A re-post from 2015, slightly amended.
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A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God. — Abba Agathon
Angela Copeland wrote just before the pandemic surfaced in the U.S. last year, “It’s quite an unfortunate state of affairs when our currency is our anger.” How much truer her words have become since then. How often these days do you hear or say the words “angry,” “enraged,” “furious,” “pisses me off”? In personal conversations, digital exchanges or national discourse. I thought on this reality in prayer this morning, and recalled something biblical scholar Dr. Kenneth Bailey said in a lecture I attended back in 1999:
In the middle east, ancient and modern, anger rooted in a long memory is considered a masculine virtue and national policy. Though destructive anger is a universal human wound, I think it’s no coincidence that the Word chose to become flesh in one of the world’s angriest cultures, to heal that anger at its worst by infusing it from the cross with mercy and forgiveness.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gets straight to the heart of the matter. He identifies the source of violence and murder in what the Church Fathers called the “deadly 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 (Matt. 5:21-22).
As Jesus came to establish a New Covenant law written on the heart (Jer. 31:33), he is not satisfied with calls for simple behavior modification. He strikes at the root of sin (Mt. 3:10), and cuts to the heart from whence arise our disordered thoughts, desires, feelings, words and deeds (Mt. 15:19). The desert Fathers, who were psychologically sophisticated therapists of the soul, counseled the “guarding of thoughts.” As cognitive therapists, so to speak, they knew well cultivated thoughts can give rise to both good desires and evil passions. And anger was numbed by them as among the deadliest of the eight passions, which is why Ephesians 4:26-27 was so frequently commented on:
In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.
In anger’s place, these Fathers encouraged employing St. Paul’s mindful prescription to the Philippians:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. — 4:8
If Emerson had read the desert Fathers, he might have emended his famous saying this way:
Sow a thought [and you reap a passion;] sow a passion and you reap an act; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.
St. John of the Cross, also a master of religious psychology, reflects on the danger of spiritualized forms of anger that can surface in the devout. He says:
Among these spiritual persons there are also those who fall into another kind of spiritual anger. Through a certain excess in 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.
Still others, in becoming aware of their own imperfections, grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience. They become so impatient over these imperfections because 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 healthy 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.
For John, spiritually immature religious adepts, who have not yet passed through the fiery dark nights of purification, have a life of faith that remains deeply self-centered, self-preserving and self-promoting. But this is the real danger, for John — so often these people are completely unaware of their immaturity, and judge themselves to be far greater than they are, even as they employ preemptory humble or righteous rhetoric to deflect criticism. They have not yet made the commandment, “love your neighbor as your self,” their rule of life. Rather, they remain under the rule of self-love. They are, John says, trapped in the prison of their own ingrown egos, like the angry murderer Cain (Gen. 4:9).
On the other hand, the one who is mature, who has suffered-unto-love and who loves his neighbor as his very self, sees both the success and failure of others his own burden to bear (Gal. 6:2). This profound insight into the deep logic of the Cross that is St. John of the Cross’ master idea, was also brought out by Dostoevsky in his masterpiece of narrative theology, The Brothers Karamazov. While one must use great psychological care in applying this insight, it is pure Gospel:
If the wickedness of people arouses indignation and insurmountable grief in you, to the point that you desire to revenge yourself upon the wicked, fear that feeling most of all; go at once and seek torments for yourself, as if you yourself were guilty of their wickedness. Take these torments upon yourself and suffer them, and your heart will be eased, and you will understand that you, too, are guilty, for you might have shone to the wicked, even like the only sinless One, but you did not. If you had shone, your light would have lighted the way for others, and the one who did wickedness would perhaps not have done so in your light.
I have found in my life that religious zeal fueled by seething, disdainful or self-righteous anger produces not the fruits of the Spirit, which are the perennial litmus test of all Christian authenticity, but rather “the works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:14ff) that include hate, sarcasm, snark, rash-judgment, calumny and cynicism. And boy oh boy, religious rationalizing is very seductive, as we imagine our disorder is God’s will (Jn. 16:2). God notes this delusion to the prophet Isaiah:
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to argue and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high. — Is. 58:1-4
Now, as a natural emotional impulse, anger can in fact be a very healthy response situations where things are not as they should be, for example when there are perceived threats or incidents of harm, injustice or evil. Anger is both a self-protective reflex and a powerful impetus for facing fear or resisting evil with courage. However, detached from truth, or from virtues like justice, patience, prudence and love, anger can quickly turn destructive for oneself and others. It is this destructive form of anger, often termed wrath in our tradition, that is named the “deadly sin.” Wrath responds to evil with retaliation, destruction and retribution. Love, on the other hand, when it encounters evil becomes mercy, responding with justice, forgiveness, restoration, rebuilding and redemption.
Hanging on the cross, Jesus’ words and actions reveals to us anger can never be separated from mercy if it is to enact his redemptive work. And it is only a saving intimacy with Christ can save us from our hapless, reckless, unredeemed anger.
The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. –1 Cor. 1:18
What scandal we give when, in the name of Christ, we wage angry warfare on the digital continent for all to see! Defacing the Gospel by raging on Facebook or being bitter on Twitter. These days the pagans might say, “See how they despise one another!” Indeed. God needs no such favors.
In that same lecture, Dr. Bailey addressed this issue of anger within his own Anglican communion. He said:
There’s a sad irony here. It’s been my experience that too many of us who have professed allegiance to the justice and peace movement are driven by anger and rage against our opponents. Let’s be honest. This is completely at odds with Jesus’ teaching. He calls blessed the meek, the merciful and the peacemakers. He commands disciples to love their enemies, to forgive and to settle disputes on the way to court. My friends in this movement, we are our own worst enemies. Just be honest and say it out loud with me. How doe sit sound? “Blessed are the pissed peacemakers.” This isn’t what Jesus wanted.
Returning to the desert Fathers, I will conclude with wisdom from St. John of the Ladder. Here he exposes the real rot at the core of anger, and offers the Master’s only prescription:
Remembrance of wrongs is the consummation of anger, the keeper of sins, hatred of righteousness, ruin of virtues, poison of the soul, worm of the mind, shame of prayer, stopping of supplication, estrangement of love, a nail stuck in the soul, pleasureless feeling beloved in the sweetness of bitterness, continuous sin, unsleeping transgression, hourly malice.
You will know that you have completely got rid of this rot, not when you pray for the person who has offended you, nor when you exchange presents with him, nor when you invite him to your table, but only when, on hearing that he has fallen into spiritual or bodily misfortune, you suffer and weep for him as for yourself.