O my Lord, I discern in my anger a sense of self-righteousness which is much too close to pleasure. And I think of you, Lord. You were never angry in your own defence, and you took no pleasure in anger: else why the Cross? But you were angry for God: you were angry with those who sold him as a commodity; you were angry with those who used him for their own status; or who treated him as belonging only to them. O Lord, implant in me a holy fear of the wrong kind of anger, which ministers to my own sense of self-importance, or is simply an indulgence of my own frustration. Forgive me, Lord, for all such occasions.
Ruth Etchells (1931-2012)
from Just As I Am: Personal prayers for every day (Triangle/SPCK, 1994)
AS I set about writing this, I had a sense of wanting to address anger. Surely it wouldn’t be that difficult to find a prayer dealing with the subject? My search took longer than I had expected, because I was looking for a particular kind of prayer.
I found prayers seeking God’s forgiveness for angry outbursts, repentance for the sin of anger, and so on. It was much harder to find any sense in which we could acknowledge the positives in the anger that we sometimes feel.
I was looking for some recognition that anger can be, in appropriate circumstances, precisely the right response, and one that can lead to healing. Then I happened on Ruth Etchells’s contemporary prayer.
The first part is more of an introductory commentary, leading us to the heart of the prayer: her plea to the Lord to “implant in me a holy fear of the wrong kind of anger”. There it was. If there is a “wrong kind of anger”, there must be, by definition, a right kind of it. The challenge is to work out which is which.
Although it does not use the word “anger” specifically, Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” captures this sense of discernment:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
All of us can think of circumstances in our everyday lives, or moments where we have been placed under pressure, that have led us to display inappropriate anger. My belief that anger is an intrinsic part of our humanity — the wrong kind being evidence of our brokenness — was what lies behind all those other prayers about repenting of it which I discarded.
Have you ever lost your temper while driving, or on discovering that the last space in the hospital car park has been blocked by someone’s poor parking? There are those days when nothing seems to go right: the computer does not work, you burn the dinner — and, all of a sudden, you find yourself shouting at people.
Then there are the deeper forms of anger, brought about by hurt and disappointment: betrayal by a friend; the recurrence of the medical condition that you thought had gone; the emotional energy committed to a process of discernment, only to discover the door closed in your face. Our anger is fuelled by self-doubt, wondering how we can build any kind of trust or hope again.
What Etchells’s prayer does is to identify where this “wrong kind of anger” comes from. These are the situations at the centre of which we place our own needs and desires, and our own preferences for “how things should be”. She names them: “self-righteousness”, “self-importance”, “an indulgence of my own frustration”.
Here, perhaps, we find the anger of Jonah when things did not turn out the way he had planned (Jonah 4.1); Peter, misreading the situation in Gethsemane (John 18.10); or Martha’s sense of priority (Luke 10.40).
These are the situations when the temptation is to rest in our angry state, to feel hard done by, and that feeling that Etchells so rightly identifies as being “much too close to pleasure”. These are the angers on which we are counselled not to let the sun go down (Ephesians 4.26).
And yet the beginning of that same verse in Ephesians leads us in the opposite direction: “Be angry, but do not sin.” Here is the right kind of anger. This is the anger modelled by Christ himself, to which our prayer directs us: “You were angry for God.” To be angry for God is not to look at ourselves and our own needs, but to look outwards, into God’s world, and to see by how far it falls short of God’s glory.
Jesus’s anger was demonstrated in the overturning of tables in the Temple (“those who sold [God] as a commodity”) (Matthew 21, Mark 11, John 2); and in calling the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites” in Matthew 23 (“those who used him for their own status; or who treated him as belonging only to them”).
Here, then, I have found a prayer that meets me in my human brokenness: one that rightly allows me space to confess those times when I have felt, or wallowed in, the wrong kind of anger. But here, too, is a prayer that acknowledges that, as disciples of Christ, we can follow his example, and be angry for God.
We can look on images of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, and feel anger. We can listen to the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, when he ridiculed the disability of a journalist who is made in God’s image just as we are, and feel anger. We can hear about the widening gap between the richest and the poorest, and feel anger. This is the right kind of anger.
We cannot stop at that, however. Etchells’s prayer leads us to the only place it can: “else why the Cross?” she asks. The brokenness of humanity, evidenced by the wrong kind of anger, led God to take action; it led Christ to empty himself and humble himself to the point of death (Philippians 2.7-8); it leads us to the Cross, time and time again, for forgiveness.
And the right kind of anger? If we truly want to follow Christ’s example, we must “deny ourselves, and take up our cross daily, and follow him” (Luke 9.23). We must not stop at feeling righteous anger, but allow that anger to lead us into action: to speak up for what is right, and make a difference. Amen.
The Revd Catherine Lomas is Pioneer Vicar of Irchester with Stanton Cross, in the diocese of Peterborough.