How Long, O Lord? A Meditation on Anger and Disappointment

Among the struggles that many face in their spiritual lives is one in which we at times feel angry with God. While the sources of this anger can be varied, they tend to be focused in three areas: the existence of evil and injustice in the world (which God seems to permit), God’s seeming delay in answering our prayers, or some personal setback or trial in our life..

The knowledge that God can prevent bad things often leads to the expectation that he should. And then when such expectations are not met, resentment, disappointment, or anger can follow.

Sometimes our anger at God is obvious to us. At other times, however, it can manifest itself more subtly: depression, spiritual sadness, avoidance of God and spiritual things, loss of hope, or a reduction in asking things of God in prayer. Sometimes, too, we like to minimize our anger by saying that we are merely “disappointed,” or “frustrated.”

But the reality is that at times we are angry with God, sometimes very angry. What to do about this anger?

God Himself seems to say over and over again in the Scriptures that He wants us to talk to Him about it, to tell Him that we are angry, and to pray out of this reality in our life.

God actually models this in the Scriptures. The book of Psalms is the great prayer book that God gave to Israel. In the Psalms is enshrined every sort of human experience and emotion: joy, exultation, hope, gratitude, dejection, hatred, despair, and anger—yes, even anger at God. God Himself, through the Holy Spirit, authors the very prayers of the Psalms. He tells us, in effect, that every human emotion is the stuff of prayer. He models for us how to pray out of our experiences, not only of joy and gratitude, but also of despair and anger. God says that whatever you’re going through should be the focus of your prayer.

Thus, God tells us that even if we are angry with Him, we should speak to Him about it. And He does not ask us to mince words, to minimize our emotions, or even to speak politely.

 One of the most common expressions of anger toward God in the Scriptures appear in what might be called the “usquequo verses.” The Latin word usquequo is most literally translated “how long?” And thus, in the Psalms and in other verses of Scripture, will often come the question, “How long, O Lord?”

 While the adverb usquequo can simply be part of a straightforward question such as “How long until lunch?” it is usually used in rhetorical fashion, such as when one asks “How long?” in a plaintive and exasperated tone, as in “How much longer?” It’s as if to say, “O Lord, why do you let this awful situation go on? Where are you?” Thus, the word bespeaks not only disappointment, but also a certain feeling of injustice that God would care so little about us that He would allow such terrible things to go on for so long.

 God knows that we sometimes feel this way. And even if our intellect can supply some possible reasons that God would allow bad things to go on, or that He is not entirely to blame for the mess that we’re in, still it is clear that our feelings often are not satisfied with any rational explanation. And we simply cry out, “How long, O Lord?

God knows this about us. He knows that we are feeling like this and wants us to talk to Him directly about it, to articulate it, and to pray out of this experience.

Here are some representative passages from Scripture:

  • Psalm 13:1-2 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
  • Psalm 6:3-6 My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me, save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from my groaning.
  • Psalm 10:1-2 Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance, the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises.
  • Psalm 35:17 How long, Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my precious life from these lions.
  • Psalm 44:24 Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?
  • Psalm 89:46 How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all humanity! Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?
  • Psalm 79:5-7 How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire? Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the kingdoms that do not call on your name; for they have devoured Jacob and devastated his homeland.
  • Psalm 74:10-11 How long will the enemy mock you, God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
  • Psalm 94:2-3 Rise up, Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve. How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant?
  • Lam 5:20 Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?
  • Habakkuk 1:1-4 How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore, the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
  • Job 7:18-19 Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant? If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.

Thus we see modeled for us that God wants us to say what we are feeling, to give voice to our anger. Why is this? First of all, He already knows that we are angry. He doesn’t want our prayer to be suppressed, pretentious, or phony. If anger is the “elephant in the living room,” let’s admit it rather than trying to pretend it’s not there. Second, expressing our emotions aloud often helps to vent them or at least to reduce their power over us. Suppressed feelings often become depression if they are not given respect and a voice.

The biblical texts also model a kind of Jewish insight and practice known as “taking up a rib” (pronounced “reeb”) wherein one argues, complains, contends, strives, or pleads a case with God. Even early on in Scripture we see Abraham and Moses in (sometimes tense) negotiations with God (e.g., Genesis 18:16ffExodus 3Numbers 14:10ff). And thus the psalms and similar texts model a kind of “rib” wherein one asks God to deliver on His promises and expresses exasperation at His apparent delay in doing so. God the Holy Spirit models and encourages this sort of prayer by including it in the inspired text.

