Last fall I was invited to a Bible Study with a group of women.
It was on the book of Jeremiah and at first I wasn’t really sure I wanted to join. I’m a little afraid of Women’s Bible Studies. In fact, if an event is put on by a church and has the word “Ladies” in the title, I’m pretty sure I won’t have a good time there.
The Bible Studies that I’ve seen aren’t for women like me: the wild questioners unsatisfied with most answers, the introverted thinkers who sometimes blurt out opinions sans context, and those of us who like to use some unladylike words to make a point or a joke.
I was also pretty nervous because I’m scared of the Old Testament and the God it describes.
The book of Jeremiah seemed as intense as it gets. It’s the story of one guy who acts as a liaison between God and a specific group of people, and it all goes pretty badly. Nobody’s happy, they stop listening to each other, and most the humans either starve or get captured and exiled. Not even God gets what he wants.
There really isn’t any way to make all that a nice story fit for a light discussion over tea and cookies. It’s more the kind of story you wash down with bourbon on the rocks.
So I took a risk and showed up.
But seriously, the Old Testament God seems kind of freaky, right? That God appears in fire and smoke, leads armies to do horrible things, demands weird sacrifices and the wearing of tasseled robes in his presence. He seems angry and that scares me.
Anger seems uncontrollable and the cause of a lot of violence and hurt, both now and then. When I encounter it in my own closet of emotions or sense it in someone else, I tend to shut down. I want anger to go away as quickly as possible, because I see it as sinful and unacceptable in someone practicing love.
But as I committed to the study, I learned something interesting:
God’s anger is never without cause.
I expected a volatile yet removed deity, but instead I read about a God capable of being deeply engaged with a group of people. Someone who is angry and destructive all the time doesn’t have the capacity to also be truly vulnerable in intimate relationship.
I realized that God gets upset at the same things that make all the muscles in my back clench around my spine: manipulative authority figures, dishonesty, greed running rampant, injustice, spiritual abuse, and using power to take instead of practicing love. I actually liked God a little more when I realized we get mad over the same type of abusive behavior patterns.
I discovered a God who allowed people to experience severe consequences for their bad behavior even while patiently seeking a better, peaceful relationship.
I saw God modeling the same healthy behavior that I’m learning to practice in my own life; I saw boundaries and grace, real consequences and overwhelming hope for restoration.
And I learned all of this with a group of women who, despite their diversity, are very much like me. We are all wrestling with our pasts and futures, the emotional and spiritual bruises we have, and questions too big for any answers. We all get angry sometimes and maybe that’s okay.
All of it helped me realize that anger isn’t a sin; it’s a sign.
Anger is a powerful signal, woven into our brains and bodies, that something is wrong. It tells us what is important to us and when that important thing is missing or in danger. When we suppress our anger, it doesn’t go away. It just seeps into us and ends up poisoning the ground with every step we take.
That’s the dangerous part of anger – not that it exists – but that when we don’t pay attention to it properly, it becomes destructive. And when we ignore the signals of anger and the need to set boundaries or work something out, we’re missing out on an important tool. The things we don’t get out in the open and aren’t willing to root up or trace back, those are the things that end up controlling us, even if we think we’re being nice or holy or peaceful.
So I’m done trying to ignore, hide, or shame my anger into non-existence.
In fact, I’m committing to anger all the more fully. I’m treating it like a valuable signal instead of an evil feeling.
Trying this approach with anger doesn’t mean that I’m now the nicest person ever. Sometimes when I feel disrespected by someone, I still want to burn down their house or at least their reputation online. But when I express those feelings in safe place, when I allow them to exist in my body and spirit without trying to extinguish them early, I’m far less likely to act on my revenge fantasies. As I explore my anger and the reasons behind it, when I listen to her, I often find peace that goes deeper than any anger shut up by will alone.
Anger gives me the ability to see my boundaries clearly and speak up when they are crossed.
I don’t see anger as an excuse to become violent or hurtful to others. We’re always responsible for our behavior whether we have the best of intentions or a surge of powerful emotion. And I’m still wrestling with the violent imagery in the Old Testament. I’m wary of a theology that comes from any aspect of God other than Jesus’ life and resurrection. But I was surprised to find, in the story of Jeremiah and the people from Israel, a God beckoning with love and strength and emotion that looks a lot like the New Testament Jesus.
And maybe, just maybe, the next time I hear about a Bible study that scares me, I’ll join in again.
But I’m bringing my anger along. Turns out she likes tea and cookies.
[photo: GerryT, Creative Commons]