Is Anger Always a Sin?

101313Some one wrote in the following question:

How would you respond to a someone who (in Zen like fashion) states that anger is always counterproductive? Is anger always a sin?

The simple answer is “No, anger is not always a sin.” In fact, in some situations anger is the appropriate response. If anger were always a sin, the Jesus never got the memo since he displays quite a lot of anger in the Gospels. We’ll look at that in a moment.

To being with, some distinctions are in order.

  1. We ought first to distinguish between the internal experience or feeling of anger and the external manifestation of it.The internal expereince of anger as a passionate response to some external stimulus is not sinful since we cannot usually and immediately control the arising of feelings or passions. Anger usually arises out of some sense of threat. It signals us that something is wrong, threatening or inappropriate as we understand or interpret the data. Sometimes our perceptions are incorrect but often they are not. Anger, in this sense, is not only sinless, but necessary as it alerts us to the need to respond to something that is a threat or unjust and it gives us the energy to address it. In this sense, it is not sinful. It is a passion and an energy to set things right or to address a threatening situation.
  2. Now it is possible that our anger can arise from less than holy reasons. Some of the things we fear, we should not fear. Some of our fears are rooted in pride, and an inordinate need for status and affirmation. Some of our fears come from misplaced priorities. For example we may be excessively concerned with money, property, popularity or material things. And this concern triggers inordinate fears about things that should not matter so much. And this fear gives rise to feeling easily threatened at loss or diminishment. This in turn triggers anger, since we sense that something is wrong or threatening. But we ought not be so concerned with such things since they are rooted in pride, vanity and materialism. In this case the anger may have a sinful dimension but the sin is more rooted in the inordinate and sinful drives than merely the anger itself. This is because, even when anger arises from poor motives or objects, it is still not something all that voluntary.
  3. Now external manifestations of anger can and do sometimes have a sinful dimension when they are beyond what is reasonable. If I am experiencing anger there may be little or no sin in that. However if I express that anger by hurling insults, or physically attacking someone I may well have sinned by a sinful expression of my anger. Even here there can be exceptions. It may be appropriate at times to physically defend myself. I can think of no exception to the rule against hurling insults and personal attacks. However, it remains true that we live in thin-skinned times and people often take personal offense when they should not. We will see in a moment that Jesus did not often hesitate to describe his opponents’ in rather vivid ways.
  4. Hence, of itself, anger is not a sin.The Scriptures say, Be angry but sin not (Ps 4:4) So anger is not the sin. However, the expression of anger may become sinful. Further, it is possible that some of our anger springs from less than holy sources.

When is the external manifestation of anger an appropriate response? Most simply put, anger is appropriate when its object is appropriate and reasonable.

For example, it is appropriate to experience anger when we see or experience injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. harnessed appropriate anger of Americans toward the injustice of racism. He elicited it, and focused its energy in productive ways. Notice that he was very careful to teach against violence and revenge. Anger did not to give the Civil Rights Protesters the right to hate. What Dr. King did was to elicit a just anger on the part of many Americans. This anger in turn gave them the motivation to act creatively and energetically to resist injustice and effect change through non-violence. This sort of angry response was appropriate, reasonable and even holy. The tradition of non-violent resistance to injustice remains strong in those who protest abortion, and other sins, crimes and social injustices. It is the anger that motivates the desire to speak and the zeal to take action to rectify injustice.

Anger is also appropriate and even necessary in some forms of fraternal correction. To fail to manifest some level of anger may lead to the false conclusion that the offense in question is not really all that significant. For example if a child belts his brother in the mouth and knocks out a tooth a parent ought to manifest an appropriate amount of anger to make it very clear that this sort of behavior is intolerable. To gently correct a child in a smooth and dispassionate way with no inflection in the voice can lead to the impression that this really isn’t so bad. Proper anger has a way of bringing the point home and making a lasting impression. Again, note that the anger in question should be at a proper level, not excessive, and not too weak. This of course requires a good bit of self-mastery.

