Lester: Threats to Self and Values Evoke Anger

Lester_review_20200128 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

Also see:

Elliott: God’s Emotions Inform Our Emotions

Crucial Conversations Target Productive Dialog

Plueddemann Demystified Leadership Across Culture

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Corner_2020

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Why Think About Faith?

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

We live at a time when discussions of faith focus on our emotions and relational response to God in Jesus Christ. A subtext in these discussion is what will God do for me, not as a member of a family, but as an individual? While emotions and our relationship with Jesus are clearly important, how can we trust someone intimately who we know little or nothing about?

The Therapeutic Gospel

The therapeutic gospel fosters this attitude by focusing heavily on God’s love and seeing the role of the pastor through the lens of a counselor. In this context, Sunday morning worship becomes a group therapy session helping parishioners to purge anxiety through upbeat, uptempo music and an uplifting and witty sermons (all within a one hour timeframe of course) that provide nice to know religious information devoid of prescriptive advice. The triumph of the therapeutic gospel has come at the expense of traditional moral teaching.

If you do not believe me, consider some recent observations by one pastor about the difference between churched and unchurched young people in his youth group. The churched kids knew “how to get drunk, have sex and smoke marijuana without their parents ever knowing about it.” Meanwhile, the unchurched kids were “mostly fatherless boys and girls, some of whom [were] gang members, all of them completely unfamiliar with the culture of the church.” and did not even try to hide their sinful activities. (Moore 2015, 70-71) These observations suggest that in the absence of moral guidance, we all gravitate towards hypocrisy.

The love promoted in the therapeutic gospel is motherly love (or grandfatherly love), not fatherly love. Mothers love their children unconditionally while a father’s love is conditioned on the need to learn discipline and prepare them for adulthood. Both types of love are needed, but motherly love in the absence of fatherly love does not prepare a child for the hard realities of adulthood. Adulthood provides independence, but only in the context of discipline and limitations. If you have never been denied anything growing up, how are you to learn to live within a budget or to deal with disappointment? Written large, the same problem faces our nation—how can our politicians ask for sacrifice when people think that their are entitled to free education, health care, and other public services?

Problems with the Therapeutic Gospel

Already in the 1930s, theologians, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1995), warned about the problem of cheap grace—forgiveness without confession. Closer to home, Richard Niebuhr (1937, 193) warned of the development of: “A God without wrath [who] brought men [and women] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

What we have in the therapeutic gospel is a kinder, gentler Jesus, but without the possibility of salvation because this Jesus did not die for our sins. This is because we don’t believe in sin, which precludes the need for forgiveness. We just need a bit of therapy from a good counselor—all we need is love, to quote John Lennon.

Clearly, the focus on emotions to the exclusion of theology leads us somewhere that we do not want to go.

The Cognitive Theory of Emotions

In his path-breaking work on emotions in the New Testament, Matthew Elliott (2006, 46-47) outlines a cognitive theory of emotions that “reason and emotion are interdependent.” The alternative is to argue that reason and emotion are independent of one another, a key assumption of the therapeutic gospel because emotions are believed to rule our lives. Elliott notes that the God of the Bible only gets angry on rare occasions and his anger (or wrath) is focused on examples of when people have disobeyed the covenant or expressed a hardness of the heart, as in the case of Pharaoh (Exod 4:21).

Significantly, the only example of Jesus being described as angry is in Mark 3:5 after the Pharisees displayed a hardness of the heart with respect to a man with a withered hand.[1] If God himself gets emotional about things that he believes are important, then clearly his emotions and reason are interrelated. By contrast, other gods in the ancient world would get angry spontaneously and did not limit their anger to matters of principle.

Perceptions, Learning, and Decision Making Introduced

If our emotions are to follow from things that we feel are important, then theology (our understanding of God), not emotions, should come first in our faith walk. How we perceive the world, how we learn, and how we make decisions remain more important than our emotional assessment of them.

[1] When we see Jesus clear the temple, he is shown angry, not described as such.

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.

Moore, Russell. 2015. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1937. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

 

Why Think About Faith?

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent-2018

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Jenkins Foresees a Famine of the Word of God

jon_jenkins_11202016Today’s guest blogger is Rev. Jonathan Jenkins. Jon is pastor of the Klingerstown Lutheran Parish in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. He was one of four presenters at a public forum of the Tri-Valley Ministerium on the question, “Can the church survive?” About 100 members of the public participated.

