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Another Vice to Discuss (by John Frye)

Another Vice to Discuss (by John Frye) June 12, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 4.19.33 PMWhy is anger a capital vice? “Our bad anger thus shows us to be trying—and failing—to be God,”writes Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung in her book, Glittering Vices: The Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (134). We, with our anger, assume control of our situation and set about impatiently to right any wrong. Lurking under the bluster of anger is the root sin of pride. We like anger.

DeYoung quotes Buechner, “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you”(129-130).

Aquinas believed in good anger as the passion that drives toward justice and in bad anger (wrath) as the energy of a selfish desire for revenge. Cassian and Evagrius, on the other hand, believed that human anger is rarely justified. These two believed that the purgation of anger was the wise course because almost all human anger is unjust. The tension then is: do we seek to eliminate or to moderate anger? Aquinas taught that anger empowers us to remove obstacles to a worthy goal. For Aquinas, anger becomes a vice when a great good is pursued wrongly.

Anger is complex because it is so physical: we get red-faced, heart rate and blood pressure go up, adrenaline kicks in, and we “blow up.”Most of the time, the “good cause”that compels our anger is, frankly, our own ego. Anger focuses on me. We chafe under some “unbearable indignity,”we feel “things oughta go my way,”and we manufacture smooth self-righteous reasons why our anger is justified. We “deserve”better; we are “owed”better; we must have “our rightful share,”and, yes, I “need”this. DeYoung points out that we may become angry at the wrong person: a waitress gets blasted for the error of a bad cook; an older child gets the wrath of a mother attending all day to two whiny preschoolers. The sad reality of bad anger is that it makes us stupid, irrational; it blinds our reasoning abilities. Anger tricks us into believing we can make things right. Behind much anger is vulnerability and fear.

The Bible tends to present anger in a negative light. The Proverbs about anger can be condensed down to “Cool it!”Aquinas recognized bad anger and described it in three ways. Bad anger is 1. “too fast,”i.e., we are quick-tempered, we fly off the handle; 2. “too much,”i.e., disproportionate to the situation. We make a mountain out of a mole hill; and 3. “too long,”i.e., we hold (and nurse) grudges.

However, there is good anger. Jesus was angry at the hard-hearted religious leaders whose views of Sabbath law kept people from acting in love toward those in need. Paul exhorts us, “Be angry, but do not sin.”Good anger can put love (and justice) into action. Jesus’zeal at the commercial injustice in the Temple was anger acting in love. “Anger, when it is a holy emotion, has justice as its object, and love as its root”(130).

Remedies for anger: keep a journal of anger for a week. Note the times we are angry and its  intensity. Monitor resentments. Humble yourself and serve others as a path away from revenge. Assess your expectations. Life, believe it or not, is not all about you (or me). Keep your body healthy. Exercise, eat well, sleep enough. Guard your heart and practice gentleness (we all can learn from Dallas Willard on this one). Anger is a heart, soul, and mind problem and behind it is the devil’s sin: pride. Anger demands, “I want my way.”Gentleness surrenders, “Thy will be done.”


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