Divine Impassibility and God’s Love

When I was in seminary, I abandoned the doctrine of divine impassibility. For readers who do not know, it is the idea that God is not affected by creation. It sounds weird at first because in the Bible God answers prayer, get involved with Israel, and shows wrath against sin. But, the idea is that if God changes from one state to another, then God is no longer the source of all being(s), but God is becoming something else and therefore not the source of all being. If God is not the source of existence, then whatever is the source of existence is God.

I had decided that any doctrine which claims that God cannot suffer paints a monstrous truth about God: that God is uninterested in the well-being of his creatures. The problem is that I had misunderstood what the early church meant by affirming this idea. I had thought that since the ancient Greeks saw God as impassible, the early Christian converts from Gentile nations just adopted the idea from Greek philosophy without realizing that it cannot be found in the Old Testament. It hadn’t crossed my mind that the idea might be a necessary corollary to some other Christian truth.

For several months now though, I’ve been revisiting the ancient arguments for God’s existence based upon the nature of cause and effect, gradations within experience, the existence of consciousness, and the nature of logic and mathematics. All of these arguments entail God in such a way that all things aside from God depend upon God for existence. This means that God must be being itself, thus God is never in any ultimate sense, becoming anything. God is not, by definition, going from one state to another. made me think much harder about how I interpreted certain Old Testament passages about God’s emotions.

There is one sense in which what I am saying does not really matter. One can be a Christian without bothering to figure any of this out. Paul’s standard for gospel conversion is rather meager  by many confessional standards (or robust since it requires obedience to Jesus): confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10).

But if you go on thinking about the nature of emotions, particularly in their physical manifestation in human beings, they require a physical/chemical reaction to the environment. God has no environment, if anything, God is the environment in which all space and time moves and has its being. Thus either the Biblical revelation about God’s interaction with creation is wrong or it is, in some measure given by way of analogy.

The Bible, since it is God’s revelation to the church, requires us to deny the first part of the disjunctive premise, thus God’s revelation appears to be given in Scripture, in some measure, by analogy. But there are certain events in Scripture that are considered ultimate as revelations of God’s nature. For instance, Paul understands the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as a revelation of the fact that God is loving toward weak and ungodly sinners and enemies (Romans 5:1-11).

Here is a rough outline of the premises and conclusion of an argument for God’s impassibility:

  1. All of the world is made up of conditional things.
  2. Conditioned things must be caused.
  3. Nothing in God’s being is conditional (as though it were caused by anything else).
  4. Therefore, nothing in creation conditions anything in God.

This may seem opaque. That’s okay, I’m trying to avoid too much philosophical language. But the big idea (God’s unchangeability) can be summarized this way:

  1. God is unchanging, Scripture teaches this (Malachi 3:6, James 1:27) in moments of explicit teaching. Reason dictates that it is so as well.
  2. God is love. Scripture teaches this as well (Romans 5:5-11, 1 John 4:8-16).
  3. Love is a positive perfection of God, God need not change to be loving and caring.
  4. Wrath, sadness, anger, etc are privations of mercy, bliss, and harmony. God suffers no privation, therefore these words in Scripture are analogies about God’s works in creation that correspond to human experience.
  5. Thus, God is, regardless of the state of the creation, unalterably loving.

God’s Love and God’s Impassibility

This is important. David Bentley Hart argued in his essay, No Shadow of Turning that God’s apatheia (a word the early Christians used to describe God and Christian character) is precisely the guarantee that God’s love is God’s being. Love is not a state from which God could capriciously move or worse, be influenced to move from. As compelling as the idea of a God who suffers with creation can be, it seems that a surer hope and certainly a more scriptural and reasonable position is that the terrors of creation do not alter God whatever, but rather await their guaranteed defeat in space time by God’s own indestructible love and power.

