Christian Worldview

Wrath: Not Getting Our Way


Glenn Sunshine

The next of the Seven Deadly Sins is wrath, or anger. As is true of the other sins on the list, wrath can take a variety of forms. It can arise quickly and dissipate quickly, or it can build gradually over time and last for days, weeks, or even a lifetime. It can be expressed as violence, rage, cursing, and insult, or it can be silent, simmering resentment.

In all cases, however, wrath is directed at someone or something that we perceive as having wronged us, failed us, or thwarted us in the pursuit of our desires. Most often, the target of our anger is another person or persons, though it can also be directed at an animal or an inanimate object or even at ourselves.

Jesus deals with anger in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matt. 5:21-22)

Is Anger Ever Appropriate?

From these words, early monastic theologians concluded that all anger directed at another person is sinful. Verses such as Eph. 4:26 (Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger) were interpreted as referring strictly to anger directed at ourselves over our sins. Later theologians, however, argued that this was not the case: If we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, and if it is permissible to be angry at our own sins because of the harm they do, should we not also be angry at our neighbor’s sins that also do harm and offend God? By this reasoning, anger at sin is appropriate, whether our own or our neighbor’s.

The challenge, however, is distinguishing when our anger is in fact appropriate. Our unrighteous anger frequently masks itself as “righteous indignation.” We feel justified in lashing out and condemning others, ostensibly for their sin, but in reality, because we didn’t get our way, or we feel offended, or we feel cheated or disrespected, or any of a range of self-centered excuses. In the overwhelming majority of cases, “righteous” anger, isn’t. It is possible, but it is also very rare.

In light of Jesus’ teachings, if we are dealing with a situation that looks like it involves genuine sin, there are three essential elements that come into play. First, we need to have the humility to recognize that we may have misinterpreted the situation; there may be considerably more going on than we’re aware of, and our understanding of what happened and the motivations behind it may be wrong. Second, we need to depersonalize it as much as possible—in other words, we should be angry at the action, not the person. Third, we need to be ready to forgive any wrongs that have been done to us as freely as we would like God to forgive us.

One distinction is worth noting: temptation to anger is not anger. Things happen—someone cuts us off in traffic, for example—and we feel that instant surge of adrenaline and an inclination to get angry. That is not in itself sin. Following the analysis from the first article in the series, that is the logismos of wrath presenting itself. If we accept the thought and then act on it, whether internally by allowing ourselves to stew over it, verbally by cursing, or in actions by leaning on the horn or driving aggressively against the person ourselves, then we have passed into the realm of sin. A momentary flash of anger is not sin—it is something launched into us. Only when we consent and work with it does it actually become sin.

How Not to Deal with Wrath

We often think that the best way to deal with our anger is by venting—expressing our anger and getting it out of our system. Our culture is built around feeling rather than thinking, and so expressing our emotions is seen as healthy, authentic, and a good way to process them so we can move on. Particularly in the wake of Sigmund Freud, repressing feelings is seen as psychologically damaging, and thus that we need to let it out to achieve any kind of catharsis.

Not surprisingly, the monastic theologians who analyzed the sins argued strongly against this. They believed that rather than helping us deal with anger, venting would prolong our anger or even make it worse. Modern psychological studies bear this out: venting is not a healthy way of dealing with anger.

If we shouldn’t vent, suppressing our anger would seem to be the only alternative. Rather than allowing ourselves to express anger in word or deed, in this view we should swallow it. The obvious problem with this is that it easily gives way to sullen resentment, simmering hostility, spiteful silence, and quite possibly an explosion of anger or an act of revenge later. The monastic theologians were clear that this was also an ineffective way of dealing with wrath. On this point, Freud was right: repressing anger isn’t helpful, and it will ruin relationships and make a bad situation worse.

So, if we should neither vent nor repress, what is the alternative?

Cultivating Virtue

The solution advocated by our ancient theologians is the long process of cultivating the virtues of patience and humility. Both of these, especially the former, are antidotes to anger.

How do we do this? There are several approaches.

First, when confronted with the temptation to anger, we should always follow the Golden Rule: if we do not want others to ascribe bad motives to us, we should not ascribe bad motives to them. Psychologists call this reframing: look at the situation and try to find an explanation of the person’s behavior that does not include an intentional slight to you. If it is a direct insult, consider what might be going on in the person’s life that led to it. Maybe he’s having a bad day. Maybe her child is in the hospital. That does not give them the right to be rude, but it provides a context that allows you not to take it personally—thus cutting off the response of anger.

We should also recognize that whatever someone has done to us, we have probably done the same or worse to others. If we excuse our own behavior, we need to excuse others’ (Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors). And if we don’t excuse our behavior, if we are angry at ourselves for doing whatever it is, we should be in a better position to extend grace to others who fail the way we have.

Second, the monks advocated silence in response to provocations—not the silence of simmering resentment, but the silence of prayer, of recollection of the good relationship you have had with the person in the past, and of hope for restoration of the relationship. This again can short-circuit wrath.

A good indication of your attitude toward someone whom you see as having wronged you is whether you can thank God for that person and pray for her or him. If you can’t do this from your heart, you have a problem with anger and unforgiveness.

Third, do not avoid people with whom you are angry. The goal is restoration of relationship, and that cannot happen if you are avoiding them or giving them the cold shoulder. Community helps here: you can each gain perspective on your behavior and your attitudes with the help of friends and the Church when possible.

Lastly, own your anger. No one can make you angry—you do that yourself. All they can do is create a situation to which you can respond in anger—or not. You are not a victim of your emotions; they do not have to control you. Take responsibility for them, confess those that are sinful to God and others, and cultivate the practices that will over time strip anger’s control over your life. Look at the kinds of situations in which you are likely to get angry and develop a healthy strategy for dealing with them when they come your way. Prior preparation can go a long way toward preventing wrath from taking over our hearts.

As you engage in these and related practices, the gifts of the Spirit of patience and humility will develop in your soul. These are the ultimate antidotes to wrath in our lives.


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