Overcoming Anger

for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  (James 1:20)

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  (Ephesians 4:31-32)

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St. Paul warns that those who act in anger will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (Galatians 5:20-21).   The spiritual literature of Christianity through the centuries kept anger (or one of its manifestations – wrath, rage, revenge, hatred, etc) as one of the deadly sins or passions which Christians were to work to overcome.  And though the New Testament does allow for anger as long as it doesn’t involve sin (Ephesians 4:26), anger was viewed as a dangerous and destructive passion for it often overwhelms the rational thought process and pushes people to act hastily and with force disregarding wisdom or a measured response.

Christ does not want you to feel the least hatred, resentment, anger or rancor towards anyone in any way or on account of any transitory thing whatsoever. This is proclaimed throughout the four Gospels.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 13842-44)

Anger can give us a sense of empowerment – even when we are in the wrong or have not authority in a situation.  Our angry response towards others is often more a measure of our own feelings than a proper evaluation of the wrong we think someone else has done.  Anger can arise in prayer, making us think it is righteous, but often is a sign of our own spiritual illness.

When you pray as you should, thoughts will come to you which make you feel that you have a real right to be angry. But anger with your neighbor is never right. If you search you will find that things can always be arranged without anger. So do all you can not to break out into anger. Take care that, while appearing to cure someone else, you yourself do not remain uncured, in this way thwarting your prayer.  (St. John Cassian, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 1302-8)

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The cure for anger?  Humility is a cure all for much of what ails us spiritually in Orthodox literature.  The humble person maintains an even keel no matter what is going on – be it praise or criticism – and does not react to others but carefully chooses their actions.  Humility stops us from getting emotionally charged by everything that happens around us.  But anger can also be overcome by the combination of courage and mercy – which may not seem like they can go together, but they are at the heart of what it is to be a Christian.

Nothing so converts anger into joy and gentleness as courage and mercy. Like a siege-engine, courage shatters enemies attacking the soul from without, mercy those attacking it from within.   (St Gregory of  Sinai, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 43079-43081)

 

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Anger is Another Kind of Drunkenness

Brethren, there is another sort of evil satiety and drunkenness which does not result from indulging in food and drink, but from anger and hatred towards our neighbor, remembrance of wrongs, and the evils that spring from these. On this subject Moses says in his song, “Their wine is the wrath of dragons and the incurable wrath of asps” (Deut. 32:33). So the prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who are drunken, but not with wine” (Isa. 29:9)

This is the drunkenness of hatred which more than anything else causes God to turn away, and the devil attempts to bring it about in those who pray and fast. He prompts them to remember wrongs, directs their thoughts towards harboring malice, and sharpens their tongues for slander.

He prepares them to be like that man who wishes for evil whom David describes with the words, “He deviseth mischief continually, his tongue is like a sharp razor” (Ps. 51:2 Lxx), and from whom he prays God to deliver him, saying, “Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man; they have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips” (Ps. 140:1, 3). (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 49 & 50)

Ridding Ourselves of Anger

Cassian JohnSt. John Cassian (d. 435) meditating on the Gospel saw anger arising within us as a great threat to our salvation as it cuts us off from loving God or neighbor.  Additionally for St. John it is not a matter only if we vent our rage.  He says we need to cut off such anger in our hearts before we ever act on it.  Our hearts must become pure.  Just controlling outward expressions and behavior is not enough to purify our hearts.   St. John’s words are an interpretation of what St. Paul advises: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27).   For Cassian, the only way to prevent anger from becoming sin is to deal with it in your heart before you are tempted to express it.

“Hence, if we desire to obtain in its entirety that divine prize of which it is said: ‘Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God,’ this must not only be cut off from our actions but must even be uprooted from the depths of our soul. For a wrathful anger that has been checked in speech and that has not manifested itself in deeds is of no value whatsoever if God, from whom the secrets of the heart are not concealed, sees that it exists in the recesses of our breast.  For the words of the Gospel command that the roots of our vices be cut off rather than the fruits, which will certainly never grow anymore once the shoot has been pulled up. And when they have been pulled up not from the surface of our deeds and actions but from the depths of our thoughts, our mind will then be able to abide in utter patience and holiness. And therefore, in order for murder not to be perpetrated, anger and hatred are cut off; without them the crime of murder can never be committed.