Mysteriously, God does not often answer the “Why?” that is implicit in our groans. But He is most willing to hear them. And sometimes it is our very groans that yield the desired relief. Scripture says, I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry, my appeal. He turned his ear to me, and thus, I will call on him as long as I live (Ps 116:1-2). Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy (Psalm 126:5). St. Augustine said, More things are wrought in prayer by sighs and tears, than by many words (Ltr to Proba, 2).

Our groans and soulful protests do reach God’s ears.

At other times when we protest suffering or evil, God gives a Job-like answer (cf Job 38 ff), in which He reminds us of our inability to see the whole picture. His answer is a kind of “non-answer,” in which He reminds us that our minds are very small.

Nevertheless, the point is that God instructs us to ask, to protest, “How long?” This instruction is a sign of His understanding—even respect—for our anger and exasperation.

It is interesting to note that God oftentimes takes up the complaint “How long?” Himself! It ought not to surprise us that God is at times “exasperated” with us. In a kind of anthropomorphic turning of the tables, He sometimes laments, “How long?” Here are some of those texts:

  • Psalm 82:1 God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the gods: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?”
  • Jer 4:21-22 How long must I see the battle standard and hear the sound of the trumpet? My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.
  • Jer 23:26-28 I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, “I had a dream! I had a dream!” How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name …
  • Matt 17:17 Jesus replied, “Unbelieving and perverse generation, how long must I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?

So it would seem that God is willing to admit into prayer both our anger and His. Where there is love there is also bound to be some anger, for when we love, things matter. God would rather have us speak openly and honestly of our anger toward Him. He also often reveals His anger toward us. Vituperative anger, name calling, and cursing are in no way commended, only honest airing of the fact of our anger and the basis for it.

 There is an old saying, “No tension, no change.” The simple fact is that God allows some tension in our lives and in our relationship with Him. One reason for this is that tension helps to keep our attention and evokes change. In instructing us to cry out, “How long, O Lord?” He invites us to take up the energy and tension of our anger and make it the “stuff” of our prayer. In so doing, our prayer is more honest, and it soars on the wings of passion. It keeps us engaged and energized; it fuels a kind of insistence and perseverance in our prayer.

Within proper bounds, and with humility presumed, anger in prayer has a proper place. God Himself both prescribes it and models it for us in the Book of Psalms as well as in other texts. Be angry, but sin not (Eph 4:26).

The video below is a wonderful musical setting of Henri Desmarets’ (1661-1741) Usquequo Domine. It is rather long, so you might want to play it in the background.

The translation of Psalm 13 sung here is as follows:

 How long O Lord will thou forget me, must thy look still be turned away from me? Each day brings a fresh load of care, fresh misery to my heart; must I be ever the sport of my enemies? Look upon me, O Lord my God, and listen to me; give light to these eyes, before they close in death; do not let my enemies claim the mastery, my persecutors triumph over my fall! I cast myself on thy mercy; soon may this heart boast of redress granted, sing in praise of the Lord, my benefactor.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: How Long, O Lord? A Meditation on Anger and Disappointment

The Battle of Anger in God’s Prophets

Jeremiah, by Lorenzo Monaco (1407)

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.

The Seven Deadly Sins: Anger

The deadly sin of anger is defined as the inordinate and uncontrolled feeling of hatred and wrath. Unlike righteous anger, the capital sin of anger is understood as the deep drive to cling to hateful feelings for others. This kind of anger often seeks revenge.

The consideration of anger as an experience, passion, or feeling requires some distinctions, however. Not all anger is sinful nor necessarily a deadly sin. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus manifests quite a lot of anger and issues many denunciations, often accompanied by the phrase, “Woe to you!” In this way, He spoke in much the same way as all the prophets before Him.

We live in a culture that tends to be shocked by expressions of anger; it is almost reflexively rejected as counterproductive. In some situations, though, anger is the appropriate response.

Let’s begin with some distinctions.

