Abba Agathon said, “If someone who is angry were to raise the dead, God would remain displeased with the anger.”
Sayings of the Desert Fathers
The most difficult part of our Christian life is found within us – our inner life. It is certainly the case that many of the outward things we do – acts of charity and the like – have a great effect on our life – but at the end of all things there remains the inner struggle to keep the commandments of God. It is Christ’s teaching that everything, both good and evil, emanate from the heart of man. God is a merciful God and will not deny us the grace to find healing within our heart – but we cannot be healed if we pretend there is no problem. Thus the prayer, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner,” when prayed with honesty, from the heart, forms the prayer that we need most to say. It is not repeated throughout the day because we need God to hear us – but because our heart needs to speak the truth and not forget the nature of its need.
Is anger then actually a sin? I have been counseled in the past that it is not so much the anger that is the problem, as what we do after we get angry. Indeed, anger provides fertile ground for the springing forth of all kinds of passionate behaviors. But is the anger itself sinful? Or perhaps it depends on why we are getting angry? Most likely 9 times out of 10 it could be attributed to some aspect of pride, at least in my case, especially when I’m feeling “short-changed”, which seems to be something I wrestle with continually.
And then there is the “righteous anger” which the Lord exhibited when he threw the moneychangers out of the temple. How does that fit in here?
I’m not Father Stephen, but I’ll toss in my two cents for whatever they are worth. First, I would say it’s a debatable claim that Jesus was acting from anger in the cleansing of the temple. Certainly none of the gospel accounts attribute anger to him. But I would prefer to go beyond that. If Jesus is angry, we can trust him in his anger. It’s OK that he’s angry. It changes nothing about the quality or nature of his love.
The same cannot be said for me. Anger is corrosive. If I am acting from anger and you stand in the path of that anger, what you receive from me will not be love. I will not act for your good. I will act in a way that feeds or satiates my own anger.
Anger, as an emotion, is fired when my desires are contravened, when my will is crossed, or when I feel I am being treated unfairly. The emotional impulse I would not call a sin. In fact, it can be helpful in alerting to me to things going on around me. But as soon as I will to follow that impulse, to speak or act empowered by it, and I speak or act in a way which is unloving, then yes, I have sinned.
Or so it seems to me.
I don’t know that I could have said it better. My experience with anger has rarely been with righteous anger – I’m not righteous enough for even my anger to be that clean. There are other kinds of anger that are the product of deep wounds within our lives – but it is generally toxic and in need of healing.
The fathers generally reserve anger as something we use as an energy to resist the devil or sin, but even this is a ticklish matter.
OK, let me try this one more time. 🙂
Fr. Stephen, is anger then NOT a sin, in that it need not be confessed before taking the Eucharist unless acted upon? Is there a specific Church teaching on this? Or is this one of those grey areas that depends on the individual and thus needs to be dealt with in specific context with one’s spiritual father or priest? For example, my kids break something while horsing around doing something they’re not supposed to be doing. I get angry and let them know they’ve done something not good, but in a loving way without shaming them and all that. But I’m still angry at them. I would not think this needs to be taken to the confessional. Although if I had acted on it, it would need to be.
I hope that’s a little clearer.
From my Calendar a few days ago:
“The first step toward freedom from anger is to keep the lips silent when the heart is stirred; the next, to keep the thoughts silent when the soul is stirred; the last, to be totally calm when unclean winds are blowing.”
St. John Climacus
It’s not a matter of asking is a particular thing a sin, because sin is not a legal issue. It’s good when angry not to act out of the anger. It’s probably better not even to be angry (though which of us is there yet). Thus confession is not a matter of what wrong things have I done that must be forgiven before communion, but, as much as we can (by grace) bearing our heart before God and asking for His healing grace and forgiveness.
An article I would highly recommend – really excellent – is by Abbot Jonah Paffhausen, the Abbot of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Monastery in California. It’s a very wise article on the most basic struggles with the passions.
