Rage Is All the Rage
I’m angry. Things have gone badly this morning. I got a speeding ticket. I had an argument with my publisher. My mom called to say that a distant relative has died. It’s my day off. I’m at one of my favorite patio cafes ready to get some writing done. The weather is beautiful. I have so many reasons to be happy. But I am a scowling storm of rage.
Even if you haven’t had a morning like mine, I bet you can identify with my feelings. Bad things happen to us all. Our bosses don’t care. Our spouses don’t listen. Our transmissions don’t work. Our heroes don’t last. Our dreams don’t come true. And our bank accounts don’t suffice. On this planet we populate, disappointments lurk behind every voice mail. Frustrations multiply like rabbits.
We are tempted to despair, or lash out. And our culture only feeds the temptation. Radio, TV, blogs, news feeds, and friends give us a disharmonious chorus of complaints. The liberals are too liberal. The conservatives are too conservative. The president is too pushy. The movies are too violent. The music is too loud. The preachers are too syncretistic. And the coffee is too expensive. And every voice in that chorus implores us to outrage. In a Christianity Today cover story last year, journalist Mark Galli opened with the conspicuous maxim “Rage is today’s ruling online emotion.”
We are being formed this way by our culture. Like unwitting culture warriors, we are being conscripted to the ideological battlefield, trained and weaponized to fight. Edward Wassermann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California - Berkeley, was recently quoted in Scientific American as saying, ‘Mainstream media have made a fortune teaching people the wrong ways to talk to each other, offering up Jerry Springer, Crossfire, Bill O’Reilly. People understandably conclude rage is the political vernacular, that this is how public ideas are talked about.’”
And it’s not just politics that outrage us. It’s hard to post a single thought, let alone hold a deep conversation, without touching off outrage. In the dinner parties, Bible studies, and comment threads I inhabit, scorn is becoming a habit.
Rage is all the rage.
What are we to do with all this rage-bait? How would Jesus have us respond? The Bible has some pretty strong words for rage. Proverbs 16 praises the antithesis of rage.
Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.
And Proverbs 22 advises us not to even be friends with the habitually outraged.
Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered.
In his letter to Colossians, Paul exhorts,
But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
Even more striking, Paul lists those raging attributes alongside other attitudes of the flesh, including lying, sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed. Outrage and adultery get the same billing on Paul's sins-of-the-flesh list.
But even if we know we should avoid outrage, that’s not very helpful when you have a morning like I’ve had. How, practically, do we keep our cool? Despite the obvious hypocrisy of giving this advice while I’m still mad about my morning, allow me to offer two ideas.
First, we need to understand the source of this sin. Like any other temptation, outrage is a perversion of something good. In this case, we take our God-given sense of fair play and center it on ourselves. Dante called it “love of justice perverted.” It is not an evil impulse that causes you to wish things were different, but it is a selfish one that demands that they become so. To seek justice is to seek heaven; to realize we aren’t there yet is wisdom.
Secondly, it helps to remember that God has held his temper. Certainly, there are some Old Testament outbreaks of God’s wrath. Again, justice is a worthy value. But there are countless more Biblical instances of God’s mercy. He showed mercy to the adulteress, mercy to the tax collector, mercy to the prodigal son, mercy to the thief, mercy to the Gentiles, and mercy to you. Every day for thousands of years, we humans have offended God’s justice and given him good reason for outrage. And every morning his mercies have been new. Again and again, morning after morning, including this morning which has gone so poorly for me, God has stayed his wrath, chosen mercy over outrage.
If we are to live as countercultural witnesses to the God of grace, we have to master this discipline. We have to put off the old, easily-offended, rage-bait-posting self. We have to embrace a generous justice. And we have to remember, with gratitude, God’s bottomless patience with us.