Last Sunday I did something I rarely do (at least in the United States). I preached. In the sermon I explore Jonah’s anger and our anger about injustice. I point out that the problem is not that Jonah is angry but that he is hardened and blinded. And then I end with the good news about how God relates to angry people and what he does to injustice.
Amy Carmichael with children (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have heard several biblical counselors use the following story to teach about the true source of our sinful anger.
If you are holding a cup and I bump your arm and so the contents spill out on the floor, what caused the spill? You might be inclined to blame me. It wouldn’t have spilled except that you bumped me. But, really, the only reason why it spilled is that you had contents in your cup. If the contents weren’t in the cup, it wouldn’t spill no matter how hard I bumped into you. When we get sinfully angry, it is easy to blame the other as the cause. In reality, the true source of sinful anger is the one who is expressing it. The one who bumps is not the cause, only the situation that uncovers what was already there
This little analogy finds its basis in the book of James (3:9f)
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water
Origins of the cup story?
But, where did this cup story find its origin? In all of the times I heard this little story, I never heard it attributed to someone. As a result, I assumed it originated with someone in the biblical counseling movement.
While I still do not know the FIRST time it was used, I can tell you that it appears in Amy Carmighael’s little book, IF, published first in the 1930s. I have an undated copy of the book (published by CLC). Page 37 says this,
If a sudden jar can cause me to speak an impatient, unloving word, then I know nothing of Calvary love.*
*For a cup brimful of sweet water cannot spill even one drop of bitter water however suddenly jolted.
Is this the origin? Anyone know if someone before the 1930s used this example?
Human brain parts during a fear amygdala hijack from optical stimulus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ever wonder why? Check out this quote by Richard McNally¹ about the role of the amygdala,
LeDoux discovered two pathways for activating the amygdala, a subcortical structure integral to the experiences and expression of conditioned fear. One pathway rapidly transmits sensory input about fear stimuli to the amygdala via a subcortical route, whereas the second pathway passes through the cortex, taking twice as long to reach the amygdala. Subcortical activation of the amygdala makes it possible for a fight-or-flight reaction to begin even before information about fear-evoking stimulus has reached conscious awareness via the cortical route.” (p. 178, emphases mine)
If this is true, then in anxiety and intense emotion-producing events our brains begin the reaction phase prior to any thought processes. If true, then we might consider
The goal of trauma treatment or anger management is NOT to avoid having reactions but to more quickly reach cognitions and alternative emotions that help moderate a negative reaction
the empirical evidence for the clinical process whereby a client adopts a neutral reaction as opposed to a negative reaction is quite lacking. There are a number of models that process to “cool down” the amygdala, but these treatments often lack serious empirical support.
So, the next time you instantly react in a way that bothers you, don’t be so hard on yourself. Instead stop yourself, take a deep breath, work to analyze the situation and to lean into a post hoc truth. We have our hands full enough with what we know we need to do, we don’t need to worry so much about our first reaction.
¹McNally, R.J. (2003). Remembering Trauma. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
The above link is to an article I just read regarding the overdiagnosis of bipolar disorder in children. Written by a Dr. Kaplan (child psychiatrist), he notes that many children with ADHD or ODD have been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder due to temper tantrums, grandiosity, impulsivity, racing thoughts, elevated silliness, etc. These symptoms are really happening but Dr. Kaplan does not believe they are associated with bipolar disease (and thus not appropriate to be treated with medications like Lithium, Wellbutrin, or Depakote). Dr. Kaplan goes on to say that he thinks there isn’t any scientific evidence of bipolar beginning in childhood.
Not sure I would agree with him about this but I do agree that bipolar is an easy target when a child has frequent outbursts and is difficult to rein in. He and others are right to point out that irritability is not a good indicator of bipolar disease. Nor is emotional lability a good indicator. Many ADHD kids end up with a bipolar diagnosis when they should not have it.
