Abba Agathon said, “A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.”
In Matthew 5:20-26, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, locating the root of murder in the passion of anger:
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…
Jesus is not about behavior modification alone, but about striking at the root of all desire from whence come our thoughts, words and deeds.
Angry for God?
At the beginning of the second part of his treatise on the path to Christian perfection, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, commonly called the Dark Night, St. John of the Cross reflects on the danger of a spiritualized form of anger in those who have made progress in the spiritual life. He says,
Among these spiritual persons there are also those who fall into another kind of spiritual anger. Through a certain indiscreet zeal they become angry over the sins of others, reprove these others, and sometimes even feel the impulse to do so angrily, which in fact they occasionally do, setting themselves up as lords of virtue.
Others, in becoming aware of their own imperfections, grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience. So impatient are they about these imperfections that they want to become saints in a day. Many of these beginners make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need, when he so desires.
How many people I have known over the years whose work, whose ministry, has been fueled by a seething anger, bitterness and self-righteous rage. They are masters of sarcasm and snark, cynicism and biting wit, and are to be found among all the colors of the ideological spectrum. Many of these, in my experience, act out of unhealed hurts and un-forgiveness hardened into pride and cleverly disguised in religious, ethical or spiritual garb.
On that point, I recall a number of years ago attending a workshop entitled “Justice for the Poor in the Gospel of Luke” given by an Anglican Scripture scholar. During his lecture, he addressed this issue of anger in ministry. He said something like this:
There’s a sad irony in the fact that, in my experience, so many of us who have professed allegiance to the “justice and peace” movement are too often driven by rage against our ideological opponents. This, it seems to me, is a bit at odds with the meekness required of the reconcilers and peacemakers Jesus calls ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes. Come on, just say it out loud: “Blessed are the pissed peacemakers”…
He himself was very much a sympathizer with the peace and justice movement, and his comment seemed to me to reflect an honest self-critique. But — irony of ironies! — one of the participants in the workshop suddenly stood up and shouted at the speaker, saying that his accusation was an insult and unfair to the many people who have faced so much hardship over the years. The burden of anger, the heckler yelled, rested squarely on the shoulders of war-mongering conservatives.
The biblical scholar replied in a calm voice, “Sir, you yourself do little service to your point.”
Joyful for God
A woman who came into the Church through the RCIA while I was working at a parish in Brandon, Florida said to me that the biggest obstacle over the years that kept her from becoming a believing Christian was her mother. “My mom was a very religious Baptist, but was always ticked-off, always criticizing pastors, always mad at hypocrites at church or in the government or wherever people weren’t being what she thought they were supposed to be. I always associated her anger with church and faith and God. God-stuff always had a yuck factor for me.”
It was, she said, her first encounter with a Catholic priest who worked in Ybor City, who had a ministry to drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps, that awakened in her an alternative perspective. She worked for a social service and he would come by sometimes to seek help for this or that person. “This priest,” she said, “worked with some of the worst people on earth — morally speaking, real scums — but he was always upbeat, full of joy and love. Always smiling and hopeful. When I asked him how he stayed so positive, he said, ‘If Jesus can put up with me and smile, it’s a no-brainer. I just tell Him: Do your thing through me, Jesus.’ So I said to myself, ‘I like this priest’s God better.'”
Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, argues that it is those who have been freed from sin’s grip by God’s liberating grace who are able to bear the force of joy. I will leave you with his words:
Let us therefore preserve our fervor of spirit. Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow. May it mean for us an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.