But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
Anger is one of many emotions that makes us human. We get angry. Anger comes up often in our lives. Anger also comes up often in the little Book of Jonah.
- The King of Nineveh writes about God’s anger in his decree in Jonah 3:9, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
- In chapter 4, verse 1, Jonah becomes greatly displeased and angry with God for being so compassionate towards Jonah’s enemies.
- Jonah prays about God’s anger in Jonah 4:2, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
- God responds by asking Jonah twice about his anger (4:4 and 4:9), “Have you any right to be angry?”; “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
In these passages, there seems to be an inverse relationship between anger and compassion. With compassion, we can turn from anger, relenting from harming others with our anger, but rather offer others mercy. Without compassion, we are quick to anger, wanting to lash out at others with judgment or condemnation. Compassion offers anger a boundary within which to live and breath, like a wood stove for a fire.
Someone recently described anger to me as a “secondary emotion”. While some anger is the immediate primary response to life, much of our anger is secondary, a reaction we’ve learned defend ourselves. Prior to our anger, we’ve usually experienced fear, pain, frustration, disrespect, pressure, violation, or some other threat to our soul.
We get angry in part to protect ourselves when we feel attacked. Like other mammals in planet earth, we have built in defenses which automatically get triggered when threatened. We prepare for “fight or flight”, with a quick rush of adrenaline, and an emotional response of anger which sends signals throughout our body, preparing us for action.
Anger is like fire. Our wood stove draws very well, and we often only need one match to get a fire going, bringing heat to our home in the winter. Uncontrolled anger can do serious and permanent damage to ourselves and to others, like lighting matches in a forest. Mature expressions of anger can kindle a fire in the soul to bring compassion to others, like striking a match to light a beach fire, gathering friends and family around the warmth. Immature uses of anger either damage others, or when turned inward, can end up damaging our own soul.
This is why God asks Jonah to think twice about his anger. “Is it right for you to be so angry?” God wants us to reflect upon our anger, to learn from our anger, to surround our anger with the protective covering of God’s compassion. What is causing me to be angry right now? What other feelings precede my anger? What am I doing with my anger? What in my life can I control, and what is outside my control? How can my anger best help me and others in this situation? What is the relationship between anger and compassion in my own heart?
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), an Austrian psychiatrist and author of the best-selling book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
“Beach fire by moonlight at Haystack Rock”
Photo by Thomas Robinson. See Thomas Robinson’s Photo Gallery.