What should the overdiagnosis tell us? It is not really about “big pharma” trying to drug our kids. It is not about psychiatrists just wanting to push pills. It is about overwhelmed parents and teachers who do not know what to do with the overwhelming emotional/behavioral rollercoaster some children exhibit. They (parents and kids) need help and our understanding of these issues (lability, irritability, grandiosity, tantrums, etc.) and how to best help these children are poor.
Rather than beat up on the system, let us figure out better methods to parent and counsel these types of children.
Just read a CNN piece on whether or not we should call Huma Abedin a victim or not (Rep. Anthony Weiner’s wife). The author says we ought not to, that only she gets to decide if she is a victim. The author quotes from Laura Munson’s book (This is not the Story You Think it is) and suggests that when one decides to be happy (and to be responsible to find happiness), one stops being a victim.
Seems to me that we ought to differ between being a victim and having a victim mentality.
Huma is a victim of her husband’s behavior. When someone is harmed by the behaviors of others, that person is a victim. Now, a victim commonly has various emotional experiences associated with being helpless to stop harmful behaviors. But, being a victim is not the same thing as being helpless in all things. One may indeed be helpless to stop a car accident or infidelity. But, one is not helpless to decide what they want to do about it.
How do you respond to the word “victim?” Do you hear it as helpless? Completely unable to make choices? Devoid of happiness?
At the end of the article, the author lists several helpful responses to being subjected to harmful behaviors by others (nonviolent that is). Her recommendations are below and besides a few tweaks, I don’t disagree. However, I think she gives the impression that feeling hurt, anger, and confusion are somehow signs of weakness. They are not.
Caught part II of a 3 part, 6 hour, series on PBS last night. This Emotional Life, moderated by Dr. Dan Gilbert. I recommend you check out, at minimum their website but if you get a chance, tonight your local pbs station may air the 3rd part. The website includes lots of info about the various topics, individuals interviewed, and the whole first episode (which I have yet to watch). The series focuses on love and family relationships and attachment (#1), negative emotions such as anger, fear, and depression (#2), and happiness (#3).
Now, there are a number of irritations I have about the program but the good outweighs the bad. What don’t I like? I don’t like the way they say, “Science says…” and then do not discriminate between data and interpretation of said data. I don’t like the repetitive evolutionary comments. For example, “the newer part of your brain can’t communicate with the older part” assumes that because we have a cerebral cortex and animals don’t have as well-developed cortexes, that part of our brain is “newer.” Further, the view of humanity in episode 2 seems to be that of the human physical robot. There is no space for the spiritual. One quote from the episode, “Mental illness is nothing less than a physical illness that has psychological consequences.” It is as if emotions are only chemical.
But these small problems can be easily forgiven. Here’s what I like from episode 2:
The honest admissions of struggles of celebrities (e.g., Katie Couric’s admission she has intrusive thoughts of jumping off high balconies, Chevy Chase’s admission of depression, etc.)
The gripping stories of struggler’s with anger, anxiety, and depression (especially two vet’s struggle with PTSD) and the significant impact of the struggles on the other family members
You really get a window into their interactions with their therapists. Lots of good video that is rare to see!
The scientific discoveries relating to the brain and the experiences of these negative emotions. For example:
Stress hormones seem to strengthen memory formation. Thus traumatic experiences likely etch bad memories much deeper than other memories.
Re-appraisal (neutral re-evaluation) of events where you experience negative emotions supports more control of these emotions whereas rumination causes us to be more reactive
Prolonged exposure therapy (telling, retelling and retelling again) for PTSD patients seems to have significant positive benefits (though it defies logic–most people want to get away from their bad memories)
Depressed individuals tend to have reduced hippocampus volume. Antidepressants and ECT seem not merely to change brain chemistry but actually increase cell growth. Depression actually seems to change the brain and antidepressant use stops hippocampus shrinkage
A couple of other interesting tidbits:
Emotion regulation: not trying to turn off emotion but tools to change the course of emotion
“Don’t believe everything you think.” But, we tend to nonetheless
Struggling with overwhelming anxiety? Accept that you have these feelings (crying, tension, fear), accept that they are physiological experiences, avoid labeling them as awful. You will have scary thoughts and you can live with them
“What is the worst thing that could happen right now?” I might cry. “And what if you do?” That would be bad. By accepting these emotions you can distance from the meaning you are applying to them.
