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Sorting through our anger with the Psalmists
I grew up in Central Pennsylvania and I’m Egyptian too—so I was trained in the ways of passive aggression. At a young age, it was pressed into me, not to be angry. Tantrums were wrong and so I had to figure out other ways to channel my anger. I don’t think I had good habits, and I carry that lack into my adulthood. Rather than talking about what is bothering me, I try to just change how I feel about it. I don’t have the hard conversations I need, and the pressure builds and I blow my lid.
Not only that, when I don’t take care of my anger in other situations, people that I feel safe being angry with get my wrath. Could be my kid, or some other “weaker” people. Our anger, even if it doesn’t manifest itself in physical violence, has the power to injure people.
When we shame the angry, we are responsible for what happens to our community afterward. When we don’t handle our emotions, and they are ours to handle, we are responsible for how they manifest themselves. We need to create a safe place for emotions to be expressed in healthy ways.
We need to be honest, honest with God, and honest with others about how we feel. We cannot simply think our feeling is bad or good. They are what they are. They get a connotation based on how we respond to them. There are negative and positive emotions, but I am unsure there are moral and immoral emotions.
The Psalms, songs in the Bible in the middle of the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible), offer us an opportunity to look at least one way that we can express our anger, this inevitable human emotion.
The Psalms are emotive—they are not typically intellectual and cerebral, at least they are not intellectual or cerebral first. Already, when we read them, we know that the writer was in touch with his or her emotions, and if we already have a predisposition that emotional expression is wrong, we will have a tough time with the Psalms.
They are written using emotive language, often hyperbolic language (they exaggerate for effect), and their main purpose is not theological or doctrinal exposition. We can certainly find those things in the inspired words of God, but that is not the purpose they serve. So just because a Psalmist says it or does it, doesn’t mean we should follow suit—nor does it mean that it was a right behavior or action for the Psalmist even at the time. David wrote most of the Psalms, his life was filled with sin, murder, adultery, jealously, and so on—often times those emotions are fueling his writings and so we get Psalms that have a variety of expressions that are not inherently wrong, but perhaps shouldn’t be mimicked.
The Psalms are not literal, and are often metaphorical. Moreover, they are pieces of literature with a specific form, pattern, and notably function. Their function is usually addressing a specific situation in the life of Israel, the Psalmist, or something else.
It is inappropriate then to just assume that we should find a personal meaning in the Psalm that we are reading—that probably applies to the whole of Scripture—but notably the Psalms. God was speaking directly to a group of people, and even though we can find value in the Psalms for us today, let’s not be so explicit about it.
Finally, the Psalms themselves are literary units, not to taken out of context. Not just the context in which they were written, but the context of the Psalm itself. Trying to find meaning or theological value is problematic in general, but exacerbated when we selectively quote a Psalm.
The Psalms teach us not to be afraid of our emotions. He lets them out. He’s not afraid to tell God what they are and tell God what he should do about it. I admire that kind of openness. I’m not sure we have that audacity all the time. Most of the time, we’ll just stop believing in God if we are mad enough or oppressed enough.
In the laments, the Psalmists know what they are complaining about too. They are aware of what they want and what God may do for them.
The laments and imprecatory show us how to express our anger. Or rather, that it is OK to express it. The Psalm doesn’t “cure” its writers of their anger, but it gives them an outlet. And if you pay attention to the tone of the Psalm, sometimes they get “calmer.”
For us, journaling, talking to your pastor or a therapist about your feelings—by itself—is positive. We don’t even need to solve the problem at this point. We just need to be honest about how we feel, at least to begin with. For some of us that admission of anger is hard. It’s hard to acknowledge we are angry, especially if we think being angry is wrong. If we can overcome our fear of our emotion—hammered into us by our culture, by our faith, and by our parents—we might be able to at least take the step of expression.
After we sort out our emotions, we may be able to let God comfort us and console us in our anxiety. We know what we have, perhaps why we are angry, and we can get a level head. God helps us compose ourselves so that we can actually solve the problem that is at the root of anger. It could be circumstantial, but it might even deeper than that. Our residual anger may have to do with not forgiving ourselves or something that wronged us years ago. It may have to do with whatever present thing brought it to light. But when we have a calmness about it we can begin to relationally sort through what is bothering us. Prayer, contemplation, solitude help with that clarity.
Finally, and I think this is important for Christians to consider, have a conflict. Not an anger-filled, hurtful screaming match. I think we can sometimes get very angry in our relationships and just let it rip with the argument that “we never get to express how we feel.” Well, that might be true, but it’s no one’s fault but yours. A vitriolic tantrum is never justified. Freaking out doesn’t work, even if you rarely do it. Continue to rarely do it, but find a place to express your anger in a healthy way, but then have a reasonable discussion.
I think most of the time, we just try to repress it. Some of us will channel all of our anger in yoga, or in exercise, or in whatever else. We might overeat or drink too much. We never address the root of the problem and we think curbing the emotion is all we need to do. When we think anger is the problem, we just try to get rid of it. But anger isn’t right or wrong. It just is what it is. It’s a great indication that something is wrong.
So, in a sentence, my advice and word to you is: express your anger, think about it, write about it, and discern what is at its root. If it’s something in your past, learn how to cope with it, forgiving who you need to. If it’s in you, learn how to change your behavior as you go through healing—use a spiritual director, pastor, or therapist. And if it’s with someone else, take a time out, and then return to the person trying to have some conflict resolution.
David and the Psalmists give us permission to be angry, if we need that, and he gets his process going by singing out about it. Maybe we can write a Psalm too.