It was called the Think Tank. I once served a congregation in a city with an outstanding facility that provided comprehensive Christian mental health services. I would periodically visit parishioners who, for various reasons, were a danger to themselves or others and needed to be in a safe place with professional help.
One of the features of the inpatient unit for children and adolescents was the Think Tank. When children or teenagers would get out of control and threaten to hurt staff, other patients, or themselves, they would be placed in the Think Tank. It was a completely bare and safe room with a padded floor and walls. The patients would be given as much time to think as was necessary for them to calm down and be ready to rejoin everyone else.
What I appreciated about the Think Tank was the acknowledgement that at times we all experience intense anger. To be human is to display the full range of emotions. The goal is not to stuff the feelings or pretend they don’t exist, but rather to admit them and then discover a healthy way to address the issues. Unfortunately, our congregations and preachers do a great disservice when we deny the reality of negative emotions in others by either chastising them for feeling that way or ignoring their feelings altogether.
The season of Lent is traditionally a time of introspection and self-examination as we enter into the journey of the passion and death of Jesus. Many congregations who do not have a weekly confession of sins and assurance of pardon in worship often adopt this practice during Lent. I remember an older woman, Sally, who was upset with me one Sunday because I included a unison prayer of confession in worship. She said, “I am not a miserable worm. I am a good person. I’m not a sinner, I’m a Christian, and I am offended that I was asked to pray this prayer.”
The naked truth is that we are all sinners. Anger is not always productive and can hold us back from fullness of life. Clinging to bitterness enslaves our spirits. We all despair, become depressed, or feel resentful at times. How liberating it would be if our clergy and churches could openly talk about the dark side of human life. How reassuring it would be if we stopped the denial, provided a safe place to be honest about our anger and brokenness, and used our pain to bring healing and hope into our world.
The Psalms contain a Think Tank of abundant resources on negative emotions and, more often than we think, address anger against God, others, and self. Psalm 88 is a dark and desperate cry of the psalmist to God.
“My soul is full of troubles…
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.
You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them… O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?”
(verses 3a, 4-5, 8a, 14)
Psalm 88 is embarrassing because the angry writer blames God for his predicament. Yet the psalm provides a sense of solidarity and comfort for those who feel as if God has abandoned them as well.
Psalm 109 is one of the imprecatory psalms, where the author “imprecates” or prays evil against his enemies. This particular psalm consists of a string of vicious accusations against the author’s enemy.
“May his days be few; may another seize his position.
May the creditor seize all that he has;
May strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
May there be no one to do him a kindness,
Nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.” (verses 8, 11-12)
To those who feel attacked or betrayed by others and are sorely tempted to retaliate, Psalm 109 reminds us that we are not alone when we feel the same way.
In Psalm 51, which is part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, David expresses anger against himself and remorse to God for his sin against Bathsheba.
“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
So that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (verses 3-5)
The gift of the dark psalms of anger and retribution is that they invite us into the Think Tank of safety and contemplation as we wrestle. There are compelling reasons why the Christian church needs to recover the angry psalms, which rarely find their way into the lectionary or the pulpit.
- In the Think Tank of the angry psalms we discover a safe place where we can be completely honest with our own feelings.
One of the great blessings of my life is knowing that God and my brothers and sisters in faith accept me for who I am, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The psalms and the church itself become a Think Tank where it is okay to lament, cry, shake my fist at God, and lay down my sins at the altar. Where else in our world can we come before God just as we are? No need for masks, no compulsion to sugarcoat our complaints, no incentive to cover up the raw anger of a diagnosis of cancer, the loss of a job, betrayal by a friend, broken relationships, or tragic deaths of loved ones.
In the Think Tank of the church and the safe love of fellow travelers on the Way, we recognize that God understands and can handle our rage because God’s son Jesus experienced every emotion that we will ever have. Is there any more poignant lament than Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As Jesus quoted and saw himself in Psalm 22, so do we.
- In the Think Tank of the angry Psalms we recognize that there can be just cause for our righteous anger and redemption for our less than righteous anger.
In many of the imprecatory psalms, God’s people are crying out for justice against the unspeakable atrocities committed against them. Although it is never justified to return evil for evil, our righteous anger today against injustice and oppression provides the impetus for positive change in our country and world. God’s people led the way in the fight against slavery, child labor, unfair immigration practices, and human trafficking, and for women’s rights. Without righteous anger our world would be a poorer place.
On the other hand, in the Think Tank of the angry psalms and the grace of the church, we are free to wrestle with the unrighteous anger that can lead to retribution, estrangement, and sin. Less than righteous anger can be transformed rather than transmitted as we move through bitterness and a desire for revenge to wholeness, health, and redemptive action that changes the world into the kingdom of God. “Be angry but do not sin.” (Ephesians 4:26a)
- In the Think Tank of the angry psalms we are invited to enter into the pain of others who have been oppressed, trampled upon, and excluded, even if these psalms don’t speak directly to us.
By acknowledging the angry psalms, we admit that we who live in affluent societies often become immune to evil and are no longer outraged and insulted by those who lie, cheat, steal, maim, discredit, and perpetrate great evil. The angry psalms prompt us make a conscious decision to stand in solidarity with the pleas and cries of people around the world who are denied justice. If the angry psalms are not my prayer, they are the prayer of someone else. And it they are not my prayer today, they may be my prayer tomorrow.
Thanks be to God for the Think Tank of the angry psalms, the Think Tank of the church, and the Think Tank of Lent, all of which beckon us to critical self-reflection, deeper levels of honesty, and greater expressions of compassion for our world and its people.