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What do anger and a hand grenade have in common? In both cases, you hope that you never have to use it, but if you do have to use it, you’d better know how!
Once you pull the pin on a hand grenade, you have either use it properly, or reinsert the pin under stressful conditions, or count on a lot of undesired damage. Said less graphically but more eloquently by Ambrose Bierce: “Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you ever regret.”
People frequently ask priests about anger. It’s one of the seven deadly sins, right?
But St. Paul didn’t say, “Never be angry!”; he said, “Be angry but sin not.” (Ephesians 4:26) St. Augustine wrote that, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
A courageous act is never an act of futility, but is done with an openness to—a hope for—victory.Without anger, without what St. Thomas Aquinas calls a “just wrath,” we will not have energy and endurance to protect the weak and promote the good. Aquinas held that the brave man uses just wrath for his own act, above all in attack, as he says specifically: “for it is peculiar to wrath to pounce upon evil. Thus fortitude and wrath work directly upon each other.” (I don’t know about you, but I think I’d be willing to get up early every morning if there were some “holy pouncing” to be done.)
Anger, like fire is a useful tool. Under control, it can do beneficial and necessary things. Out of control, it can cause terrible damage, including the death of innocents. Failure to be angry when anger is called for is a sin.
So, how do Christians get anger right? We don’t want to be merely irritable. (Remember that St. Paul that “love is not irritable.” (I Corinthians 13:4-5. In the Greek, “irritable” means “inclined to keep count of wrongdoing.”)
Likewise, we want to avoid the little-known (but often-seen) “pusillanimity” which inclines us to not do the good that we ought to do. If unbridled anger inclines us to act and speak disproportionately, pusillanimity moves us in the direction of cowardice, as we refuse to act and speak when and as we should.
Some illustrations: Anger, like courage, needs a worthy object. A man running into a burning building to save a child is courageous. A man running into a burning building to save a case of beer is foolhardy. Likewise, when anger moves us to defend the innocent, we are praiseworthy. When anger moves us to kill the man whose golf ball hit our Mercedes-Benz (as happened recently in the United States), then we are guilty of wrath and murder. When I feel anger bubbling up inside me, I have to ask myself, “Is this worth getting angry over?” (Curiously, I find that the more I ask myself that question, the more often I find myself answering, “No, this isn’t worth getting angry over.”)
Another step towards purifying our anger is to check our motivation. All too often, we see politicians (especially around election time) becoming apoplectic over matters they gave no indication of having ever cared about even a few weeks before. Such sophists foment outrage among others, even at the risk of turning a crowd into a mob, for the sake of political advantage.
When I feel anger bubbling up inside me, I have to ask myself, “What’s my real motivation here?” As a citizen, I have to ask that question constantly of civil servants who run red-faced to microphone or camera (or, now, Twitter) whenever (and only when) it suits them.
Righteous anger requires that we use a just means to express our anger. There’s the classic story of a little girl about to slug her brother. Her parents intervened: “Sally—use your words!” She looked at her brother and said, “This is going to hurt.” And then she slugged him. When I feel anger bubbling up inside me, I have to ask myself, “Do I have enough self-control right now to express my anger rightly?” If not, I should most likely step back.
Anger, with a worthy object, a proper and proportionate means, motivated by the service of the good, is praiseworthy and obligatory. Let’s expect that of ourselves, and ask that of others.
When I write next, I’ll continue our series of reflections on a renewed look at the seven deadly sins. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
How to know when your anger is healthy and what to do when it’s not