  1. The internal experience or feeling of anger must be distinguished from its external manifestation. The internal experience of anger as a response to some external stimulus is not sinful because we cannot typically control the arising of feelings or passions. Anger usually arises out of some sense of threat. It signals to us that something is wrong, threatening, or inappropriate. Sometimes our perceptions are inaccurate, but often they are not. When they are not, anger is not only sinless, it is necessary; it alerts us to the need to respond and gives us the energy to set things right or to address a threatening situation.
  2. Anger can arise for less-than-holy reasons. Some of the things we fear we should not. Some of our fears are rooted in pride or an inordinate need for status or affirmation; some come from misplaced priorities. For example, we may be excessively concerned with money, possessions, or popularity; this can trigger inordinate fear about things that should not matter so much. This fear gives rise to feeling threatened with loss or diminishment, which in turn triggers anger. We ought not to be so concerned with such things because they are rooted in pride, vanity, and materialism. In this case, the anger may have a sinful dimension. The sin, though, is more rooted in the inordinate drives than in the anger itself. Even when anger arises for the wrong reasons, it is still not an entirely voluntary response.
  3. External manifestations of anger can and do sometimes have a sinful dimension, particularly when they are beyond what is reasonable. If we express anger by hurling insults or physically injuring someone, we may well have sinned. Even here, though, there can be exceptions. For example, it is appropriate at times to physically defend oneself. In addition, we live in thin-skinned times and people often take offense when they should not. Jesus did not hesitate to describe his opponents in rather “vivid” ways.

Hence, of itself, anger is not a sin. Scriptures says, Be angry but sin not (Ps 4:4). So anger is not the sin, but the expression of it may be. Further, it is possible that some of our anger springs from less-than-holy sources.

When is the external manifestation of anger appropriate? When its object is appropriate and reasonable.

For example, it is appropriate to be angry when we see injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. harnessed the appropriate anger of Americans toward the injustice of racism; he focused their energy in productive ways. However, he was very careful to teach against violence and revenge. Anger did not give the civil rights protesters the right to hate. What Dr. King did was to elicit a just anger in many Americans. This anger in turn gave them the motivation to act creatively and energetically to resist injustice and effect change through non-violence.

There are, however, some who respond to injustices with violent protests and who express hatred. In such protests, anger is no longer a creative energy that summons people to call for change and justice. Rather, it is a violent anger that manifests hate and often ends in the destruction of property and/or harm to other human beings.

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 punches his brother in the mouth and knocks out his tooth, a parent ought to display an appropriate amount of anger in order to make it very clear that this behavior is unacceptable. Gently correcting the child in a soothing and dispassionate voice might lead to the impression that this action really wasn’t so bad. Proper anger has a way of bringing the point home and making a lasting impression. The display of anger should be at the proper level, neither excessively strong nor too weak. This of course requires a good bit of self-mastery.

What, then, of sinful anger? Jesus teaches as follows:

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).

Taking the passage at face value, it would seem that Jesus condemns anger without exception. However, if that is the case then Jesus clearly broke His own rule because as we know He exhibited a lot of anger in the Gospels. What Jesus does clearly condemn here is unrighteous and wrathful anger. The two examples in this passage show the kind of anger He means. The first example is use of the term Raca, an epithet that displayed utter contempt for the recipient. Notice that Jesus links this kind of anger to murder because by using the term, the other person is so stripped of any human dignity that to murder him would be no different than killing an ox or mule. This sort of anger depersonalizes the other and disregards him as a child of God. Using the term fool has a similar, though less egregious, purpose. Hence, it would seem that the Lord is not condemning all anger but rather the anger of contempt and depersonalization. To absolutize Jesus’ teaching here to include any anger at all would seem unreasonable given Jesus’ own example, which included not a little anger.

We ought to be careful, however, before simply adopting Jesus’ angry tone ourselves. There are two reasons for this: First, Jesus was able to see into their hearts and determine the appropriate tactics; we may not always be able to do this. Second, the wider Western culture in which many of us live may not be as prepared to accept such an angry tone; it may be less effective in our setting. Prudential judgment is a necessary precursor to using such tactics.

We do well to be careful with anger, for it is an unruly passion. Above all we ought to seek the fruit of the Spirit that is meekness and to ask the Lord to give us authority over our anger and prudence in its use.

What is meekness? It is an important beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit that helps us to master anger. Today, we think of a meek person as one who is a bit of a pushover, easily taken advantage of. The original meaning of meekness, though, describes the vigorous virtue through which one gains authority over his anger. Aristotle defined meekness (πραΰτης – praotes) as the middle ground between being too angry and not being angry enough.

