In my recent post on the “wrath of God” I suggested that almost every time human anger is mentioned in the New Testament, it’s presented as a negative thing. New Church theology affirms this, and in the Doctrines of the New Church, the words “anger” and “wrath” are almost always used as negative terms. But this does raise a question: isn’t there a good kind of anger? What about anger at the injustice in the world, or cruelty, or abuse? The New Church answer is that yes, there is a good kind of anger – but it is different enough from harmful anger that it warrants a different name, and so in New Church theology this positive anger is consistently referred to as “zeal” rather than “anger.” Why is that important? Because even anger over cruelty can be vengeful and hateful. It is important to have very clear distinctions on what anger is good and what anger is bad.
Despite their similar appearance, zeal and anger come from entirely different places. Zeal is at its core an expression of love; anger is an expression of hatred. Zeal consists in a desire to protect and amend; anger involves a desire to harm and punish. A few key excerpts from the Doctrines of the New Church; I’ve bolded what I see as the most defining characteristics of zeal as opposed to anger:
Anger is different from zeal, in that anger contains evil but zeal contains good. Or to put it another way, a person who is filled with anger intends evil to another with whom he is angry, whereas someone who is filled with zeal intends good to another for whom he is zealous. (Arcana Coelestia 4164)
The zeal of a good love is like a heavenly flame, which never leaps out to attack another, but only defends itself – defending itself against an evil assailant in much the same way as when such a one rushes at fire and is burned; whereas the zeal of an evil love is like a hellish flame, which spontaneously leaps out and rushes upon another and tries to devour him. (Conjugial Love 365)
They who are in zeal fight, yet not from any enmity and hostility, but rather from charity; for zeal differs from anger in the fact that zeal has within it the good of charity; and therefore when zeal fights it merely removes those who are in falsity and evil, to prevent them from hurting those who are in good and truth. On the other hand, anger not only removes them, but also pursues them with hatred and revenge. For from the charity that is in it, zeal wishes well even to those who are in evil and falsity, and also does well to them so far as they do not injure the good, whereas anger, from the hatred and revenge which are within it, wishes harm to all with whom it fights, whether they be good or evil. (Arcana Coelestia 8598)
Real spiritual indignation … derives nothing from the anger of the natural man, but from the interior essence of zeal; which zeal does indeed appear in the outward form like anger, but in internal form is not anger, nor even the indignation of anger; but is a certain sadness that is attended with a prayerful wish that it be not so; and in a form still more interior it is merely a certain obscure feeling that breaks in on the celestial delight on account of something not good and true in another. (Arcana Coelestia 3909)
I’m grateful for the distinctions made there, as challenging as they are, because it’s easy to feel anger and zeal over the very same thing; and it’s all too easy to justify even hateful anger if it is anger at something bad. It’s important, I think, to recognize that even anger over evil is harmful if it includes a desire for revenge, if it wants punishment for the sake of punishment, if it does not include a desire to help the person it is aimed at. Using different terms to distinguish that negative anger from zeal makes it harder to justify the negative anger, and that’s immensely helpful, in particular to someone like me who by nature inclines to a “righteous anger” that can easily slip into self-righteous anger and pride.
(Image is El Greco’s “Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple”; this event is cited in the John 2:17 as the fulfilment of a prophecy from Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for your house has eaten me up.”)