Part 3: Flipping Tables Like Jesus - The Middle Ground Between Rage and Passivity

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a five-part series that takes a scientific approach to study the value and impact The Crucible Project has had on men who are thirsty to live with more integrity, grace and courage. It is based on work of Crucible brother Ryan Poling, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology. In this post, we’ll dive into how we can be angry, but not sin in our anger. 

Read the rest of the series:

Part 3: Flipping Tables Like Jesus – The Middle Ground Between Rage and Passivity

“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

– John 2:13-17

Christian men seem to have a complicated relationship with anger. On one hand, Matthew 10:16 tells us to be “gentle as doves” but also “wise/wary as serpents.” We refer to Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” but he’s also “the Lion of Judah.” In the church, we are often so concerned with following the command to “not sin” in our anger that we forget to “be angry” (Eph. 4:26). Some translations of this verse even say, “Be angry and do not sin…” But how do we both be angry and not sin in our anger?

The passage above from John 2 shows Jesus at his angriest, and yet while he’s clearly angry, Jesus does not act out of rage. There is a degree of calculation in Jesus’ reaction to what is happening in the temple courts. For example, after coming across the merchants in the temple, he took the time to make a whip out of cords. Making the whip would have taken him at least a few minutes if not an hour or more – plenty of time to suggest that Jesus was not consumed by blind rage. He was thoughtful about how to express his anger. So how do we express anger like Jesus did?

Finding the Middle

To begin, it is important to recognize that anger exists on a continuum.

  • On one side is passivity. When we are passive, we are doormats. We are too afraid to say no to our bosses, so we work late and miss our child’s big game. We become subservient to our significant others instead of being equal partners. We back away from conflict and work hard to be as nice and unassuming as possible.
  • On the other end of the anger continuum is rage. Rage is when we let our inner Hulk run wild. Rage punches holes in walls, breaks furniture, and abuses our loved ones.

When we focus too much on not sinning, we become passive. But when we focus too much on being angry, we rage. Jesus was neither passive nor full of rage, so it must be possible to both be angry and not sin in our anger. So what is this middle ground?

The middle ground is assertiveness.

When we are assertive, we express our opinions – sometimes forcefully – but without harming others. That’s what Jesus did in the temple courts. Jesus’ love and compassion earned him the nickname “the Lamb of God,” but his assertiveness earned him the nickname “the Lion of Judah.”

Anger is a boundary-setting emotion. Its purpose is to say, “This is not ok!”

  • When we set boundaries with excessive force, our anger becomes rage.
  • When we are unable or unwilling to create effective boundaries, our anger is suppressed and becomes passivity.
  • But when we set strong, effective boundaries while also being respectful and avoiding harm to others, we act assertively.

One of the goals of the Crucible weekend is to help men find their middle on the anger continuum. Some men come on the weekend having spent years or decades stuffing their anger, remaining passive. Their work is in learning to find their power. Other men come on the weekend living lives of rage. Their work is learning how to express their anger while also not harming others.

The Data

My research data on the Crucible weekend’s effect on assertiveness is interesting, but to explain it, I need to talk about stats for a second. (If you’re in a hurry and want to get to the good stuff right away, just skip the next two paragraphs).

In psychology research, we need a way to distinguish between actual changes and random noise in the data. For my study, I assumed that men would begin the weekend with different levels of assertiveness. Once I collected my data, I grouped the participants together and found their average assertiveness before, immediately after, and two months after the initial weekend. By comparing those three averages, I measured their overall changes in assertiveness.[i]

But there was one more step: I needed to be sure that the differences in the three averages were not just due to random noise. To find out, I ran the stats and calculated the probability that the differences I’m seeing are meaningful. In psychology research, our cutoff is 5% – in other words, we want to be able to say, “There’s only a 5% chance that the differences we’re seeing are due to random chance.” When get to or below this 5% probability, we say that the differences are “statistically significant.”

So here’s what I found. Though a slight increase in assertiveness was apparent by Sunday afternoon at the end of the initial weekend, the increase continued after the weekend and eventually became statistically significant at the two-month follow-up.

Similar to the “Authentic Living” part of authenticity that I discussed last week, it’s possible that the participants needed some time to experience themselves acting more assertively. By the two-month follow-up, the trend of increasing assertiveness reached statistical significance. Overall, completing the initial weekend appears to correlate with an increase in participants’ assertiveness.

The Conclusion

As Christian men, we often struggle to manage our anger well and channel it productively. However, it is possible to find balance and to live with more Christ-like assertiveness. And the good news is that men who attend Crucible weekends seem to come closer to finding this balance within themselves.

– By J. Ryan Poling

Ryan’s initial Crucible weekend was in August 2006. He is completing his doctoral studies in clinical psychology at Fuller Seminary Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, CA, and is currently on internship at Salina Regional Health Center. He holds Master’s degrees in Psychology and Theology, and he was also Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Azusa Pacific University. He lives in Salina, Kansas, with his wife, Erika, and their bunny, Bailey.

Photo Credit: Hazma Butt via Creative Commons

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[i] Yes, those of you with research design backgrounds will recognize one of the study’s limitations: a lack of a control group. I used the participants’ pre-retreat scores as their own baselines, but doing so naturally limits the conclusions I can draw.