There are biological indicators in those who are highly reactive to stress. These folks can’t help their reaction but they can recognize their tendencies and respond differently to them.
Untreated mental illness is harder to treat if left untreated for long periods of time.
Richard Lewis on the benefits of therapy and getting to talk about things he never talked about with anyone: “Maybe for the time I left her (his therapist) office til I got in my car I was floating on air”. Hmm, is that worth the 150 dollars he probably paid?
Finally, I leave you with this. Perceptions of progress, or lack thereof, have a huge impact on your perceptions of happiness. One young girl thought her ECT would help sooner than it did. When it did not, she crashed even worse. Even more than our physiology of emotions, our perceptions of our well-being and our progress often dictate our beliefs about ourselves and our futures.
We already know that texting while driving endangers lives. No surprise there. But have you considered the danger of texting while angry? Texting while avoiding?
Consider the following situation. You have a set-to with a loved one while each are at work. Finding yourself hurt and angry, the thought crosses your mind to text that person to say something mature like,
“fine. u go rite ahed and do it. c if i care.”
Of course, you don’t really mean “fine.” Nor do you want them to “go ahead”. You do care, otherwise you wouldn’t be texting while angry.
Notice the dangers here:
1. Texting give us the illusion of connection. We can send a message to communicate with another but don’t really call it a connection.
2. Texting provides an opportunity to jab each other when angry but avoid (for a few moments anyway) seeing the impact of that jab. Sure, we could say these silly and immature things to the other’s face, but with the advent of texting we don’t have to admit to ourselves that our words have impact.
3. Texting allows another to keep a record of our wrongs; to read it again and again and maintain the hurts. Yes, we can remember words spoken in anger, but keeping a copy would be tempting and very dangerous.
For those of you who text, maybe a few rules should apply.
If you are tempted to text someone so you can avoid them, don’t.
Don’t text or email when angry.
Ask yourself about impact: Does it truly meet the constructive requirement of Ephesians? And if it does, why not say it face to face?
My apologies to those waiting for the next chapter in Wright’s book. Some other writing assignments require me to put down my fun books and pick up some work-related reading these days. But enough of my excuses… In chapter 7 Chris Wright admits that one answer to the question, “How did the cross achieve salvation for us?” is simple and from Scripture: “Because it did.” But he like many others would rather not stop there. And he contends the bible doesn’t stop there either.
He reminds the reader that evangelical interpreters of the Bible regard the most helpful metaphor of the cross as judicial–substitutionary atonement. There are other metaphors used in the bible to explain the “how” but 1 Cor 15:3 underlines and emphasizes that Christ’s death on the cross was sacrificial and substitutionary. Here Wright brings up the controversy surrounding “penal substitution” and the grounds by which some reject this forensic focus to substitutionary atonement. Of the 7 reasons he lists, the primary ones (in my eyes) are the sense that penal substitution focuses too much on guilt, portrays God as mechanistic or always angry, and emphasizes the only way to deal with sin is with violence.
Wright believes the arguments for rejecting penal substitution would be good if in fact evangelicals held them. But he fears that the arguments against the penal metaphor are caricatures. From this point he looks at how the bible paints God’s love and anger. His anger and love must be, he contends, taken together as part of a whole, rather than having one negate the other. The two expressions are not contrary to each other any more than we may be angry with a loved one for bad behavior and yet still love them at the same time. He suggests the Cross satisfies both God’s love and anger.
