We recently read a passage from the Book of the Jeremiah in daily Mass (Wednesday of the 17th Week of the Year) that provides an important teaching on righteous anger and the need for meekness. Meekness is the virtue that moderates anger; it is a form of temperance that controls resentment.
The biblical prophets were people too, and one of the human passions that most drove and affected them was anger. The focus in the passage is on “righteous anger,” not the sinful anger rooted in ego, vanity, and/or desire to have everything on our terms. Righteous anger is our response to sin and injustice. Seeing injustice and observing the sinful behaviors of the very people who should have exemplified holiness, provoked the prophets to anger, to disappointment, and to rebuke rooted in love for God and His people. Of itself, anger is neither sin nor virtue. It is simply a response in the face of perceived danger or injustice. Sometimes we have to get angry enough to do something about a problem and work at it until it is resolved.
Even righteous anger is difficult to balance and navigate well. There is a difference between being creatively angry and simply being angry. At its best, anger alerts us to a problem and then supplies the creative energy and resolve to correct it. At its worst, anger is too easily vented in destructive and unhelpful ways or is carried about like a heavy weight. Anger turned inward is depression and sullenness. Anger vented is often mere wrath and/or vengeance.
In the following passage we see a description of Jeremiah’s struggle with anger and of God’s call for him to engage in an internal battle with his own anger so that he can engage in the external battle for righteousness among God’s people. As the passage opens we see a sullen and depressed Jeremiah:
Woe to me, mother, that you gave me birth!
a man of strife and contention to all the land!
I neither borrow nor lend,
yet all curse me.
Why is my pain continuous,
my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?
You have indeed become for me a treacherous brook,
whose waters do not abide! (Jer 15:10ff)
Jeremiah is weary of the weight of his anger. He has contended for righteousness among God’s people but has encountered much resistance. (Welcome to the life of a prophet!) Based on the limited information in the passage, it would seem that Jeremiah’s anger has turned inward and become depression.
One error in the face of anger is to vent it. Often this involves fits of temper, invective, and lashing out that misses the target and causes a good bit of collateral damage. Vented anger brings more heat than light, more tense reaction than true reform.
Jeremiah, however, seems to suffer from the other error in the face of anger: he suppresses it or turns it inward. One definition of depression is this: anger turned inward. When we do this, we begin to carry our anger like a heavy weight. We ruminate and feel blue. This is especially the case when we experience resistance or feel powerless to effect the change our anger energizes us to address. The desired outcome of our anger seems too distant, but instead of redirecting the energy of our anger (e.g., prayer, fasting, educating God’s people in first principles of justice and holiness), we carry the anger as a kind of bitterness and defeat that we take personally.
Jeremiah describes his life as one of woe, so much so that he wishes he had never been born. He sees all as strife and takes personally the fact that all curse him. He is weighed down with this suppressed anger and feels it continuously. He is stuck in his anger and depression.
To some degree, his sorrow is multiplied by his memory of the joy that God’s righteousness inspired in him. God’s word gave him a joyful idealism wherein he could live God’s ways and call others to do the same:
When I found your words, I devoured them;
they became my joy and the happiness of my heart,
Because I bore your name,
O LORD, God of hosts.
I did not sit celebrating
in the circle of merrymakers;
Under the weight of your hand I sat alone
because you filled me with indignation.
In the early stages, Jeremiah’s anger was like an energy that supplied a resolve for him to do what was right, even if it cost him some of the carnal pleasures and the relationships that preoccupy most people. He was content with the joy of God’s teaching and perhaps that God was preparing him to draw others to that joy.
When results are lacking, though, joy can turn to sorrow. The soul can cry out, why do others not see and desire the joy I have found? Why do they prefer vain and sinful things? Where is the harvest of justice and righteousness that God has promised?
It has been said that expectations are premeditated resentments. The joy and hopeful expectations of Jeremiah have not come to fruition. Given the intensity of the joy and zeal, the disappointment is all the more deep and dark. Jeremiah’s anger has turned dark and inward; it is experienced as a heavy weight and brings him weariness and depression.
