Recognizing Anger and Shame

This summer, we’re running a short series of adapted selections from my book, How to Be a Bad Christian. (If you’d prefer to get the whole thing at once, it’s available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.) Subscribe to get our next post in your inbox.

 

Like many Christians, I grew up hearing the words of Jesus about anger:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire.

 

Matthew 5:21-22 NRSV

Jesus does not mince his words. He takes anger as a matter of serious concern for those who would put his teachings into practice. Unfortunately, my take-away from this passage for many years was to treat it as a rule, another law to follow: don’t get angry! Knowing this rule, of course, did not keep me from getting angry. Like anyone, I still experienced the surge of adrenaline that comes when I believe I’ve been mistreated. I still felt anger, but I also felt guilty about it. To avoid that guilt, I tried to minimize or rationalize my anger. Instead of saying, “I feel angry,” I’d say, “I feel frustrated.” If I could admit to myself that I was angry, I would try to “fix” it by arguing with myself about why I shouldn’t feel angry.

 

Powerless to Manage

In other words, trying hard not to be angry did not get me anywhere close to true freedom from anger. It just kept me from being honest with myself and others about how much anger I really felt. As best I can tell, I am not the only Christian who struggles with honesty about anger. I recall reading in one book, “Christians anger only rarely and only righteously.” A statement like this makes me wonder if the writer has met many Christians! My anger, at least, came around a little more often than “rarely.” Shortly after getting married, it began showing up unexpectedly and frequently, in ways that I felt powerless to manage.

 

Money was a particular flashpoint for me. Katie and I were both still in school, working part time. We didn’t have a shoestring budget; we had about enough budget for a shoestring. To keep track of our income and spending, I constructed an unwieldy, multi-colored Excel spreadsheet into which we entered the details of our paystubs and receipts. Every few weeks, I would review the file, and I would notice some small detail that I believed Katie had entered inaccurately, such as a missing transaction or a number in the wrong column. Immediately, I would get Katie and go over the details with great agitation until I knew exactly what had happened. Then I would lecture her about how important it was to handle our money rightly. Needless to say, Katie felt unloved during these fights.

 

From the outside, the unhealthy emotional dynamics may seem obvious. But from the inside, facing the stress of our financial situation each month, I felt like I “couldn’t help” the anger. It just came automatically; the “don’t get angry” rule did not provide a way out. Confronting Katie in anger when something “was wrong” was the only way I knew how to “solve the problem,” whatever the problem was. In my mind, the anger was incidental. I was focused on getting things done and following the plan: fixing the spreadsheet, paying the bills, and making budget. I was blind to how much my anger was hurting Katie.

 

During one of our arguments, Katie confronted me by asking, “Why are you so upset?” I was taken aback. I figured it was obvious: “I’m upset because I care about using our money rightly, so that our lives are provided for.” I paused for a few moments, grasping for a better explanation. “I’m upset because I care about you.” Katie felt stung: “If it’s because you care about me, then why are you so angry at me?” As our conversation continued, I had a (long-overdue) epiphany. In money matters, loving Katie doesn’t just mean getting things done and following the plan. It also means communicating about money in a loving way, not in a condemning way. Katie cannot receive what I’m saying as a form of love if I say it with anger and judgment.

 

Where Anger Comes From

That conversation led me to try and understand where my anger about money was really coming from. Obviously, there are sometimes financial details that are important for me to discuss with Katie. But there is no reason for me to discuss them in anger and every reason to discuss them gently and graciously. So, why did I feel angry so suddenly at the smallest accounting inaccuracy? I remembered something that one of our pastors, who was also a licensed counselor, had said: even behind unhealthy anger, there is some kind of legitimate need. I came to see that my anger was not an appropriate response to something Katie had “done wrong”; it was an inappropriate response to my own deep needs. Specifically, I saw a relationship between my anger and a deep-seated need to be good.

 

In my mind, of course, being good meant getting things done and following the plan. With money, that meant paying the bills, limiting debt, and making our budget each month. Making a mistake with money was not just an oversight; to me, it felt unacceptable, irresponsible, and sinful. It felt like being a bad Christian. That’s why my desire to be good ironically led to such an ungracious attitude toward Katie. In my mind, maintaining the Excel spreadsheet perfectly was my way of being good, of making sure I was never a bad Christian as far as money goes. When that standard of accounting felt threatened, I felt threatened, and I lashed out.

 

Getting to Know Shame

Another way of saying the same thing is that my anger was rooted in shame. I never thought of myself as someone who struggles with shame until Katie and I started seeing a counselor together. The idea of shame was not new to me; I had heard good preachers and teachers warning me about shame and self-condemnation for years. It was old news that it was possible for people to judge themselves in a way that’s unhelpful, that everyone needs to look to the cross to receive God’s grace and forgiveness. Preachers sometimes talked about the difference between conviction and shame. Conviction is a feeling of sorrow over what you’ve done wrong, which comes from the Holy Spirit and leads to confession, a sense of forgiveness, and joy. Shame is a sense of being wrong, which comes from the Enemy and leads to self-hatred, continual focus on oneself, and despair.

 

Because I understood these distinctions, I figured that shame and self-condemnation were not a significant part of my life. But as I talked about my experiences with our counselor, she seemed to think otherwise. One time, Katie and I were talking about a painful subject, and I started out speaking calmly, if sadly, and listening well. But then, while we continued to talk about some patterns in my behavior that were not helping our marriage, the conversation took a turn and I suddenly became overwhelmed and angry and began blaming Katie. In the moment, I had enough self-awareness to say, “I’m feeling angry.” As our counselor talked about her observations, I realized that the reason I felt overwhelmed was my inability to admit that I had been in the wrong. To admit fault was just too painful: it was shameful to acknowledge I had failed in being the kind of husband I wanted to be. That sense of shame was driving me to shift blame somewhere else.

