To start, don't bathe in other people's rage
Anger is all around us these days. The emotion of anger in itself is not a bad thing. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to say that not responding to something with anger can be a vice because sometimes reason demands anger at injustice and sin.
But anger is a very volatile and dangerous emotion; one that Christians must take great care to direct in a healthy way. Augustine warned that “anger habitually cherished against any one becomes hatred” and “we must watch lest hatred of any one gain a hold upon the heart.” Thomas Aquinas wrote that anger can become a mortal sin if “through the fierceness” of the anger a person “falls away from the love of God and his neighbor.”
Which is why it is disturbing that so many Christians so easily excuse uncharitable displays of wrathful anger by pointing to the example of Jesus overturning tables in the Temple and Nicholas punching Arius at the Council of Nicaea (which most likely never even happened). In fact, of all the deadly sins, wrath seems to be the sin considered least serious by most Christians (at least judging from social media!).
In today’s world, if you are like me and have a tendency to get angry easily, it is necessary to take great care to discern what we allow into our eyes, minds, and hearts. And Lent is a great time to implement practices that lead us away from wrathful anger and toward the peace and charity of Christ.
Here are some ways you can leave unhealthy anger behind this Lent:
1. Don’t bathe in other people’s rage. Someone recently said in passing, “Life is too short to bathe in other people’s rage.” This simple motivational phrase was enormously helpful to me. Following this rule of thumb, I have unfollowed several people on social media, people I like and admire but whose posts regularly upset or put me in a funk, even if I agree with them. Certain people gravitate to the controversial, and this is okay if it does not lead to sin. But constant divisive attacks on other people or groups (President Trump, Pope Francis, liberals, conservatives…pick your enemy!) are not helpful and do not lead us to sanctity. It’s good to keep up with the world, but not through rage-filled people or news sources that purposefully goad us to unhealthy anger. Better to get news from reputable sources, hear about it at the dinner table, or just miss it altogether. We really don’t need to know every piece of bad news.
2. Redirect your anger to reform yourself. Clement of Rome wrote that righteous anger is when “one is indignant with himself, and accuses himself for those things in which he has erred.” In other words, better to be angry at your own sins! Let your anger at the events in the world be a motivation for you to control what you can control with God’s grace, your own behavior. As Blessed James Alberione, the founder of the Pauline Family once said, “Avoid those who want change to begin from others. True reform begins by saying mea culpa.” Find the people in your life and online who have the humility to say, “Mea culpa” instead of pointing fingers.
3. Fast from social media. Social media and online activity in general is probably the biggest occasion for unhealthy anger in most of our lives. Take time away from social media this Lent to give yourself more time with God (he may make you angry but he’ll also heal you!). Fasts from social media are like any fast; they help us to become more moderate in our use. Often when I return from fasting from social media, I have a clearer mind and do not get as easily sucked into arguments, scandals, and whirlwinds of gossip, nastiness, and negativity.
4. Do not respond right away. According to the Book of Proverbs, “Fools immediately show their anger” (12:16). So, when you are angry but feel that you should respond to someone right away online or in person, DON’T. Stop, drop, and pray. According to Ephrem the Syrian, “Virtues are formed by prayer” and “prayer suppresses anger.” In other words, prayer helps us become more patient and work through our anger before it becomes sinful. Better to not say anything at all than to say something you may need to mention in the confessional.
5. Get to the bottom of your anger. Perpetually angry people often have unresolved issues that spill out into their everyday lives. For all of us, whether we are naturally gentle or irascible, anger is a response to the immediate but it is often related to something deeper. Sometimes, when I am feeling angry, I go to chapel and I say to Jesus, “I am feeling angry, why?” It is amazing how quickly he responds (and how seldom I do it considering how he rewards me). Ask Jesus to help you unearth the roots of your anger. Often, when we completely lose our peace over something, there is something else there that God is inviting us to bring to him so he can heal us of our wounds.
This Lent, if we all worked on expressing our anger in healthier ways, our families, our Church, and our world would be a much better place.