The Incarnation and God’s Impassibility

It it indeed the case as a part of God’s work when the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, the Son of God suffered as a man. Paul Gavriluk argues in chapter two of his book The Suffering of the Impassible God,

…by calling the Christian God impassible the Fathers sought to distance God the creator from the gods of mythology. In this debate the major goal was to rule out popular pagan modes of imaging the divine realm as unworthy of the Christian God.Second, the Fathers viewed impassibility as compatible with select emotionally coloured characteristics, e.g., love, mercy, and compassion.

This is very important. Many Christians see the revelation of God in Christ as a revelation that God could suffer and change. But in more ancient times this revelation showed what God was like all along despite the piecemeal and partial (Hebrews 1:1-2) revelation which was given in the Old Testament. The revelation of God in Christ is that God is love, not capricious like the pagan gods or the forces of nature.

God is unchangeably loving. God, the Trinity, remains the same even as my own religious state of mind wavers, my character changes (for better or worse), the creation groans, and the gospel is preached poorly, God the Father, who sends the Son for our salvation, and who upon the enthronement of his Son sends us the Holy Spirit ever remains love and loving. God is goodness. Thus, though the church and humanity are commanded to imitate God’s love (and indeed my nature would flourish should I choose to do so as I am created in his image), his interest in the church’s final salvation does not wax or wane depending upon this or that congregation’s spiritual temperature (Peterson, Long Obedence, 44).


My Translation of Romans 5:1-11

For Christ, while we were weak, at the appropriate time, died on behalf of the ungodly. You see, with difficulty somebody would die on behalf of a righteous man, indeed, on behalf of a good man somebody might even dare to die. Now God demonstrates his own love for us this way: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Therefore (more so really), having been declared righteous in the present by his blood, will we be saved by him from the wrath. For if, being enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son (more so, having already been reconciled), we will be saved by his life. Now, not only this, but we are boasting all the while in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation.

Aquinas on God’s Joy

Again. Joy and delight are a kind of repose of the will in the object of its willing. Now God is supremely at rest in Himself, Who is the principal object of His will, as finding all sufficiency in Himself. Therefore by His will He rejoices and delights supremely in Himself. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Contra Gentiles, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 190.

Aquinas on God’s Love

For it belongs properly to the nature of love that the lover wills the good of the beloved. Now God wills His own and others’ good, as stated above. Accordingly then God loves both Himself and other things.
Again. True love requires one to will another’s good as one’s own. For a thing whose good one wills merely as conducive to another’s good, is loved accidentally: thus he who wills wine to be preserved that he may drink it, or who loves a man that he may be useful or pleasing to him, loves the wine or the man accidentally, but himself properly speaking. Now God loves each thing’s good as its own, since He wills each thing to be in as much as it is good in itself: although He directs one to the profit of another. God therefore truly loves both Himself and other things.
Moreover. Since everything naturally wills or desires its own good in its own way, if the nature of love is that the lover will or desire the good of the beloved, it follows that the lover is referred to the beloved as to a thing that is in a way one with him. Wherefore it appears that the proper notion of love consists in the affection of one tending to another as one with himself in some way: for which reason Dionysius describes love as a unitive force. Hence the greater the thing that makes the lover one with the beloved, the more intense is the love: for we love those more who are united to us by the origin of birth, or by frequent companionship, than those who are merely united to us by the bond of human nature. Again, the more the cause of union is deeply seated in the lover, the stronger the love: wherefore sometimes a love that is caused by a passion becomes more intense than a love arising from natural origin or from some habit, although it is more liable to be transitory. Now the cause of all things being united to God, namely His goodness, which all things reflect, is exceeding great and deeply seated in God, since Himself is His own goodness.2 Wherefore in God not only is there true love, but also most perfect and most abiding love. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Contra Gentiles, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 191–192.

On Writing About the Gospels

Mike Bird has noted over his blog that

Start with the Gospels as they are, engage them on the level that we have them, get into their story, figure out what they are doing, admire the artistry and theological sophistication, and then afterwards begin looking at things like genre and sources.  Along similar lines, Chris Keith has recently argued that the historical task is not to cast aside the interpretive layer of the Gospels so that one can thereby scrounge through their underlying traditions in the hope of finding a pure and unadulterated image of Jesus in some textual relic. Rather, as Chris Keith says, “the first step in the critical reconstruction of the past that gave rise to the Gospels should be toward the interpretations of the Gospels in an effort to understand and explain them, not away  from them, as was the case for form criticism and its outgrowth …” (Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, 39-40). Hmm. They got me thinking!

