The Habit of Anger

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).  Everyone here has experienced anger and is liable to judgment. We have experienced anger in so many times and places, with so many people, and with people we love. Maybe we think, “Well, it’s not like anyone has died,” but even as we think that, we know that real damage has occurred. And sadly the response of anger has become habitual for many of us.

If we are honest, anger occupies a larger part of our lives than we want. We constantly live on the edge of the place where the words of Ecclesiastes warn, “Do not let anger upset your spirit, for anger lodges in the bosom of a fool.” (Eccl 7:9) Anger is a part of our lives and we are called to discern and reflect upon it lest “whoever is angry with his brother … be liable to judgment.”

In chatting with people, in the confessional, and in our community, I hear the accounts of anger that as part of everyday, upsetting our spirits and threatening to expose us all as fools to which Ecclesiastes speaks. There is a part of us that wants to justify our anger and label it as righteous – like the prophets. The prophets weren’t fools were they?

How are we to think about the anger that so often describes God’s prophet; the anger that, from time to time, poured out upon the people of God. The prophets Nehemiah, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah angrily denounced the wealthy Israelites’ exploitation of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien/stranger among us – actions that were sinful and against the commands of God. And Jesus expressed anger at the Pharisees who exhibited such hard hearts (Mark 3:1-5). And we think to ourselves: “Surely, all this is righteous, justified anger!”

If we deeply reflect on God’s Word, we are going to see that righteous anger conveys extreme displeasure over sin but does it fracture and break relationships? The oldest expression of sin in Scripture is to break relationships. Jesus and the prophets aren’t breaking relationships in their anger, they are calling people back to a covenant relationship with God.  Their anger’s goal is redemptive. Their anger is calling forth community, the community God intended among people.  A blessed community.  A beloved community.  A community meant to initiate a radical way of doing life on the earth.

As Christians, it is totally appropriate getting upset over sin. Sins such as the evils of abuse, racism, pornography, abortion, drugs, poverty, and a capitalism-run-amuck. And there are the “everyday evils,” the everyday sins such as gossip that destroys reputations, bullying that scars young people, and more – actions we should condemn. But no matter how reprehensible the people or activities we’re condemning, we might want to ask ourselves the questions, “Where is the redemptive value of my anger? Did I just add to the cauldron of sin?” Think about the last time you were really angry. Was redemption anywhere nearby?

When Jesus says “But I say to you” it is teaching that coexisting without literally killing each other is not enough to sustain a beloved community.  It’s just the beginning.  Agreeing not to commit homicide is essential and lovely, but what about all the other habitual ways we human beings “kill” our relationships through resentment, rage, unforgiveness, and spite?  Don’t we often treat others as if they are dead to us?  Less than human?  Unworthy of love?  Don’t we inflict soul-killing violence on each other through our words?  Our silences?  Our refusal to extend and receive forgiveness?  What good is it if we, God’s children, technically spare each other’s lives, and yet commit unspeakable acts of virtual murder through a refusal to love?

We all have our patterns of anger, likely little of it redemptive. But we can change. We are called to change. Here is some advice for how to begin to change: “everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the [anger] of a man does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20).

Here is some practical advice from the nuns who taught us in high school. During the school dances, the slow ballads would arrive and wooohooo! You got to slow dance… real close. The Nuns would come over with a 12-inch ruler, put it between you and your dance partner, gently smile, and say “Leave room for the Holy Spirit.” So, when you feel the demon of anger rising within, remember the good Nun’s advice: leave room for the Holy Spirit. Take a breath, pause, and consider your response and words. Do not “kill” the person in front of you. Find the path of redemption in the moment. Develop that as your habit of response. Practice it. Sure, you may still feel in the inner turmoil of anger, but we called to bring redemption to that moment.

God wants not the bare minimum politeness, civility and good manners — but the deepest respect, integrity, and love. Now, there is a habit worth forming.


Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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