The Seven: Wrath.
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.
I am not quite sure what to do with anger. It both frightens me, and sometimes inspires me. There are times when it seems totally appropriate and times where it seems toxic, and I believe that finding out which one is which is the task of every disciple of Jesus.
A few years ago, I went to Nepal with a ministry that our church supports to fight sex-trafficking in South East Asia. During our time there, we traveled to all the different safe-houses this ministry had for women who had been rescued from this horrible life. I had the opportunity to hear their stories and see their tears.
Each one of them had been deeply betrayed by someone they loved. Sometimes it was a family member, most of the time it was a boyfriend, who had promised to take them to India to marry them, only to find out that their fairy tale was a horror story.
Listening to their stories, and watching their pain, I have never been angrier in my entire life. It is hard to imagine one human being doing something so evil to someone else, but it happens every day all across the world.
This ministry was started by a woman who was an international flight attendant for United Airlines, and many years ago she began to hear these stories about the countries where she was traveling. And when she found out these stories were true she was angry enough to quit her job and start raising money and saving girls.
That is a good kind of anger – until it isn’t.
This woman is a friend (and hero) of mine. And she has found that fighting against this kind of oppression takes a kind of emotional toll that she wasn’t prepared for. She has had to do the hard work of the soul to be able to work for justice for these women in a way that prevented her own heart from pride. She has tried to keep her righteous anger from becoming wrath…because there is a big difference. Wrath is a distortion of the God-given hope we all have for justice. It places me at the center of the story as the innocent hero who is free from fault and full of virtue.
A few weeks ago, I spent some time with the Catholic Monk Fr. Richard Rohr and I asked him about the rise of ISIS and what he would say to Christians in America about that kind of evil. And his response was profound. He said, Just because what ISIS does is evil, doesn’t make what you do good.
I think this is the great temptation of wrath. It, like love, promises to cover over a multitude of sins. But unlike love, the sins that wrath covers over is only our own. Wrath leads us to become more and more self-absorbed and less and less self-aware.
Now, before you disagree with James here, let us at least get everything out on the table. The thing on which you are focusing your anger often isn’t the only reason you want to be angry. Self-righteous anger feels really good, doesn’t it? But if what we want is really the justice of God, James thinks we need to get out of the way, because when we burst out with our anger, it is never quite as pure as we trick ourselves into believing, is it? When we explode with anger, it is filled with all kinds of nasty stuff like wounded pride and malice or envy. Christians shouldn’t dismiss their anger, but at least we should be very, very suspicious of it.
In his great book, Jesus Outside the Lines, Scott Sauls quotes political cartoonist and New York Times op-ed writer Tim Kreider, who recently said that his job requires him to be professionally furious. Krieder goes on to say that this is a modern problem that he calls outrage porn. He said these days we are always vigilantly on the lookout for something to be offended by, because some part of us loves feeling 1) right and, 2) wronged.
But the problem with this vice is, like the other seven, it feels good at first, but over time, devours us from the inside out. In the words of Buechner, the skeleton at the feast turns out to be you.
Now sure, sometimes anger is a gift from God, but I am starting to think that most of the time it is not. And to be clear, Jesus was angry. He turned over the tables in the Temple because the practices at the Temple were keeping the Gentiles out. But God ends the book of Jonah asking the prophet Why are you so angry? for doing the exact opposite thing.
I love the way Rebecca DeYoung says this:
Someone who would otherwise be too shy may need the push of anger to stand up and speak out. Someone who would otherwise feel too weak and afraid may fight beyond the limit of her power if anger fires her spirit. A complacent congregation may need anger to lift it out of indifference and mobilize it into action. Aquinas goes so far as to say that the lack of anger can even be a sin, because it indicates a “weak movement” or a failure to engage on the part of our will. But if anger is in for a fight, then to stay clear of being a vice, it must fight the good fight. This means fighting for a good cause and fighting well.
I know of no better cautionary tale for wrath than the great Martin Luther. Luther once said that anger was what drove him to do his best work: I never work better than when I am inspired by anger; for when I am angry I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperature is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart.
Sounds good right? Until you remember that it was in anger that the dying Luther said those obscene things about the Jewish people that led to untold suffering. The man who defined sin as being curved in on one’s self, allowed his anger to do that to him.
So by all means, Christians, get angry. But always be suspicious of your own virtue when you do. Fight the good fight.
Be like Jesus – be good and angry.