Maybe its my inquisitive nature, but I’m committed to explaining how the Gospels came into being as a prerequisite to accounting for what they are doing and why they were written. Though in many ways, such questions must be approached simultaneously, since one cannot study the sources of the Gospels unless one first knows the Gospels themselves.

I, like Dr. Bird, have a tendency to want to explain everything. So, when I teach about the gospels, I want to explain source theories, genre theories, composition theories, etc. But, this does not do justice to the documents as we have received them. The need to explain all that fun stuff can have two functions:

  1. It is super fun for a professor and a small majority of students who can piece that data together into a coherent whole.
  2. It distracts us from the meaning of the documents (and for Christians, from Jesus himself). 

It is not that these theories are not important, they clearly are. It is just that scholarship has atomized the gospels in so many ways so that we can isolate little proton sized morsels of Jesus data and fuse them into a new, synthetic element of Jesus studies material. The problem with this approach is that we miss the gospels for the traditions (or the forest for the trees). I would submit that to understand the ‘Jesus traditions’ (for those who are not Biblical studies majors, the Jesus traditions are the oral traditions about Jesus that eventually ended up in our New Testaments), we must understand the document which contain them. James Dunn, for instance, has argued that “The only Jesus available to us…is Jesus as he was seen and heard by those who first formulated the traditions we have… (Dunn, New Perspective on Jesus, 31).” Dunn’s argument could go one step further though. The only Jesus traditions we have are those which are not only contained in the gospels, but which are interpreted by the gospels. To know the Jesus traditions, one must know the gospels, thus to do historical Jesus work is to do exegesis of the gospels.


Greg Boyd and Roy Baumeister on Free Will

In Greg Boyd’s book, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God, Boyd makes a claim that at first seems to be non-testable. He notes that certain viewpoints about the future, the possibilities of life, and of God’s nature tend toward certain mind sets.

Along the same lines, if we believe that even God faces possibilities, we will be more inclined to see possibilities as positive than if we believe God faces an exhaustively settled future…People who believe this will be more inclined to see their lives in terms of possibilities. They will be more inclined to adventurously and passionately envisage and pursue what they could be instead of resigning themselves to what was supposedly settled an eternity ago about what they will be.  Boyd, p 94

I read this and thought, “well, that’s an interesting conjecture…but Popper would say, ‘You need to check that against actual empirical data.’ For instance, John Piper has claimed that not believing in possibilities and free will is equally energizing for doing good, “So, I’m deeply convinced from that, and a thousand other illustrations, these doctrines [that God foreordains all events], really, are meant to be lived and loved in the worst and the best of times.

But, there is some evidence from the social sciences (which admittedly aren’t  given a great deal of credence amongst certain lovers of the hard science), that believing in free will does lead to higher personal efficacy and disbelief in free will leads to moral resignation. Controlling for certain other factors like a constellation of theological beliefs would be pretty difficult. This is especially so because very few people understand theological nuances, especially in fields wherein the inquirers are more likely to be a-religious. For evidence that a-religious people misunderstand religious beliefs with a predictable amount of misrepresentation and general silliness read anything by Daniel Dennett. Anyhow, here is the conclusion of an analysis of several studies on self-efficacy, placement on a free-will/determinism scale, and various behavior traits:

