Monday, November 15, 2010

Anger’s power

In many of the confessions that I have heard, one of the most common problems that people encounter is anger, or misdirected negative energies. Quite often, the remark that ‘so-and-so made me angry’ is made, almost justifying or exonerating one’s culpability. What the hidden statement means is that I wouldn’t have sinned if I was not pushed to do it.

Right off the bat, I’d like to say that anger itself is not a sin. Anger is energy, much like passion is energy. In fact, just saying that wrath or anger is one of the seven classical deadly sins, and from that, extrapolating that it is a ‘mortal’ sin would really be painting with an extremely broad brush. If anger is a sin, then Jesus cannot be said to be sinless as it is clearly stated that he was angry because the moneychangers had turned his father’s house into a market place, and that he drove them out with a lash of cords. Some would justify it by using the term “holy anger”.

Technically, we don’t find the word ‘anger’ in any of the passages of the four evangelists that describe this scene of Jesus and the cleansing of the temple. At most, we find the phrase ‘he drove them out’, or something similar. Certainly, one can argue that it is rather difficult to drive someone out of a place without a ‘fire in the belly’, and so, the conclusion is likely that Jesus was angry. In another passage, in Mark 11, Jesus curses the barren fig tree. I’d say that this is a far more direct and clear evidence of anger as one can hardly curse with a nary a hint of anger.

What can be said with a degree of certainty is that when we see a display of anger by Jesus in Scripture, it usually has to do with some evidence of an injustice. It is his passion for justice, notably God’s justice, to be done that results in his display of anger. This must give us an indication that we too should hunger for God’s justice to be carried out in this world, and that we need to be instrumental for it to happen.

We have all experienced anger in many of its forms. Some of us brood and are quiet when we are angry, some of us need to vent when we are vexed. Those living in the more enlightened stratosphere claim to be able to sublimate their anger. We don’t seem to need to learn how to be angry. Even an infant is said to display a certain ‘anger’ when deprived of milk when his belly cries for nourishment by crying with an uncanny ability to rouse even the heaviest of sleepers.

When I counsel penitents about anger, about what it is, and about what it isn’t, I try to get them to see that it is far more important to identify two things – what the anger was triggered by, and what it triggered off (meaning, the effects it had on our community). Being able to identify the first would help one to keep anger at bay when the warning signs appear on the horizon. And it could be a whole host of different things that initiate anger or worse, a hurtful rage.

Pondering on what anger triggers off is an invitation to see the effects our anger has on ourselves and the community or the body of Christ. The extreme end of this would be causing hurt, abuse, and even killing of a life. Most of the time, thankfully, the body of Christ is not so badly maimed, but it is definitely hurt, impaired and even sullied to a certain degree. It is when we are able to see the kind of wreckage left behind in the wake of our anger that we will slowly begin to see the wisdom of keeping anger in check.

One of the easiest things to do when confronted with a sin is to push the blame elsewhere. We only have to turn to chapter 3 of Genesis to see that this blame game is really the oldest game in our human history. And it is played out repeatedly in the course of history. There is an original sinfulness here that all of us share, because it makes our culpability so much lighter when we say ‘so-and-so’ made me angry. The other party would not be able to make us angry if we had not first allowed this kind of power to be given to him or her. In a similar way, no one can make one irritated if one is not irritable in the first place.

At the heart of an uncontrolled display of fury and rage is the loss of something deep within us. What we have lost in those moments are not so much our control and our precious face, but rather our secure stand that we are deeply loved by God who tells us repeatedly that it is alright even when things may turn nasty, when people misunderstand us, or when things don’t go our way. We have lost not so much our temper, but rather, our firm grip on God’s loving hands. And it wouldn’t help much if our cause for such displays of misdirected energies were not so much an upholding of God’s justice, but to protect or promote our own selves.

And when we humbly admit to those moments of stupidity, especially within the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are placed back into God’s firm hold of love once more.


  1. As school-children, we were properly instilled with a 'holy fear' for the sins of anger and pride, termed "the baying hounds on short leash" ( yr expression 'at bay' brought this to mind ! ) We were advised to nip them in the bud though the 'nipping process' was never taught. In later years when accosted with Jesus' 'anger' at the cleansing of the temple we learnt about righteous anger ( as mentioned by you - holy anger) But often times, for us - righteous anger imperceptibly shift to become self-righteous and even hurtful rage - was it when the 'self'/ 'I' - precedes to dominate righteousness ?
    This brings me to your interesting observation that " at the heart of our uncontrolled display of the loss of something deep within us...." Is there a way then to resolve this ? Looking to Jesus - his life and his teaching on the way of discipleship especially his way of poverty ( Mt5:3) may be key. It speaks of the way of emptiness/emptying so as to be filled with God. So if we allow "this something deep within us" to be filled with the fullness of God, perhaps we will not " lose our secure stand that we are deeply loved by God". Then we can truly say that - with man it may not be possible, but with God all things are possible.
    Thank you Fr.

  2. Anger is a part of our emotional spectrum and, I think, is part of our created goodness.
    Not to be confused with Aggression, which is a behaviour, over which we have some control.
    There is usually a "moment of grace" between one and the other, so the behaviour need not be "automatic". This may need practice, but it can be done and is rewarding and beneficial as well as "good".