Stop the Spread of Infectious Anger
The Corporate Dimension of Anger
Anger is infectious. It is not a purely individual phenomenon; there is a corporate dimension.
Make no friendship with a man given to anger,
nor go with a wrathful man,
lest you learn his ways
and entangle yourself in a snare. (Prov. 22:24–25)
If you are close to one who is prone to anger or experiencing anger, you may “learn his ways”; anger may sometimes be caught. There is such a thing as being caught up in the shared anger of others, most graphically in a mob.
The Heart of Anger
Christopher Ash, Steve Midgley
Christopher Ash and Steve Midgley explore the root and character of human anger, examine the righteous anger of God, and offer readers practical wisdom about the way the gospel can gradually transform a heart of anger into a heart filled with the love of God.
The novel Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens contains graphic descriptions of mob violence associated with the so-called Gordon Riots in London in 1780. As we watch with horror the vandalizing, sacking, and burning of one home, Dickens describes the scene like this:
If Bedlam gates had been flung open wide, there would not have issued forth such maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. [There follows a harrowing description of maddening violence.] But of all the howling throng not one learnt mercy from, nor sickened at, these sights; nor was the fierce, besotted, senseless rage of one man glutted.1
There is something terrifying and insatiable in the infectious anger of the mob.
5 Biblical Examples
Here are five biblical examples of infectious anger. First, and briefly, the rebellion of Korah against Moses in Numbers 16. At the start of that chapter we read that “Korah . . . and On . . . took men. And they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, 250 chiefs of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men. They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far!’” (Num. 16:1–3). Although no explicit anger language is used, it is not difficult to sense the shared grievance, as they egg one another on to express an indignation that is amplified by their partnership in victimhood. “It’s not fair!” says one; and another echoes it louder: “No! It really isn’t! I couldn’t agree with you more!!” And so the volume of indignation rises.
Near the start of Jesus’s public ministry he visits the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus speaks to the people. What he says offends them. “When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town” (Luke 4:28–29). It does not take much imagination to feel the infectious indignation. Even if someone’s first response to Jesus had been to give him a sympathetic hearing and to have some sense that he might be right, as the voices of outrage rose, it would have been hard for them not to share the sense of shock at the terrible things Jesus was saying. After all, everybody else found them terrible. And so the anger spread through the whole synagogue.
In Matthew 20 James and John approach Jesus with their mother, who asks Jesus to privilege her sons when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus rebukes her and them. But when the ten other disciples heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers (Matt. 20:24). This was a shared wrath; they were all angry together. Suppose, by some strange circumstance, that each of the ten had separately come to hear of this request, each of them isolated from the others. Had we then tracked their responses, I suppose there might have been some nuances, some distinctions, some differences in how they reacted. But put them together in one room, and these differences meld into one shared indignation, as (probably) the anger of the most indignant infects and sets the tone for the wrath of the ten as a whole.
Another—and fascinating—example is the response of the disciples when, a little later, Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. In the fullest account, John tells us that Judas Iscariot objects, asking (scathingly and hypocritically), “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:4–5). In the parallel account in Matthew we read that “when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, ‘Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor’” (Matt. 26:8–9). It is not difficult, with a little imagination and understanding of group dynamics, to reconcile these apparently contradictory accounts. Judas objects first. He mutters, “How outrageous! Silly woman!” And then his muttering spreads, rather like a tweet being retweeted in our culture. “Yes, stupid woman!” says another. “What a waste!” grumbles a third. And so on. And before much time has elapsed they are all grumbling in a shared indignation, for the anger of Judas has infected the whole group.
