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Seven Deadly Sins: Anger or Wrath

By Jeri Holladay
March 25th, 2009
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

What drives anger? All the deadly sins work together, and anger, pride and envy form a particularly unholy alliance.

WICHITA, Kansas (Catholic Online) - They are driving along when she sees a text message from a previous girlfriend. An argument ensues, during which he bashes her head into the window of their Lamborghini and punches her repeatedly in the face.

A gunman walks into a church and starts shooting. Road rage rides the highways and aggression patrols the hallways of neighborhood schools. Many who would never openly express their hostility secretly enjoy seeing others do so on TV or in movies. With the crumbling economy and rising unemployment, we seem to have given ourselves permission to be furious.

The Church is careful to distinguish emotions, which arise unbidden and dissipate just as quickly, from the choice to nurture or act on these feelings. Mental rehearsals of angry exchanges keep the embers glowing, while the violence, cursing, belittling, and verbal abuse that periodically erupts reveals that the vice of anger simmers inside.

Like all of the deadly sins, anger (or wrath) is a potential rooted in the fallen nature of every person. Anger is deeply self-centered, impatient with the weaknesses of others and often driven by an aggrieved sense of entitlement rising up in response to real or imagined injury. It causes the breakdown of marriages, families, and friendships.

Hot or cold, passive or aggressive, anger usually desires to punish or hurt others in some way. But anger can also turn inward, particularly when the angry person feels he/she is a powerless victim of his/her situation. Depression and even suicide is sometimes connected to repressed anger.

What drives anger? All the deadly sins work together, and anger, pride and envy form a particularly unholy alliance. At its core, however, anger may also be fueled by fear and insecurity.

Angry people often fear losing their place in the world, the loss or lack of love, or the abridgment of their real or imagined rights. They dread suffering or are anxious about their survival in a dog eat dog world. The old adage “The best defense is a good offense” is a wise observation of human nature. In fact, many angry people justify their hostility by saying they are only defending themselves.

Jesus gives us no quarter on anger. He rejects our excuses. Not only does He uphold the commandment against murder, he shines a light on that root of anger in our hearts. He says, “Anyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Mt 5:21-22). There is no wiggle room here, and the early Fathers confirm this in their unwavering counsel against allowing any hint or root of anger to linger in the soul.

Without our anger, we may feel weak and vulnerable, like doormats and ready victims for anyone’s boots. If we don’t fight for ourselves and our rights, who will? Who can we trust? Good question. There is an answer. God has already fought for us. He has successfully defended us against the world, the flesh and the Devil. Jesus shed His blood and gave His life in this battle.

The Paschal Mystery is the path to liberation from the crippling vice of anger. Taking up His cross, rather than fighting it, Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified. While hanging on the Cross, the sinless one suffered the greatest injustice imaginable, not because He deserved it, but because we did. Instead of calling upon legions of angels to execute vengeance, He asked the Father to forgive His tormentors, “for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). His love for us cost His very life.

This is the love St. John calls us to trust with our whole lives. “Perfect love drives out fear” he says, “so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because He first loved us. If anyone says he loves God, but hates his brother, he is a liar, for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 Jn 4:18-20)

Loving God and loving our brothers cannot be separated. The anger that divides us into warring factions must give way to love.

Does this mean we are to be passive in the face of genuine injustice, especially when done to others? No. Anger can be to the soul what pain is to the body; it alerts us to the fact that something is amiss, either in our personal lives or in our society. But the passion of anger must be transformed into the energy of love, a love which flows from an understanding of the truth and is not deceived into thinking that good can be achieved by evil means.

Jesus did not die passively on the Cross; it was a mighty act of self-gift. His death actively opened the way of peace between God and man, and among people. We, too, are called to be peacemakers in our own small way, even in hostile situations, by acting with forbearance, compassion, empathy, love and forgiveness. Only this unselfish and courageous laying down of our lives and our “rights” can uproot the anger ever ready to flare up within us.

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Jeri Holladay writes from Wichita, Kansas, where she has been Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center of the Diocese of Wichita, Associate Professor of Theology, Chairman of the Theology Department and founding Director of the Bishop Eugene Gerber Institute of Catholic Studies at Newman University. She teaches moral theology and church history and is a contributing writer for Catholic Online.

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