The Deadly Sin of Anger
Anger, or wrath, or rage, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus identified anger as a violation of the 5th Commandment and as endangering one’s eternal soul: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment[.]” Matthew 5:21-22.
Pursuing Love, Patience, and Gentleness
Despite our Lord’s damning words against anger, for many of us, especially those like me who are married with young children, anger remains a recurring, if not daily, sin. So how do we overcome our anger? The answer, if not the execution, is easy enough: we overcome the vice of anger, by pursuing the virtues contrary to it.
A few weeks ago at Sunday Mass, these words from Saint Paul stood out to me: “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” 1 Timothy 6:11 (From the Second Reading at Mass for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time.)
For those seeking to overcome anger, I suggest that we heed Saint Paul’s admonition by pursuing, in particular, the latter three virtues he names: love, patience, and gentleness.
Do We Actually Pursue Gentleness?
And while most of us would readily agree that we as Christians should be pursuing love and patience, how many of us would list gentleness as one of our daily pursuits? Could it be that we lack this gentleness because we are not pursuing it? Or because we don’t value it? Or perhaps we excuse our lack of gentleness as necessary for effective discipline within our homes? I ask these questions because I’m certain I have been guilty in the past of all three.
Let us turn to the saints to clarify that gentleness is, indeed, a Christian virtue. A few quotes will suffice.
Saint Francis de Sales counsels:
Of course it is a duty to resist evil and to repress the faults of those for whom we are responsible, steadily and firmly, but gently and quietly. (From Introduction to the Devout Life, emphasis added.)
Saint John Bosco, known for his kindness and gentleness toward the often rough boys he shepherded and educated, likewise encourages gentle discipline and kindness:
It is easier to become angry than to restrain oneself, and to threaten a boy than to persuade him. Yes, indeed, it is more fitting to be persistent in punishing our own impatience and pride than to correct the boys. We must be firm but kind, and be patient with them . . .. They are our sons, and so in correcting their mistakes we must lay aside all anger and restrain it so firmly that it is extinguished entirely. There must be no hostility in our minds, no contempt in our eyes, no insult on our lips. (The Spiritual Testament of Saint John Bosco, from the Office of Readings for the Feast of St. John Bosco. Emphasis added).
So if we want to overcome anger, let’s heed Saint Paul (and Saints Francis de Sales and John Bosco) and pursue gentleness–especially with our spouses and children.
How We Grow In Virtue
Thus far, we have identified the virtues we should pursue to overcome anger: love, patience, and gentleness.
But pursuing the right things, while indispensable, is not enough. We cannot grow in virtue, or excise vice, merely by willing it. In pursuing virtue, we need the grace of God. So it’s not surprising that Saint Paul not only encourages us to pursue the virtues of love, patience, and gentleness, but also identifies these virtues as fruits of a life rooted in the Holy Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control[.]” Galatians 5:22-23 (emphasis added). This bears repeating: love, patience, and gentleness are fruits of the Holy Spirit. If we truly have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, the Spirit’s presence will manifest itself with the fruits of the Spirit. So if we want to obtain love, patience, and gentleness–and joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control–then we must let the Spirit dwell in us.
The Incompatibility of Anger with the Fruits of the Spirit
Reviewing these nine fruits of the Spirit should also make it obvious that anger is incompatible with them. By incompatible, I mean that you can’t have both anger and these fruits of the Spirit at the same time. That is, you can’t be joyfully angry, or peacefully angry, or gently angry.