The meek person has authority over his anger and is thus able to summon its energy but control its extremes. The meek are far from weak; in fact, they show their strength in their ability to control their anger.

St. John Chrysostom said this regarding anger: 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 said, 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 (Summa Theologica II, IIae 158.8).

Sinful anger is rightly numbered among the deadly or capital sins. St Thomas explains,

As stated above (I-II:84:3; I-II:84:4), a capital vice is defined as one from which many vices arise. Now there are two reasons for which many vices can arise from anger. The first is on the part of its object…in so far as revenge is desired…The second is on the part of its impetuosity, whereby it precipitates the mind into all kinds of inordinate action. Therefore, it is evident that anger is a capital vice (Summa Theologiae, II, IIae, Q. 158, art. 6).

St. Thomas also lists the “daughters” of anger as quarreling, indignation, swelling (or seething) of the mind, contumely (insult), clamor (loud and disorderly speech), and blasphemy (disrespect of God and the things of God) [Ibid, art. 7].

The sin of anger is ultimately a hateful and hurtful thing. It tends to destruction and must be mastered by meekness and patience. Perhaps it is best to end with a scriptural admonition:

Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not; it leads only to evil.
For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land
. (Psalm 37:8-9)

This song is from the Carmina Burana and the Latin is translated as follows:

Burning inside with violent anger,
bitterly I speak to my heart:
created from matter, of the ashes of the elements,
I am like a leaf played with by the winds
.

Be Angry But Sin Not – As Seen in a Commercial

One of the most basic human passions is anger. Not all anger is sinful, however. One way different types of anger can be distinguished is by their object.

If the object of the anger is appropriate (e.g., injustice), then anger is an appropriate response. In the case of reacting to injustice, anger is like an energy that the soul delivers in order to address the injustice with zeal and persistence.

On the other hand, if the object of the anger is inappropriate, then so is the anger. Some examples of this would be anger generated by something petty such as a perceived slight or anger resulting from someone pointing out that we are wrong. In such cases anger is to some degree sinful because its cause is tainted.

Anger can also become sinful if it is inordinate. Even if anger’s object is appropriate, we don’t have the right to rage, strike out, or excessively vent our anger.

Anger is a passion that is hard to master. It has its place, but we must learn to curb it and uses its force for good.

In the video below, there is a humorous illustration of appropriate anger vs. excessive anger. In the first scene, a football player stirs up anger in his teammates (about an opposing team who “dares” to enter their home stadium) in order to win a football game. I know that a football game is a petty object, but allow it for illustration.

In the second scene, one of the players uses excessive anger to rid his house of a mere fly. Although the object of his anger is somewhat appropriate, the anger is excessive and ends up causes a lot of collateral damage. Be careful with your anger, even when it is just!

Scripture says, Be angry but sin not (Ephesians 4:26).

A Spiritual Danger, as Seen in the Book of Jonah

As we continue to read the story of Jonah at daily Mass, for Wednesday of the 27th Week we ponder a significant spiritual danger. Most of us struggle to some degree over God’s patience and clemency. Certainly, we want God to be patient and merciful with us, but we don’t want Him to be patient when it comes to allowing bad or even sinful things to continue. We would like to see God put a swift end to every heresy, mete out a quick and harsh punishment for every transgression—especially those that are open violations of His teaching. Our frustration is not wholly bad; scandal is a serious problem and without swift action to address it, others can be drawn into sin. Yet our desire for the immediate punishment of those who bring scandal is seldom satisfied. Jesus said, Woe to the world for the causes of sin. These stumbling blocks must come, but woe to the man through whom they come (Matt 18:7). Ultimately, those who bring scandal will be punished, but not necessarily as quickly as we would like.

The deeper problem for us is not the concern for scandal, but the desire to see the destruction of our enemies. This vengefulness is exemplified by Jonah:

Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry that God did not carry out the evil he threatened against Nineveh. He prayed, “I beseech you, LORD, is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, rich in clemency, loath to punish. And now, LORD, please take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the LORD asked, “Have you reason to be angry?”

As we shall see, Jonah would not answer this question but instead walked away from God. For us, the question remains: “Have you reason to be angry?” Or to put it more gently, “What are the reasons for your anger?” Perhaps, instead of walking away from God as did Jonah, we should stay and allow Him to expand His questioning so as to help us. It is often hard to answer honestly, but it is best.

