“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil.” ~ Ephesians 4:26-27
We hear a lot in Lent about sin and how we need to change our hearts and behavior to turn away from sin. Yet, there can be confusion about what constitutes sin. One example, one of the seven deadly sins, is anger. How is anger a deadly sin?
Anger is first of all an emotion. In fact, it is a secondary emotion. When we feel a fear, frustration, hurt, or loss (sadness) our next emotional response may be anger. Whenever we feel anger it is important to identify the underlying and primary emotion we are feeling. As an emotion anger is not a sin since initial feelings (reactions) are morally neutral –they are neither good nor evil. Anger as a sin occurs when we hold on to the feelings of anger and/or act upon it in hurtful or uncharitable ways. Anger is considered a “deadly” or “capital” sin in that it leads to other sins. So how can anger be a sin?
Consider a time when you became really angry. After the initial reaction, our brain kicks in and we have a choice to make. The choice on the one hand is to respond with humility (maybe I am overreacting or wrong), charity (love even when hurt) or forgiveness (deciding to give another chance). On the other hand, we may tell ourselves we are right or justified. We may then withhold charity and/or forgiveness. This can be as simple as how we choose to respond to that person who cuts you off in traffic. We may be justified in your feeling fear (at a possible crash) or hurt (taking away some of your time). How we respond to the underlying feeling is a choice and therefore it has moral implications.
It is important to take time and consider our response to anger. Responses are not neutral. When it comes to anger, a response is either virtuous or sinful. Delaying a response is helpful if we try to humbly look at the situation. If we delay a response simply to brood or consider how awful the other person has treated us or others, then we are responding by feeding the anger. Holding on to our anger is the most common way our emotion of anger becomes the sin of anger. St. Paul mentions this in his letter to the Ephesians quoted above. What happens when we embrace our anger is that it grows. Anger left to grow becomes resentment and may become rage or fury.
Another less serious expression of the sin of anger is impatience. Impatience occurs when we expect something to happen in a certain way or in a certain timeframe and it doesn’t. Even if our expectations are reasonable or fair, the situation calls for charity. For example, your child was asked to do his or her chores seven times. By the time you ask for the eighth time (or even the second time) you feel impatience. It isn’t wrong to expect this but charity would demand a loving response. A charitable response may (and probably should) include a consequence such as loss of a privilege but not harsh words or angry tone. This may take heroic charity. That is why we need God’s grace.
Sometimes the choice we make when we become angry is more serious. We seek revenge. Revenge is a response in-kind to any hurt or perceived hurt. When we are withholding information, affection or charity to someone –even someone we love –when we are hurt, it is a type of revenge. How often do we think or say... “He did this so I am just not going to talk to him for the next day... or week.” This is a type of revenge. Any time we are trying to “even the score” we are seeking revenge and committing the sin of anger.
How do we avoid the sin of anger? When feeling stuck in anger we need to pray and seek to be humble. St. Paul gives us some advice in his letter to the Colossians. He tells them they should put away all anger and bitterness and then he states:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful. (Col. 3: 12-15)
Another help is frequent confession. Even if your sins are less serious, going to confession provides grace to avoid sin and gives us awareness and resolve to do better. We all experience anger but anger need not become sinful. When we recognize our underlying feelings and we strive to respond in humility with charity and forgiveness, an occasion for sin can become the occasion of virtue. Striving to make a change in how we respond to the feeling of anger is what Lent is all about. It is one way to turn away from sin and become more like Christ.
There is no sin or wrong that gives a man a foretaste of hell in this life as anger and impatience.~ Saint Catherine of Sienna
Yours in Christ,