Anger, the fifth in our series on the Seven Deadly Sins, is a difficult sin to write about. In our minds there seems to be an appropriate anger and an inappropriate anger. The believer just needs to discern the difference.

If that were true, all of our anger could be justified and, thus, be deemed appropriate. I thought about the road rage I feel on the L.A. freeway. After all, self-centered, ignorant drivers disregard others to the point of endangering their lives. That’s justifiable anger, isn’t it? I could further rationalize it by saying this type of anger isn’t soul destructive — I don’t hold on to it. Certainly this isn’t the murderous wrath the early fathers identified. Or is it?

Actually, the deadly sin of anger — ire — is a broad category. It runs the gamut from aggravation to rage and war. Early theologians like Evagrius, Gregory the Great, St. John Cassian and Aquinas saw ire encompassing a long list of vices: hatred, prejudice, discrimination, denial of truth, injustice, impatience, spite, malice, holding grudges, bitterness, vigilantism, assault, murder, blasphemy, insults, and filthy language! Clearly the issue runs deeper than just developing discernment between inappropriate anger and righteous indignation.

Secondary Emotions
Look closely at that list. It is very revealing. We tend to harbor anger more than we think. As a matter of fact, most males in American culture have formed a masculine identity around anger and its derivatives. Our competitive spirits, personal power and range of emotion is fueled and defined by some form of anger. Most American men are conditioned to feel forms of anger only as negative emotion. Ask any man who feels something negative what he is feeling and he might fill in the blank with mild anger responses like “aggravated,” “confused,” “frustrated,” “pissed off” or “upset.” They are mild because a man cannot let his anger get out of control and grow to become rage or hatred. Thus, the profile of a strong leader is detached, cold, aloof, professionally distant. It’s interesting to note the phenomenon that many women are adopting the same identity, disguised as feminine strength.

We fail to see that anger is a secondary emotion. That means a person often may feel something first and then move it quickly to anger. For example, if someone makes a derogatory statement about another person, the person may feel upset (an anger response). But in actuality, the person may feel hurt first, then quickly opt to an anger response. Another example is if your child doesn’t follow your advice, you may feel frustrated (an anger response). But if pushed to identify the primary feeling, you may have felt disrespected or saddened.

This enculturation of anger breeds an angry identity. Could it be that the love, exhibited in kindness and grace, which marks us as Jesus’ disciples, slowly has been compromised by the imprint of an angry society? Anger, like the other deadly sins, creeps in undetected and suffocates the vibrancy of a soul.

Righteous Anger?
If you are like me, you’re probably skeptical about this. Maybe you’re recalling, for instance, the apostle Paul said we should be angry but not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Many of the church fathers believed that there, in fact, was a justifiable anger. But few followed through on describing what it looked like. St. John Cassian was very cautious with his notions of righteous anger. In his writings, he pointed out that many believe that anger against a wrong-doing brother or against those who have disdain for God is a reflection of God because God becomes enraged at evil people (Psalms 106:40).

Yet Cassian taught that those quick to claim a righteous, godly anger don’t understand that they are mixing “the injustice of fleshly passion into the divine limitlessness and the source of all purity.” Cassian knew that humans often make out their agenda to be God’s agenda. If we are enraged about something then it must be, we think, a reflection of God’s righteous wrath.

C.S. Lewis also saw anger this way: misfortune conceived as injury against some legitimate claim of which we feel we have been robbed. This is where the vice becomes most revealing. If we understand Cassian and Lewis, we start to recognize that we often get angry because deep down we want someone to pay for something. Like the elder brother of the prodigal son, we think too much grace has been extended. We compare ourselves to others and become angry at the wickedness of those who are “more deserving of God’s wrath than we are.” We would never see our goodness as deserving of more but rather that their wickedness is deserving of less. As a result, we become angry at their sin and justify it as a reflection of God’s righteousness.

Who Will Pay?
The church is full of this cancerous vice. We rage over issues of gender and sexuality. We fume over the fact that some militant suicide bomber takes countless lives. We become intolerant of those who hold to different perspectives of Scripture. We do this because we want someone to pay. Our agenda, paradigm, frame of  reference, personal comfort, entitlements, desires and even identity have been compromised — so we become angry. Instead of being agents of grace, love and kindness, we fan the flames of ire, thinking that we are honoring God.

Don’t misunderstand me — I am not condoning or minimizing the abovementioned atrocities; but maybe we have opted to secondary emotions of anger when the primary emotions of grief, sadness and pain more accurately reflect the heart of God than does our anger.

Not long ago, I was talking to a friend about salvation and God’s will. We were trying to understand the Scripture text that tells us that God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). “What if God hasn’t revealed all of His eternal plan to us? And what if, by the merit of Christ, someday hell is entirely emptied?” I asked. Angry, my friend brought up monstrous historical figures, such as Hitler, and said anyone who is that wicked and rejects Christ deserves to be in hell.

Truth be told, we all deserve to be in hell. We rage over the fact we think someone more wicked than us, by comparison, could be pardoned. American Christianity is loaded with the value that we believe someone — besides Christ — ought to pay for evil. We disguise this vice of anger in a deceptive costume of God-honoring, righteous rage. The sobering recognition of the destructive power of anger on the believer’s soul should motivate us to eradicate it.

This definitely puts a new spin on not letting the sun go down on our anger.

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STEVE GERALI is director of the Youth Ministry Undergraduate Degree Program at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California. In addition to more than 25 years of youth ministry experience, Dr. Gerali is a clinical counselor, author, speaker, and educator.

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