High belief in free will produces effects that can mostly be described as prosocial, but pro-cultural may be an even more apt characterization. Belief in free will seems to promote a less forgiving and more punitive attitude toward people who break rules and thus undermine the implicit social contract that underlies culture. In general, disbelief in free will is linked to disregard for societal rules and norms, as indicated by increased propensities to engage in aggression, cheating, stealing, and slacking off at work, as well as reduced helpfulness. Belief in moral responsibility appears to be closely linked to belief in free will. Baumeister (2008) has proposed that the concept of free will is linked to a new form of action control that evolved in connection with the human propensity to reinvent social life as culture. That belief in free will supports cultural activities is conducive to that view, though it cannot be taken as proof of any evolutionary argument or of the reality of free will.
A second theme is personal agency. High free will belief has been linked to thinking for oneself instead of mindlessly conforming to the opinions of others, to counterfactual thinking and learning from one’s mistakes, to self-efficacy and (sometimes) internal locus of control, as well as to brain activity associated with initiating movement and to actual behavior. Disbelief in free will appears to foster an attitude of passivity, indifference, and perhaps wide-ranging disregard for moral responsibility.
Baumeister, Roy F., and Lauren E. Brewer. 2012. “Believing versus Disbelieving in Free Will: Correlates and Consequences: Free Will Beliefs.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6 (10): 742–45.
Again, controlling for other beliefs is difficult. The article notes that many things can be controlled for and that the results end up the same. But historically, the Puritans built culture, became rebels of the state, and were known for (except for certain lapses in terms of witch hunting which were obviously evil) their morals. Same with Augustinian monks. These are groups that have historically not believed in free-will. But, they did believe in the gospel, that control is hard to test. Anyhow, though I really am convinced that people with loads of false beliefs (including ones about free will) can be transformed into Christ-likeness (which I strive for some days), it does seem that believing in free-will has a practical pay-off that makes it seem to be a true belief. Anyhow, Boyd was right. Believing in possibilities can empower others. The article does note that free-will belief can also correlate with being more judgmental. This is something Christians should guard against.

Evangelical Myth: Be as uneducated as children


There exist several mythologies in evangelicalism. One of these mythologies is that thinking about the Bible is bad. Bertrand Russel cites this myth and this interpretation of the following scripture as one of the many reasons for rejecting the gospel. One passage of Scripture that is utilized in the myth to follow is Matthew 18:1-5:

In that very moment, the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Then, who is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens?” Then, calling to himself a child, he stood him in their midst and he said, “Truly am I telling you that unless you turn and become as children, you will not, under any circumstances, enter into the kingdom of the heavens. Therefore, if any should humble himself as this child, this one is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens.” Also, if any should receive (show hospitality to) one such as this child in my name, this one receives me.” (Matthew 18:1-5 author’s translation)

  1. The Myth
    I wish that I could find an example of this in a book or a sermon, but I have to go with anecdotal evidence. Almost every time I ask somebody what they think Matthew 18:1-5 means, they reply, “To trust God without question, like a child,” “to obey Jesus without thinking about it,” or “to obey everything you read in the Bible.” The problem is that this passage does not actually say any of those three things. Not only that, but the very experience of obedience used (that of a child) is not even realistic to the experience of any parent or teacher. Also, the myth comes up when I challenge Christians to read a commentary (even an old one designed for devotions), read a book by C.S. Lewis, learn a Biblical language (that’s a big ask), or read a simpler writer like A.W. Tozer. The response is usually, “I just want to keep things simple, like Jesus says about accepting things like a child.” Admittedly, Jesus does thank God as one point for revealing the gospel to the simple and childlike over against the wise and scribally gifted of the age (Matthew 11:26-30), but the context there is that Christians should learn from Jesus as the giver of true wisdom. Jesus’ statement there is not an indictment of study and knowledge, but an indictment of the arrogant dismissals of Jesus’ ministry by the scribes whose ideologies and actions he challenged. Nevertheless, the myth persists. Christians shouldn’t read or think about Scripture, their faith, or the world because Jesus wants us to be like children, and children, after all, don’t know stuff, invent things, or do Calculus (neither do most people by the way).
  2. Reasons this interpretation does not make sense:
    1. Children ask questions all the time.
      Really, they love knowing things until being smart feels uncool in junior high. One of the most annoying things that children do is ask too many questions when you’re trying to do or explain something very simple to them. The gospel of Luke even says that Jesus was this way: “And it happened that after three days, they found him in the temple sitting in the midst of the teachers and listening to them and inquiring of them. All who heard were impressed by his intelligence and his responses.” (Luke 2:46-47 author’s translation) Now, we’re often amazed at the questions of children because they’re clever though mistaken in their assumptions and observations. The teachers were impressed for different reasons, but they weren’t surprised that Jesus had questions and responses to their own questions. They were amazed at the quality of his questions and answers. In personal experience, we also know that children do not always or perhaps even often “simply obey” without either disobeying or asking questions about meaning (‘why’) and procedure (‘how’). Christians are, of course, supposed to ask those questions.
    2. Christians are commanded all over the New Testament to think.
      If we, as Christians rightly do, assume some type of unity of thought in the Canon of the New Testament, then these commands to think might be thematic of Christian living at any stage of history. Thus, if one passage of the New Testament seems to radically contradict the rest, then we should question our interpretation of it. Here are four examples of commands to think in the New Testament (randomly drawn from memory):