The Fathers in general allowed that the passions in themselves were not evil.  Even anger can serve a righteous purpose.  The ability to become angry itself was given to us by God to serve a good purpose.  Anger can sometimes motivate us to resist evil and sin.  However, as experience shows, anger often is vented without any wisdom.  When expressed in an uncontrolled fashion it becomes destructive and we use it to excuse whatever behavior we engage in.  So anger in itself may not always be sin, but neither does it always lead to righteousness.  It can be a scourge that sets off a series of angry responses in others – a chain reaction not of righteousness but of sinful passion which leads to further anger and sin.   St. John Cassian continues:

For ‘whoever is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.’ And: ‘Whoever hates his brother is a murderer.’ In that he desires, namely, to kill him in his heart, even though other human beings have not seen him shed his blood with his own hand or weapon, the Lord, who renders each person a reward or punishment not only for his accomplished deeds but even for his desires and intentions, declares him a murderer on account of his angry disposition. As he himself says through the prophet: ‘Their works and their thoughts I am coming to gather together with all nations and tongues.’ And again: ‘Their thoughts within them accusing or defending them, on the day when God will judge the secrets of men.’ […]  Hence it behooves the athlete of Christ, who is contending lawfully, to root out the movements of wrath. The perfect medicine for this diseases is that we realize, first, that in no way are we permitted to get angry, whether for an unjust or a just cause, knowing that we shall at once lose the light of discretion and firm and correct counsel, as well as goodness itself and the restraints of righteousness, if the guiding principle of our heart is obscured by darkness; and then, that the purity of our mind will soon be driven out and that it can never become a temple of the Holy Spirit as long as the spirit of wrath dwells in us.

Perhaps part of the Desert Father thinking on anger is that anger which continually abides in the heart will prevent us from ever having a pure heart.  We have to rid ourselves of being possessed by anger and seeing life through the lens of anger.  ‘

Anger may occur in our hearts in reaction to something we experience, but then that anger has to be harnessed by wisdom, humility and love to become an energy that inspires us to the good.

If we are simply “an angry person”, no one else will ever see any righteousness in our anger.  Only when we are a person of peace, will we ourselves be able to experience our anger as a righteous reaction to evil.  Only then will we be able to use the energy of anger to deal with sin.

 

Lastly, we should understand that we are never allowed to pray or make petition to God when we are angry. Above all, we should keep before our eyes the uncertain state of our human condition, daily realizing that we shall depart from our bodies and that our chaste abstinence, the renunciation of all our property, the contempt of wealth, and the toil of fasting and keeping vigil will confer nothing on us if eternal punishment is being readied for us by the Judge of all on account of wrath and hatred alone.” (THE INSTITUTES, pp 203-204)

If we see evil, anger can be a right reaction to it.   But then, we have to cast the anger aside in order to pray to God for the wisdom, humility and love needed to know how to act.  Cassian warns that a prayer said in anger and hatred which asks for the destruction of another will only result in our being judged by God.  Anger can energize to act in the face of evil, but then we cannot let that same anger control our lives, but rather have to rid ourselves of personal wrath in order to turn to and trust in God.

Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,”* says the Lord.Therefore
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”*
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  

(Romans 12:17-21)

Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. (3 John :11)

Passions, Peace and Anger

“If therefore we are to follow the divine laws, we must struggle with all our strength against the demon of anger and against the sickness which lies hidden within us. When we are angry with others we should not seek solitude on the grounds that there, at least, no one will provoke us to anger, and that in the solitude the virtue of long-suffering can easily be acquired.

Our desire to leave our brethren is because of our pride, and because we do not wish to blame ourselves and ascribe to our own laxity the cause of our unruliness. So long as we assign the causes for our weaknesses to others, we cannot attain perfection in long-suffering. Self-reform and peace are not achieved through the patience which others show us, but through our own long-suffering towards our neighbor.

When we try to escape the struggle for long-suffering by retreating into solitude, those unhealed passions we take there with us are merely hidden, not erased; for unless our passions are first purged, solitude and withdrawal from the world not only foster them but also keep them concealed, no longer allowing us to perceive what passion it is that enslaves us. On the contrary, they impose on us an illusion of virtue and persuade us to believe that we have achieved long-suffering and humility, because there is no one present to provoke and test us.

But as soon as something happens which does arouse and challenge us, our hidden and previously unnoticed passions immediately break out like uncontrolled horses that have long been kept and idle, dragging their driver all the more violently and wildly to destruction. Our passions grow fiercer when left idle through lack of contact with other people. Even that shadow of patience and long-suffering which we thought we possessed while we mixed with our brethren is lost in our isolation through not being exercised.

