A Pastor's Reflection on Growing in Love & Learning to Let Go of Anger

Leadership, or the pastorate, is a very lonely place. I’ve heard this said by other leaders and I am also guilty of saying it myself. But this is far from the truth. We are not alone, we have God, we have our spouses, we have our tribe, we have our friends, and we have our teams. We are not alone. That is if we choose not to be. 

But why do we often feel alone? I know for myself I often feel this way when things don’t work out the way I would’ve liked it to or maybe when not all my relationships are at a peaceful flow. You feel alone because often you’ve marinated your mind in much victimization. These venting sessions, along with other perhaps more volatile expressions of frustrations, depressions, and anger are all rooted in a life that has had its God-rhythms disrupted, mainly by anxiety and fear.

I am finding more and more that the goal of ministry and life is not to produce something to be praised or enjoyed (product & consumption based model of ministry) but perhaps it is simply to become more Christ-like in all that we are and do. The ministry is then not just a tool for me to do God’s bidding but it is the tool God uses to shape me. In discipling others, I in turn am offered discipleship. In pastoring others, I am pastored. I have quickly realized, to my benefit, that congregation and ministry life is specifically designed by God to “kill” my flesh and to make me more Christ-like. (I am not trying to make Ministry about me or to suggest we think of it in this navel gazing way, but that often we ministers do not realize we too are in the process of ministry and discipleship…) I’ve found that ministry endeavors and opportunities are not here for me to get a sense of being useful and effective. It is instead an invitation to bear the Cross, against my flesh and for the benefit of Others, in the spirit of Christ, which is the spirit of humility and grace. 

"The congregation is the pastor's place for developing vocational holiness. It goes without saying that it is the place of ministry: we preach the word and administer the sacraments, we give pastoral care and administer the community life, we teach and we give spiritual direction. But it is also the place in which we develop virtue, learn to love, advance in hope - become what we preach." - Eugene Peterson 

With this said, I’ve decided to contemplate a lot on anger; i.e. stress, anxiety. I’ve found that a lot of the breakdown in life and ministry is due to stress. And for me, stress is often felt when things don’t work out the way I want. When people don’t behave the way I want. When I don’t behave the way I think I should. These things tempt me to become angry, but it’s a subtle anger. It’s not explosive and it’s not even seemingly self righteous anger. It’s often cloaked in pastoral “disappointments” than out right anger. But inside I find myself often bothered and sometimes angered by people’s choices, behaviors, and words. 

Henri Nouwen’s words concerning this have captured it so accurately that I often find myself revisiting it as it transports me quicker to God’s presence and the awareness of the need for His mercy and peace. 

“Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come to church for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who make them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not an open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, and anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyses a generous heart. If there is anything that makes the ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger, in the servants of Christ.” - Nouwen, The Way of the Heart

I find that there are expectations I have of others and of myself that are not met, sometimes quite frequently, and most disturbingly by people I expected more from. 

And so anger lies waiting to pounce and devour me simply because I do not get what I want or have expected (see, James 4: 1-2) . And because I often get blindsided by stress, and because I didn't set up a strategic healthy response to these moments, I in turn seek to sooth myself with “addictions” (false refuges). Often these false refuges are found in food (late night meals) and  venting sessions to others (i.e. slander and gossip)

“What else is anger than the impulsive response to the experience of being deprived? When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word.” - Henry Nouwen, “The Way of the Heart”

God has been coaching me however to respond with much Grace, his Grace.

I’ve found myself exercising faith. What I call “prophetic” ministry. It’s learning to see myself with sober eyes, see God with a grateful heart, and see the divine imprint on others. It’s about understanding grace. The opposite of anger is not just peace or lack of conflict, but grace... understanding and embracing more fully the grace of God. 

I find myself wanting to be like Nelson Mandela, who always gave people the benefit of the doubt. 

"...Mandela sees almost everyone as virtuous until proven otherwise. He starts with an assumption you are dealing with him in good faith. He believes that, just as pretending to be brave can lead to acts of real bravery, seeing the good in other people improves the chances that they will reveal their better selves." - Richard Stengel's Bio of Nelson Mandela 

In dealing with anger and frustrations, I had to come face to face with mercy and grace. What does it mean to truly embrace it for my life? And if I have truly embraced it for myself then how will it manifest in my life to and for others? (See, Matthew 18: 21-35, “The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant”) 

I have been teaching that for our church, the mission and the goal of each disciple of Christ is not some occupation, some “calling”, but to become more and more like Jesus. The question for us is more than, “What should I do for God?” but “Who am I becoming? What kind of person will I be?”… 

“For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son...” - Romans 8: 29

If this is one of our primary goals at Ekko, then what does that look like for me as one of its members?

