A volcano is rarely in a constant state of eruption. For most of the time it simmers, puffing a little smoke, tremoring slightly, for all the world appearing like a mountain with character. And then one day the geologic stresses build up, the magma explodes violently and there’s no going back from there. Anger is often like that. A cheerful veneer of Christian jovialness is suddenly unmasked by one thing, one person, that sets us off with an actual or perceived wrong, a slight on our character, an unkind word, a misunderstanding, or a deliberate attack.
Recently, I got crosswise with a fellow parishioner over an issue that could have turned into the kind of conflict that burns bridges and ends friendships. I was the volcano and it took just one email to unleash an exploding caldera of anger, hurt pride and indignation. The only rational response I acted on, thank God, was to call my priest before I hit send on the angry reply I composed.
As a Christian what do we do with anger? Is it OK for a Christian to exhibit anger? Our Lord in the Gospels of Matthew (21:12–13) and Mark (11:15–17) displayed a fit of anger when he turned out the merchants and moneychangers from the temple, knocked over tables, and scattered their goods on the ground. It must have been a shocking scene. I don’t picture my Lord and Savior screaming and hollering when he did this, but the very act of driving someone away and knocking over their merchandise can’t be accomplished without a certain amount of forcefulness. However, the difference between Christ’s anger and mine is the sin of pride. Jesus Christ wasn’t abusive towards the money changers, but was stopping their sinful business. His motivation was doing His Father’s will. My motivation? “How dare someone criticize me!” My response? Defend and counterattack.
The fight against the sinful life is the true purpose of righteous anger, observed 4th century desert monastic Abba Evagrius in his work Texts on Active Life No. 15. Righteous anger is not used against out fellow human beings, but is
…by nature designed for waging war with the demons and for struggling with every kind of sinful pleasure. Therefore angels, arousing spiritual pleasure in us and giving us to taste its blessedness, incline us to direct our anger against the demons. But the demons, enticing us towards worldly lusts, make us use anger to fight with men, which is against nature, so that the mind, thus stupefied and darkened, should become a traitor to virtues.
One thing I’ve learned about this incident is that being right is not the same as being righteous. Even if you’re right, getting angry and lashing out is never appropriate. You can count to ten, say the Jesus Prayer, call your priest, but do everything possible to not act out in anger. It’s the practice of the spiritual life that cools the volcanos inside each of us, giving us the tools and the patience to resist every stress and strain, allowing us to step back from the edge when we’re ‘ready to blow’.