      1. be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:1)
      2. love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30)
      3. be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16)
      4. Think over what I am saying and the Lord will give you understanding. (2 Timothy 2:7)
    3. Recent and ancient commentaries say the passage means something else:
      1. John Nolland (recent)
        Though the words of challenge are directed to the disciples, we are not to understand that they are being treated as not having yet undergone this vital reorientation (they have come in humility to Jesus to have their questions answered); sustaining the new orientation and becoming aware of its implications for life are, however, ongoing challenges.1
      2. St. Jerome (ancient)
        And he said. Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. He does not enjoin on the Apostles the age, but the innocence of infants, which they have by virtue of their years, but to which these might attain by striving; that they should be children in malice, not in understanding. As though He had said, As this child, whom I set before you as a pattern, is not obstinate in anger, when injured does not bear it in mind, has no emotion at the sight of a fair woman, does not think one thing while he speaks another; so ye, unless ye have the like innocence and purity of mind, shall not be able to enter into the kingdom of heaven.2
      3. A.T. Robertson (last 150 years)
        Except ye turn, and become as little children. Jesus applies the object lesson to the disciples. The spirit of envy will prevent entrance into the Kingdom of heaven at all. There will then be no need for dispute about preëminence. It is a sharp rebuke. Jesus does not stop to explain about the true idea of the kingdom. He wishes rather to kill the spirit of jealousy. A child is gentle, humble, trustful. Cf. Mk. 10:15 on a later occasion.3
      4. Cornelius Lapide (somewhat ancient)
        Converted, i.e., from this emulation and ambition of yours, which is at least a venial sin, and therefore an impediment to entrance into the kingdom of Heaven.
        As little children: for, speaking generally, they do not envy others, nor covet precedence, but are simple, humble, innocent, and candid. I say generally, for S. Augustine (Confess. l. 1, c. 7) testifies that he had seen an infant at its mother’s breasts growing pale with envy, because he saw his twin brother sucking at the same breasts. 4
      5. Calvin (somewhat ancient)
        Whosoever shall humble himself like this little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is intended to guard us against supposing that we degrade ourselves in any measure by freely surrendering every kind of distinction. And hence we may obtain a short definition of humility. That man is truly humble who neither claims any personal merit in the sight of God, nor proudly despises brethren, or aims at being thought superior to them, but reckons it enough that he is one of the members of Christ, and desires nothing more than that the Head alone should be exalted.5

Robertson includes the idea of trust, but notes that the chief idea is of being a child who is not obsessed with status, but rather is lowly in the social system. One commenter I excluded, Hilary of Poiters, includes the idea of listening to what you’re told but only in the context of learning to love, refusing to hate, showing honor to the lowly, and living a life in imitation of Jesus. So the main idea has been preached for quite some time that becoming as a child means to stop vying for social status. This is exactly what the passage is about if read in context. “Who is the greatest Jesus? You said Peter is the rock, you said we’re all sons at the temple, you took Peter, James, and John alone to pray at the mountain…who do you like the most?” Jesus answered, “You cannot even be my disciple (enter the kingdom), unless you get over that attitude.” Later on, the same question is answered with this phrase, “Whoever wishes to be great must become a servant to all.”


