Wednesday, March 16, 2011

7 Deadly Sins: Wrath

Dorothy L. Sayers, the mystery novelist and lay theologian, separates the 7 Deadly Sins into 2 categories: the warm-heated ones and the cold-hearted ones. The warm-hearted sins are the emotional, fleshy ones, like lust. The cold-hearted sins are the intellectual or spiritual ones, like pride. The cold-hearted sins are considered the worst. But it's the warm-hearted sins that are more easily recognized and they tend to do the most obvious damage. Today we're going to look at the warmest or, shall we say, most hotheaded of them: wrath or rage.

Anger is not always a bad thing. God gets angry; Jesus gets angry; Paul gets angry. But they tend to get angry at sin, callousness, and injustice. That kind of anger can lead people to reform society and create missions of compassion, provided one follows the dictum of William Arthur Ward: "It is wise to direct your anger towards problems--not people, to focus your energies on answers, not excuses." Still we must be careful comparing ourselves to God and Jesus. Moral indignation in mortals has often been the pretext of some horrendous atrocities, like the Inquisition and the Crusades. Nothing feels better than having God's permission to hate and hurt. But, of course, we don't have his permission. Anger can be so destructive that we know we need some justification to act on it. If not God, then we blame it on the victim. When the abusive spouse apologizes to his battered victim, he usually says something like, "I sorry I did that. If you just hadn't done what you did…" We can't seem to admit that the awful rage is a part of us.

We know rage is evil. It is indiscriminate, it is excessive and it often destroys what it purports to be protecting. And yet we celebrate it in our heroes. We secretly can't wait for the point in the movie when the hero looks at the pitiful body of his partner, whom the villain killed just a week before he was due to retire, and says through gritted teeth, "Now it's personal!" Oh, boy! Now the bad guy is going to get his butt kicked but good! And we push away that nagging feeling that we could do the same thing. We don't want to admit that deep down we, too, have a well of bloodlust.

Where does this come from? Back when we lived as hunters and gatherers, anger was an important survival tool. When faced with a threat, our bodies are flooded with adrenaline. This gives us the energy for flight or to fight. It enabled our ancestors to fight off a charging beast or a marauding tribe, intent on stealing their food or women. But as humanity settled into villages and cities, extreme behavior threatened the peace. Before the monarchy and a unified justice system, ancient Israel designated 6 of its cities as places to which those who committed unintentional manslaughter could flee from the avenging kin of their victims. This gave the town elders time to judge whether the death in question was murder or accident.

Still anger was condoned if it were directed at one's enemies as in war. Parts of the Old Testament sound very bloodthirsty. Much of this is due to the fact that Israel was situated at a major crossroads between Arabia, Asia, Asia Minor and Africa, surrounded by larger rival nations and aggressive empires. There was no United Nations to intervene and Israel was fighting for its survival. Still, we see a change taking place over the centuries. In the story of Jonah, the prophet is pursued by God until he preaches to the wicked town of Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which eventually destroyed the northern kingdom and took its ten tribes into an exile from which they never returned. Jonah is depicted as much more angry than God, who offers even to those who anger him forgiveness if they repent. In the New Testament Jesus even asks God to forgive those who had just nailed him to the cross.

Paul could get quite hot in his disputes with those who would distort the gospel. Yet he tells us not to repay evil with evil or to take revenge. He tells the Colossians to rid themselves of things such as anger, rage and malice. And he gives the Ephesians this wise advice: "In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold." In other words, anger isn't necessarily a sin but nursing it is. Toddlers will get angry at one another and soon will be playing together as if nothing happened. Anger slips into sin when it is prolonged unnaturally, when we stoke the flames of anger until it is a consuming fire. Then we cross over from displeasure to despising, from irritation to loathing, from anger to hatred. Oddly enough when wrath becomes hatred, it can go from hot to cold. And like water vapor turned to ice, cold fury can be hard and unyielding. Once you separate anger from the haze of passion that clouds thinking, you can hone it into a very precise weapon. Some of anger's worst damage is done with a cool head and malice aforethought.

So how do we as Christians deal with anger? First by recognizing that anger is normal. We usually get angry when we feel threatened or frustrated. So in calmer moments it might help to analyze what situations tend to make us angry and why. Does the way your parents treat you threaten your sense of your own maturity? Does your boss frustrate your desire to do a good job? Does your spouse attack your self-esteem? And do they do these things with intent or inadvertently? Are you inordinately sensitive on certain issues and prone to overact to innocent remarks or actions? Anger is like a watchdog. It will bark at real threats, like a burglar. But it also barks at squirrels.

If your anger is justified, the thing to do is not to act when you're angry. Later, after you've sorted out your feelings, find a time when you and the object of your anger can sit down and talk. Explain how the other person's actions make you feel. Don't deny your anger but try to see the situation from your adversary's point of view. And be ready to forgive.

Don't give up. It may take several or ongoing talks to clear things up. If your adversary cannot or will not change, change your strategy. Avoid the situations that make you mad if possible. Or change your job, roommate, etc. In case of real harm, see an attorney. But always remember that as Christians we are given the ministry of reconciliation. We are to be peacemakers. We are to turn the other cheek, go the second mile. In Egypt, Muslims and Coptic Christians are trying hard not to let their relatively peaceful revolution deteriorate into sectarian violence. We just may see what will happen when people who would normally be enemies are more interested in peace than in trying to settle old scores.

If upon reflection you realize the problem is just your temper, get help. Perhaps there are issues in your past that have made you hyper-vigilant. People don't generally seek to injure others, even with words, unless they feel that they have suffered injury at the hands of others. There are anger management techniques that can be learned and used. Getting psychological help is no more a betrayal of faith than getting medical treatment for a physical problem. An explosive temper may not eat away at the soul in the same way nursing a grudge does but it can destroy relationships, careers and lives.

In any case, we have access to additional help: the peace of God. Much of the dissonance in our life comes from being out of harmony with God. When we come to God, confess our sins, and accept his forgiveness, we know the peace of being reconciled with our creator. When we turn our lives over to him, we know the peace of having our lives brought into harmony with his purpose for us. And as our relationship with God is put right, our relationship with our siblings in Christ should be put right, resulting in peace.

When we unite with God, we are united with his Spirit. And as Paul says, the fruit that the Spirit produces in us include peace, patience, gentleness and self-control. These are the virtues we need to combat anger. Patience counteracts the anger that comes from expecting our demands be fulfilled immediately, in accordance with our impatient culture. Gentleness restrains us from trying to force things and people to our will and the frustration that inevitably results. It makes us think of the other person's feelings rather than our own desires. Self-control is one of the Spirit's more paradoxical gifts. The more we surrender our life to God's control, the more able we find ourselves to control our actions. His will becomes ours because we live in him and he is us.

And finally we find peace in him because with God on our side we need not fear any threat. As it says in Paul's letter to the Romans, "If God is for us, who can be against us?…Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor death, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." In that deep security there is peace for the most troubled soul.

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