How Christ's Atonement Helps Us with Anger

By Christopher Schwinger

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I was asked by a questioner, "How do I get over anger with someone?" My answer took me much deeper than I expected.

Part 1: A positive vision
This is a complex journey, and the two things that would have helped me the most would be distinguishing between feelings of resentment and genuine bitterness (they're not the same thing) as well as understanding that such feelings are not just a choice. Feelings definitely include choices, but you can't control feelings merely by wanting to be righteous, praying, reading the Bible, and choosing your attitude. Such spiritual disciplines are not sufficient without a vision outside ourselves of what can be better. When we are motivated by fear, the bad characteristics we're trying to remove don't simply go away, no matter how much we try to arrange our life. But when we are inspired by a vision of something better, like Jesus Christ's nonviolent response to His persecutors that led to His ultimate victory, that helps a lot. Feelings of resentment have a similar role as physical pain, a warning that something wrong is being done to you. Being upset with "a person" feels very much like being upset about "what the person did," but if you focus on the fact that the person's action was wrong, you blame sin, instead of dehumanizing the person who was made in God's image (likeness). Genuine bitterness is an active power which seeks to put others down in various ways when they threaten your sense of control. Bitterness, unlike resentment, is more of an engrained attitude. Regardless of whether the originating feeling is a surface emotion or a deep attitude, anger needs to be directed in healthy ways like praying about the pain you went through or discovering the best action to take to minimize further pain. Most importantly, don't define yourself by the pain; this is not as simple as just choosing an attitude or repeating a verse in your thoughts over and over. You have to find something about God which seems better than your current situation. Do repeat verses, but realize they are meaningful not as a superstitious mantra, but because they are within the context of God's great story of redemption, the Gospel, and Jesus' example has to be central in your healing from anger struggles.

At different times, I've been inspired by the narrative of Christ triumphing in His resurrection because of His righteousness; at other times by the realization that there will be ultimate justice for how we've endured with good character, but no peace for unkind people who seem circumstantially happier and don't seem to suffer like we do. However, this desire for others' punishment is not very satisfying, because justice that involves wrath and irreversible punishment does nothing except deter it from happening in the future. Justice for the Nazi war criminals means "Never again" accepting this kind of horror, but can't reverse the horrible pain of the past, and there's really no healing for those family members except if they knew their dead loved ones had peace with God and eternal life. Justice can't fix the past, but can only prevent a worse future. We have to remember that our priority as Christians is to create a better future, and that the only reason we can even see what's better is because of Christ opening our eyes.

Part 2: A desire for reconciliation
Relationships are very hard to mend. God wants reconciliation and is willing to forgive anyone whose heart wants it. Sin keeps people from wanting reconciliation with others and makes us think of justice as something we are owed, when it is actually something God chooses to mete out — or not. It is amazing that He would have forgiven even Judas Iscariot if he had wanted it! The basic difference between Judas and Peter was that Peter was trying to be a good person and Judas didn't care. Peter betrayed Christ just as much as Judas, and still had a lot of struggles after Christ's resurrection with accepting God's grace in John 21 and the Book of Acts. Peter's legalism also made him resistant to evangelizing Gentiles, like Jonah in the Old Testament who wanted God to punish those heathen Ninevites. Christianity is so radical because it openly admits that it's better to just forgive and wipe away the sin than punish it — while concurrently putting equal pressure on the sinner to own up to the sin and repent, but through God's help instead of just by trying harder. No other belief system is so well-rounded in its concepts of justice and freedom, including the punitive Old Testament Mosaic Law which didn't allow for forgiveness unless you did something extra to earn it. The early Old Testament's view of sacrifices was that they would satisfy God, but Job, some psalmists, and the prophets recognized that sacrifices just demonstrate that the wages of sin is death and that everything we have comes from God; we can't buy His favor, just express our own appreciative and repentant attitude. Then Jesus revolutionized this concept further by showing how much He longs for our fellowship instead of our fear of His anger. Then he made Himself both the sacrifice and the recipient of the blessings. Jesus' example demonstrated that in the long run, we are happiest when we give.

This extends to our giving of mercy. When justice involves only vengeance, and God's mercy is understood just as a lessening of the punitive punishment, it's not satisfying to anyone. Contrary to punitive punishment, when punishment is intended to help you grow, it's productive discipline. The reason human justice can't be very lenient very often with criminals is because we can't know whether their hearts have truly changed, while God, who knows if a heart is changed because He changed it, is able to totally forgive and restore people. Still, the situation gets messy when there are relationships with other people involved; sometimes the other people aren't willing to forgive, and sometimes other damage (like a divorce and remarriage or a death from drunk driving or murder) has been irreversibly done. We have a linear existence and live in a world based on consequences. Some things can't be healed except through a miracle, but God's miracles are rare compared to how often things go wrong.

Continue to Page Two

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Published on 7-11-16