The myth that evangelicals buy into, that intentional ignorance and cognitive cobwebs are good, is in the teeth of several lines of evidence. Jesus wants Christians to be humble. He wants them to avoid making live decisions solely for status, but he does not want his disciples to check their minds at the door, and at home, and at work, and when we read (or don’t read) scripture.

1 Nolland John, “Preface,” in The Gospel of Matthew: a Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005), 732.
2 Saint Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew, vol. 1 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841), 622–623.
3 A. T. Robertson, Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911), 200.
4 Cornelius à Lapide, The Great Commentary of Cornelius à Lapide: S. Matthew’s Gospel—Chaps. 10 to 21, trans. Thomas W. Mossman, vol. 2, Fourth Edition. (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1908), 282.
5 John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 333.

Reasons Modern Books on the Christian Life are Bad

I don’t want to just be a content aggregator. Those things are fairly awful, so I’ll quote some content from this post and add my own. The author wrote about nine reasons that modern books on the Christian life are bad. Here are two of them:

3. Drawing on illustrations that apply to only 0.01% of people won’t help anyone.

4. Do I really need to have sectarianism and branding/marketing ever before me?

Some books that really failed miserably on number 3 included Radical by Dave Platt and The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. The stuff in Radical was decent, but it was a book about how to obey Jesus and hardly did a command of his appear, but there was a one year plan for becoming a radical that no woman with merely a mite could afford. Were his five things good (go to a foreign country for a mission trip, pray for a country daily, start giving regularly to a cause, read the Bible in a year, be involved in a mega church…he called it a multiplying community)? I’ll give him 3. Pray for a country and its missionaries daily is excellent counsel. Read the Bible in a year. I’d say try reading the New Testament every month for a year, then try the Old. Even better, read the Bible with a pastor who will help you understand how to read it. Giving regularly to a cause is plausible if you’re financially stable (not in debt nor buying unhealthy food to survive).

Although I’m not too sure which books are so loaded with sectarianism today, I do note that so much of ancient Christian literature had a very Jesus focused literary flavor that is hard to find in much modern fare. C.S. Lewis noted this in Introduction to On the Incarnation:

In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe – Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet – after all – so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: “An air that kills From yon far country blows.”


I would actually say that one of the main reasons they are bad is how much they focus on sensationalism or sentimentalism. Everything is about feelings and experiences in so many Christian books and so little is about settled knowledge with which to interpret and gauge experience that very little head way can be made for many Christians. I used to work at a coffee shop where fighter pilots would talk about running game (picking up easy lays) at a local mega-church’s small group meetings. I later read this church’s small group manual and the whole mission of the small groups in the church is to make sure that participants are on board with the lead pastor’s vision for the church with appropriate relationships and meaningful experiences. There is very little about knowing what Scripture says, knowing what Jesus taught, knowing the Father of Jesus Christ, etc. Such knowledge, and there is such knowledge available to those who seek it, is no longer a priority in evangelical culture today. Our churches and, sadly enough, our experiences are impoverished for it.

Anger, Venting, and the Puritans

One of the most interesting features of being angry, in my personal experience, is how gratifying it is to vent. It just feels great to yell, say something awful, or even break something. Some people might read that sentence and make fun of the whole thing. But, there is a great deal of music of various genres dedicated to lashing out in anger. Even country songs exist about destroying people’s trucks, etc. There is, in my understanding, a great deal of legal literature dealing with the effect of psychological states such as anger on tests for mens rea.* The apparently positive experience of lashing out in anger is approved of by many.

Anger may start as sudden shock of personal offense and instantly move to the deep desire to be avenged, to return insult for insult, or to visit destruction upon a whole tribe for the injury of one personal friend or confidant. Dallas Willard defines anger as a “response towards those who have interfered with us, it includes a will to harm them, or the beginnings thereof.” His definition is good as far as it goes.

