There is a reason Eddie Izzard’s “Cake or Death!” routine is so popular. The mild-mannered reputation of the Church of England is so ingrained that our portrayal as fire-breathing Fundamentalists is hilarious. It’s actually something I’m proud of – our meekness carries with it many worthy traits, among them tolerance, calmness, thoughtfulness, and a quiet service for humanity that does not boast, but just gets on with the business of helping others. However, I do worry that sometimes we forget the existence of anger.
I have seen many Christians, particularly but not exclusively men, struggle with anger. For them, being angry is out of place with their conception of a Christian life. They are afraid of anger, seeing it as ugly and sinful. They feel they have failed at following Christ, just by feeling angry.
But in reading the Bible, I’ve seen three general categories of anger. There is righteous anger – the anger we feel at seeing injustice done. This is the kind of anger Jesus had for the Pharisees and the money-changers. Then there is frustrated anger – the anger that Job and Jonah felt, that caused Sarah to laugh with bitterness when the angels told her God would keep his promise. This is what we feel when things are going wrong in our lives, when we feel God has abandoned us, when we feel burned out and exhausted and snap at that poor man on the train who happened to step on our toe. Finally, there is jealous anger – when we are eaten up by envy of others. This is what motivated Cain when he killed his brother, and David when he sent Bathsheba’s husband to his death.
The first type is obviously the most productive, but an examination of the latter doesn’t show God condemning the emotion, only the actions that result from it. God doesn’t judge Sarah harshly in her angry disappointment, and even when God punishes Cain for his terrible crime, he makes sure to mark him with a sign of protection, so that nobody can take revenge and continue the cycle of violence. God does not judge our anger. God, who was human, understands how hard human life can be, and if we cry out in our frustrated anger, “why have you abandoned me?”, well, God has been there too. God comforts even those who are anger out of jealousy – to the jealous older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father prefaces his moral lesson with reassurance that he too is loved and treasured: “son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
So what does all of this have to do with children? Quite a lot. If we are shamed for our anger as children, made to feel that it is unacceptable not only to act out of anger but to feel it in the first place, we will not make peace with it, or learn to control it. If we are taught that God disapproves of anger, we may feel that our anger separates us from God, or we may become ashamed of our feelings, or, worst of all, we may reject God. In his book Getting Your Kids Through Church Without Them Ending Up Hating God, Rob Parsons writes about a man who had lived a charmed life, until he lost his job. That same day, he stopped believing in God – his anger at a God who could let bad things happen to someone who loved him was overwhelming. Faith that seems strong when things are going well can easily be exposed as flimsy when the storm clouds gather. Faith that has room for anger and disappointment is stronger and more realistic. We need to teach our children that it’s okay, in prayer, to say, “how could you do this to me?”
How can we help children accept their angry feelings? First of all, we must not leave out the stories that include characters who feel anger – Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, King Saul, Job, Jonah, the Prodigal Son, Jesus casting out the moneychangers. We must allow children to explore the stories on their own, without telling them how they “should” feel about them or which characters they “should” approve of, or whitewashing all negative emotions from them.
We must also be honest about our own feelings. Children learn, sooner than we’d like, that not all prayers are answered. We pray earnestly, and grandparents die anyway, or parents divorce anyway or our best friend still prefers Olivia Jackson to us because her house has a pool. The children who come to us must know that it’s all right to feel angry, even to feel angry at God. God is big enough and strong enough not to be destroyed by our anger. When we are angry because someone we love has died, God grieves with us. When we are angry because someone else is preferred above us, God reassures us. He does not condemn us for our feelings.
Finally, we must accept children’s accounts of their own anger. It is tempting to smooth them away, to say “you don’t really hate your sister/your friend/God.” But all that does is teach children that their feelings are so scary that adults, and God, are afraid of them.
St John Chrysostom wrote, “weeping over the grave, we make our song – Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” And the prophet Habakkuk wrote, “Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines … yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” If we give our children permission to feel angry – with righteous anger that calls out hypocrisy and pride, with frustrated anger, with jealous anger, or even anger at God – we will not be cutting them off from a Christian life. We will be preparing them for the hardships of this world. We will be leading them to God.