To those who would attempt to justify or excuse their anger, or claim that their anger is righteous, I again reference the wise words of Saint Francis de Sales: “[O]n no pretext whatever suffer your heart to admit anger and passion. St. James says, plainly and unreservedly, that ‘the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.’ “ (Introduction to the Devout Life.) St. Francis de Sales continues on the subject:
Depend upon it, it is better to learn how to live without being angry than to imagine one can moderate and control anger lawfully; and if through weakness and frailty one is overtaken by it, it is far better to put it away forcibly than to parley with it; for give anger ever so little way, and it will become master, like the serpent, who easily works in its body wherever it can once introduce its head. [Introduction to the Devout Life]
Recognizing the incompatibility of anger with a life filled with the Holy Spirit can lead to some uncomfortable truths about our own anger. There are two possibilities: either (1) our anger–and corresponding lack of the fruits of the Spirit–confirms that we are not living a prayerful, spiritual life, or (2) if we are living a prayerful, spiritual life, our anger is extinguishing it. In other words, the manifestation of anger in our life either confirms the lack of an interior life, or it destroys or weakens the interior life. Conversely, the manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit correspond to and reveal the growth and depth of our interior life.
Anger in the Home
Very few of us have entirely conquered our anger, so if you occasionally raise your voice or lose your temper–and by occasionally, let’s say, a few times a month–it can be an occasion of humility and repentance and an opportunity to rededicate oneself to the spiritual life. Embrace this opportunity and keep at it! Don’t be discouraged. Turn to God in prayer. Depend on Him. He will provide. More on this below.
But I also suspect that many of us lose our temper more frequently–even daily–and tragically with those we love most: our spouses, children, parents, and siblings.
Again, do not be discouraged. Today is the day to stop excusing our anger and to conquer it. And since our anger is often directed at those nearest us, we’ll have many opportunities for practicing the virtues of love, patience, and gentleness and for monitoring our growth in the interior life.
Overcoming Anger through the Interior Life
So how do we reduce our anger and grow in peace and patience? We should already know the answer. Our anger and corresponding lack of the fruits of the Spirit means that we need the Spirit. We need prayer. We need to cultivate the interior life through good habits of prayer. We need to spend time in daily mental prayer–before the Eucharist if possible–and lectio divina. We need to frequently confess our sins and be nourished by the Eucharist. We need to give alms and discipline our flesh through fasting. We need to turn to Mary in the Rosary. And we likely need a good silent retreat to help us get started.
The Often Missing Ingredient? Daily Mental Prayer
For me personally, daily mental prayer was for too long the missing ingredient. Only when I began to spend 15 to 30 minutes in daily silence with our Lord did I begin to root out anger and grow in peace and patience. This daily mental prayer afforded me the opportunity both to pray for the virtue of patience and to anticipate those stressful parts of the day when I was most prone to raising my voice or losing my temper. Focusing on controlling the tone of voice, and recognizing when I all too frequently raised my voice, was also helpful to overcoming these outbursts. And nightly examinations of conscience helped me to recall my daily shortcomings in this area and to resolve, with the power of Christ, to do better tomorrow.
I am still imperfect in this area. From time to time I snap at my kids or raise my voice to my wife. But since adopting the habit of daily mental prayer, these outbursts of anger have become less frequent and less prolonged; and I now notice immediately when I have lost my peace, and usually I am able to quickly regain it and apologize–both to the victim of my outburst and to God.
Modelling Patience and Bringing Christ to the World
Overcoming our anger is a battle worth fighting. Not only does it imperil our souls and hurt those around us; but it also poorly models Christian discipleship, and especially for those of us who are fathers, poorly models the fatherly love of God. In contrast, when we maintain our peace and patience and model love, patience, and gentleness, we provide a powerful witness of God’s love. Maintaining peace and patience also has a salutary and pacifying effect on those around us (which also can make it easier to maintain our own peace and patience).
Lastly, maintaining our own peace, and setting this example for others, is a very real way to bring Christ to the world and even to transform it. We rightfully lament the diminishing space for Christ in the modern public square. But by our anger, we ourselves eject Christ from His rightful dwelling place within us. How can we bring Christ to the world if we ourselves lack Him? Let us correct this by conquering our anger and thereby preserving Christ’s place within us. Only then can He act through us. And He will if we let Him.