Meekness– And this leads us to an important beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit which helps us to master anger: Meekness. In modern English, meekness has lost its original vigor and tends to signify a person who is a bit of a pushover and easily taken advantage of. But, in its original meaning, meekness describes the vigorous virtue wherein one gains authority over their anger. Aristotle defined meekness (πραΰτης ) as the mean between being too angry, and not being angry enough. As we have noted, there is a place and a need for anger. The meek person has authority over their anger. They are able to summon its energy but control its extremes. Hence the meek are far from weak. They are the string ones who have gained authority over their anger. St. John Chrysostom says in this regard: He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices. (Homily 11). St Thomas Aquinas says: Consequently, lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, [for it is] a lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason (II, IIae 158.8).

What of Jesus? One the one hand Jesus seems to have taught very strongly against anger:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt 5:21-22)

On the face of it it would seem that Jesus condemns anger without exception. However, if that is the case then Jesus broke his own rule for he exhibited a lot of anger in the Gospels. What Jesus DOES clearly condemn here is unrighteous and wrathful anger. Notice that he give two examples of the kind of anger he means. The first example is to use the term of contempt: Raca. This term is hard to translate so it is simply rendered in the Aramaic. Essentially what it means to do is to strip a person of any dignity and to regard them with utter contempt. Notice that Jesus links this kind of anger to murder since, by it, the other person is so stripped of any human dignity that to murder them is no different than killing an ox or mule. This sort of anger depersonalizes the other and disregards them as a child of God. The term fool; has a similar, though less egregious, purpose. Hence, it would seem that the Lord is not condemning all anger her but rather the anger of contempt and depersonalization. To absolutize Jesus’ teaching here to include any anger would seem unreasonable given what we have said above and it would also call into question Jesus’ own example which includes not a little anger.

Most people are familiar with Jesus’ anger in the cleansing of the temple. But there are other places as well where he manifest not a little anger:

Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!”You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matt 23:29-33)

Jesus said, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire! He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God!” ( John 8:44-47)

Passages like these do not exhibit the “Mr Rogers” kind of Jesus common in the modern imagination. Jesus was no “Caspar Milquetoast.” His vigorous anger is also on display in the video below.

What to make of these angry displays?

  1. Not sinful – Clearly they are not sinful displays of anger since the scriptures assure us that Jesus never sinned (e.g. Heb 4:15).
  2. There may be an important cultural dimension to remember here. In the culture of the ancient Jews there seems to have been a wider acceptance of the expression of anger than in our own American setting. Even in America there is a wide variance in the acceptance of anger. I once dated an Italian girl in college and she and her mom could really set to it: lots of loud shouting in Italian! And then in a moment it was over and they were on to the next topic. In their family anger was a more accepted expression than in the typical American setting. The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus was also an expression more acceptable than our culture would usually permit. Turning over the tables etc. was a “prophetic action.” Prophets did things like this. In that culture it was more acceptable than perhaps in ours. But even we find a place for civil disobedience. We may not always like it, but we respect that it has a place in our culture.
  3. Yet Jesus clearly is angry. He is grieved at the hard heartedness of his opponents and his strong tone is an authoritative summons to repent. A lowered and lyrical voice might not convey the urgency of the situation. These are hardened men and there is a need for pointed and passionate denunciation. This is righteous anger.
  4. We ought to be careful before simply taking up Jesus angry tone for two reasons. First, he was able to see into their hearts and properly conclude as to the proper tactics necessary. We may not always be able to do this. Secondly, the wider Western culture in which many of us live may not be as prepared to accept such an angry tone. It may be a less effective tactic in our setting and prudential judgment is a necessary precursor to using such tactics.

But in the end, anger is not, ipso facto, sinful or wrong. It is sometimes the proper and necessary response. We do well to be careful with our anger, for it is an unruly passion. We ought to see above all the fruit of the Spirit which is meekness and ask to Lord ot give us authority over our anger and a prudence as to its effective use.

This video shows Jesus’ anger:

25 Replies to “Is Anger Always a Sin?”

  1. Your October 01 blog helps in understanding how “The Devil” has more views than “Old Pots” and “The Blessed Trinity” – Venerable Fulton Sheen has now been taken off YouTube viewers, St. Augustine’s The diabolical sin of envy cannot be overlooked, along with the “cringe factor”. Watching the video by the Lumina Vocal Ensemble is expression enough. Thanks.

