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Why Are You Angry?: Exploring the Deadly Sin of Wrath

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung

Finding peace in a culture that valorizes contempt.

In my work on the eight capital vices (a list that became better known as the seven deadly sins), I have found desert father John Cassian’s frame for this discussion of sin helpful:

Looking at [their struggles] as in a mirror and having been taught the causes of and the remedies for the vices by which they are troubled, [young monks] will also learn about future contests before they occur, and they will be instructed as to how they should watch out for them, meet them, and fight against them. (Institutes I.xvii)

It’s time to look in the mirror, an exercise you’ll need to do again and again, as more depths are revealed for the Spirit’s excavating work. We all need to see ourselves truthfully. Often this takes the practiced eye of another, however. Cassian likens the discernment and spiritual direction we need to needing a doctor:

As is the case with the most skilled physicians, who not only heal present ills but also confront future ones with shrewd expertise and forestall them with prescriptions … so also these true physicians of souls destroy maladies of the heart just as they are about to emerge, not allowing them to grow in the minds of the young men but disclosing to them both the causes of the passions that threaten them and the means of acquiring health. (Institutes I.xvii)

Diagnosing the Heart

Like an accurate diagnosis, the news may not be good, initially. It feels like raw humility, an open wound, and often comes with tears. Nevertheless, it’s for the sake of moving you toward healing and wholeness, and it is always spoken with great love. The Great Physician who gives you the worst news of your life will also be the surgeon who heals you. His resurrection life is the heart of your prognosis. This rhythm of dying to what is disordered in us and opening ourselves to the Spirit’s recreating and regenerating work is a fundamental pattern in the Christian life. It’s the rhythm of discipleship, of growing in our likeness to Christ. Most of the time, however, we’d rather do anything than live with that kind of vulnerability.

“Wow, Mom. You just called Jesus a crazy fool.”

Cassian and others in the early church used what are now known as the seven deadly sins as a diagnostic mirror of the heart. They called their list “the principal vices” because they are not meant to name the worst in us, but rather to identify deep sources of darkness and self-destruction in us. These are familiar faults, all of them as old as the human race itself. Imagine a Christian counselor or spiritual director who, upon retirement, reflects on the most common problems that surfaced in her decades of practice listening to others’ struggles and helping them find their way. Very likely these perennial human temptations—our fascination with power and security, pleasure and comfort, worth and honor—would show up on her top-ten list. In this framework, sin names our tendency to try to engineer happiness for ourselves, on our own terms. We’ll try anything to fill ourselves, all while holding God at arm’s length. This is why St. Augustine named pride as the root of all sin. That’s just another way of saying we prefer to be do-it-yourselfers when it comes to finding fulfillment.

In this series, we’ll look at three vices, as examples of the ways we cling to false power (the vice of wrath), false rest (the vice of sloth), and the false self (the vice of vainglory).

Jesus in the Way

Several years ago I had my own personal “Damascus Road experience.” Our family, which hails from the Great White North (Michigan) was heading south for a week of spring break in Florida. I was on sabbatical, so it was the only year we could go as a family, since the college where I teach does not have the same week of break as my children. Having been stuck in Michigan for the still-wintry weeks of early April for many years, every passenger in our car was sparkling with anticipation and excitement.

We weren’t more than few hours into the trip before we hit the first traffic jam near Indianapolis. This was no construction zone, either. As it turned out, two cities hosting the NCAA men’s basketball tournament lay on our route south, and the women’s tournament, in a third venue, as well. We inched along the densely-packed highways, averaging about 13 mph through the entire state of Kentucky, watching hour after hour of our precious vacation slip away. Increasingly desperate, we finally left the main highway for backcountry roads, hoping for relief and a faster pace to our longed-for destination, which was feeling farther and farther away the longer we traveled. Instantly, we were back to 45 mph, zipping past munching cows and rolling hills dotted by a tiny white Baptist church or two.

Thomas Aquinas parses it this way: anger is our visceral expression of the judgment “this is not the way things ought to be.”

Not more than 10 minutes later, however, we ground to a halt again. I craned my neck out of the window in frustration, trying to imagine what the hold-up could be this time. And then I saw him—a lone man with a bowed head wandering slowly up the middle of the road. “What is that crazy fool doing in the middle of the road?” I vented impatiently. “Doesn’t he realize he is holding up at least seventeen cars? Who does he think he is anyway?”

Moments later, as our car crept closer, we got a clearer view of that crazy fool in the middle of the road. It was a pastor, dressed up as Jesus Christ, hauling a full-sized cross on his shoulders, dragging it along behind him up this country road. A straggle of followers from his church followed, praying and weeping.

That’s right, it was Good Friday. We’d attended a Tenebrae service the night before, but in the flurry of last minute packing, I hadn’t registered that today was the day of Christ’s crucifixion. When we realized what we were seeing, the angry clamor in the car gave way to instant silence…until one child piped up and commented soberly, “Wow, Mom. You just called Jesus a crazy fool.”

Who does Jesus think he is, anyway? Holding up my plans, disrupting my expectations, getting in my way?

Yes, that’s wrath talking.

Why Are You Angry?

