If you’ve been reading my newsletters, you know I’ve been writing a series on emotions.
Anger is an emotion I was ashamed to admit I struggled with sometimes as a new mom. After all, what can a newborn possibly do to make a mother angry?
The pediatrician and OBGYN have you to fill out a questionnaire at the first few appointments of your child’s life (or at least they do where I live). They don’t ask you about your child’s well-being—they ask about your own.
A lot of the questions deal with mental health. The first weeks of motherhood (and fatherhood) are intense, and doctors are recognizing that and checking in on mom and baby. One of the questions asks if you’ve shaken your baby or thought about it since their birth.
I hadn’t shaken Charlee. But I’d be lying if I told you there weren’t early mornings when she’d cried for so long I had to place her in her crib or on her Boppy pillow and take some deep breaths because I was frustrated.
I was ashamed. I loved my daughter more than I could’ve anticipated before she was born, but no one prepares you for how quickly anger can escalate when a baby won’t stop crying at 3:21 a.m. in the morning.
Anger and the Desire for Control
In this series, I’ve really emphasized the importance of examining our emotions instead of dismissing them, especially the unpleasant ones. Emotions are the overflow of both righteousness or unrighteousness, and we never get to the root of them if we immediately label them “good” or “bad.”
As a new mom, I couldn’t understand how I’d get so angry at times when Charlee had done nothing wrong. I wasn’t even angry at her.
If it wasn’t my daughter, what was driving my frustration? I wanted to know.
Then one morning I was reading a book about boundaries. Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote, “Anger is our basic protest against the fact that we are not God and that we cannot control reality” (p. 78).
Whew. I’d discovered my answer. No, anger isn’t always a protest because we can’t control reality… but it was certainly mine. This single sentence put words to the anger I’d feel when I couldn’t get my infant to nurse correctly or the dog wanted to “protect” her, which was more like an abrupt lunge towards the tiny human. (Our dog, Maggie, and I had a strained relationship for a few weeks after Charlee came home.)
My anger was (and still is) often a protest because I have little to no control over the situation in front of me. I learned last year this was a common struggle for moms. Just over a month after Charlee was born Christianity Today published a piece by Hannah Long titled “My ‘Mom Rage’ Is Understandable. But it’s not excusable.” She wrote,
“As a Christian, I see my anger through the framework of brokenness that sin brings to my life. In other words: The Bible speaks directly to my parental anger.
The first time I realized I had committed biblically defined murder against my child [a reference to 1 John 3:15 that ‘whoever hates his brother in his heart commits murder’] was only a few days after we arrived home from the hospital with my oldest. After yet another sleepless night, I looked down into my daughter’s crib and wept with the knowledge that not only was my love for her limited, but evil lurked in my heart.Hannah Long at Christianity Today
Even now, I am most guilty of hating her when she is most in need of me, a sad and heartbreaking reminder that the strong do not naturally look out for the best interests of the weak. When my child has sleepless nights, needs extra time in my arms, seems incapable of adapting to my schedule, or feels sick, those are the times I am most likely to rage against her. Those are the times I am most likely to believe that my needs—the needs of someone stronger, older, wiser, and healthier—are more important than hers.”
Long is right: this kind of self-giving doesn’t come naturally—for moms or anyone else. Christians, of all people, should be able to own up to this because it’s one of our core teachings. We believe human nature is inclined not to self-givenness but selfishness. This truth makes me less surprised when my sinfulness shows up in the form of “mom rage” because I’ve lost control of a situation.
In the words of the article’s title, It’s understandable, but it’s not excusable.
“But Jesus Turned Tables in Anger!”
Anger isn’t always sinful. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin.” In other words, there is such a thing as righteous anger.
We see places in the gospels where Jesus got angry, and he never sinned in his anger. Listen to what Jesus did when he discovered people using God’s temple of worship for monetary gain instead:
“In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!'”John 2:13-17, English Standard Version
We’re talking about our sinless Savior here who, in His righteous anger, flipped tables over people’s greed. Especially online, I see people point to Jesus’ anger in the temple to justify their anger too. The underlying assertion is correct that anger can be motivated by righteousness, but there’s also an underlying assumption that can be dangerous…
It’s the assumption that our anger is comparable to the pure motives of Christ’s anger over sin and evil.
In The Cross of Christ, John Stott does a good job making this distinction:
“…sin arouses the wrath of God. This does not mean… that he is likely to fly off the handle at the most trivial provocation, still less that he loses his temper for no apparent reason at all. For there is nothing capricious or arbitrary about the holy God. Nor is he malicious, spiteful, or vindictive. His anger is neither mysterious nor irrational. It is never unpredictable, because it is provoked by evil and evil alone. The wrath of God… is his steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its manifestations. In short, God’s anger is poles apart from ours. What provokes our anger (injured vanity) never provokes his; what provokes his anger (evil) seldom provokes ours.”The Cross of Christ by John Stott, p. 171
I think Stott gets at the heart of the differences between God’s anger and ours—and why we should be cautious about using the account of Jesus overturning tables to put a stamp of approval on our own anger that might not be so righteous. My anger isn’t a “steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil.” In the context of parenting, Paul David Tripp wrote, “We’re often mad at our children, not because they have broken God’s law, but because they have gotten in the way of the laws of our peace and comfort” (94).
To be honest, what provokes God’s anger doesn’t always provoke mine. My anger is more often a protest of a lack of control, peace, or comfort.
But there is good news for Christians still struggling with anger not motivated by the righteousness of God. The Holy Spirit inside of us is constantly sanctifying and pruning us so that over a lifetime we are angered less and less by “injured vanity” (in the words of Stott) and more and more by evil alone.
Anger is uncomfortable but shouldn’t be immediately dismissed.
The important question is this: what angers the very heart of God?
Does my heart and yours align with His?