  1. Is your anger only about the scandal caused by unpunished injustice, error, and heresy or is there more to it?
  2. Is there some desire for vengeance in you?
  3. Have you ever caused scandal or led someone else into sin?
  4. If so, are you glad that God did not intervene and strike you dead before you had a chance to repent?
  5. Do other people need time to repent? If so, how long?
  6. Do you know whether they will ever repent?
  7. What is the proper balance between allowing time for a sinner to repent and protecting the common good?
  8. Are you confident that your answers to questions 5-7 are perfectly just?

Our anger at scandal and injustice is understandable; indeed, we should have some anger. The spiritual danger is that we may also have a desire for vengeance. In addition, we engage in a form of pride wherein we assume that we know how things should be handled, down to the last detail.

You may recall the movie Bruce Almighty, which despite its ridiculous theological premises does explore the truth that we human beings do a miserable job playing God. In the movie, Bruce thought that the right thing to do was to say yes to the prayers of everyone he thought was nice and to punish those he thought were deserving of it. The effects were far-reaching, wreaking havoc all over the globe. Finally, the real God explained to Bruce that “no” is sometimes the best answer, even when we sympathize with those who ask; from struggles come glory and lasting destiny which are far superior to temporary victory or comfort.

Therefore, it would seem that our own anger at God’s delay in punishing those we think need it should be balanced with a lot of humility.

There is a second and more difficult point that Jonah (and) we must learn:

 Jonah then left the city for a place to the east of it, where he built himself a hut and waited under it in the shade, to see what would happen to the city. And when the LORD God provided a gourd plant that grew up over Jonah’s head, giving shade that relieved him of any discomfort, Jonah was very happy over the plant. But the next morning at dawn God sent a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. And when the sun arose, God sent a burning east wind; and the sun beat upon Jonah’s head till he became faint. Then Jonah asked for death, saying, “I would be better off dead than alive.” But God said to Jonah, “Have you reason to be angry over the plant?” “I have reason to be angry,” Jonah answered, “angry enough to die.” Then the LORD said, “You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor and which you did not raise; it came up in one night and in one night it perished. And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?”

And here comes the hardest truth: God actually loves our enemy. Yes, He loves even those who do harm. God loved the ancient Assyrians and He loves His enemies now. He wants to save them even though they hate Him or serve other gods.

How this love will play out in the end is not for us to see. Perhaps in His love, God sees their ultimate repentance. Perhaps in His love, He does not rush to cancel their freedom. Perhaps in his love for us, He sees that He can draw good even from the bad things that go (for now) unaddressed. St. Paul says, And indeed, there must be differences among you to show which of you are approved. (1 Cor 11:19). Yes, the distinctiveness of Christians reflecting God’s glory is often best seen against the backdrop of darkness.

Like you, I have grave concerns about the moral darkness of our times. Numerous recent prophecies have spoken of coming chastisements. But I think that rather than hoping for it, we should pray so that it does not come! Our Lady of Akita said,

As I told you, if men do not repent and better themselves, the Father will inflict a terrible punishment on all humanity. It will be a punishment greater than the deluge, such as one will never have seen before. Fire will fall from the sky and will wipe out a great part of humanity, the good as well as the bad, sparing neither priests nor faithful. The survivors will find themselves so desolate that they will envy the dead (Message of October 13, 1973).

Through Jonah’s story, the Lord teaches us humility. We should learn to love our enemies the way God loves them. We should want their repentance, for their repentance is a boon to us as well. A mutually shared destruction may be too awful to imagine.

Pray for the conversion of sinners and love them.

Is Anger Always a Sin?

In the Gospel for Wednesday of the 21st week of the year, we see Jesus make some pretty angry denunciations of the religious leaders of His day. In fact, throughout the Gospels Jesus manifests quite a lot of anger and issues many denunciations, often accompanied by the phrase, “Woe to you!” In this way, He spoke in much the same way as did all the prophets before Him.

We live in a culture that tends to be shocked by anger; it is almost reflexively rejected as counterproductive and usually sinful. But is anger always a sin?

The simple answer is no. In fact, in some situations anger is the appropriate response. Jesus displays quite a lot of anger in the Gospels, so we should be a bit more thoughtful about anger and make some distinctions.

Let’s begin with some of those distinctions.

