Righteous anger

From the Pastoral Ponderings of Fr. Patrick Reardon (from the archives, Feb. 7, 2010)

Anger is troublesome. Among Christians striving seriously to live the mandates of the Gospel, I wager, anger is the sin most often mentioned in the Sacrament of Confession. Alas, it also has a remarkably long shelf life.

High among the problems attending anger is this: In the classical inventories of the passions, anger is the only one with no opposite impulse. Each of the other passions is paired with a reciprocal antithesis: love is matched by hatred, desire by aversion, hope by despair, fear by boldness, and joy by sorrow. Only anger stands by itself, with no corresponding emotive pull in the opposite direction (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia IIae q. 25, art. 3). If you get angry, you’re just stuck with it until it goes away!

Another problem with anger is that it is not, in every instance, a thing to be avoided. This is hardly surprising, since the morally proper object (finis) of anger is justice. Indeed, life in this world presents occasions when the refusal to become angry is likely a moral defect.

Another problem with anger, I believe, is that some Christians entertain unreasonable expectations with respect to it. For instance, in Confession they repent of “correcting children in anger.” I admit, of course, that children can be (and often are) emotionally harmed by parental displays of anger, and none of us would say that it a good thing. On the other hand, it would hardly be preferable for children to grow up with no experienced memory of anger as an expected response to bad behavior.

One of the most common misunderstandings about anger is the assumption that at some point in our experience of irritation it is morally permissible to blow our stacks: some kind of righteous “boiling point,” as it were. We differ among ourselves about where that point should be placed, but most of us implicitly conjecture that such a point does exist. That is to say, we presume that nobody—not even God—should require us to tolerate an unlimited amount of provocation. At some notch in our strained endurance, we presume, anger becomes a righteous response.

This presumption is illusory. The righteousness of righteous anger is qualitative, not quantitative: It is determined by its formal and final cause, which is justice, not by the measure of irritation that arouses it. Anger does not become righteous by reason of its accumulated provocations. I know it is painful to hear this—and it is no less painful to say it—but there is no point in our cultivation of patience where “I’ve had enough” becomes the rallying cry of righteousness.

Offhand I think of two biblical stories that demonstrate this point:

The first concerns Moses, about whom the Psalmist said that the Israelites “became provocative at the waters of Meribah, and it went badly for Moses on their account.” What, exactly, did Moses do? “He spoke rashly with his lips” (Psalms 106 [105]:32).

Having endured the ceaseless murmurings of the Israelites for forty years, Moses finally declared, “I’ve had enough!” Commanded by the Lord to “speak to the rock before their eyes,” Moses “said to them, ‘Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?’ Then Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod” (Numbers 20:7-11).

That was it—the single offense that kept Moses from entering the Holy Land. If ever a man might be excused for blowing his stack, I would have imagined, it was certainly Moses at the waters of Meribah. Obviously, however, the Lord took a different view.

The second example concerns David, when he was sorely provoked by Nabal (1 Samuel 25). Having used up his entire stock of patience with Saul in the previous chapter, David suddenly found himself without inner spiritual resources when confronted with the moral obtuseness of a man whose own wife described him as a worthless fool.

In this particular case, the Lord used that wife, Abigail, to prevent David from following through with his rash and angry threat. Otherwise, surely, David would have sinned like Moses, and like Moses he would have been punished. As the anger of Moses kept him from leading Israel into the Promised Land, David’s anger might have kept him from occupying Israel’s throne.

This lesson about anger is a hard one to hear: At no point does grievous provocation become a righteous cause.

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6 thoughts on “Righteous anger

  1. Anger has its place but it is like fire– good servant, bad master. The fathers say, “An angry man will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven, though he were to raise the dead.” This is most serious then. Nevertheless, we see from the Lord how anger can be used in a dispassionate and sinless way. I have heard on Mt. Athos that some elders feign anger toward their disciples to test them, and to teach them patience and humility.

    The best objects of anger are the devil and our passions.

  2. Anger is, I think, misunderstood by most people. I try my hardest not to display anger, as there is very little cause for me to show it—it seems it usually does more harm than good, driving one’s ‘adversary’ deeper into entrenchment (if it is a dispute), or simply proving to him that you are ‘out of control’ and that proves you’re wrong. As for displaying anger when correcting one’s children, here I think a firm and serious tone of voice does more than anger to convince them that what they did was wrong, except in the rarest of cases. In those situations, anger probably does what it’s intended to do—underscore a statement.

