One hot evening in the summer of 2002, in a severe outburst of drunken rage, I smashed up my house, beat up my wife, roused up half the neighborhood and created assorted havoc before the cops finally came and took me away. As God finally opened my eyes to the reality of His existence—and His love—in jail (see The Return of the Prodigal), I didn't regret the time I spent behind bars, but I deeply regretted the acts of violence that put me there, and was determined to never again give into the anger that precipitated it.
It took me a while to get my anger under control, but I did succeed in reining it in, and in the past five years I can't recall raising my voice in anger, much less my hand. I thought I was done being the angry not-so-young man, until—as I said in the preface—I read an article on anger and realized that while I might not be breaking anything anymore, be it bottles or bones, I still had a lot of anger within me that was being expressed in other ways.
But before we get to that, how angry a person are you? Let's find out.
The Anger of Passion
Sinful anger arises as a result of passion and is the most easily observed in people, because the outbursts are very often spectacular. And damaging, sometimes to the point of being fatal.
Alexander the Great was one of the few men in history who deserved the adjective appended to his name. He was beset, however, with a horrific temper, and though he did manage to rein it in more often than not, on one occasion he was swept away by his passion. At a banquet given for Dionysius, someone disparaged the old Macedonian officers who had fought under Alexander's father, Philip, arousing the ire of one of them present there. His name was Clitus.
An old friend of Alexander, Clitus was now a general in the army. Rising to his feet, he told Alexander, whose life Clitus had once saved, that he had obtained his fame with the blood of the Macedonian officers who were being belittled, then drunkenly insulted Alexander some more. Furious, Alexander hurled a spear at the man, killing him instantly. Remorse followed, as it often does, but it was too late. His friend was dead, slain by his hand.
The newspapers are filled with stories of people killing one another in fits of passion, and if we have a tendency to temper tantrums, there is a good chance that we might kill somebody too—in spirit, if not body—if we don't take steps to bring our anger under control.
To do this, we need to understand a couple of things. One: anger is a very grave sin. It may not be the worst of the capital sins—the Church and most saints believe that there are other sins far worse—but it opens many gates that lead to other sins. And two: we can control it. Many people who get angry believe that the force of their emotion is greater than their ability to master. This is not true, especially not for the Christian.
The Other Faces of Anger
We can all recognize passionate anger when we see it, both in ourselves and in others. But anger has many faces and we sometimes don't realize we are angry when we are.
Are you disturbed about something? Irritated? Frustrated? These are words that signify underlying anger and can result in violent outbursts. In August 1996, actress Shannen Doherty smashed a beer bottle on a driver's car window ... frustrated because he refused to argue with her!
Irritation too, often leads to acts of violence. A lot of the road rage that we witness—and, perhaps, engage in—begins with irritation. We let it build until it reaches a point where we no longer can control it and end up abusing a passing driver, making a rude sign at him, or worse.
It isn't only people who can irritate us. Birds can too! Jim Taylor in Currents tells the following story about his friend, Ralph Milton. One morning Ralph woke up at five o'clock to a noise that sounded like someone repairing boilers on his roof. Still in his pajamas, he went into the back yard to investigate. He found a woodpecker on the TV antenna, "pounding its little brains out on the metal pole." Angry at the little creature who ruined his sleep, Ralph picked up a rock and threw it. The rock sailed over the house, and he heard a distant crash as it hit the car. In utter disgust, Ralph took a vicious kick at a clod of dirt, only to remember -- too late -- that he was still in his bare feet. Uncontrolled anger, as Ralph learned, can sometimes be its own reward.
Anger has still more faces. How often have you made these statements to describe how you feel? "I'm outraged." "I'm exasperated." "I'm disturbed." "I feel used." "I'm provoked." "I'm resentful." "I'm repulsed." Or "I'm upset."
They all indicate anger. Are you beginning to see what I mean about how we sometimes don't realize that we may be angry? Here's a final one for thought. Have you said, "I'm disappointed," lately? Why are you disappointed? Because things haven't gone your way. So how does that really make you feel? Angry, right?
The Many Expressions of Anger
Not everybody takes a gun and starts shooting people when they get angry, or engage in fisticuffs. Some don't even raise their voices or break things. They express their anger in other ways and these are some of the ways we may be expressing anger without even realizing that we are, actually, angry: Sadness, bitterness, unforgiveness, abuse; rudeness; disagreement; sarcasm; nitpicking; retaliation; stubbornness; withdrawal.
It was when going through this list that I realized I was still an angry person, taking to express my anger in sarcasm. At the time I had been involved in a correspondence with a leader from my local parish. He began getting increasingly nasty with each mail and I began getting increasingly sarcastic, though it was cloaked in such politeness, it was barely recognizable as such until a friend pointed it out to me. Of course, I took immediate steps to rectify the mistake, though it shook me to realize how easily sin could be concealed in ignorance.
An Angry Jesus
Let us be aware at this point, however, that anger, in itself, is not sinful. As Dr. David Seamands writes, "Anger is a divinely implanted emotion. Closely allied to our instinct for right, it is designed to be used for constructive spiritual purposes. The person who cannot feel anger at evil is a person who lacks enthusiasm for good. If you cannot hate wrong, it's very questionable whether you really love righteousness."