  1. The internal experience or feeling of anger must be distinguished from its external manifestation. The internal experience of anger as a response to some external stimulus is not sinful because we cannot typically control the arising of feelings or passions. Anger usually arises out of some sense of threat. It signals to us that something is wrong, threatening, or inappropriate. Sometimes our perceptions are incorrect, but often they are not. In this sense, anger is not only sinless, but necessary, as it alerts us to the need to respond to something and gives us the energy to address it. It is a passion and an energy to set things right or to address a threatening situation.
  2. Anger can arise from less than holy reasons. Some of the things we fear we should not. Some of our fears are rooted in pride or an inordinate need for status and affirmation; some come from misplaced priorities. For example, we may be excessively concerned with money, property, popularity, or material things; this triggers inordinate fears about things that should not matter so much. This fear gives rise to feeling threatened with loss or diminishment. This in turn triggers anger, because we sense that something is wrong or threatening. But we ought not to be so concerned with such things because they are rooted in pride, vanity, and materialism. In this case, the anger may have a sinful dimension. The sin, though, is more rooted in the inordinate drives than in the anger itself. Even when anger arises from poor motives, it is still not an entirely voluntary response.
  3. External manifestations of anger can and do sometimes have a sinful dimension, particularly when they are beyond what is reasonable. If we express anger by hurling insults or physically injuring someone, we may well have sinned. Even here, though, there can be exceptions. For example, it is appropriate at times to physically defend oneself. However, it remains true that we live in thin-skinned times and people often take offense when they should not. Jesus did not often hesitate to describe his opponents in rather “vivid” ways.

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, but the expression of anger may be. Further, it is possible that some of our anger springs from less than holy sources.

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

For example, it is appropriate to be angry when we see injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. harnessed the appropriate anger of Americans toward the injustice of racism. He elicited it and focused its energy in productive ways. However, he was very careful to teach against violence and revenge. Anger did not give the civil rights protesters the right to hate. What Dr. King did was to bring out a just anger in 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 within us the desire to speak out and the zeal to take action to rectify injustice.

There are, however, also those persons today who sadly respond to injustice with violent protests, and express hatred. In such protests, anger is no longer a creative energy that summons one to prophetically call for change and justice. Rather, it is vented as violent anger that manifests hate and often ends in destruction of property, harm to and even the death of other human beings. This is not worthy of any Christian notion of appropriate anger.

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 punches his brother in the mouth and knocks out a tooth, a parent ought to display an appropriate amount of anger in order to make it very clear that this behavior is unacceptable. Gently correcting the child in a smooth and dispassionate voice might lead to the impression that this action really wasn’t so bad. Proper anger has a way of bringing the point home and making a lasting impression. The display of anger should be at the proper level, neither excessively strong nor too weak. This of course requires a good bit of self-mastery.

Meekness – This is an important beatitude and fruit of the Holy Spirit that helps us to master anger. Today, we think of a meek person as one who is a bit of a pushover, easily taken advantage of. But the original meaning of meekness describes the vigorous virtue through which one gains authority over his anger. Aristotle defined meekness (πραΰτης) as the mean between being too angry and not being angry enough. The meek person has authority over their anger and is thus able to summon its energy but control its extremes. The meek are far from weak; in fact, they show their strength in their ability to control their anger. St. John Chrysostom said this regarding anger: 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 said, 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 (Summa Theologica II, IIae 158.8).

What, then, should we make of Jesus’ manifestation of anger? On 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).

Taking the passage at face value, it would seem that Jesus condemns anger without exception. However, if that is the case then Jesus clearly broke his own rule because as we know He exhibited a lot of anger in the Gospels. What Jesus does clearly condemn here is unrighteous and wrathful anger. The two examples in this passage show the kind of anger He means. The first example is use of the term Raca, an epithet that displayed utter contempt for the recipient. Notice that Jesus links this kind of anger to murder because by using the term, the other person is so stripped of any human dignity that to murder him would be no different than killing an ox or mule. This sort of anger depersonalizes the other and disregards him as a child of God. Using the term fool has a similar, though less egregious, purpose. Hence, it would seem that the Lord is not condemning all anger but rather the anger of contempt and depersonalization. To absolutize Jesus’ teaching here to include any anger would seem unreasonable given Jesus’ own example, which included not a little anger.

Most people are familiar with Jesus’ display of anger in the cleansing of the temple, but there were other times when He also manifested significant anger. Today’s Gospel is certainly an example.