But perhaps the most graphic biblical description of infectious anger is the riot in Ephesus recorded for us by Luke in Acts 19:23–41. Somebody begins to say that the Christian preachers threaten the worship of Artemis. “No! That’s outrageous!” says another and another. In our day it would become a Twitter storm: #artemisophobia. Like a spark in a pile of dry twigs or sunburned bush, the indignation catches and burns like wildfire. Before long the whole city is filled with angry cries, and there is a danger that Paul will be lynched by the angry mob. In a nice irony, Luke tells us that “most of them did not know why they had come together” (Acts 19:32). “Why are you angry?” we might ask someone. “I don’t really know. But I am very, very angry!” would come the bewildered reply.
In his book A Rumor of Angels, the sociologist Peter Berger has demonstrated how our beliefs are shaped not by pure reason but by “plausibility structures,” by what the people around us believe. If this is true of what we believe, it is also true of what we value. There are plausibility structures to feelings as there are to creeds. In our culture someone might say, “I don’t really know why. But I am sure that the freedom to express oneself sexually and to choose one’s sexual identity is a necessary and valuable freedom. It is worth fighting for and worth getting very angry when it is threatened.”
Anger not only reveals the individual heart; it also infects the crowd.
When I am angry, I want others to join me in my anger. How often in a marriage does one say to the other that he or she is angry because of something that has been said or done, in the neighborhood or workplace, and when the other refuses simply to affirm that anger, but insists on questioning whether it is right, the one gets angrier? It is not just that I am angry; I want you to be angry with me. For then I will feel better about my anger.
So there is a cultural dimension to anger. What we value, and therefore what, when threatened, makes us angry, is deeply influenced by our peers. Religious privilege is coveted by Korah, by the synagogue in Nazareth, by the disciples of Jesus; so they get angry when their privilege is threatened. The worship of Artemis is inseparable from Ephesian culture, so any threat to her reputation is a threat to us and our identity as Ephesians. To challenge this brings shame upon us and therefore makes us angry. This is so often at the root of so-called honor killings in some Asian cultures.
Cultural Relativity of Anger
It is important to recognize this cultural relativity. In our culture people are angry when women are not honored; in another they are indignant when the authority of men is undermined; in another wrath rises when a son does not obey his father; in yet another, we are indignant when children are not given autonomy at an early age. What makes us angry together expresses what together we value.
We should not be surprised when the angers of the world infect us. When considering an anger I experience, it is not sufficient simply to look into my own heart, necessary as that is. I need also to look around at my culture (or perhaps my church culture) to see what that culture values. Angers change as cultures change. If the medical profession fails to heal my illness, I will be angry with them in a culture that regards health as my birthright. If I am frustrated in my desire for sexual delight, I will be full of wrath in a culture that says I should expect to have this.
In particular, there will always be some cultural anger against disciples of Jesus. Writing of a life of “sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry,” Peter writes that those who live like this “are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (1 Pet. 4:3–4). They will be angry because you do not join them. Your countercultural protest, your life of goodness, threatens their shared culture of godlessness. They will malign you angrily because you threaten the consensus that affirms their godlessness.
To understand anger, therefore, it is not enough to know simply the story of the individual. That is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We need also to know the story of the family values, the values imparted in childhood, and the cultural values shared by this man or woman by virtue of the cultural air they breathe. Anger not only reveals the individual heart; it also infects the crowd.
- Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ’Eighty, Everyman’s Library (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2005), 480–81.
This article is adapted from The Heart of Anger: How the Bible Transforms Anger in Our Understanding and Experience by Christopher Ash and Steve Midgely.
What is righteous vs. unrighteous anger? What does the anger of God look like? Glean insight about the right time and application for anger by reading these verses and commentary.
How to Pray When You’re Tempted by Anger
Here are five things you might focus on in your prayers as you seek to do the heart work necessary in your own circumstances.
Disguising Ungodliness as Righteous Anger
Christopher Ash, Steve Midgley
Sometimes our imitation of God slides, ever so subtly, into replacement of God. We do that thing that we do. We take his place, and soon it is our honor that we are concerned about.
We live in an angry world, and most of it is obviously destructive. But anger is not intrinsically evil, essentially evil, or necessarily evil.