September 13, 2023 at 9:08 a.m.
Dealing with our anger
How do we guard against the sin of wrath?
WORD OF FAITH: A breakdown of each week's upcoming Sunday readings to better understand the Word of God at Mass.
The readings that the Church presents to us this Sunday offer us quite a challenge. One of the most basic human emotions after the primordial fall of humankind with the original sin (Genesis 3-4) of our first parents, Adam and Eve, is anger, wrath and revenge. Recall that so soon after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the couple is sent out east of Eden to the land of Nod (note that even then, God still provides for Adam and Eve, giving them clothing, etc.) and soon they have two sons, Cain and Abel. As we know, Cain’s sacrifice was not as acceptable to the Lord God as was that of his brother, Abel, and, in wrath and out of envy, Cain kills his brother.
The First Reading from the 20th chapter of Sirach reminds us of this. Listen again to what this wise sage, Yeshua Ben Sira, son of Eleazar, son of Sira, has to tell us:
“Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.”
With this in mind, perhaps we should ask: What is a Catholic understanding of the sin of wrath? Yes, the Lord Jesus, God Incarnate, commands us to forgive our neighbor, if we ourselves wish to be forgiven, but is it ever acceptable to be angry with our brothers and sisters?
“Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.” — Sirach 28:2
We can consider the fact that there are two types of wrath: the first is righteous indignation. This is exhibited in Sacred Scripture when we have offended the dignity of God or of his “anawim” (his poor ones, the oppressed, etc.) We can see this in the original justice that God deals out to our first parents in Genesis 4; in his wrath on those who commit one of the five sins that cry out to God for justice. We can see this even in the life of Our Lord Jesus when he cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem.
This divine anger is not sinful. God cannot sin and Jesus is the Son of God, God himself. God, as we know well, is love. Love is the very nature of God. It is another name of God himself. However, if love is who God is, and if mercy is the concrete application of love, then justice is the correct application of mercy. God’s wrath and Jesus’ righteous indignation, are examples of justice, which is according to St. Thomas Aquinas the virtue that consists of a constant and firm will to give God and neighbor their due.
On the other hand, human wrath is one of the seven deadly sins. Human anger, as a passion, is, in itself, neither bad or good. It’s how we use it, ultimately, and what we are angry about that makes it good or bad. So yes, if someone is acting in justice with a passion to right an evil, especially against one of the anawim, then indeed, our anger can be a righteous indignation. In fact, if some of the injustices done in the world do not lead us to righteous indignation, especially against the unborn, the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the disabled, then perhaps we are not paying attention enough! St. Thomas Aquinas even says that it is a vice to not get angry over evil, calling it an “unreasonable patience.”
However, if we are to be honest, what are we usually really angry about? Perhaps it’s about a personal, real or perceived, slight; perhaps it involves jealousy or envy. This type of wrath, as Ben-Sira tells us in the First Reading, is an evil thing. St. John Cassian states the following concerning wrath: “No matter what provokes it, anger blinds the soul’s eyes, preventing it from seeing the Sun of Righteousness.” Anger puts our hurts, and our feelings, in the center and we can forget that it’s not about us. In fact, it’s never about us — it’s about God and the people of God. Anger causes us to have spiritual myopia and to not see that our neighbor is in the image of God (Imago Dei) just like us! When this happens, we need to change our spiritual eyeglass prescription.
So, how do we do this? How do we guard against the deadly sin which is wrath? We look to Jesus, Our Savior, and the model of what it truly means to be human. We do as Bishop Robert Barron has suggested in his text, “The Strangest Way:” first, we recognize that we are not God; second, we recognize that we ourselves are sinners; and third, we recognize that we need God in our lives to heal and forgive us. Once we have this, then maybe we can start to cool the unhealthy vice of anger in our lives.