In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, I observed that the most frequent response was that of anger. President Francois Hollande, for example, vowed to destroy ISIS while the hacking cooperative Anonymous declared it would mercilessly hunt ISIS members down. It was anger that led the ISIS to attack France and now it is the French people’s turn to give in to anger and strike back, all while ISIS plots to strike again with greater anger and violence.
The history of mankind, beginning with the story of Cain and Abel, has been a continuous chain of tragic events caused by unchecked anger. In these last days, such tragic events seem to be increasing at an abnormal rate.
For this reason, it is beneficial to pause and meditate on anger in our lives.
The Consequences of Anger
Anger is one of the most dangerous sins in the heart of a person, because it has the following consequences.
Anger Changes Us
Anger has the ability to change us. Some sins are committed once in a while only, but sins like anger are especially dangerous in their ability to change a person over time. If a person gives in to anger repeatedly, he may very well become an angry person — that is to say, the anger becomes part of his nature. Our Lord Jesus Christ illustrated this in the Sermon on the Mount:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire (Mt 5:21–22).
In this passage, we cannot but help notice a connection between anger and murder, because the one leads to the other. If anger goes unchecked in the heart, it grows to verbal abuse, then physical abuse, and then, God forbid, murder. This is why our Savior commands us to cut off anger before it turns into verbal abuse: we are not permitted to call our brother an idiot or a fool. So important is this commandment that our Savior warns us, “But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” It’s imperative we take this warning seriously, especially in this age in which verbal insults fly back and forth between people with great ease, as if this were normal dialogue.
Anger Separates Us from God
In addition, anger separates us from God. Again, consider our Savior’s teaching in His Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift (Mt 5:23–24).
Here, our Lord Jesus Christ reminds us that even if we do the right action of making an offering to God, it will not be accepted so long as there is anger in our hearts. That means that a person who strives to be united to God through prayer, fasting, etc. will strive in vain so long as anger resides in him. He will seek union with God, but will find himself separated from God because of anger, which is an absolute impediment to union with God, because the passion of anger is incompatible with God. Yes, it is true that we sometimes read in the Holy Scripture, and especially in the Old Testament, that God was angry and moved to wrath, but that doesn’t mean God is subject to the passion of anger. As St. John Cassian wrote in his spiritual classic, The Institutes,
Don’t take references to God’s anger in a crude and literal way, since these things cannot, without horrible sacrilege, be literally understood of Him Who is declared by the authority of Scripture to be invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, simple, and uncomposite. The disturbance of anger, not to mention wrath, cannot be attributed to Him and to that immutable nature without monstrous blasphemy. When we read about God’s anger and wrath, we must not think of that in terms of lowly human disturbance, but in a manner worthy of God Who is free of all disturbance. In other words, we should see in Him the judge and the avenger of every wicked deed in this world and fear Him as the terrible Repayer of our acts and be afraid to do anything against His will.
In other words, when we human beings become angry, it is oftentimes the result of a sinful passion, but when God is described as being angry, it is something entirely different, something that is righteous and not the result of a passion. This is why sinful anger separates us from God; it is something completely contradictory to His Nature. Evagrius of Pontus, a Palestinian who lived with and learned from the great Coptic monks of the desert, like Abba Makarios the Great, wrote bluntly, “Anger disturbs relationships. It ends prayer.”
Anger Deprives Us of the Holy Spirit
Moreover, anger deprives us of the much needed work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. St. John Klimakos, in his famous work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, wrote, “There’s nothing in our lives that drives the Holy Spirit away from our hearts more than anger.”
Why is that significant? Remember that, apart from anger, we all struggle with many and varied sins. The Holy Spirit dwells within us from the time of our Holy Baptism and Chrismation to help us overcome these sins through sincere repentance, prayer, fasting, and frequent partaking of the Divine Eucharist. What happens when the anger in our hearts causes the Holy Spirit to be dormant in our hearts? The end result is that we lose protection and aid in our struggle against other sins, so we fall and become prey to even worse sins, especially those of lust, fornication, and other sins of the flesh.
There are, of course, other direct and indirect consequences of anger, but the message should be clear: it is worth fighting anger to avoid just one of these terrible consequences.
Overcoming Anger in our Lives
The keys to overcoming anger in our lives are faith, union with Christ, and repentance.
The first key to overcoming anger is faith. A faithful Christian must never get angry, because he remembers that God sees all things and that nothing happens with His knowledge and permission. Too often, we fly into fits of anger because we have a specific idea in our minds and become disappointed when that idea is not realized. For example, a man might have a specific idea of how things should be in this or that situation, and when things work out differently, he flies into a rage. This, of course, is a function of his ego, because he imagines that he knows best. Ultimately, this is faithlessness, and unwillingness to acknowledge that God is working even when things work out differently than one expects. If we strive for this type of faith, there will be fewer bouts of anger in our lives.
Union with Christ
The second key to overcoming anger is union with Christ. Of course, this refers to all the things we Christians do in order to be united with Him, things like fasting, prayer, obeying His commandments, etc. More than those things, however, it involves remembering the pure example He laid for us when He was not angry with those who mocked and crucified Him. If our Savior did not lash out at those who subjected Him to the cruellest and most painful method of execution, shall we lash out at our brother who has done something far less severe?
The third key to overcoming anger is repentance, which comes about only by a keen awareness of our own, many sins. When we are angry at a brother, we are oftentimes focused on their faults and shortcomings. We see their weaknesses while comparing them to some imagined standard. But what about our own faults, shortcomings, and weaknesses? Don’t we have many? Don’t we perhaps have more than the unfortunate person who is the target of our anger? These are the thoughts we must cultivate in the moments leading up to anger. If we have a keen awareness of our own sins, it will be harder to become angry at the supposed sins of others.
These three keys to overcoming must be exercised in the context of frequent prayer. Only prayer brings about the faith, the union with Christ, and the repentance needed to overcome anger once and for all.
In these angry and dangerous days, let us beseech our Lord to give us the strength to fight against and overcome this disease which changes us, separates us from Him, and separates us from one another.