Poisonous creatures that live quietly in their lairs in the desert display their fury only when they detect someone approaching; and likewise passion-filled men, who live quietly not because of their virtuous disposition but because of their solitude, spit forth their venom whenever someone approaches and provokes them. This is why those seeking perfect gentleness must make every effort to avoid not only anger towards men, but also towards animals and even inanimate objects.” (St. John Cassian in The Philokalia: Vol 1, p 85)

The Sin of Anger

St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) writes:

“If then we wish to receive the Lord’s blessing we should restrain not only the outward expression of anger, but also angry thoughts. More beneficial than controlling our tongue in a moment of anger and refraining from angry words is purifying our heart from rancor and not harbouring malicious thoughts against our brethren. The Gospel teaches us to cut off the roots of our sins and not merely their fruits. When we have dug the root of anger out of our heart, we will no longer act with hatred or envy. ‘Whoever hates his brother is a murderer’ (1 John 3:15), for he kills him with the hatred in his mind.

The blood of a man who has been slain by the sword can be seen by men, but blood shed by the hatred in the mind is seen by God, who rewards each man with punishment or a crown not only for his acts but for his thoughts and intentions as well.

As God Himself says through the Prophet: ‘Behold, I am coming to reward them according to their actions and their thoughts’ (cf Ecclus. 35:19); and the Apostle says: ‘And their thoughts accuse or else excuse them in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men’ (Rom. 2:15-16). The Lord Himself teaches us to put aside all anger when He says: ‘Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgement’ (Matt. 5:22). This is the text of the best manuscripts; for it is clear from the purpose of Scripture in this context that the words ‘without a cause’ were added later. The Lord’s intention is that we should remove the root of anger, its spark, so to speak, in whatever way we can, and not keep even a single pretext for anger in our hearts. Otherwise we will be stirred to anger initially for what appears to be a good reason and then find that our incisive power is totally out of control.” (The Philokalia:Volume 1, pg. 86)

The above words by St. John Cassian are an important challenge to us to overcome the passion of anger in ourselves.  The great problem with anger is it quickly burns out of control, wildly,  igniting a powder keg in us setting off an uncontrolled emotional explosion.  As wisdom says: “keep your anger to yourself as nobody else wants it.”

Cassian JohnIt is also interesting that in the above passage St. John Cassian acknowledges that there exist different manuscript traditions through which the Scriptures have come down to us.  Such a concern is not just that of modern biblical scholars but was known in the 5th Century!  He is convinced that a phrase that in his day existed in the received tradition was a later addition to the original text to ‘soften’ the text by making it more palatable and ‘reasonable.’   Cassian will have none of it because he believes it is the very ‘sharpness’ of the text which is so challenging and true to the spiritual life.  It is not easy to take up one’s cross and deny one’s self, and Cassian doesn’t want to accept a text that tries to make that road an easier one.   Even the saints have a critical eye for the received Tradition.

 

A Spiritual Remedy for Sinful Anger

“This is what anger is like, exceeding the bounds of reason: the passion seethes in this way and bubbles up again. So how is the ailment to be repressed? By reasoning within ourselves, by keeping in mind death and the number who pass on each day, by reflecting on our nature, the fact that we are dust and ashes.

If, however, visible beauty still fascinates your mind, betake yourself to the cemetery and the graves of your forebears, and take note of their condition, how they have dissolved into dust, and you will get from the sight plenty of encouragement to keep yourself in check. Find no fault with the gravity of my remarks, however: just as those suffering from fever, on recovery from the ailment, need fresh air, just so do those in the frenzy of passion, on visiting the cemetery, rid themselves of many of their complaints as though attending a health resort.

The sight of the coffin, in fact, suffices to bring to their senses even those who lost all balance. From these things switch your thinking to that dread day, to the searching examination and rendering of accounts, to punishments devoid of any consolation, where no one will speak in one’s own defense; with all these thoughts charm your passions into repose.

Yet consider as well those people in this life who are brought from riches to rags, from glory to disrepute. And if you insist on being angry, be so not with your fellow but with the evil demon: in him you have an object to vent your feelings on, make no peace with him, vent your spleen on him and give it free rein, set a trap for him, never have your fill of accosting him.”

(St. John Chrysostom in Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2, pp. 158-159)

The Wall of Anger

“Amma Syncletica said:  ‘It is good not to get angry, but if this should happen, St. Paul does not allow you a whole day for this passion, for he says: “Let not the sun go down” (Eph. 4:25). Will you wait till all your time is ended? Why hate the one who has grieved you? It is not this person who has done the wrong, but the evil one. Hate sickness but not the sick person.’ Desert spirituality perceived anger as a deterrent to the inner journey and a wall to unity with God. Anger often revealed a lack of detachment, and certainly violated silence. If a disciple got angry, then Amma Syncletica wanted her followers to be aware of the differences between the person and sin. We must deal with the cause of our anger: acknowledge the gift and message of anger and respond to what our anger is calling forth in us. If we do not actively attend to our anger, it comes out in ugliness such as bitterness, whining, rage, and depression.