Despite some controversy in the early Christian tradition (see John Cassian’s Institutes), most of us regard anger as a normal human response—or at least one that can be a holy emotion as well as a hellish passion. How does anger, our instinctive response to injustice, get twisted into such ugly form? How does it become, as the desert fathers like to say, “a hindrance to pure prayer”? Thomas Aquinas parses it this way: anger is our visceral expression of the judgment “this is not the way things ought to be.” Like any emotion, however, Aquinas continues, it can have a right or wrong object, and further, it can be expressed in proportionate or disproportionate ways. So you could be passionate for a just cause, or you could selfishly dominate others with your own “my way or the highway” agenda. Moreover, you could express your anger in a number of ways: you could blow up like a volcano, seethe with resentment, make undermining comments, openly retaliate, or secretly harbor fantasies of revenge.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “God tells us love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love our enemies, because they are generally the same people.” 

Aquinas even catalogs the ways wrath can escalate from internal mental churn (dwelling on the offense and magnifying it with each mental instant replay), to verbal outbursts (from exclamations to swearing) to violent behavior (injuring another), including murder. That trajectory is the reason the desert fathers counsel us to block the thought of anger immediately, before it can settle in our hearts and roil up a response, whether in thought, word, or deed.

The most important spiritual question, however, is why we are angry. Listen to Cassian’s teacher, Evagrius of Pontus:

Do not give an evil sword to the devil by getting inflamed by anger…Over what, pray tell me do you fall to fighting, if indeed you have scorned food, riches, and esteem? And why do you feed this dog, if you claim to own nothing? If it barks and attacks people, obviously it has possessions inside and wants to guard them. Such a person is far from pure prayer, for anger is the destroyer of such prayer.

Anger is meant to guard and defend. Look at what angers you. My students and I kept a journal for a week, and to our embarrassment, found ourselves incensed by almost entirely selfish and unworthy concerns, almost all of which we handled badly. Evagrius asks, “What is your anger guarding?” Food (i.e., your own sources of nourishment and pleasure)? Riches (i.e., the things you use to secure provision for your needs and wants)? Esteem (i.e., your reputation, worth, honor)? What do these possessions, and the fierceness with which we guard them, say about us and our relationship with that crazy fool, Jesus Christ?

Defending Ourselves from God?

Here’s an even harder question: does our wrath reveal us to be defending ourselves from God? Wrath’s roots reveal our desires for security, power, and control. To let those things go requires surrender and trust in a loving God who holds the universe in his hands and holds you in his embrace. Richard Rohr puts it this way, “All great spirituality is about letting go.” If we are honest, we may find that we want nothing to do with that program. Get off my highway, Jesus.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “God tells us love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love our enemies, because they are generally the same people.” John Gottman, psychologist and marriage researcher, identified what he calls “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” in intimate relationships, so-called because they are deal-breakers for trust, they communicate disrespect for the other person, and thus they usually spell doom for the future of the relationship itself. The four horsemen are “criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stone-walling.” These symptoms all shout out our wrathful self-guarding.

Take just one: We live in a culture that valorizes contempt. Tony Stark, Simon Cowell, talk show hosts, and politicians trademark this conversation style. We enjoy watching the verbal takedown on our sitcoms, the smack talk in sports, and the snarky comments posted on social media. We are well practiced in contemptuous talk.

Your Cup is Full of Poison

In the Sayings of the Fathers, we get a vivid picture of another way. One of the elders in the community of monks was giving spiritual direction. “The brothers surrounded Abba John the Short when he was sitting in front of the church, and each of them asked him about their thoughts. Another old man flared up in envy at the sight, and said, “Abba John, your cup is full of poison.” Abba John answered him, “Yes, Father, it is. But you have said this when you can only see the outside. What would you say if you saw the inside, too?”

What does Abba John show us? The way of humility and gentleness, born of detachment. He has relinquished control over his reputation among the brothers. But he is no doormat: he is a picture of peace that cannot be disrupted by the contempt of others. He has no need to guard himself defensively; he knows that Christ’s power and grace have that covered already. That kind of surrender and trust in God is a tall order for most of us. It will take a lifetime of practice.

Trusting God with Our Wounds

Pope Francis, when queried about what side the Catholic Church would take in the culture wars, responded by describing the church not as a combatant but as a “field hospital for healing the wounded.” Like Jesus in Mark’s gospel, staring down the Pharisees’ stony silence and healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, we are called to be life-givers and healers when faced with the world’s woundedness. In our discipleship, we follow a Wounded Healer (Nouwen). Do we trust him with our own wounds? Our disappointment, our grief, our internal injuries, our rejections, our loneliness? Will we let him bind up our wounds, so that we are equipped to imitate his attentiveness to the wounds of others? If we do, we will find that there is real power here, of the sort that withers wrathful bids for control by comparison.

Consider this poem by Madeleine L’Engle as a prayer of confession and hope for those of us who struggle with destructive anger:

In flesh’s solitude I count it blest /

That only you, my Lord, can see my heart /

With passion’s darkness tearing it apart /

With storms of self, and tempests of unrest. /

But your love breaks through blackness, bursts with light; /

We separate ourselves, but you rebind /

In Dayspring all our fragments; body, mind, /

And spirit join, unite against the night. /

Healed by your love, corruption and decay /

Are turned, and whole, we greet the light of day.