    1. Now found is Venerable Fulton Sheen – Miracles, on YouTube. Thanks again.

  2. I have lately begun to wonder if Christ was as angry as many of us perceive in certain statements. Had a human said these things then, anger would almost certainly been a very apparent motivator but, in Someone who was far from worldly motivations would this have been the case? In Matthew 9:12 He (metaphorically?) refers to Himself as a doctor and; a doctor, such as but not limited to a psychiatrist; may see a health issue with compassion for the sick where many of us may see a moral issue that angers us.
    Having said that, I heartily agree with the intent of this post in its, seeming to me, effort to display that it is not anger, but rather how we express, or motivate ourselves with it.
    Consider a physical fight where one is angry but does not allow it to lead the fighter into reckless behaviour and, where the other does allow that to happen. If both have moderate and equal skill the angry one just might overwhelm the other with it. However, when both have great skill, the dispassionate one has a great advantage. Many boxers, most notably Mohammed Ali, have used this to great advantage as they provoked their opponent.
    Carrying this into day to day living one may consider two people in an imperfect relationship; such as marriage, friendship, business partnership, pairs of workers. Situations of conflict can arise and, when one provokes and the other responds by lashing out, in even verbally expressed anger, then, authourity figures who feel a need to intervene may be so focussed on the angry one that the provocation is entirely missed.
    When Jesus so often responded with pure and perfect logic the negativity of the other was exposed. Whether He was angry or not is not the main issue as His clear message prevailed. My favourite in this regard is in the Crowning of Thorns where He encouraged the soldiers to speak out in criticism.
    I’m not saying that we can expect to do as well as He did but, letting anger guide our actions can lead us to shut out His guidance.
    Thank you for another inspiring post.

  3. Anger has been one of the things I feel I’ve never properly dealt with… Never finding the right equilibrium. Just too much silence… or too much bad manners.

  4. Other than the when He drives out the money changers, I am not convinced that Jesus spoke angrily. He may well have been angry those other times.

    I heard this neat example to explain the difficulty of translation: This guy said work it backward. Imagine trying to translate the phrase “surf the web” into ancient Hebrew or biblical Greek for an audience of readers 2,000 years ago.

    1. Woe to you scribes and pharisees, you hypocrites. Woe to you Lawyers also, how are you to avoid being sentenced to Hell. I have much to say about you, much to condemn you for. This is an evil age! it seeks a sign, but no sing will be given it except the sign of Jonah….

      If you want to image Jesus saying things like this with a big smile on his face or even just mildly and without anger, I am going to say you strain credulity. This is obviously angry speech, the anger of the prophets. Res ipsa loquitur. Surf the web? really? are you kidding? Come on Richard, some of your comments have me worried lately.

      1. Well, Monsignor, when I look at the Gospels, to me, Jesus only went to war one time. When He attacked those in the Temple, instead of attacking the Romans, in the way the Maccabees attacked the Greeks. His was a little war of one battle, instead of a big war with many battles as was that of the Maccabees.

        Secondly, supposed He used an angry tone. They didn’t repent and He knew that they weren’t going to repent. So, He may as well have used a gentle tone and saved energy. Another reason is that when I look back on my life, often anger has glided over me whereas a gentle rebuke from someone I respect has had a positive effect. Admittedly, these things are difficult to assess.

        Thirdly, I admit myself that what I said strains credulity. I am trying to claim or say that there was something radically different from His cleansing of the Temple and all of His other acts of rebuke.

        I did not come up with the “surf the web” example as a way to describe the difficulty in translating across time and across culture, but I still think it is a neat example.

        How do I sound? Like a sinner? Then I have finally found my comment-box commentator voice..

        1. Don’t you suppose there is some middle ground between “going to war” and righteous indignation. Why use all or nothing thinking? And why the sinner reference at that the end? It seems a little gratuitous. The bottom line is that your original comment “strains credulity” as you have aptly put it. And this doesn’t imply that I am calling you a sinner. It does mean that I think you are wrong.

