The Upside and Downside of Anger

Close up of a man's fist resting on a table, suggesting it's balled up in anger
Is "righteous anger" ever justified? Know the difference between selfish and selfless anger.

As almost everyone knows, we live in a conflict-driven culture. Various factors – political marketing, 24-hour cable news, talk radio, etc. – have Balkanized our society into a kaleidoscope of interest groups. They relate to each other through turbo-charged suspicion, shotgun blasts of opinion and open hatred.

In such an environment, anger has become a “virtue.”

Many stand-up comics express their brand of comedy through profane and seething anger. One of the contributions of punk rock was the celebration of anger. You can also watch producers of daytime reality shows (like Jerry Springer) coax participants to, “Let it all out. Get mad. Tell her what you really think. Don’t you really want to slap her?”

Very clearly, we have crossed a river. In the “new media age,” political issues – immigration, the war on terror, global warming, abortion – can only be discussed in anger. The old-fashioned form of polite discussion of the issues of the day has deteriorated into a shouting match.

The one common denominator of all this cultural anger is a relentless and self-serving “worship of individualism.” It is all about “me.” Anger is directed at protecting the cherished terrain of my rights, my ideas, my feelings and my indulgences.

This worship of individualism has become the god of modern culture.

Is Anger Ever Unselfish?

As far as I know, the Bible reveals only two angry moments in Jesus’ earthly life. One was when he threw furniture in the temple because mercantile interests were perverting the House of God.

The other episode was when He healed the man with the withered hand. Mark 3:1-6 paints the picture; Jesus encountered a serious human need. Unfortunately, surrounding that need was a religious system which could not even see the man or his infirmity; it was only focused on rules and preservation of an old order. Incensed, Jesus gazed into the face of that Pharisaical order and “with anger” at their “hardness of heart” reached out and healed the man.

Jesus – our pattern – got angry. In both cases, His anger was a response to barricades which blocked God’s salvation and kindness from reaching into and touching the deep need of human lives. Jesus was not reacting out of a sense of being threatened (the usual earthbound cause for anger). Rather, His divine sense of justice was offended. He was angry at the perpetuation of illness, sin and oppression.

In a very similar way, when my anger is projected at injustice or oppression, that is usually a sign of healthy anger. When my anger revolves around my self-interest, it is more likely to be selfish and unhealthy.

So how do we know the difference between good and bad, “upside” and “downside,” selfish and selfless anger?

Selfish anger will usually cause strong, disproportionate-to-the-situation, physical and emotional sensations: heart palpitations, trembling and louder and faster voice, shortness of breath, using bad language, etc. It can also leave us with the residual effects of insomnia, anxiety and depression.

Righteous anger tends to be slow, thoughtful and controlled. It leads to the formation of a plan rather than hasty and wild actions.

Ed Chinn is an organizational consultant and freelance writer from Fort Worth, Texas ([email protected]). His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post,, and the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

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