Today we will engage in an examination of anger. We will determine when it is or is not a sin and learn what we might do about it when it starts to consume us. This topic seemed timely to me since, throughout the last few years, many of us have experienced anger at various people and situations, whether general or specific. We live in a society that is currently polarized on everything – politics, the handling of COVID, the closure of our churches, the media, and whether or not we are being charitable to our neighbor. In our climate today, there seems to be a reflex to be angry toward those with whom we disagree, rather than a desire to seek understanding through civil dialog. In addition to all these external factors, we have all had to deal with our own individual situations that stir up anger, whether it be with family members, friends, coworkers, and perhaps even our priests, bishops, and others within the Church. If you have not experienced some level of anger in the last couple of years, then you are certainly on a path to heroic virtue and should keep up the good work. However, I suspect the vast majority of us have experienced at least some struggle with anger in our recent past.
First, we must clarify that anger is a feeling and feelings are neither inherently good nor bad. Feelings, inasmuch as they are at their base level, are neutral. They are gifts from God that stir something within us in response to something outside of us. Our feelings inform our minds and our hearts about what is happening around us and they help to shape our conscience so that our response may be as virtuous as possible, depending on our personal spiritual development. We know that Jesus, in His human form, experienced the whole spectrum of feelings that we experience. He knew joy, frustration, sorrow, fear, satisfaction, and, of course, anger.
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” (John 2:13-16)
As we can see in this scripture passage, Jesus was not just angry, He was angry enough to make a whip and flip tables. Can you relate?
So, if anger, in and of itself, is not a problem, what is? There is a distinction between righteous anger and sinful anger. Anger becomes a problem when it becomes sinful. If you recall, one of the seven deadly sins is wrath. Wrath is an extreme form of anger. Rather than being a mere feeling, it is all-consuming, standing in the way of your relationship with God and the peace He brings to your heart. The Catechism places its definition of sinful anger under the Fifth Commandment of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” saying:
Anger is a desire for revenge. “To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit,” but it is praiseworthy to impose restitution “to correct vices and maintain justice.” If anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin. The Lord says, “Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.” (CCCC #2302, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas and Matt 5:22)
In other words, anger becomes sinful when it causes you to wish ill on someone or when it causes you to be consumed with a desire for justice as you see fit, as opposed to leaving perfect and eternal justice to your Father in heaven. Notice, however, that the Catechism states that anger can be praiseworthy if it is corrective in nature. Think of a parent being angry with a child’s actions and imposing an appropriate consequence, a person setting a boundary with a spouse or a friend that safeguards against a repeat problem, or Jesus flipping the money changers’ tables to make the point that His Father’s house was not a marketplace.
There is a great little book called Overcoming Sinful Anger: How to Master Your Emotions and Bring Peace to Your Life, by Rev. T.G. Morrow. The book is only 102 pages and can be read in just a couple of hours or you can take your time to meditate on each chapter. In the book, Rev. Morrow leads the reader on a process of recognizing sinful anger and discovering what can be done about it. After identifying what sinful anger is, Rev. Morrow identifies the first step as taking the time to approach the feeling with a rational mind. Calm down and ask yourself why you are angry. How significant is it in the grand scheme of things? How badly do you feel the need to hang onto this one particular thing versus finding a way to let it go? He also advises his readers to offer up anger as a sacrifice and view it as another cross to carry. He says, “…You need to give your anger to the Lord. Offer this feeling as a sacrifice for sins and every time the feeling comes back, give it to the Lord again” (pg. 23). Like any of our crosses, the Lord desires to help us carry them. Allowing Him to do so lightens our burden. So, as many times as it takes, hand it over to the Lord.
In his book, Rev. Morrow spends a good deal of time discussing forgiveness, which I cannot thoroughly unpack here. However, forgiveness is key in dealing with sinful anger and should be mentioned. He starts with what forgiveness is not: Forgiveness is not condoning or making excuses for someone’s bad behavior. It is not forgetting; it is not amnesia (pg. 26). So, what is forgiveness?
It is giving up all resentment, all desire for revenge, and striving to love the one who hurt you – that is, to work for his good. When you have forgiven someone, you do not wish that person ill, you do not hold a grudge, and you try to manifest kindness to the person when you see him. (pg. 26)
You’ve heard it said that forgiveness is for you and not for the person you are forgiving. While it may be cliché, it is also very true. It is entirely possible, and in some cases probable, that the other person involved does not even care about whether or not you forgive them, but that is not the point. The point is for you to let the grudge go so that it does not consume you and interfere with your own path to holiness. Ultimately, it is an overcoming of pride and a turning of the heart to humility, which is a disposition of virtue.
It is important to note here, that forgiveness can go even a step further, in that we pray for those with whom we are angry and want to forgive. If sinful anger is wishing people ill, then righteous anger is wanting the best for them, despite what they’ve done or what they might deserve. As Christians, we want everyone, including those who anger us, to be with us for all eternity in heaven. Channel your anger into praying for their good, even if it means you never witness their remorse for yourself in this lifetime.
Finally, Rev. Morrow says to turn your anger to praise and thanksgiving to God for all the good He has bestowed upon you. When we are consumed with gratitude for all the blessings in our lives, it is much harder to make room for anger and resentment. God has a will for our lives and sometimes that includes putting challenges in front of us that make us angry. Be thankful. Yes, be thankful for the thing that makes you angry and allow it to strengthen your resolve to overcome it with His help. All these things can be used for your own good. (Chap. 7)
St. Francis de Sales was a saint known for his struggle with anger. He worked very hard to overcome it. One day his protégé, St. Jane Frances de Chantal expressed to her mentor that he should be angrier over opposition to the start of a new religious order. St. Francis replied to her, “Would you have me lose in a quarter hour what has taken me twenty years’ hard work to acquire?” Anger is a very real human emotion – one with which even our greatest saints struggled. What steps can you take to let go of something that might anger you? How can you turn your anger into praise and allow it to consume your heart with peace? How can you move beyond your anger and find ways to forgive those people and things that have made you angry? Surely these actions will help you grow in virtue, drawing you closer to God.