Previous posts on the Deadly Sins are #85, #86, #93, #94.
Anger is defined in our Antiochian Pocket Prayer Book as “unworthy irritation and lack of self control”.
Some Examples of Anger
1 My family and I were driving on a road west of Cedarburg, speed limit 40 and I was going 45, when this guy rushed up behind and started tailgating us. I mean, close, right on my bumper. This went on for quite a while, and I was getting angry, so I pulled over to let him pass. He went by giving me a certain hand sign which is considered very rude. (I’ve mercifully decided not to show you an image thereof.) Then he sped on down the road like a demon from hell. The man was obviously very angry, even at me! What was going on here?
2 Years back, while driving to and from church conferences I sometimes used to get outside the range of public radio, and to keep awake I would turn on AM talk radio, which certain did it! Call-in shows, where there was such snarky hostility, anger towards… well, just about everybody. I’m told such aberrations still exist. White American males are one of the most privileged groups of people in history. One would think they (we) might be grateful, magnanimous – but at least on the radio they seemed so very angry. Why?
3 Some women contend that they should be allowed to do whatever they want with their bodies and become very angry (though usually in a more controlled subtle way than males) at those who oppose any limitations on abortions. Why? In very much the same way, some men argue that they should have absolute rights to their guns – no limits whatsoever – and become very angry at any who disagree with them. Why? (I trust I’m going to offend everyone now. Read on.)
4 When I was a young Episcopal priest, I did not think I was an angry man, but when we began Mass (especially if I was assisting, not presiding, and therefore less occupied) I regularly suddenly became hostile, for reasons I could not explain. I would spend the service fighting in my mind: “If he says this to me, I’m going to say that to him, and… and.…and so on.” When Mass concluded, my anger would just as suddenly disappear. How to explain this?
5 OK, it’s public confession time. (Apparently they did this regularly in the early Church.) I believe really that I am a gentle man. Not often do I get angry, and then I’m generally just snippy, and usually with my poor dear wife whom I love with all my heart. Rarely do I “lose it” and then only briefly. I blew up at a couple of parishioners in my former Episcopal parish, one of whom deserved it, but I shouldn’t have done it. Twice I was out of control: Once not long ago in anger I threw something across the room. Me..? Me..? Afterwards I was so ashamed, and still am. What in the world was going on here?
We’ll come back to these (and psychoanalyze me?) later, in a not very orderly fashion. But first let’s take a systematic look at…
Anger and it’s Sources
Anger is a complex sin. (Did I mention earlier that sins intermingle and build on each other in many ways?) Saint John of the Ladder quotes anger as saying, “I come from many sources, and I have more than one father: My mothers are pride, greed.. and lust, too. My father is named conceit. My daughters are remembrance of wrongs, hate, hostility and self-justification.” The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 8
1 Anger may result from indulging in other sins which, of course, do not fulfill their promises. For example, modern consumer culture tells us that happiness comes from grabbing as many material things for ourselves as we can – the sin of greed. We are told sometimes that we will be fulfilled by unfettered sex – the sin of lust. Our culture has long encouraged us to “look out for #1”, to believe that we deserve to have our every desire fulfilled, because “I’m worth it!” – which is the sin of false pride. Political idealism, whether of the right or the left, sometimes gives us the hope that we have the ability to build the perfect world, or totally defeat evil, and have complete worldly security – which is a collective sin of pride. We put our faith in politicians or religious leaders, and they fail us. We also fail ourselves: “I can do it!” And then when we get our expectations up and don’t get all we desire, or when we do and we’re still not fulfilled, we can get frustrated and angry and lash out.
2 C.S. Lewis (here we go again with my Anglican “spiritual godfather”) wrote in Screwtape Letters (chapter 21) that anger can be caused by a “false sense of ownership”, the idea that my time is my own, my life is my own. (To the left: an image of one of the gates in Dante’s Inferno.) I claim that this is “my body” or “my gun” or “my property”, and nobody should interfere with my right to do what I want when I want to with what is mine, with no moral regard to how it affects others. It’s an absurd, even juvenile, idea. We did not create the world – time or existence or our selves. Nothing is truly “mine”. And even if we have legal rights, are there no moral obligations? The effect? Lewis says, “The more claims on life that [a man] can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured, and as a result ill-tempered.” When anyone or anything intrudes on what I think is mine, I feel I have a right to be aggrieved and angry. Does this explain the anger of talk radio? of the pro-abortion people? of the gun lobby? and more? I think we should be open to talking about any topic, but one cannot have a rational discussion with anger.
4 Being angry at other people may be caused by the spirit of false judgment: I assume that when I am slighted or people don’t do right by me, they are doing this on purpose – while of course my motives are always pure as the driven snow! When I was a young priest I was sent to be pastor of a church where, for reasons I won’t go into, the people had good reason to be very suspicious of clergy. How did I handle it? In my pride and naivete, I took it all personally. I thought they were purposely out to get me, poor innocent me, and so I got angry – which then gave some of them good reason to be angry at me in return! God can heal these things and he did, but my spirit of judgment and anger towards them did not help that situation. The obvious fact is we do not know why other people act as they do. We can’t enter into their minds. Over the years I have become convinced that most hurts and slights are unintentional. Usually people are preoccupied with and upset about their own problems, and we just happen to be in their way at the wrong time. Then when we judge them or take it personally and get angry, they wonder why we’re mad at them!