 

As we drove home after that meeting, I took some time to think and pray about what had happened. Because of all those years of pastors warning me about shame, I was equipped to respond to it. If I could find the courage to acknowledge my fault, I knew that God would forgive me, and Katie would too. Then it would be possible to keep talking about how to strengthen our relationship without the need to blame. Until then, though, I hadn’t been equipped to recognize shame. In that instance, it was hiding behind my anger. It sometimes hides in other guises, too.

 

How Shame Feels

Even though I’ve known about shame for years, I’m just starting to get to know how my own shame feels. I’m noticing the emotional aspects of how I experience sin and repentance. As I do, I see that shame has been lurking within the nooks and crannies all the while. In the past, my “get things done” approach led me to focus on what to do when I realized I’d sinned. I would try to identify the sin specifically, and then pray to God, confessing it. I would also often confess it to someone else, a truly helpful practice I learned at my church as a teenager. After that, I would try to forget about it and move on. If I still had lingering negative feelings (which I often did), I would ask God to strengthen me and help me to receive his grace.

 

Now, instead of just focusing on what to do, I’m also noticing what I feel. When I realize I’ve sinned, I’m initially overwhelmed by a sense of wrongness about who I am. I don’t measure up. I didn’t do it right. It feels like the world is falling apart, and I scramble for control. Importantly, I’ve also noticed this exact same feeling when I fail in any way, even in ways that can’t really be called sin, such as making a grammar error in an email at work, or forgetting an item on my to-do list. It’s the feeling I got when my third grade teacher marked my handwriting as Satisfactory instead of Excellent: this is wrong; it must be fixed, or else I will amount to nothing. Although I’ve been feeling that feeling for years, I’ve rarely recognized it as unhealthy self-condemnation. Instead, I’ve figured it’s just a correct, rational response to doing something wrong or making a mistake. It’s what’s so often motivated me to do well, to be a good Christian. Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been running my “get things done” machine on a self-condemnation engine.

 

One reason it was hard for me to identify the feeling of shame is what I imagined when pastors talked about it. I always assumed someone who had a problem with shame must struggle with negative self-talk, consciously questioning their worth or worthiness of love. Many people do struggle with shame in that form. But I tended to indulge in a paradoxically critical and positive kind of self-talk: “This is unacceptable. I’m so smart. I do things right. I have to fix this, to keep things that way.” It was my self-confident perfectionism which both fed on and hid the shame. Combined with my sureness that I had the theological basics down, it led me to spiritualize my desperate need for control. Sometimes even confession to God or to another person was just part of my attempt to restore order and my own self-image. Similarly, in moments of conflict with Katie when I blamed her, I could rationalize my controlling attitude as a form of “healthy confrontation.”

 

Contrition, the Gospel, and Heart Change

As I continue to attend to my emotions, I believe I’m learning to distinguish between toxic, self-condemning shame and genuine contrition. Contrition still feels “bad”; it’s a form of grief or sorrow. Yet it doesn’t feel like the world will cease to exist if I acknowledge my failures. When I feel overwhelmed, I can pause before launching into blame or frantic “fix-it” behavior. Instead, I can take a deep breath, remember that God is still holding onto me in love even as I realize how I’ve failed, and then move into genuine confession.

 

Learning how shame feels has been a powerful turning point in learning how to be a bad Christian. Refusing to recognize shame is one thing that’s kept me in the posture of the Pharisee, focusing on how well I’m doing, because admitting I haven’t done well is unacceptable. So when I recognize the voice of shame, I can rebuke it with the truth of the Gospel. It’s safe to admit I’ve sinned, because God’s mercy is available. It’s safe to make a mistake; the world will not come to an end if the budget spreadsheet isn’t perfect. God will still provide for me, and for Katie.

 

Here is where I can come back to the teaching of Jesus. The old rule said that murderers are liable to judgment; Jesus says that anger makes me liable to judgment. But he’s not giving me a new law to follow that says, “Don’t be angry.” Jesus does not offer law, but new life: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17 ESV). Dallas Willard, one of the best interpreters of Jesus’ teaching about anger, says this:

Jesus is giving us a revelation of the preciousness of human beings. He means to reveal the value of persons. Obviously merely not killing others cannot begin to do justice to that . . . . [Jesus] is taking us deeper into the kind of beings we are, the kind of love God has for us, and the kind of love that, as we share it, brings us into harmony with his life.

Jesus’ teaching is that the kind of heart that reacts to others in anger is a heart that will lead me toward God’s judgment. Anger is a sin that fails to honor the precious people whom God has created. When I routinely directed anger at Katie over money matters, I was failing to see her as the kind of being to whom such anger simply should not be directed. She is too precious for that. The solution, though, is not to try and double-down on controlling behavior (“Don’t be angry!”). That approach never brings real, lasting change. The solution is to allow God to work on the heart, to make space for him to address what leads to the anger in the first place. Once that area is touched by the power of the Gospel, the teaching about anger becomes possible—even easy—to follow.

 

Practice

  • What makes you angry?
  • In what ways does that anger draw from—or contradict—Jesus’ view of human beings?
  • Can you name a point of shame in your life? What would it be like to give voice to that with a trusted friend?

 

Photo Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash

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