Strangely, most persons who seek counsel will argue that they have the right to be angry. “Under my circumstances, can you blame me?” they will say in stout defense. Of course they have the right to be angry, but as long as they argue in defense of their wrath, they will see no need nor have any desire to change and thus be delivered from the unhappiness of anger.
Sometimes a person can ignore his anger by becoming preoccupied with a problem. Lois Flood is a case in point. “When I get up to sing in church, my chest tightens and I struggle for breath. I am afraid I will fail. Lately I’ve been overcome with a sense of inferiority.”
But she was not inferior. She was, in fact, the best vocalist in the community. What then was wrong? A look backward revealed the church in which she sang had a policy that soloists should rotate Sunday by Sunday-–the lesser singers taking their turns with the better. This meant that Mrs. Flood had opportunity to sing only a few times each year. It annoyed her to listen to those who were far less competent than she. When she did sing, it was to people who angered her.
She had another problem. A circle in the church excluded her because of her age. Though she tried hard to be a member of the group, she was not accepted–only reminded that she belonged in another circle. So whenever she sang, she sang to women who angered her.
Lois Flood was not an inferior woman, but she was angry, bitter, and resentful. Day after day, week after week, the sun went down on her wrath. When she looked at herself honestly and faced the truth, she dealt not with feelings of being inferior but with her real problem–-her selfish reactions to not getting her own way–-and prayed for grace to accept what she could not change. She saw that up to this point she had had to give herself some reason for her uneasiness, and the reason she gave was, “I am inferior.”
Feelings of Guilt
Anger receives a great deal of attention in mental health clinics and counseling centers all over the country. So do guilt feelings. A mother feels guilty because she screams at her children. A young man feels guilty because he no longer adheres to the behavioral standards by which he was reared. Another youth has been involved very intimately with a girl and feels guilty but cannot seem to help himself.
Some writers in the mental health field suggest that guilt feelings are the result of unreasonably high standards of conduct. People feel guilty because they are rejected or criticized. Therefore, they say, we need to accept one another as we are.
Commenting on this point, O. H. Mowrer, of the University of Illinois, says:
Our attitudes, as would-be therapists or helping persons, toward the neurotic are apparently less important than his attitude toward himself, [which] in the most general sense is a rejecting one. Therefore, we have reasoned, the way to get the neurotic to accept and love himself is for us to love and accept him, an inference which flows from the Freudian assumption that the patient is not really guilty or sinful but only fancies himself so . . . and that we are all inherently good and are corrupted by our experiences with the external world.
But what is here generally overlooked, it seems, is that recovery is most assuredly attained, not by helping a person reject and rise above his sins, but by helping him accept them.
This is the paradox which we have not at all understood and which is the very crux of the problem. Just so long as a person lives under the shadow of real, unacknowledged, and unexpiated guilt, he cannot (if he has any character at all) “accept himself”; and all our efforts to reassure him will avail nothing. He will continue to hate himself and to suffer the inevitable consequences of self-hatred. But the moment he (with or without assistance) begins to accept his guilt and his sinfulness, the possibility of radical reformation opens up; and with this, the individual may legitimately, though not without pain and effort, pass from deep, pervasive self-rejection and self-torture to a new freedom of self-respect and peace (“Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils,” The American Psychologist, May 1960, p. 303).
The mother who blames herself for losing her temper with her children and the young people who are ashamed of their conduct are not, Mowrer would point out, struggling with imaginary guilt. Their guilt is real. They will find no relief from it till they face the truth and accept their sins as their own.
But to say, “I am like that,” is going only halfway. Admission leads nowhere unless it implies a desire to change. It must mean that the mother sincerely wants help with her temper and the young people with their conduct, and that they turn to God for the help.
How precise 1 John 1:9 is on this point: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The man who confesses this way–-having faith that God is able and willing to help him and having a desire for God’s help–-is well on the way to peace. The man who admits, “I’m like that,” but does nothing about changing, will not find genuine inner peace. Nor will the man who denies responsibility for the wrong he knows he has done.