The so-called cursing psalms: God's school to train us how to use anger well.
“I’m so full of hate for him,” she hissed, white with rage at the dictator destroying her country. “If I had a gun, I would kill him.” I watch the news, I think of my friends, I read letters from my brothers and sisters in Ukraine, and I start to understand what my friend meant.
But I also can’t shake a line from St. Augustine’s Confessions, where he says, “no enemy could be more dangerous to us than the hatred with which we hate him.” And then of course there’s Jesus’ saying that “every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:22). But what do I do, then? Do I just pretend not to be angry?
Thomas Aquinas tells us that anger isn’t always bad (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q.47): It’s a tool of the heart that God gives us, so that we can be motivated to recognize injustice and overcome it. Hatred wants to bury people under a mountain of evil things so that they can never crawl out and hurt us again. Anger, instead, wants to restore justice and bring about everyone’s good. Hatred wants to obliterate the evildoer and send him to hell—anger wants even those who do evil to be turned from their evil ways.
Escaping the reins
But the problem, of course, is that anger all too easily escapes the reins of reason and lets slip the dogs of hatred. Anger is not a theoretical emotion: It’s given to us to motivate concrete action, and when we stay angry for too long about something we can’t take action to fix, anger starts to mutate into darker, more irrational creatures of the heart, like hatred, wrath, and resentment. Left unchecked, anger can become like an oil slick covering everything we see and think and say and do, leaving its grimy trail on everything we touch.
What we need, then, is a school of anger …
What we need, then, is a school of anger, something to teach us how to be angry in the right way. Fortunately, the same God who gave us the emotion of anger also gave us a school to train the heart to use anger well: the so-called cursing psalms.
The Book of Psalms has many lines asking that God would strike down the wicked and give justice to the oppressed, but there are three psalms in particular that are entirely focused on asking God to destroy evil, which have become known as the cursing psalms: Psalms 58, 83, and 109.
The contemporary world has often found these psalms profoundly uncomfortable—since the 1970s, they have been completely omitted from the Church’s public prayer because of what the Liturgy of the Hours calls “a certain psychological difficulty” that modern people have praying that, for instance, God would “break the teeth in [the] mouths” of the wicked (Ps 58:6). Even the great C.S. Lewis thought these psalms were “terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible,” and that in them the voice of God has been “hideously distorted by the human instrument.”
Reactions like this miss the point of God’s gift to us in these psalms, and risk leaving us helpless in the face of our own mounting anger. Anger can easily become a trap for the heart, trapping me inside my own judgments and my own sense of what’s wrong with the world and how it ought to be fixed. In the cursing psalms, the isolating and selfish possibilities of anger are exposed to God’s light so that they can wither and crumble. When we pray the cursing psalms, we are given eyes to see what’s really wrong, and words to ask for what will really help.
What’s really wrong and what really helps
First, the psalms teach us to identify the real nature of the evil, not to be afraid to be honest to ourselves and God: “For lo, thy enemies are in tumult; those who hate thee have raised their heads … They say, ‘Come, let us wipe them out as a nation; let the name of Israel be remembered no more!’” (Ps 83:2, 4). Openly identifying the real evil that is present to us gives us the freedom to act appropriately; if I pretend there’s nothing to be angry about, or if I pretend that everything is awful, then I’m likely to lash out at a friend, a family member, or a store clerk when the anger I’m concealing boils over. To be angry well, we have to first be honest about what is—and isn’t—wrong.
Second, they teach us to have God’s own revulsion for evil. In a world of disinformation, ideology, and propaganda, it’s easy to find ourselves consenting to half-truths and going along with things we know aren’t right. The cursing psalms cut right through the cozy little excuses we make for our moral compromises, saying of the wicked: “May his days be few; may another seize his goods! May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow!” (Ps 109:8-9). The very starkness of the cursing psalms forces us to realize that evil is not only out there—it’s in my heart, too. These psalms are discomfiting for a reason: because they expose to God’s eyes and the eyes of my heart all the big and small ways in which I make excuses for my own evil, while heaping vitriol on others for theirs.
Third and most importantly, the cursing psalms teach us how to want real justice. The words of the cursing psalms are uncompromising: “Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children! May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation!” (Ps 109:12-13). What’s happening here is that God is teaching us how to pray that the wickedness of the wicked would be destroyed, that the evil of evil deeds would be blotted off the face of the earth, that the cruelty of the cruel would be no more. In these psalms, God gives us the freedom to ask for exactly what someone who does evil needs. If I do evil, it doesn’t help me if someone wishes I were in hell, or prays that a chasm might open up in the earth and swallow me. But it does help me if someone has the courage to pray that the part of my heart that does evil would be shattered. It does help me if someone loves those around me enough to pray that my evil deeds have no evil posterity. It does help me if someone loves me enough to pray that the evil I do would “vanish like water that runs away” (Ps 58:7).
Anger is never easy, and the horror and evil of war makes anger even harder to live well. Don’t let someone else’s evil turn your heart to hatred. Don’t watch this war from the sidelines. Let God use your heart as smithy, where the weapons of the evil are shattered. “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth” (Ps 58:11).