The Psalms of Anger

The Psalms of Anger: Prayer Card (illustration by Phaedra Taylor)

(The following is an excerpt from my chapter on the curse or imprecatory psalms in my book, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life. I thought it might be helpful to post a portion of the chapter here in light of the current events in our society and the confusion that often surrounds the emotion of anger in Christian circles, especially within the context of prayer and worship.

As I write in the book, the psalms make justice a primary concern in a way that many Christians today do not. And where you find injustice in the psalms, you also find anger, which, again, plenty of Christians have rejected as an absolute negative emotion. Yet in the same way that there is no faithful prayer apart from justice, there is likewise no cry against injustice that does not include an element of anger.

So what does it mean for Christians to allow themselves to be taught in the "Anger School" of the psalms in such a way that our prayers are made more, rather than less, faithful by our "righteous anger"? What does it sound like to sing an angry worship song? And how might singing and praying such psalms help us to name our angers, as a form of protest worship, while robbing us of the impetus to act out on our revenge fantasies agains our perceived enemies?)


"And so I continued to bear the crippling weight of anger, bitterness, and resentment toward those who caused my suffering—the sea/ring fire that penetrated my body; the ensuing burn baths; the dry and itchy skin; the inability to sweat, which turned my flesh into an oven in Vietnam’s sweltering heat." —Kim Phuc Phan Thi 

"I am grateful, too, to Lewis for having the courage to yell, to doubt, to kick at God with angry violence. This is a part of healthy grief not often encouraged." —Madeleine L’Engle 

I have struggled with anger my whole life. In college I would walk around the campus with anger simmering just below the surface. Any number of things might provoke me to an outburst—a careless comment, a missed bus, a lost opportunity, an unwanted interruption, an unexpected failure. Usually those closest to me, family or dear friends, experienced firsthand my eruptions of anger. 

After our daughter Blythe arrived, I found myself driving around the streets of Durham, North Carolina, with an infant in the back seat. Like a protagonist in a revenge-themed movie, I perceived all cars as a threat to my only child’s life and, therefore, to my well-being. I would sit at traffic lights, a surplus of anger churning inside me, and imagine a scene where I would beat an attacker into unconsciousness with a baseball bat—a bat that I didn’t actually own. 

A few years before this, when I was a young pastor in Austin, Texas, I blew up at a fellow pastor. I had nursed resentment against him for things I believed he had failed to do that I felt he ought to have done. During a staff meeting he said something that touched a sore spot in me. One moment I was listening; the next moment I was yelling. I yelled at the top of my lungs. I shook my fists at him and bludgeoned him with a litany of slights. It was ugly, and it was embarrassing. I’m still embarrassed about it. 

But I know that I am not the only one who struggles with anger. Plenty of things make people angry around the world: the state of the economy, the outcome of a sporting event, recurring sickness, the betrayal of a friend, the experience of domestic violence, the abuse of power by those in authority, or the killing of innocent people. 

In 2018, Rebecca Traister released her book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. In it she argues that anger at repeated experiences of injustice has fueled movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. The Catholic faithful have been angry for a long time at the failure of bishops to address the problem of clergy abuse, of both children and nuns. 

In the 2018 movie The First Purge, a lead character declares: “If we want to save our country, we must release all our anger in one night.” In the context of the movie, this involves allowing citizens to use violence in whatever way they wish for one night of the year.  

In the Time magazine article “The Las Vegas Shooting and Our Age of Anger,” editor-at- large Jeffrey Kluger writes this: 

"Americans have made something of a fetish of our rage of late—a fact that’s even been leaking into our language. The base is never just “animated,” it’s always “enraged.” Health care debates are never “spirited,” they’re always “furious.” In the run-up to the 2016 election, a CNN/ORC poll found that 69% of Americans reported being either very or somewhat angry at the state of the nation." 

What Bernie Sanders actually said was this: “I am angry and millions of Americans are angry.” 

People get angry at themselves too. They say things like: I’m so stupid; I’m fat; I’m ugly; I always fail. Some people nag. Others erupt in sudden fury. Still others simmer in passive-aggressive behavior. Unrighteous anger destroys, while righteous anger fuels the work of justice and peace. God gets angry. Jesus gets angry. Saint Paul says plenty of things about anger, not all of them self-evident. 

What exactly then are we to do with our experiences of anger—or the experiences of those nearby? Suppress it? Deny it? Indulge it? How do we keep from “losing our head” when we feel used by people? How do we forgive someone who is unwilling to own up to their harmful actions? And what do we do with emotions that threaten to turn revenge fantasies into reality? It is questions such as these that this chapter seeks to answer.

One way forward is to take advantage of the psalms of anger, sometimes called the imprecatory psalms or the curse psalms, which include Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 52, 54, 69, 79, 83, 109, 137, and 143, among others. It begs the question, of course, that Christians have been asking since the early church era: Can we really pray the curse psalms? 

Aren’t these prayers diametrically opposed to the “Spirit of the Gospel,” as Isaac Watts once asserted? Didn’t Jesus forbid us to curse our enemies? Did he not command us to pray for those who persecute us? Isn’t anger one of the seven deadly sins? And is C. S. Lewis right, in the end, that “one way of dealing with these terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible Psalms is simply to leave them alone”? 

I would like to think that Lewis is wrong on this account. We do not leave them alone. We trust instead that God has given us the angry psalms to help us feel angry without being undone by our anger. We trust that God has given us these psalms to rescue us from the desire to do violence to others. And we trust that God has given us these psalms to heal and unite us, and to show us the possibility of a faithful anger. 

Within the context of the Psalter, a curse psalm is a psalm where the psalmist prays angry prayers against his enemies and those he perceives to be God’s enemies. The psalmist curses his enemy because he is hurt. The hurt is so acute, the wound so deep, that it provokes the psalmist to anger.

And, as my counselor would often remind me in our sessions together, while the movement from “sad” to “mad” in our experiences of profound pain is a natural one, the movement from “mad” to “bad,” where we commit sin against our neighbor, is always a choice. And it is from this decision to do violence, either to another or to ourselves, that the curse psalms rescue us. 

Along these lines, because sadness always lies at the core of our experiences of anger, the basic shape of curse psalms follows the basic shape of psalms of lament, because they, too, are a lament. Psalm 12 is typical of such psalms. It begins with a complaint by the faithful, transitions to a petition to God, and ends with a response by the faithful.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press (Washington DC)

Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated Press (Atlanta)

Bryan Denton for The New York Times (Los Angeles)

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press (San Francisco)

Jim Bourg/Reuters (Washington DC)

Ricardo Arduengo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images (Miami)

Victor J. Blue for The New York Times (Minneapolis)


Karl Petersen said…
Truly inspiring and well-focused. On this same theme, if you have not yet, you must hear/watch Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III and his inspiring The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery. It's on Youtube. It keeps ringing in my ears, eyes, thoughts, and imagination. Totally in the "Diary of an Arts Pastor" vintage.
Karl, thanks for your note here! And thanks for recommending this resource. I look forward to watching it.
Karl Petersen said…
Failed to mention.... Another brilliant work of art.
Is our anger seeding life or feeding strife?
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