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“What to do with all the mad that you feel?”

On May 1, 1969, our venerable Presbyterian saint Mr. Fred Rogers sat before Congress to plead his case for funding for children’s programming on television.

Photo by Bogdan Yukhymchuk on Unsplash

On May 1, 1969, our venerable Presbyterian saint Mr. Fred Rogers sat before Congress to plead his case for funding for children’s programming on television. The curmudgeonly senator chairing this committee questioned Rogers, “What sort of things are on this program?” Mr. Rogers responded in a Jesus-esque manner. He sang a song, the first words of which I have not forgotten, “What do you do with all the mad that you feel?”

Those lyrics pose a question for our times. We’re all angrier than ever, aren’t we? And, to some extent, we know what we do with the mad we feel. One popular option is to pour our wrath onto others. We do this in the online boxing rings of Facebook or Twitter. We do this when in short comments to our spouse, our friends or with the people of our church. Some of us pastors do it unintentionally in our sermons. We tell people to be better and to change, but really what we’re saying is that we’re angry and we don’t know why.

Not all of us pour our anger onto others. Some of us inject our anger internally. Coming from a household where anger was not an option on our familial emotional circuit board, I have learned to keep the mad I feel inside. My wife knows that angry Josh can be quieter, more defensive, more stubborn, and more insecure. I’m not alone in this. I recall a conversation with a close friend from college about one month into pandemic lockdown. We talked about how everyone we knew was drinking a lot more than usual. I know I was. If you can’t find a way to express the mad you feel, you might as well pour something else into numb the pain and take its place.

I’m not sure our American culture knows what to do with anger. We are in this country obsessed to our very core with individualism and positivity. For instance, in the social unrest that happened during the summer of 2020 and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, I frequently heard the refrain, “Why can’t we just be positive and move on?” And, sure, I want to feel positive just as much as the next guy, but what will happen to our hearts if we use optimism to glide over the mad that we feel, that others feel? I wondered this with a pastoral counselor just yesterday. His answer: “Anger is spikes of fear shooting out into the world.” In other words, when we’re angry, we’re also afraid. Fear is the mother of anger. So, if it is true that we are angrier than ever, it is also true that we are more afraid than ever. Feels right, doesn’t it?

The psalms are many things, but one of my favorite things about them is that they are a book of raw human experience: “Answer me when I call, O God” (Psalm 4:1). My favorite line about anger in the Psalter comes directly after that line, “You gave me room when I was in distress” (Psalm 4:1). What does it mean to be given room by God in our anger and fear? Rather than suppress the mad we feel, rather than mute our rage for the greener grass of positivity, our God gives us room.

In other words, God opens up a space for us to say what we want to say, boiling hot as the words may be. I hear so often the stories of my millennial friends who have left the church because they were presented with an angry God. And while I tell them my hope is for God to be angry at the right things (injustice, oppression, abuse of the innocent, war, violence), I also wish I would tell them that they should try being angry with God — to God’s face. Maybe they’ll find more room than they’d expect. And maybe that’s grace — God not holding our fear and anger against us, but rather creating room for us to kick, scream, rage, cajole and listen to rock n’ roll on full volume.

So what should we do with all this mad that we feel? The angry ancient poets of Israel would dare us to direct it heavenward. And when we do, we might be surprised by the emotions that follow. The last lines of Psalm 4 are telling, “I will both lie down and sleep in peace.” When we’re given room to admit that we are afraid and angry, on the other side is a rest we have not yet known.