Ex 20:1-17; Ex 20:1-3, 7-8, 12-17; Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 11; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25
I’d like to use today’s Scripture passages as a basis for reflecting the classic problem of Christians and anger. In a sense, the problem emerges from the readings themselves. “Thou not kill,” the fifth of the commandments we hear in the first reading, later gets expanded by Christ: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:22). Christ appears to condemn anger.
At the same time, it’s hard to imagine Jesus acting as he does in today’s Gospel—making a whip of cords, spilling coins, overturning tables, running off moneychangers—without an emotional energy approaching anger. The Gospel offers the word “zeal”: “His disciples recalled the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me.” So what’s the difference between the sinful anger (“wrath”) that Christ condemns and the righteous anger (“zeal”) that Christ displays?
Centuries of Christian reflection on this question have produced a deceptively simple answer. “Zeal” is reasonable. “Wrath” is not. And wrath tends to be unreasonable in two basic ways: 1) in what causes it, 2) and in how it responds.
1) The most common cause of “wrath”—if we’re honest—is an inflated sense of self-importance. The American Psychological Association’s web entry on dealing with anger says,
“Angry people tend to feel that they are morally right, that any blocking or changing of their plans is an unbearable indignity and that they should NOT have to suffer this way. Maybe other people do, but not them!”
“Wrath” is often, in other words, an attempt to play god, to set ourselves up as the center of the universe, to smite those who thwart our will. Tellingly, the APA suggests as a method of anger management a fantasy of divinity:
When you feel that urge … picture yourself as a god or goddess, a supreme ruler, who owns the streets and stores and office space, striding alone and having your way in all situations while others defer to you. The more detail you can get into your imaginary scenes, the more chances you have to realize that maybe you are being unreasonable; you’ll also realize how unimportant the things you’re angry about really are.
Even secular sources understand that “wrath’s” essence is a rebellion against our limitations, our creatureliness (and, by extension, our Creator). Worth pondering next time we’re stuck in traffic.
2) But sometimes the “god fantasy” isn’t enough. It isn’t enough because there actually are just causes for anger. The situation that provokes us may be objectively a big deal—violence committed against us or our families, wrongful divorces, prejudice and discrimination, etc. Here the temptation is to go wrong the second way, in our manner of response: to get angry too easily, too much, too long; to hate sinner (rather than the sin).
For St. Gregory the Great, who wrote one of the most influential accounts of anger in western Christianity, the solution is not so much making believe as remembering. Put simply, we remember what Christ has done for us. When we foresee a situation that will provoke us to anger, for instance, he suggests that we prepare our hearts by remembering Christ’s passion (Moralia, v, 81). When we get stuck on past injuries received, he suggests that we remember the past injuries we have inflicted:
It is as if fire were extinguished by water, when, upon rage rising up in the mind, each person recalls his own misdoings to his recollection; for he is ashamed not to spare offences, who recollects that he has himself often committed offences, whether against God or against his neighbor… (Moralia in Iob, v, 81).
For St. Gregory it’s clear that, if we could just live in the constant remembrance of our own sinfulness, and in constant gratitude to Christ who suffered injustice to save us, “wrath” would subside. Only zeal would remain—zeal to eliminate true injustice, zeal to promote His glory. Just as wrath arises from the mindlessness of God and His glory, so zeal—the zeal that Christ displays today—arises from mindfulness of Him.
That’s why every deep conversion from wrath involves not only decision and technique, but also sincere prayer. Yes, we must decide to let go of our grudges, but only in prayer can we can receive the strength to do so.
Some months ago, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was visiting Holy Cross College to honor a Jesuit priest and former mentor of his. He described his time as an undergraduate at Holy Cross as a time of conversion (here):
“It is here that I enjoyed the first brief glimpses of what it meant to be educated. It is here that I tried to exchange the cloak of animus and self-pity for that of hopefulness and charity … It is here that I took one long painful step to becoming a man …
The “cloak of animus” referred to the painful experiences of his youth: abandonment by his father, dire poverty in his family, overt racism at the two Catholic seminaries he attended. He had a lot to be angry about. But one day he reached a decision in prayer that changed his life:
It was here, directly in front of the chapel, on the morning of April 16, 1970, that I promised the Almighty God that if he took hate out of my heart I would never hate again. He did and I have not.”
This is more than “anger management.” This is God’s healing in prayer. We do well to beg the same grace and make the same decision each time we approach His altar.