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)

On many other occasions Jesus said similar things. Here is another:

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 that is common in the modern imagination; Jesus was no Caspar Milquetoast.

What should we make of these angry displays?

  1. They are not sinful. Clearly they are not sinful displays of anger because Scripture assures us that Jesus never sinned (e.g., Heb 4:15).
  2. The culture in Jesus’ time was different than it is today. In the culture of the ancient Jews there seems to have been a wider acceptance of the expression of anger than there is in American society today. Even within the United States there is a wide variance in the acceptance of anger. When I was in college, I dated an Italian girl; she and her mother could really set to it—lots of loud shouting in Italian! But then a moment later it was over and they were on to the next topic. In their family, strong expressions of anger were much more accepted than I was used to. The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus was also an expression more acceptable in the culture of that time than it would be today. Turning over tables was a “prophetic action.” Prophets did things like this in those days. Even we find a place for civil disobedience today. We may not always like it, but we respect that it has a place.
  3. Jesus was clearly angry. He was grieved at the hard-heartedness of His opponents. His strong tone was an authoritative summons to repent. A soft, lowered voice might not have conveyed the urgency of the situation. These were hardened men who needed pointed, passionate denunciation. Jesus’ anger was righteous anger.

We ought to be careful, however, before simply using Jesus’ angry tone ourselves. There are two reasons for this: First, Jesus was able to see into their hearts and determine the appropriate tactics; we may not always be able to do this. Second, the wider Western culture in which many of us live may not be as prepared to accept such an angry tone; it may be less effective in our setting. Prudential judgment is a necessary precursor to using such tactics.

In the end, anger is not sinful or wrong per se. It is sometimes the proper and necessary response. We do well to be careful with our anger, however, for it is an unruly passion. Above all we ought to seek the fruit of the Spirit that is meekness and to ask the Lord to give us authority over our anger and prudence in its use.

These videos show some displays of Jesus’ anger. In one it is more obvious; in the other it is more subtle:

 

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:

A Reflection on the Passion of Anger and the "Miserable Truce" of the Modern Age

We live in a culture that tends to treat anger as a taboo. One common tactic to unsettle an opponent is to accuse them of being angry. It is amazing how easily humiliated and defensive one can make an opponent by using this tactic. Yes, it is amazing how quickly the one accused of “anger” will be thrown off his game and feel the need to resort to denials or euphemisms such as:

1. I am NOT angry! (which is usually said angrily and is usually a lie).
2. I am not angry, I am just frustrated! (But frustration is a euphemism for anger, yet, as a euphemism it somehow feels less humiliating).
3. I am not angry…You’re the one who is angry! (and thus the terrible charge of anger must be denied and shoved back, instead of owned and appreciated as an energy or passion for what matters).
4. Of course I’m angry, but who would not be angry when talking with an idiot! (And thus the charge is only tacitly or partially accepted since its cause is purely extraneous).

Rare indeed in the American setting is someone who will respond in a way that both admits anger and owns it as something positive and important, perhaps by saying: “I am angry. And I am angry because I really care about this matter. I am not merely a neutral observer. I fully admit I have an agenda, an agenda I passionately believe in, and I experience grief and anger when what I value is dis-valued. Yes, I am angry, and I care about this.”

Of itself anger is just a passion, an energy that is stirred forth when we sense that something is wrong. Sensing what is wrong or threatening, our anger is stirred, energizing us for action, whether mental, physical or both. The body is actually involved as adrenaline is released.

The Bible does condemn vengeful anger but also teaches of anger that is not sinful: Be angry, but sin not (Eph 4:26). The sinless Jesus also exhibits a lot of anger (e.g. Luke 11; Mark 10; Matthew 17:17; Matthew 21:15; Matthew 26:8; Mark 10:14; Mark 14:4 John 2, John 8, inter al) and indignation modelling that anger is sometimes the appropriate response.

Yet somehow we are stymied and easily felled by the charge that we are angry. We tend to live in egotistically soft, thin-skinned times. The pervasive relativism seems to require that if we are going to believe in something we ought not hold it too strongly, because then we might have an “agenda” and actually let slip that we think there is a truth to be upheld and insisted upon. And, according to modern “rules” having an “agenda” i.e. thinking certain things are surely true, is Wrong, with a capital “W.” Perhaps too there is the over-appropriation of tolerance, an necessary component in a pluralistic setting, but not an absolute virtue.