4 The Antiochian Prayer Book calls anger “unworthy irritation” – but can there be “worthy irritation”, justifiable anger? Yes. There can be “righteous anger” at injustice and evil, such as Christ showed when he cleansed the temple. Were decent people right to be angry when an innocent man, or even a guilty one, was lynched (below)? Also, anger is often the natural result when people are mistreated. Children who are unloved or abused, the poor and needy who suffer because nobody cares, ordinary people cheated out of their pensions and savings by well-paid CEOs and financial manipulators, those who suffer racial injustice, people who are tortured, parents whose innocent children, families, houses and livelihoods are destroyed in pointless wars, or (forgive me) refugees who are turned away by their wealthy, uh… “Christian” neighbors. All these have good cause to be angry. One reason Psalm 69 is in the Bible is to show us how a mistreated man reacts. Listen to him: “I looked for pity but there was none; and for comforters but I found no one. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” The result? “Let their own table…become a snare, …let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, …add to them punishment upon punishment… let them be blotted out of the book of the living…” Injustice causes anger. (This Psalm is, of course, also a prophecy of another innocent Man who would have no one to comfort him, who would be given vinegar to drink, but who did not get angry.)
5 I wonder if there could be another source… Heredity. Let’s consider this next week.
6 And ultimately anger like all sin is demonic. The devil plays on our weaknesses. But (I’ve said this before) we can never say “the devil made me do it.” We have free will to resist, but we give in to it. We let him have his way.
What are the Results of Anger?
1 We may lose our temper. Anger boils over, and we lash out and do things we should not do, say things we should not say, things we do not really mean, but which can never be taken back. Even if we apologize, those words will hang in the minds of those who heard them, maybe forever. If we have lashed out in anger, even if they genuinely forgive us and we get on with our common life, they will always wonder: Which words did we mean the most, the words of the apology or the words spoken in anger? (I can think of some things…. no, I won’t tell you. It will only pointlessly stir up old wounds again. I know he didn’t mean it. I’m sure. But for a long time I wasn’t quite sure. That’s how this works.)
“The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity …it is set on fire by hell, …it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” James 3:6 “My beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. ” James 1:19 Christ spoke forcefully on this: “Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment. Whoever says to his brother ‘Raca!’ [an extremely nasty thing in Aramaic] shall be in danger of being taken to court, and whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hellfire.” Matthew 5:22
2 Anger may result in a more calculated action called vengeance, “getting even”, which is forbidden to us. Christ commanded us to do good to our enemies. “‘Vengeance is mine’ says the Lord. ‘I will repay.'” Deuteronomy 32:35 Consider the Holy Land, now dominated by two religions that believe vengeance, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, is a proper response. Since 1947 many innocent Palestinians have been driven from their homes and lands by Israelis. There are now almost 8 million displaced Palestinian refugees – many Christians but most of them Muslims. This has gone on and on. I am glad to report that I’ve never heard of a Christian Palestinian terrorist, and the Palestinian refugees I’ve known have been gentle, sweet people – far more than I could be under the circumstances. But some Muslims have tried to strike back in vengeance. (I do not mean to justify terrorism. To understand something is not to favor it.) Israelis, naturally angered at the deaths of innocent relatives and friends, have responded with vengeance. (Again, to understand is not to condone.) Muslim Palestinians retaliate again, and so the cycle of anger and vengeance ever increases. As someone said, “When both sides believe in ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ all will wind up with no eyes and no teeth.”
3 We may hold anger within us and brood over grievances. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing.” “Are you sure?” “I’m fine!!” Perhaps when the time is right we may produce The List: “I remember how you ignored my mother in 1993, and how you insulted my brother in 2005.” and so on. These are signs that we never forgave, never got over the anger. Or hidden anger may come out indirectly, in our driving, for example. This is a relatively “safe” way to let it out, since it is done to strangers – unless we mistakenly tailgate a friend or relative. Or a pastor who’s going to write about you in his Blog!
If we do not act outwardly on our anger in any way, if we just keep it inside, is it still a sin, still “missing the mark”? Yes, it is. It is a sin against God who loves us, and a sin against ourselves, for anger is spiritual suicide. Anger held within us, not dealt with, is like a cancer eating away at us, killing our God-given souls. And the stupid part about harboring such hidden anger is that it does no harm to the person who hurt us. In fact it gives him more power over us, for it allows him to continue to make us miserable. That is why when people come to Confession, I almost always ask: “Is there anyone you have not forgiven or are not prepared to forgive?” There is no more important question.
Therefore the Scriptures advise us again and again to rid ourselves of anger, to overcome it: “Put away anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.” Colossians 3:8 “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who conquers a city.” Proverbs 16:32
All well and good, but how can we do it? Read on.
Next Week: Anger, Part Two
Week after Next, the deadly sin you’ve been waiting for: Lust. You’re going to be disappointed.