Therefore, the Lord speaks to Jeremiah in the following way:
Thus the LORD answered me:
If you repent, so that I restore you,
in my presence you shall stand;
If you bring forth the precious without the vile,
you shall be my mouthpiece.
Then it shall be they who turn to you,
and you shall not turn to them;
And I will make you toward this people
a solid wall of brass.
Though they fight against you,
they shall not prevail,
For I am with you,
to deliver and rescue you, says the LORD.
I will free you from the hand of the wicked,
and rescue you from the grasp of the violent.
God counsels Jeremiah to repent of this unhelpful use of his anger. God has supplied him with righteous anger to give him resolve, fortitude, patience, a steady dependence on Him, and a confident expectation of ultimate victory. The battle will be long; there will be no quick resolution here. The people are stiff-necked and resistant. Jeremiah must learn to bring forth the precious truth without the negative aspects of anger: wrath, vengeance, arrogance, impatience, and the thin-skinned quality that comes from forgetting that the battle is the Lord’s not his.
Many of us who have worked for justice and respect for life in this increasingly selfish and greedy culture know Jeremiah’s struggle. Sometimes in our zeal we vent our anger and say hateful or unhelpful things. At other times we grow weary and carry our anger around like an anchor rather than channeling it to creative ends.
The virtue that controls anger is meekness. Meekness is not weakness; it does not mean being easily manipulated or free from all anger. It is the virtue that gives us authority over our anger. It is the proper middle ground between too much anger and not enough. The meek are in fact strong because they have authority over perhaps the strongest and most unruly of the passions. Jesus says in the beatitudes that the meek will inherit the earth. Why? Because it is they who will consistently work to build a better world; it is they who will use their anger like a creative energy to establish a more just and holy order.
Another beatitude that applies to anger is this one: Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. Who are those who mourn? It is those who see the awful state of God’s people, that they are often lost and searching for meaning in vain things. Seeing this, they mourn, but it is not the mourning of depression. It is a creative mourning. It is a grief, an anger, that motivates them to pray and to try to reach as many of God’s people as possible. God comforts them (more literally he strengthens them) to channel their grief and anger to resolve, patience, and persistence.
Jeremiah, though a great prophet, was flesh and blood like us; he had his struggles and dark moments. In speaking to him, God also speaks to us:
Stay close to me in daily repentance and realize that your strengths and struggles are very closely related. Your anger and resolve are gifts I offer you to strengthen you and summon you to battle. Make sure that you fight the right battle against the right foe. Satan and his unjust vision are the enemy, not the people I send you to correct, nor your very self. Neither vent your anger at the wrong foe nor turn it inward to depression. Receive my gift of meekness to have authority over your anger. Receive the comfort and strength I offer to those who mourn the state of my people. The battle is mine and I have already won the final victory.
Be angry, but sin not.
The song below is from the Carmina Burana. The man in the poem laments that his anger is based in sinful rootlessness and indulgence of his passions. This is wholly different from “righteous anger” because its source is carnal and sinful drives rather than sorrow at injustice. Here is the English translation of the Latin text:
Burning inwardly with strong anger, in my bitterness I speak to my soul; created out of matter, ashes of the earth, I am like a leaf with which the winds play.
Whereas it is proper for a wise man to place his foundations on rock, I, in my folly, am like a flowing river, never staying on the same course.
I am borne along like a ship without a sailor, just as a wandering bird is carried along paths of air; chains do not keep me nor does a key; I seek men like myself, and I am joined with rogues.
For me a serious heart is too serious a matter; a joke is pleasant and sweeter than honeycombs; whatever Venus orders is pleasant toil; she never dwells in faint hearts.
I go on the broad way after the manner of youth; and I entangle myself in vice, forgetful of virtue; greedy for pleasure more than for salvation, I, dead in my soul, attend to the needs of my flesh.