          1. I agree that my final comments were gratuitous.–a sort of melodramatic flourish at the end.

            It is like this: I used to think that I could discern a better representation from a worse representation of what Jesus looked like–leaving aside the artistry and piety of the work–as though I had some innate sense of what Jesus looked like. Now, that was complete and utter nonsense on my part.

            At times, the Gospels take care to note Jesus’ emotions: for example, at one time He is deeply grieved at lack of faith and another time astonished at faith. Do the Gospels ever describe Him as angered? I can’t recall one time. Anyway, we may be imposing emotions on Jesus in the same way that I at one time imposed my own understanding of what His face looked like.

      2. You write how you worried you feel about Richard and it seems; only seems and to me: to compare favourable with the concept that Salvation is for every one. Could not God, who also is man for thirty some odd years, not have spoken those woes in concern fro the state of the recipients eternal destiny?
        I will, however, say (keyboard, which may become a verb some day – who knows – not me) that you base what you say on a greater knowledge and study than that which I have but, not perfect. So, still I will give great credit to your contributions in the interactions.
        This morning I awoke with memories of drifting around different Christian sects and churches through most of my adulthood, mainly avoiding those who claimed a perfect understanding of God and His ways. Shortly after that recollection, my daily reading took me to Judith 8:11-20 where she chastises Chabris and Charmis for the actions of human officials being as if they could understand God’s ways.
        This seemed very timely to me but; a scientist might say that, since I had read the book of Judith long ago that a memory of what was coming had led me to devise this all on my own. Possible but, stretches crediblilty a lot.
        At any rate, I am very grateful for this blog, and its interactions, that guide – rather than to seemingly act as if some supernaturally superhuman understanding is guiding those who make a lot of a sort of “I have all the one and only answers”. False prophets? I dare not judge but thank you for using your training for guidance and; I will admit that I don’t know. For all I know maybe He was angrier than I could ever imagine.

  5. This is a very timely topic. Many Americans, including myself are struggling with anger against the current occupant of the White House and Congress. Often it is a battle between anger and tears. We, who have clung to the teachings of Christ and our Church are horrified and angered over what has seemed to be one vicious assault on our freedoms after another. At my age, the moral cowardice and inverted racism displayed by Congress is both saddening and maddening. Deep down inside, i recognize that God gave His children their desires and put this man in the White House. And we, who did not vote for him, must endure the consequences. A very difficult pill to swallow. We have no Martin Luther King to be a light in the darkness. But i do thank God, we have wise shepherds like you Msgr. Pope, to lead us in the right paths. God bless you.

  6. Finally, I my life @ 53 year old, I hear that anger is not always a sin – Msgr Pope can you write more about other similar things?

  7. Msgr, you’re right. Anger, in itself, is not a sin. It can LEAD to sin. What we do with that momentary state of anger is important – it’s either constructive or destructive. One of them will lead us away from God.

  8. I have found that those who pronounce with Zen-like calm that anger is counterproductive are usually talking about your anger. Their anger is perfectly justified but they can’t or don’t want to handle it when they are they recipient. It took me many years to realize that this is a weapon often used by controlling people.

  9. Thank you for your wise explanation of anger.

    Jesus is NOT someone different from God of the Old Testament. He is God of the Trinity and came to bring us Healing, Truth, Salvation, Hope and Love. Jesus is the I AM. In the New and Old Testament His wrath is Justice and He is as Wise, Patient and yes Angry as He is eternal, as there is no beginning or end, He is the I AM. His Anger is Just without any fault, ours can be unjust and have many faults. So God says we can be angry but do not sin. To those who say Jesus didn’t really become angry I would say to just read the Old Testament too. God is very very patient (He puts up with much more than we ever would!) and God will let us (in His waiting for us to come back to Him as prodigal sons and daughters) become so depraved and corrupted before His Holy Anger finally burns against us, and He Justly pours out His Wrath. He is God and we are not.

    There are ways we can express our anger and not sin because it is an anger against evil and unrighteousness. I see the Church doing this as She is being oppressed by many evils of the day, and She is Rightly Angered to resist these evils and She is Patient but steadfast and forceful in Her resistance to evil. She is a Good example as She is the Body of Christ. Pray for the Church of Christ.