He further rejects the conflict between God the father and Jesus the son. God is not the angry father and Jesus the loving son who steps between us. That viewpoint would destroy God’s essential unity (see John 17 for this). He uses extensive quotes from John Stott here to bolster his argument
Finally, he addresses the concepts of guilt and shame. The argument has arise that penal atonement only makes sense in cultures with a “developed sense of personal and objective guilt.” Shame cultures, it is suggested, would not be able to identify as well. Further, in a postmodern world it appears that shame is the more likely experience (of not being internally consistent with oneself). But Wright says that both shame and guilt are addressed by the cross and both are related. He points to Ezekiel who talks about being shamed and feeling shamed (36:16-32). The cross (and the forgiveness behind it) takes away the shame quality even though they still feel it when they remember what God has done. Wright suggests that ongoing feeling is healthy. He quotes from another of his books
Israel were not to feel ashamed in the presence of other nations (36:15), but they were to feel ashamed in the presence of their own memories before God (36:31-32). Similarly, there is a proper sense in which the believer may rightly hold up her head in company.
He then talks about how God in the OT and Jesus in the NT publicly affirms those who were shamed. God removes their shame, no matter what others think of them. They now hold their head high. And yet, Wright tries to articulate that this person may still feel shame when remembering past sins but he is quick to point out that this feeling does not crush but fuels “genuine repentance and humility and for joy and peace that flow from that source alone.”
While the content of this chapter seems a bit more about confronting a wrong he sees in the penal substitution debate than about answering how the cross works, nonetheless I find his writing about guilt and shame quite helpful here–especially how he distinguishes the kinds and sources of shame. I think it might be helpful for those who trust in Jesus but who struggle with shame to consider for a moment what their shame drives them to do. To hide? To be grateful for God’s restorative work?
Next week, we’ll look at his final chapter on the cross.
One last nugget from the book Madness on the impact of serious illness on the marriage relationships. Marya explores the impact of her bipolar disorder on her second marriage and her very devoted husband who spent two years entirely focused on caring for her. When she begins to recover, she notices that he is rather a shell of himself.
In some ways it is simpler to be married to someone who is all need and no give. It’s an enormous drain. But there is benefit too: you become the hero, the center of someone else’s existence. You are the saint. You have, in this sense, a great deal of power. You tell this person what to do, and she does it. You feed her. You hold her, You are her mother, her father, her husband, her priest. And you are never required to her on an adult level. There is never anything wrong with you; any problem is caused by her, her illness, her meds not working, her malfunctioning mind. …
You relish your role and resent it enormously at the same time. And when your role is upset–when the patient climbs out of bed and walks on her own, makes her own food, drives her own car…–you see she now does everything wrong….And–who does she think she is?–She doesn’t always agree with you…she doesn’t need you anymore. This is unacceptable. This won’t work. (222-3)
What she describes is oh so true. Whether mental illness, disease of some other organ, or impact of an affair, one spouse picks up the slack to make life work. And so it does for a time. But when the sick one gets better, when the alcoholic gives up the bottle, when the adulterer gives up the affair and wants to renew a partnership again, the “strong” spouse often then experiences rages, resentment, distance, etc. At the just the time when a partnership is possible–the thing that the strong spouse most desired and fantasized about, they find it now difficult to allow or participate in such a partnership.
Why is this? In part it is due to comfort in one’s role and the dislike for change. It is a changed belief that the “sick” spouse is now incapable of really being a partner. In part it is due to the the hidden belief of the unfairness of the previous imbalanced relationship and the desire for some level of payback.
I’ve just gotten notice that the Leadership Institute of the Episcopal Diocese of PA is sponsoring a lecture by Volf on December 13, 1-4 pm at St. Thomas Church in Ft. Washington (poster says Whitemarsh, but it’s just on Church Road not far off 309).
He’ll be giving a talk entitled: Forgiveness and Injury: Moving Forward through Life’s Adversities. He’s a theologian from Yale and will probably be talking some of his experiences of dealing with anger and intrusive memories resulting from his life in Yugoslavia. I blogged chapters of his book, “End of Memory” which you can find here. I imagine the book and lecture will have many parallels.
Cost is $20. I’m planning on attending. He’s a very thoughtful writer so hoping the presentation will be good. Info for directions and registration found here (you’ll need to scroll down to the event listing for the 13th).