It’s truly an excellent article. I think learning to make a good confession is learning to go beyond deed and confess the state of our heart as well. A good confessor is always listening for the heart, not that he needs to comment or analyze, but in the sacrament of confession there is truly great value when the penitent bears his/her heart before God. Often simply confessing our deeds keeps us from truly entering the heart, though there is no set formula. It’s just good to pray for a good confession.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
I hope that makes sense. I thought your question was excellent and that there is a real difference between anger acted on and anger not acted on. Read Abbot Jonah’s article and see what you think.
Thank you Father! The article is right on the money.
This may be a bit off topic, but my wife met
some one who will have nothing to do with
the church because of bad church events in
the past. There are many who are angry at
the church because of the past. Any suggested
“It is not repeated throughout the day because we need God to hear us – but because our heart needs to speak the truth and not forget the nature of its need”.
That’s an interesting way to put it. The irony is that I seem to get angry at God when I feel like He’s not listening, so my prayers tend toward the “why aren’t you listening to me” variety and I pray harder trying to “get Him to hear me”. It’s hard to not get angry when one feels like one is being ignored, though. Is it just a matter of believing that God hears one’s prayer even when there doesn’t appear to be any response for years?
I was listening to this yesterday (some of those sayings recorded, in Russian):
Someone asked Abba Agathon, “Which is better, bodily asceticism or interior vigilance?” The old man replied, “Man is like a tree, bodily asceticism is the foliage, interior vigilance the fruit. According to that which is written, ‘Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire’ (Matt.3:10) it is clear that all our care should be directed towards the fruit, that is to say, guard of the spirit; but it needs the protection and the embellishment of the foliage, which is bodily asceticism.”
Abba Agathon said, “I consider no other labor as difficult as prayer. When we are ready to pray, our spiritual enemies interfere. They understand it is only by making it difficult for us to pray that they can harm us. Other things will meet with success if we keep at it, but laboring at prayer is a war that will continue until we die.”
(Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
It would be hard to say without knowing a lot more of the particulars. Sometimes it can be that are expectations are out of sort, or that our heart is so clouded that we cannot see or hear what in fact is there, or any number of things.
Much damage has been done to souls through the years by some in the Church. Christ warned about these things. Forgiveness is the way forward, but that is very hard, especially if no one is asking for it. Our best approach is to pray for those whom we know have been hurt.
“A sin within the Church is not a sin of the Church, but against the Church.” – from Light in the Darkness by Sergei Fudel.
Fr. Stephen, Thank you for the reference to the article by Abbot Jonah Paffhausen which you give in a response above. This article is an answer to prayer for me. God is so good!
Fr. Jonah, who has been nominated to become Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of the South (OCA) is a real treasure in the American Church that is only just becoming widely known. I pray for his election by the Holy Synod and look forward to serving with him in the diocese. There are a number of treasures on his monastery’s website, especially articles written by him. He is balanced, well-rooted in the Tradition, and personally embodies what he teaches. Can’t ask for more.
Fr. Stephen bless;
Indeed, Anger is my besetting sin.. I struggle with it daily. I read all I can from the Fathers about it and what others have taught. It is only through much prayer and confession that one can find freedom from this passion. Thanks for the posting.
I have found these helpful:
The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John of the Ladder, (1982) discusses anger in the eighth step of the ladder; and anger’s dependent vice malice in the ninth step of the ladder. St. John tells us: “Anger is an indication of concealed hatred, of grievance nursed. Anger is the wish to harm someone who has provoked you. Irascibility is an untimely flaring up of the heart. Bitterness is a stirring of the soul’s capacity for displeasure. Anger is … a disfigurement of the soul.”
In His Mercy
I am intrigued by the painting in this post.
Who is the artist?
Anger and fear are similar physiologically.
The article by Abbot Jonah seems to jibe with the Big Book of AA:
“Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.”
Steve, not an AA member.