  10. Hi, Msgr.–
    While it is true that “anger” is not always a sin, and while I’m glad you see no exception permitting insults and name-calling, I believe there is a significant problem with appealing to the example of Jesus Himself as one who expressed anger but did not sin. It’s this: we mortals experience the effects of concupiscence on our passions–Jesus does not.

    Here’s what I mean: once we’ve separated the “deadly sin” of anger from the form of anger listed among the “passions” (understanding that our passions are in themselves neither good nor bad), we still must come to terms with the fact that our passions are *not* perfectly subject to reason–including anger.

    Jesus never had this problem. Whatever anger he experience resulting from human “passions” was *always* ordered to reason. His was a truly “righteous anger” because he was free from the wound of concupiscence.

    But, even when we mortals *do* manage to experience anger without sin, if we *display* this righteous anger like Jesus could and did, we likely will still be perceived as “sinning” in our anger by others who have no way of knowing whether our anger is “righteous” or not. This risks setting a poor example for others *and* risks the near occasion of the sin of anger when responding to the “passion” of anger.

    Maybe this is why one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is “gentleness.” As I see it, when we experience righteous anger inside and still respond with gentleness, it’s a sign of humility and a realization that I’m not always like Jesus–I can’t be 100 percent sure that my response to anger is always ordered to right reason.


  11. I deeply appreciate this particular post of yours, for it very much vindicates some/much of the anger that I, like Candida E. above, feels towards the current occupant of the top office in the W.H. For Obama’s presence there is for me akin to a kind of CHASTISEMENT that we in the U.S. may be going through, and I didn’t help put him there, both in ’08 and ’12, yet I realize that many of us feel like we’re going to have to go through SOMETHING very trying because of the MONUMENTAL sin of legalized killing (abortion on demand) that was foisted on all of us through the passage of Roe V. Wade. And talk about anger over this horror, the almost forty-one year holocaust of murder of some 50-plus MILLION innocent unborn babes. Now THERE’S something to elicit feelings of holy anger of which few things are equivalent. So, yes, good Msgr. Pope, I wholly concur with your very excellent post.

  12. Thank you for this. I have been struggling with anger due to occurrences throughout my life, and have always thought I was wrong for being angry. It’s not (always) the emotion that is sinful, but the response to it. This has lifted a heavy weight from my back, as I have experienced instances of abuse. Thank you!

  13. It seems that in our society, few people have any reservations about getting angry for purely personal reasons such as being cut off by another driver and receiving poor customer service. If only we became as angry about the injustice of abortion, the trampling of our religious liberty by our current president, and the anti-Christian militancy of homosexualists we wouldn’t be struggling with the morass of structural sin our nation is in.

  14. I once read something that brought clarity for me on this matter. It came from a woman who claimed to be hearing from Our Lord.It was that anger is usually only an acceptable response when it is in defense of God Himself or what pertains to Him. (e.g. the moneychangers in the holy Temple).It can be right also in reaction to evil (i.e. abortion). But Jesus said it is rarely a right response to an offense we ourselves suffer. That is where it can become sin as it leads to destroying peace. This, of course, is a great challenge!

  15. I think the Civil Rights movement would be an example of a reaction to evil like abortion. (see above). It is where our anger is about an offense against ourselves that we can get into sin. There are the oft quoted “turn the other cheek and go the second mile”passages.They must mean what they seem to mean.
    P.S. May I add, that few take offense more easily than I !

  16. wondering about Bill O’Reilly on ‘Killing Jesus’ with his emphasis on Jesus’s fear ? bible say ‘be angry and do not sin’ but never says fear except the 2nd death, otherwise always ‘be NOT afraid’ they discuss his personal projections at 2 min on vid – Bill O’Reilly on ‘Killing Jesus’

    Pope Francis asks us Christians to reflect: have we each “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God with an image: myself, my ideas, my comforts?”
    Pope Francis: Beware of Hidden Idolatry That ‘Stifles’ the Faith

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