Divine anger is Spirit-led. How do we know when our anger is Spirit-led? When it is Spirit-controlled as well. Scripture shows Jesus getting angry on two separate occasions. Once was when he found people selling doves and changing money in the temple. "Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written, "My house shall be called a house of prayer"; but you are making it a den of robbers'" (Matthew 21:12-13). It was Spirit-led and Spirit-controlled as well.
On another occasion he had gone to the synagogue on the Sabbath and he saw a man with a shriveled hand. Knowing Jesus's penchant for healing the sick, the Pharisees watched closely to see if he would dare do this on the Sabbath. Jesus knew what they were thinking. He made the man stand up and asked the crowd gathered there: "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil?" They remained silent and Jesus got mad. "He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.' He stretched it out, and his hand was restored" (Mark 3:5).
As we can see, anger—like any other emotion—is not a sin. It is how we deal with it that decides that. Paul writing to the Ephesians tells them, "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger" (Ephesians 4:26).
So how do we deal with anger?
The Virtue: Patience
You may have heard this prayer: "Lord, give me patience, but please hurry!" The prayer might have brought a smile on your face, but also the realization that it could very well have been a prayer that we, ourselves, may have made. Many of us lack the virtue of patience.
What is patience? It is a virtue that helps us to calmly bear our tribulations and preserve serenity amid the sufferings of life. There are obstacles to be encountered in any good work, and they can be overcome only by patience.
How does one obtain patience? First, by understanding that God is sovereign and it is He who is in control of human history, not us. Second, by understanding that for the Christian time has a different significance. We will never achieve full satisfaction in this age, but we look forward to the consummation of all things in the age to come. Thirdly, by understanding that God is patient with us, so it becomes is obligatory that we be patient with others. The sin of anger is usually a result of impatience with others.
Patience has the power to change people as evidenced by this story I read in a very ancient book of true stories edited by Priscilla Wakefield. A married couple were once playing cards with each other. Luck was against the woman, who became steadily angrier and angrier until finally, forgetting the delicacy of her sex and the affectionate respect she owed her husband, rose and boxed his ear. The man was astonished, but rather than box her back, threw the cards into the fire with the declaration that they should never again disrupt their harmony, gathered his wife into his arms, and with a look of infinite tenderness, gave her a kiss.
The woman was overwhelmed with confusion, and falling to her knees begged him to forgive her. A reconciliation soon followed. Had he resented the insult she had offered him and repayed her with equal warmth, it is very likely that much damage would have resulted. As it is, love increased.
Another virtue that goes in parallel with patience is meekness, which this man possessed. Some of us believe that meekness is weakness. On the contrary meekness is strength that refuses to be exercised in the wrong way. Another brief story, this one a little more modern, might help to illustrate this.
I had a friend in my growing years who often was the butt of jokes. One day we were with a group of people and they took off on him again, only this time they crossed all sensible boundaries. I looked at my friend with a little trepidation, knowing something about him that the others didn't. He had a black belt in Karate and was quite a lethal weapon. He could have left the whole lot of them writhing on the ground without breaking a sweat. But he only smiled and moved away.
"Why did you stay quiet?" I asked him.
He shrugged. "They were being stupid," he said. "They didn't know what they were doing."
I don't think my friend, who was not a Christian, knew that Jesus had said these words 2,000 years earlier as he was dying on the cross, but I think he understood the principle behind the words. People who hurt us don't quite realize what they are doing; if they did, they wouldn't do it. They are spiritually challenged people. While this does not condone their actions, it should make us sympathetic enough towards them to make a few allowances, just like we would make allowances for a mentally or physically challenged person.
My friend was meek. He had the power to hurt the people who hurt him, but refused to exercise it wrongly. Jesus, too, had the power, but he refused to exercise it either. In the garden of Gethsemene, when Peter struck the slave of the high priest cutting off his ear, Jesus scolded him. "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:52).
We, too, need to be like that. It's difficult, but not impossible, especially with the grace of God. And His gift of piety.
The Gift: Piety
In one of his teachings on the gifts of the Holy Spirit during the Regina Coeli in May 1989, Pope John Paul II gave one of the best explanations of piety that I've ever come across. "With the gift of piety," the Holy Father wrote, "the Spirit heals our hearts of every form of hardness, and opens them to tenderness towards God and our brothers and sisters.
"Tenderness, as a truly filial attitude towards God, is expressed in prayer. The experience of one's own existential poverty, of the void which earthly things leave in the soul, gives rise to the need to have recourse to God in order to obtain grace, help and pardon. The gift of piety directs and nourishes such need, enriching it with sentiments of profound confidence in God; trusted as a good and generous Father.
"Tenderness, an authentically fraternal openness towards one's neighbour, is manifested in meekness. With the gift of piety the Spirit infuses into the believer a new capacity for love of the brethren, making his heart participate in some manner in the very meekness of the Heart of Christ. The "pious" Christian always sees others as children of the same Father, called to be part of the family of God which is the Church. He feels urged to treat them with the kindness and friendliness which are proper to a frank and fraternal relationship.
"The gift of piety further extinguishes in the heart those fires of tension and division which are bitterness, anger and impatience, and nourishes feelings of understanding, tolerance, and pardon. Such a gift is, therefore, at the root of that new human community which is based on the civilization of love."
May the Spirit be with you.