I dwell on negativity, Lord help me
Good sense makes a man slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.—Proverbs 19:11 Do everything without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like lights in the world.—Philippians 2:14-15
St. Jerome is a dear friend of mine, and it’s not just because we share an obsession with the Bible. We also have one or two personality traits in common, most notably a temper you would not believe.
It’s certainly encouraging to take a look at the saints who struggled with my pet sins. St. Nicholas, as you know, punched a heretic in the face. St. Teresa of Avila yelled at God. And St. Columba once flew off the handle in a dispute over a psalter (Jerome’s translation, actually) and was so irate that he started a holy war and got 3,000 people killed.
It sure does make me feel better about my inclination to scream at people who wander ponderously through airports. After all, I’m in good company. But it’s not our shared temptation that draws me to these saints, much less my relief that they occasionally indulged and indulged dramatically. It’s the witness that it is possible to fight against our baser instincts and the joy that God’s mercy is bigger than our sin, even when that sin costs thousands of lives.
Like Jerome and many other choleric saints, I’m not slow to anger. I may never be — I don’t have the good sense Proverbs suggests, and I’m generally far too self-obsessed to overlook any offense. But, being a people-pleaser, I usually manage not to fly into a rage. So my acquaintances are often surprised to hear me mention my temper.
My friends not so much. Because while they may not have seen me cuss out a friend or punch a wall, they’ve listened to the grumbling and questioning. They’ve heard me recount, time and again, the story of the people who chose the pew in front of me — out of the enormous, empty church — and chatted for half an hour. They know I’m not over the nasty comments made about me a decade ago. They hear me criticize and scorn and harp on all kinds of things. But I do it in a lighthearted way, making jokes out of it and careful never to attack someone by name. Surely that can’t be wrong? It’s just venting or kidding or being human.
Now, the saints have done worse, so I know there’s hope for me yet. But keeping a catalogue of offenses is just as crooked and perverse as the behavior that offends me. Maybe more so, since I know what I ought to be. I’m called to shine like a light in the world, blameless and innocent. But I dwell on negativity instead. I view others as the butt of my jokes. I’m so concerned with my own dignity that I allow myself to be consumed.
The thing about anger is that it’s not actually a sin, it’s a feeling. The sin is acting on it, clinging to it and letting it form you. And that doesn’t just mean starting holy wars and excoriating your opponents, it also means snide comments and a refusal to forgive. In my life, this is most obvious in the grumbling and questioning Paul condemns. It doesn’t matter if I was right, if the other person was ridiculous, if the situation is entirely unfair. If I’m complaining to somebody who can’t fix the situation — and I’m actually just complaining, not seeking guidance — I need to take my struggles to the Lord, not to Twitter. The more I offer him my grumbling instead of embracing it, the more I am master of my temper instead of letting it master me.
I can’t necessarily change which sins I’m inclined toward, but it’s not enough just to avoid indulging mortally. I need to flee from all forms of sin, even the venial ones, if my anger (or my lust or my gluttony or my pride) is ever going to lose the stranglehold it has on me. So I’ll keep asking the Lord to make me blameless and innocent and I’ll keep running to the confessional when I’m not. Because I’m not called to be okay, I’m called to be a great witness to the love of God, just like every Christian. Which means refusing to let my besetting sin rule my life, even in small ways. Today, I choose peace and mercy and patience. I choose Christ.
Meg Hunter-Kilmerwrites for her blog, Held by His Pierced Hands, and travels around the country speaking to youth and adults and leading retreats and parish missions.