On a tangential, but related note (as all tangents are ratios after all) all anger is not bad. In fact, anger can be a very good thing. Richard Baxter wrote in his Christian Directory, “It [anger] is given us by God for good, to stir us up to a vigorous resistance of those things, which, within us or without us do oppose his glory or our salvation, or our own or our neighbour’s real good (Baxter, 290).” There are some times when it is morally wrong not to be angery because the goods of human existence are being misappropriated for evil ends, people are being abused, the truth is being impugned, or God’s honor is being obscured by idolatry.

The problem with the coping practices called venting  is that there exists a long and apparently clinically honored pedigree in their favor. Freud rather famously thought that self-control was essentially pent up anger. This is the subject of the article, The Psychology of Anger Venting and Empirically Supported Alternatives that Do No Harm,” ** in which it is argued that the common practice of giving psychological patients venting practices like punching pillows, yelling, tearing magazines, etc is actually normalizing the negative anger response. Then, “the good feeling that accompanies venting anger is likely to reinforce the venting and violence. People often mistake their enjoyment of these aggressive acts as a beneficial or therapeutic outcome (Lorh 2007, 56).” This makes sense. Aristotle noted that we’re essentially habits. Freud preferred the notion that we’re really neuroses and any good habit is a repression of some deviant behavior that is actually better for us. In reality though, conscious decisions to act a certain way eventually become habitual ways of being in the world. The article concludes with a note that could come out of any book about the importance of practice, “When people are highly aroused, they may not think much about their behavior and its consequences. Instead they revert to what they have learned to do (or what is permissible) in similar situations. If a person has learned to react to frustrating events by venting (e.g., hitting something), it may make little difference whether the object is animate or inanimate (Lohr, 62).”

The observable reality was not lost on Richard Baxter (who lived prior to Freud, statistical analysis, or Baumeister), when he wrote:

Direct. V. ‘Command your tongue, and hand, and countenance, if you cannot presently command your passion.’ And so you will avoid the greatest of the sin, and the passion itself will quickly be stifled for want of vent. You cannot say that it is not in your power to hold your tongue or hands if you will. Do not only avoid that swearing and cursing which are the marks of the profane, but avoid many words till you are more fit to use them, and avoid expostulations, and contending, and bitter, opprobrious, cutting speeches, which tend to stir up the wrath of others. And use a mild and gentle speech, which savoureth of love, and tendeth to assuage the heat that is kindled. “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” And that which mollifieth and appeaseth another, will much conduce to the appeasing of yourselves.

Richard Baxter, William Orme, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, vol. 3 (London: James Duncan, 1830), 296.

If you learn to control your tongue and your body when you cannot turn off your feelings, then eventually your passions will follow the habits of your body. This is not necessarily true without the context of a broader system of life with time for contemplation of the Scriptures, prayer, service to the poor, trust in Jesus Christ to forgive those who wrong you, etc. But, it is true and replicable enough that a study of several populations of people who practiced venting or different versions of reflection upon frustrating circumstances (either alone or with a group) has shown that without religious context, a reflective approach to anger is much better than a venting one. If you wish to read the rest of Baxter’s chapter on anger it is available here (its a pdf, so scroll down to page 284).

Conclusion: If our response to anger is not to look for what is genuinely wrong with the situation and what can be done to improve it, then we should try to make that our response.

*I have no idea if this kind of thing is common knowledge. I learned about it helping somebody write a research paper about corporate liability in cases of poorly tested medical equipment. Is there a guilty mind when shortcuts are taken with knowledge of the potential effects of those short cuts (the common sense answer is yes, but the legal answer might not be so clear)? But to determine that I had to read about intent in several other sorts of cases.

**Lohr, Jeffrey M., Bunmi O. Olatunji, Roy F. Baumeister, and Brad J. Bushman. 2007. “THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ANGER VENTING AND EMPIRICALLY SUPPORTED ALTERNATIVES THAT DO NO HARM.” Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice 5