In the light of this, some reflections on Forgiveness and Gracious.

“Forgiveness is one of the most radical ways in which we are able to nourish one another’s humanity... The unforgiven and the unforgiving cannot see the other as someone who is part of God’s work of bestowing humanity on them. To forgive and to be forgiven is to allow yourself to be humanised... To deny the possibilities of forgiveness would be to say that there are those I have no need of because they have offended me or because they have refused to extend a hand to me.” - Rowan Williams

I am savoring and understanding words like these more than ever, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” - Matthew 5: 7.

I believe to become more and more like Christ is to become more and more forgiving, gracious, and considerate. It is not to dominate, “advance the kingdom”, build a spiritual empire. It is instead to master the art of being fully human. And one of the main elements of being fully human is to understand and offer forgiveness. 

“We are most like beasts when we kill. We are most like men when we judge. We are most like God when we forgive.” – Chuck Swindoll

I’ve found that we often keep records or “receipts” of wrongs done to us. This mental record keeping gives us a sense that we can “prove” that our anger is justified much like the security we feel when we have the receipt from an expensive purchase. If anything goes wrong or if I need proof of purchase I can show my receipt and get what I deserve, justice. The problem though lies not with the benefits that come from the receipt but with its limitations. The receipt can only get you another one of the same item. It can not replace your hurt with something entirely new, it can only offer the same item that has the same capacity to break on you again. Only within grace and God’s spirit, can “new beginnings” start for any relationships, individuals, etc. Therefore, this system of recording is flawed and unhelpful and ultimately depressing. I have found joy and something to practice in these words from Psalm 103.

“The LORD does what is right and fair for all who are oppressed. He let Moses know his ways. He let the Israelites know the things he had done. The LORD is compassionate, merciful, patient, and always ready to forgive. He will not always accuse us of wrong or be angry [with us] forever. He has not treated us as we deserve for our sins or paid us back for our wrongs. As high as the heavens are above the earth-- that is how vast his mercy is toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west-- that is how far he has removed our rebellious acts from himself. As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.” - Psalm 103: 6-13

Jesus had the foresight and the faith to invest in people before they changed, before they were “useful”, before they “pleased” the Father, or were even able to. Jesus’ view of people was always dipped first in God’s view of them; prophetic vision of people. Mainly, having faith in people and giving them the benefit of the doubt. I’ve found that my ministry and life needs to anchor itself in this reality that God sees all of our people with joy and contentment in his heart. The practice I’ve developed due to this reality is the practice of respecting people as God’s children rather or simply “christians” or “church goers”. They are God’s great treasure, and so am I. 

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” - Romans 5: 8

I have found Pastor Eugene Peterson’s words both comforting and challenging. It has become one of the truths I often visit to recenter me almost every month of my ministry. 

“Congregation is a company of people who are defined by their creation in the image of God, living souls, whether they know it or not. They are not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honored and revered.” - Eugene Peterson

This has truly become my mantra. That congregation, the people in my ministry, are not problems to be fixed but mysteries to be honored! This has changed not only my view of ministry but it has indelibly changed my life. I’ve found that stress and anger often arise due to me forgetting the fact that these are folks who first and foremost deserve my utmost respect and love. They are new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5: 17), and my call is not only to see them that way but to inspire them to nurture that new creation in them. And the best way to do so is through love and respect. Love seems to delude stress and anger quite a bit. Therefore, I have made it my aim to learn how to love and respect people, to respect the congregation. 

“Make love your aim…” - 1 Corinthians 14: 1

God is love and he seems to give it freely and abundantly to me when I ask (and when I don’t ask or don’t deserve it). And when full of love I seem to be able to handle stress and anger much better. Well, that’s pretty much it. I’ve learned much about the root of my stress. It's time to slow down, get quiet, and enter his presence and enjoy his peace.

God is with us, 
- Bryan