The deadly sin of wrath

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April 23, 2014 | Viewpoints | Volume 18 Issue 9
Melissa Miller |

“The only problem with them,” my friend said as we admired the soft closure hinges on my kitchen cupboards, “is that you can’t slam the doors when you’re mad.”

Door slamming isn’t one of my main outlets for anger; instead, I’m more prone to loud stomping or yelling. I could readily see the appeal of strong-arming the door with a resounding thwack, and the frustration that might arise in a modern kitchen outfitted with devices that invite or even compel one to shut cupboards and drawers gently and peacefully. Who knows? Maybe such instruments could be utilized in counselling and conflict resolution sessions to reduce anger or redirect it into carefully measured responses.

Anger is not a problem, although we often think it is. Many of us have had troubling experiences that convince us of anger’s dangers. Like our other emotions—sadness, joy and fear, to name a few—anger is God-given, wired into our bodies and spirits, and serves a useful purpose. Anger alerts us to wrongdoing, warns us of boundary violations and urges us to be vigilant. Anger can give us strength to fight injustice.

The problem with anger occurs when we separate the emotion of anger from a reasoned response to it, or to the harmful event that has provoked the anger. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Italian theologian, understood anger to be a passion, with the potential to be good if it is filtered through reason. If reason is set aside, Aquinas taught, then anger could be evil. Without reason, anger can easily flame into rage or wrath. Unbridled, such anger is destructive, earning its place as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Reason helps us weigh the provocation and our reaction to it: What happened? Who did what? What is my part in this? What is the impact of the event? What are my expectations or goals? How can I best meet those goals? And yes, what would Jesus do? (His anger often arose in response to oppression and mistreatment of the poor and the vulnerable.)

The Book of Proverbs offers additional counsel: “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (14:29), and “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18). And many of us have likely memorized, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1).

Such wisdom offers a contrasting response to unreasoned anger, pointing us to patience, the virtue opposite of wrath. Patience is needed to bring thoughtful reason to bear on the surge of angry energy. If anger is red, hot and self-centred, patience is a temperate blue and includes the capacity to consider the other person. Patience is needed to work through the questions listed above! It can be compelling in the short run to strike back, to lash out with sharp words, or to press send on an inflammatory e-mail with a message one would never deliver in person. Patience reminds us there are consequences to such actions, to all of our actions.

At the end of the exchange, at the end of the day, at the end of our lives, we probably would choose to have exercised restraint and discipline over our hot tempers, given the hurt and destruction that resulted when we didn’t. With patience, we gain control over these emotions, and that is empowering. There is something satisfying and virtuous in cultivating virtues!

Melissa Miller (familyties@mymts.net) lives in Winnipeg. She is wrapped in the family ties of daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend and pastor.

See Melissa’s other columns in her series on the deadly sins:
The deadly sin of gluttony
The deadly sin of sloth
The deadly sin of lust
The deadly sin of envy
The deadly sin of greed
The deadly sin of pride
Talk of sin should start with forgiveness

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