Public Forum: “Will the church survive?” Response #1: “A Famine of the Word of God” October 30, 2016

By Pastor Jonathan Jenkins, Klingerstown Lutheran Parish

On the Lutheran church calendar today is “Reformation Sunday.” 499 years ago, Martin Luther is remembered for nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Martin Luther called for reformation related to our question today: “Will the church survive?”

Some would praise Luther and some would blame Luther for bringing about division of the holy church. For his part, Luther hated the idea of a church named after him or called “Lutheran.” Praise him or blame him or both, Luther would remind us that the condition of the church was and is determined, ultimately, not by human beings, but by God, through our interaction with God’s Word. “Will the church survive?” is a question that comes from God. For Lutherans, the answer is, “Yes!” It is a matter of the Gospel and faith in Jesus Christ. According to the Lutheran Confessions: “There will be and must continue to be one holy church” forever, “against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.”

That’s the Good News. Now the bad news: there’s no guarantee that the church will continue here, in our place, our home. In our discussions today, I expect us to recognize the superabundance of God’s grace as well as the reality of God’s wrath. The wrath of God is my subject. The righteous anger of God against sin, death, the devil, and the worldand the church, too, to the extent that the church remains “of” the world.

I believe that is what we are experiencing.

God’s wrath as it is described by the prophet Amos (8:11)

“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the landnot a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.”

Because the people have rejected and ignored God’s Word, they will receive their just “desserts”the LORD will no longer provide “the bread of life,” his life-sustaining Gospel. “They shall run to and fro, to seek the Word of the LORD, but they shall not find it,” because the LORD has sent a famine on the land.

Martin Luther was afraid that a famine of the Word of God would be sent in his time and placethat people would become complacent about God’s grace and lazy know-it-alls, too uninterested to listen to the Bible, let alone thankful and obedient. Luther was afraid that God, despite his patient loving-kindness, would take away his Word where it was not wanted and send a famine.

Allow me to give a current day  example from my denomination. Before my denomination voted in favor of marrying and ordaining homosexual persons, the LORD sent a preacher to our church-wide assembly. The preacher was the Roman Catholic archbishop, Gregory Wilton:

“…We Catholics and Lutherans can profess together our faith in the blood of the cross, which is Christ’s work of grace that alone justifies us, even as it equips us and calls us to the good works of justice and love…”

“Our unity in Christ is always a gift before it is our shared task. But this unity is fragile, much like the infant Christ who is cradled in the arms of his holy Mother. This week the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America faces a set of decisions that may have weighty consequences for the unity of your own church and for its relationships with the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies. At stake are the teachings of Scripture and Tradition that safeguard the noble purposes of human sexuality and the fundamental meaning of marriage, which is a reflection of God’s covenant with us in Christ. Our prayer for you, as brothers and sisters who journey with you in hope, is that you remain open to the Holy Spirit who binds our consciences to truth, biblical truth that echoes through the ages…  Pope Benedict XVI (has) asserted that without this adherence to Holy Scripture, ‘our communion with the Church in every age is lost—just at the time when the world is losing its bearings and needs a persuasive common witness to the saving power of the Gospel…’ My brothers and sisters, let us profess the biblical truth in love. Why? So that the world might believe.”

So the Catholic archbishop fed us with the Word of God. Martin Luther would have given his eyeteeth to hear Catholic bishops and popes who could speak such words of biblical truth; Luther devoted his life to that cause. But we modern Lutherans, to our great shame, did not listen when our dear God proclaimed his Word to us, and we did not eat this bread of life, and we trampled it underfoot.

Will the church survive? Yes! In this place, our home? May it be so. Let us pray that God, in his wrath, would not send upon our land a famine of the Word of God. To conclude, would you please pray with me using Luther’s words?

“I pray for myself and for the whole world that the gracious Father may preserve us in his holy Word and not withdraw it from us because of our sin, ingratitude, and laziness… May he send faithful and honest laborers into his harvest, that is, devout pastors and preachers. May he grant us grace humbly to hear, accept, and honor their words as his own Words and offer our sincere thanks and praise. In the name… Amen.”

What do you think?

Jenkins Foresees a Famine of the Word of God

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