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Anger is one of the seven deadly sins, and it’s pretty telling that the Church saw fit to categorize it as a sin that opens the door to a whole host of other vices. Christ himself was very clear about it: “You have heard that it was said … ‘anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Mt. 5:21-22).
There’s a quote floating around, attributed to St. John Paul II (though never sourced, and I doubt it’s his) that seems to offer a better alternative to anger. “It’s better to cry than be angry, because anger hurts others, while tears flow silently through the soul and cleanse the heart.”
The thing is, what we call anger can be one of two very different things. There’s anger the sin, which, like all sins, is a choice, and does indeed hurt others. But there’s also anger the emotion, which isn’t a choice so much as a reaction. It’s no more sinful than sadness, excitement, fear, or joy. Emotions are neutral; it’s what you do with them that counts. The distinction is crucial. Sin is never okay. On the other hand, while an emotion might lead us to act sinfully, it might just as well become a catalyst for goodness.
St. John Chrysostom is getting at this when he says, “He that is angry without cause shall be in danger, but he that is angry with cause shall not,” and even that “he who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins.”
Again, he’s talking about our actions here, not the initial emotion. When you’ve been lied to, for instance, you might feel the initial emotion of anger. After the emotion comes the choice: You can acknowledge that your anger is justified (without becoming disproportionately enraged or seeking revenge), or you can say, “Oh, it doesn’t really matter.” That second attitude shows real disrespect for the importance of the truth.
Pope St. Gregory the Great agreed, saying, “anger … ought not to precede reason as its mistress, but attend as a handmaid at the back of reason, to come to the front when bidden.”
Acting with anger is sinful when it takes priority over truth. But when your anger is the result of understanding truth, and seeing that some wrong has been done, it’s another story. In that case, allowing yourself to be angry can be an important part of responding to injustice.
It’s pretty hard to imagine Jesus overturning tables in the temple while being sad, but not angry.
St. Paul reminds us of the bottom line. “Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin” (Eph 4:26). It’s a warning. Anger can easily lead to sin when it refuses to acknowledge the truth, or makes room for an attitude of revenge or hatred. But anger that’s chosen because of love for the truth, and driven by the understanding that goodness and love matter immensely? That anger is of God.
Now, everybody’s personality is different. Some of us are choleric and prone to flying off the handle. If that’s you, it’s a good idea to have a healthy suspicion toward your anger. Check yourself when you feel it building up. Is your reaction fair? Does your anger have an undercurrent of hatred, or the desire to harm?
But some of us tend to be timid and non-confrontational. I’ve been that person, and let me tell you, timidity does not equal goodness. There are so many times in my life I could have used anger in the service of God, but I didn’t know it was okay to be angry. I would have broken up with that boyfriend after two weeks, instead of two years. I would have stood up for people who my friends were slandering. I wouldn’t have let it go when people were speaking disrespectfully of women’s bodies. Instead, I did feel sad, but I didn’t allow my healthy, justified anger to gain any traction, and as a result, didn’t take seriously the wrongs that had been done. When I didn’t acknowledge the validity of my anger, my respect for the truth diminished in turn.
Anger that functions apart from the truth is likely to lead to sin, but when anger works at the service of truth, it’s a powerful weapon, which no Christian should fear.