Unfortunately we can just sit around and nurture our anger, stroke it into resentment, and get negative energy from passively attending to it. If we are willing to actively listen to what our anger would tell us, we can then act on what we must do: seek reconciliation, speak the truth, and/or make necessary changes in our life. Working with a spiritual compassion or modern day amma to discern how to respond to our anger may be very helpful. It is not always obvious what we must do with our response to our anger. Reflection with a wise amma can help. For a heart seeking only God, there is no room for resentment.” (Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, pgs. 55-56)

When Someone Makes You Angry

One of the negative side effects of the holiday season is that due to the pressures and demands we place upon ourselves to buy sufficient presents for everyone to whom we feel we owe a gift, to meet all of the demands of family and friends and business, to get to all of the events which we feel obligated to attend, we often find ourselves short of patience and quite angry.   It is something I’ve noted especially in those who come to confession during the Nativity Lent.   Stress, anger and impatience boil over in our rush to make a perfect Christmas season, which ostensibly is to honor the King of Peace.  St. Paul reminds us as Christians that anger is sin and should not be a normal part of our lives, but should be overcome by our life in Christ.

 Colossians 3:4-11

When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you also once walked when you lived in them. But now you must also put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.   (emphasis not in the original text)

So next time your stuck in holiday traffic around the mall and find your temper boiling over, or you feel road rage, or you are angry at your family for making you late, remember you are a Christian:   “But now you must also put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.”

If someone has offended you, think about the words of St. Basil the Great, and put them into practice for the sake of Christ, whose birth you are celebrating this holiday season:

“Do not then cure the evil with evil, nor attempt to outdo each other in such matters.  […] Has someone insulted you in anger? Stop the evil by silence. But you, as if receiving the stream of that person’s anger into your own heart, imitate the wind, repaying by blowing back what it has borne to you. Do not use your enemy as a teacher, and as for what you hate, do not emulate this. Do not, as it were, become a mirror of the one prone to anger, showing the likeness of that person in yourself.” (St. Basil the Great, On the Human Condition, pg. 84)

Loving Others as a Measure of our Love for God

“If we look inside our hearts

and find there even a trace of animosity towards others

for the wrongs they have done to us,

then we should realize that we are still far removed

from the love of God.

The love of God absolutely precludes us

from hating any human being.”

“If you love God,

you will certainly start to love your neighbors too.

You will find you are unable to hoard your money any longer

but will want to distribute it in a godly way,

being generous to all who are in need.”

(St. Maximus the Confessor in The Book of Mystical Chapters translated by John Anthony McGuckin, pgs. 50-51)

The Wages of Sin

“Having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 6:18-23)

“Sin is one thing but instinctive reaction or passion is another. These are our reactions: pride, anger, sexual indulgence, hate greed and so on. The corresponding sins are the gratifications of these passions: when a man acts and brings into corporeal reality those works which were suggested to him by his innate desires. It is impossible to exist without natural desires arising, but not to give way to them is by no means impossible.

Therefore, The Man (God) gave us instructions, as I said, which purify our passion and those evil dispositions which come from our inner man. He instilled into man’s inner conscious the power to judge good and evil; he woke it from sleep; he showed the causes from which sins rise and he says to us, ‘The Law says “Do not commit adultery”, but I say to you, do not entertain desire. The Law says “Do no murder”, but I say, do not give way to anger. If you do entertain a fleshly desire today and you do not commit adultery, it does not cease inwardly troubling until it whips you into action. If you are irritated and stir up anger against your brother, then you strike him, speak evil against him, then plot against him and so go forward little by little and at last you come to murder him.’ Again the Law says, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, etc., but Our Lord admonishes us not only to bear patiently the blows of one who strikes us, but humbly to turn to him the other cheek. And so the object of the Law is to teach us not to do to others what we do not wish to suffer, and therefore it cuts away our wrong-doing through our fear of suffering. Now the object must be, as I am always saying, to cast away our hatred, our love of pleasure, our vainglory and the rest of our unruly desires.

I repeat that the aim of Christ, our Master, is precisely to teach us how we come to commit all our sins; how we fall into our all our evils…Finally he shows us how we come to despise and disobey the commandments of God and adds the medicine that all may be able to obey and be saved. What then is the medicine and what the cause of our contempt? Listen to what the Lord himself tells us: ‘Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you shall find rest for your souls.’ There you have it in a nutshell: he has taught us the root and cause of all evils and also the remedy for it, leading to all good.”

(Dorotheos of Gaza in Discourses & Sayings: Desert Humor & Humility, pgs. 80-81)