Whatever the causes, anger, an ordinary and necessary human passion, is humiliating to most modern westerners. And to be accused of being angry is something most try quickly to squirm out of.

And yet I will say plainly, we need more of it. I do not speak of a mere fisticuffs rooted in violent outburst or of the simple ugliness and persoanl disrespect evident on blogs and issued from the anonymous safety behind the computer screen. But rather, I speak of an anger rooted in love and a deep commitment to the truth, an anger that emerges because we see the harm caused by lies, deception, error, sin and injustice.

Lovers fight, lovers get angry, and well they should, for when love is in the mix, things matter, truth matters, error and harm matter. Lovers want what is best, not merely expedient or convenient.

Author Dale Ahlquist, says a lot of this better than I can. Writing in his recent book, The Complete Thinker where he synthesizes the thought of G.K. Chesterton Ahlquist says:

Chesterton illustrates the point about “the twin elements of loving and fighting”…..Modern philosophies have tried to do away with this paradox…But fighting and loving actually go together. You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it….To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all…

The connection between two such apparent opposites points to the idea that truth is always an amazing balancing act….If we lean too far in one direction or the other, we lose our balance. Thus, both militarism and pacificism represent a loss of balance.

Militarism is simply bullyism, the strong having their own way. Pacifism is a lack of loyalty, a promise not to defend the innocent, the helpless, the defenseless.

The Church has always had to maintain the precarious balance of truth, whether in war or in anything else….

Sometimes the only way to stop the fighting is to fight. Sometimes the only way to end a war is to win it—but only as an act of defense, not as an act of aggression…..

The sword is an important symbol of Christianity. It is not only in the shape of a cross; it is the scriptural symbol of truth, which cuts both ways—because error comes from opposite sides.

Chesterton also says he likes swords because “they come to a point”, unlike most modern art and philosophy.

Yes, lovers fight, lovers get angry. And the anger of the Greatest Lover of them all, God, is evident in the downward thrust of the cross into the soil of this world and its manifold lies and half truths. The cross is the downward thrust, like a sword, of God’s non placet to the rebellion and error this world holds so arrogantly.

And yet, that downward thrust is also open in love as seen in the outward arms of cross, the outstretched arms of Christ. At the very center of the cross where anger and love unite is the heart of Christ.

Yes, love and anger are closer than we moderns will often admit or fathom. Love says there are certain things worth fighting for and being angry about. But its anger is not egocentric, it is other-centric, focused on God, the truth and the dignity of those who are meant to walk in truth. Ahlquist says, in loving our enemies, we want to convert them so they are not our enemies anymore. Ultimately, we want to get our enemies to join our side.

And thus, some things are worth fighting for and about. Ahlquist continues:

No sane man has ever held, that war is a good thing….But the… occasion may arise when it is better for a man to fight than to surrender….War is not the direst calamity that can befall a people. There is one worse state, at least: the state of slavery.

While a good peace is better than a good war, even a good war is better than a bad peace.

[And thus the] Church on earth is called the Church Militant. War is a metaphor, and it would not work as a metaphor if it were not a reality, a reality that we have to live with.

This life of ours is a very enjoyable fight, but a very miserable truce.”

And that last line is a very telling description of the modern age: a miserable truce. Everyone is walking on eggs, afraid to offend and suppressing the truth on account of this fear. And thus our anger gets suppressed, renamed, and turned inward. Some has said that the definition of depression is “anger turned inward.” Not a bad diagnosis of a time like this when vast percentages of us are on anti-depressants and other psychotropic medicines to manage the “miserable truce” that is the false peace of these times; a peace rooted not in truth, but in the compelled silence of PC, euphemisms and thinly veiled politeness.

Perhaps too that is why such ugliness erupts from time to time, especially in more anonymous settings like blog com-boxes where we, who have forgotten how to have a good argument in person, or how to manage and appreciate our anger in normal ways, act so ugly and engage in sometimes savage and unkind personal attacks.

This sort or anger, often evident in political settings as well, is not about truth or love, it is about scoring, it is about winning with little regard to truth or love. But the Church militant without love is not the Church.

At the end of the day, though, anger has its place in the context of love, and decent fights are necessary for those who love. Without a proper appreciation for these, we end up with the gray fog of a “miserable truce” that is the modern West.

Just for Fun: