Aren’t negative emotions bad? (part 1)

RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#34 in a series)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button.

What if you’ve been taught in the church that negative emotions like anger are bad? How does that affect our relationships? And what can we do about it?

Anger is a “hot” emotion. It can feel dangerous. When someone else is angry at us, we feel threatened and may immediately put up our defenses. When we’re angry at someone else, we may struggle to keep our cool — lest we get out of control and do or say something we may regret later.

It’s no wonder, then, that people who want to learn to be more loving would also want to push anger away. We don’t want to be hotheads; we want to be like Jesus!  And we may enforce that moral code in various ways, from denouncing anger from the pulpit, to shunning argumentative people, to shaming children who are having a meltdown. After all, didn’t Jesus spiritually equate anger to murder (Matt 5:21-22)?

Well, no, not exactly.

Jesus was addressing people who thought themselves righteous because they had never actually taken someone’s life (“I’ve got that one down — only nine commandments to go”). The message is: You pat yourselves on the back for thinking you’re not guilty of murder. But you feel free to let your anger fly, even to the point of calling each other ugly names. That’s not what God calls righteousness, and he will hold you to account.

Notice too that Jesus himself could get angry: angry at the sellers in the temple, angry at the disciples for their thick-headedness. We might soft-pedal the fact by calling it “righteous indignation.” But presumably, the neurological signature of the emotion would have been the same: Jesus was mad. Rather than pretend Jesus wasn’t mad, we should recognize that it is possible to be angry in a right way, and for the right reasons.

Paul, for example, writes, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Eph 4:26-27, NRSV). Here, he implies that it’s possible to be angry without sin, even as he warns that anger leaves us ripe for temptation. The longer we let it go unresolved, the more likely we are to sin. Take care of it, he insists. Don’t go to bed mad.

If only more of us would listen.

Also, as we’ve seen, Paul teaches that a loving person shouldn’t be “irritable” (1 Cor 13:5), using a word that suggests a feeling of being provoked. But Luke, using the same word, tells us that Paul himself was provoked when he found the city of Athens filled with idols (Acts 17:16). The emotion itself, in other words, is not the problem.

Anger and other basic negative emotions like fear or disgust have their place in everyday life. There are perfectly good reasons to be angry — God is angry at sin and injustice and we should be too, whether it’s our own or someone else’s.

Let’s be honest. Just because a church teaches that Christians should be all smiles and hugs doesn’t mean that negative emotions cease to exist in the congregation. The pastor may still hang onto the privilege of railing angrily from the pulpit. People in leadership may still manipulate others through shame and guilt. Negativity doesn’t just evaporate; rather, it seeps underground, occasionally spewing forth in a geyser of “righteous indignation.”

Negative emotions need to be acknowledged as a fact of life, as part of how God made us. The question is what we do next.

More in the next Thursday’s post.

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