values Evoke Anger

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