Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Timely question: Is Anger a Sin?

Our society seems overwhelmed by anger these days.  A Christian must ask, is anger a sin? I recently again ran across this quote, attributed to St. John Chrysostom, which I had first encountered in Leon Podles' work: “He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but the good to do wrong.”

But is this sound Christian teaching?

​To begin with, this quote is not actually Chrysostom, but is from a work attributed to him, the Opus Imperfectum, now known to have been written by an Arian (i.e., heretical) presbyter. Now St. Thomas Aquinas says that anger is the natural response to perceived injustice, and thus far I agree. So if our perception of injustice is correct, we will properly experience anger when faced with injustice. This initial feeling of anger is not sin. BUT Scripture and the fathers tell us that entertaining it is sin:

Our Lord tells us, (Matt. 5:22) "ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει", "I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother is liable for judgement." And St. James tells us, (James 1:20) "ὀργὴ γὰρ ἀνδρὸς δικαιοσύνην θεοῦ οὐκ ἐργάζεται." "The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God." And the real St. John Chrysostom says of anger,
Anger is no different than madness – it is a temporary demon; or rather it is worse than having a demon; for one who has a demon may be excused, but the angry man deserves ten thousand punishments, voluntarily casting himself into the pit of destruction, and before the hell which is to come suffering punishment from this already, by bringing a certain restless turmoil and never silent storm of fury, through all the night and through all the day, upon the reasonings of his soul. — (Hom. on St. John’s Gospel, XLVIII.3).
So what then are we to do with this healthy human response to anger, if being angry is so dangerous? People often quote Ephesians 4:6 "Be angry, and sin not.", but this is a quote from the Septuagint version of the psalms, and meant to be taken in context, as Fr. Thomas Hopko pointed out in a lecture I once heard: Ps. 4:5 (LXX version) "ὀργίζεσθε, καὶ μὴ ἁμαρτάνετε· ἃ λέγετε ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν, ἐπὶ ταῖς κοίταις ὑμῶν κατανύγητε." Be ye angry, but sin not. Speak in your hearts, keep silence [a stunned silence, possibly also related to the notion of compunction or self examination] upon your beds."  So we are not to act on our anger, but penitently to go into our bedchamber and in the silence of our hearts bring it to God.

Ascetically this means, as St. Maximus the Confessor says, “Cleanse your mind from anger, remembrance of evil and shameful thoughts, and then you will find out how Christ dwells in you.” I believe it is Dionysius the [pseudo-]Areopagite who says that anger cleansed is transformed into zeal or love for holy things, by which we grow more strongly attached to them. Thus, when we acquired the habit of putting our anger into Gods hands, we grow more steadfast in the faith. When we have thus cleansed our anger, the the Holy Spirit can act in us to promote and defend holy things out of charity —not out of an angry desire to harm others.

1 comment :

  1. Thank you for your correction.

    Thomas Aquinas held that the “lack of the passion of anger is also a vice” because a person who truly rejects evil will feel anger at it. Anger is a neutral passion, and is “the proper subject matter of the moral virtue of meekness, i.e., that meekness regulates feelings of anger unto the good of reason.” In commenting on the Nicomachean Ethics Aquinas maintains that

    the praiseworthy man is one who is angry about the right things, at the right time, and in due moderation, since he is angry as he should be, when he should be, and as long as he should be.
    Aquinas, following Aristotle, emphasizes that anger is provoked by an unjust slight, and seeks appropriate vengeance which is an act of justice. It therefore requires the exercise of reason, which, in fallen human nature, anger tends to cloud. Properly exercised anger is praiseworthy, because it gives energy to the contest with evil and enables the person to achieve the greatest victory, therefore becoming worthy of the greatest honor.