    The place where I most frequently display anger is where injustice is involved, ands it’s also the hardest place to control it. I just have to vent to someone, and I usually do. In actual practice I call this “confession”, and after I vent to someone, usually a close friend, I thank him for hearing my confession, and I ask him to pray for me. I’m not using “confession” here in the sacramental sense, exactly, but it does work in much the same way, psychologically. I have confessed incidents of anger on occasion to a priest, but not for many years. Instead, my most frequent sin confessed is that I have willfully spoiled or tried to spoil someone else’s joy, for example, by unnecessary criticism.

    “Be angry, but do not sin” and “do not let the sun set on your anger” are two verses that come to mind immediately when thinking about anger. The first says to me, it’s alright to express a strong emotional response to something that one thinks merits it, as long as no harm is intended to others. The second says to me, anger—in the sense of the state of unresolved conflict—should never be allowed to extend beyond the length of one day. If we are faithful in prayer, then all cases of personal anger must be “taken down from their crosses before the onset of the holy day, that is, passover” so as not to defile it, because for us, every new day is “the passover of God.” Simeron sotiria to kosmo gegonen… ‘Today salvation has come to the world…’

  3. This raises an interesting question. When do we start denying the “saints” of the West? The schism of 1054 is often cited, yet historically it was for many centuries are largely local one. When Aquinas was still among the quick, it should be noted that many of the Orthodox churches were still in communion with Rome. That Rome today has fallen into heresy is pretty much accepted by all save the most exuberant ecumenists. But dating such things can be tricky. I am not inclined to rubber stamp 1054. I would suggest that probably the earliest date would be the second council of Lyons (1274) with the first formal codification of heresy by the Latin Church which dogmatized the Filioque.

    Others including notably Dr. William Tighe have suggested that the formal breach should be dated later by centuries.

    As for the question of granting the “St.” honorific to those commemorated as saints by the non-Orthodox, I would point out that we routinely grant the honorifics of the clergy to persons who from an Orthodox perspective are certainly not in Holy Orders. I am not even referring here to the Roman Catholic Church (about whose orders there is some diversity of opinion within the Church). We do this with respect to Protestant clergy, even “bishops” such as Rowan Williams. My own practice when referring in writing to Roman Catholic “saints” who are not commemorated by the Church is generally to grant them the honorific “St.” but to place it within parenthesis, i.e. (St.) Maximilian Kolbe a man of undoubtedly heroic virtue.

    The Roman Catholic Church has for at least the last century been slowly moving towards a tacit recognition of Orthodox saints. As far back as Pope (St.) Pius X Rome authorized a revised calendar for some of the Uniates which included large numbers of post 1054 Orthodox saints. This practice was considerably expanded by Pope Pius XII. Since Vatican II, as far as I am aware Orthodox saints are more or less accepted with only a very few exceptions.

    As for the existence of true saints outside the Church, I am content to leave such to God. However I will say that I have met many non-Orthodox persons who I suspect have a stronger relationship with God than I do. Personally I am inclined to take a very deep breath before opining too strongly on what God does and does not do outside of His Church.

  4. Easy not to catch… don’t know why I did. Has the potential to send the wrong message to the flock, sometimes, I think– “He’s a saint, read his writings and follow his example.” whoever that person may be. After all, for us they’re not just good examples but people we believe God has glorified with His uncreated Grace, people who are powerful intercessors before Him. I mean, perhaps it is possible for such people to find Grace and live such lives… God knows their hearts and I like to think He gives the opportunity for salvation to everyone, including those who find themselves historically/geographically isolated from Orthodoxy and who, in spite of schism and heresy (not through it or because of it) led lives of grace and received remission of sins, unaware of the errors due to their simplicity and humility. I get that this may be possible… I hope that it is, for my ancestors’ sake. But it is difficult, nevertheless, to call such people “saint” because of these “qualifiers.” Maybe Fr. Patrick has a good answer? Might be a good blog entry, Fr. Milovan, to email him and ask!

  5. Honestly, I didn’t even catch that. When I read stuff like this I usually don’t pay particular attention to whether or not “St” is used or not for non Orthodox.

    Having said that however, I thought the general rule was that it was NOT used.

  6. Great article from a brilliant and pious priest. However, and this is just a very minor observation– not a criticism, for the reason below– it’s really confusing how some Orthodox writers refer to those canonized by the Vatican post-schism by “St.” So-and-So. I know, though, that it would be difficult to find another word or to not use the appellation when one is reaching to a broader audience. My question, is it appropriate for people, good people, canonized by other confessions, to be referred to as “St.” by an Orthodox person for the sake of courtesy or convenience? It just confuses me.

    I notice that this seems to be common for RC writers when referring to our post-schism saints: “St. Gregory Palamas” “St. Sergei of Radonezh” and the like. This seems to be simply based on courtesy. Is that the convention that Fr. Patrick and others are adopting?

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