One of the most common spiritual problems that people talk about in Spiritual Direction sessions is their struggles with anger. It is a very uncomfortable emotion, and even in its milder forms it seems to be uncontrollable and hard to handle. It appears to have a direct line to the tongue (another dangerous human instrument) and also to the more violent responses in our natures.
The connection between anger and violence contributes to the fear that this emotion unleashes in us. We think that to be angry is to be violent and we don’t want to unleash that potential within us.
While anger can lead to violence, it does not have to be that way. Anger can have an important function in our lives, provided it is used in a correct way.
Anger has been described as “the God-given alarm system within us” that alerts us to the fact that an important boundary of our lives has been breached and that we need to defend ourselves. There is an underlying note of self-preservation in an angry response to any given situation.
Another positive aspect of anger as an emotional response is that it helps us fight injustice. When we see someone being attacked, whether physically or verbally, our instinctive response is to protect. The energy of this motivation comes from our sense of justice and fairness being violated when an innocent person or someone close to us is being hurt or disrespected. The anger in us motivates us to go to their assistance and defend them. The armed response of nations to being attacked and overrun by an enemy is the communal version of this defense of boundaries and the protection of the innocent.
All this is well and good; but from whence comes this discomfort we feel with anger, this view that it is a sin?
There is a difference between the experience of the emotion of anger, which is immediate and beyond our choice (think of someone accidentally stepping on your toe!), and an anger which is held onto and which is nurtured. This is a resentment that festers, causes us to hate the other, and even perhaps plan revenge later on (vengeance is a dish best served cold!). This is clearly done with the free choice of the person. It is also stupid and self-defeating. For instance, let’s say someone slaps you in the face. There is an immediate emotional anger! But one holds onto it, and thinks about it and imagines it happening again and again. The slapper slapped once, but the slapped has lived through it a hundred times. But the slapper was responsible for doing it once and the slapped for 99 times! Insane? Yes, and profoundly self-defeating.
So the first thing that we have to ask ourselves when the ‘self-monitor’ inside us tells us that we are angry is: “Is this the emotion of anger that flares up automatically and is gone just as fast, or is it the sin of Wrath in which we hold onto the anger and think about getting even?”
We find out, for example, that someone has said something mean about us behind our backs. The alarm system of anger sounds, alerting us that we have been slandered. This anger is a natural result of the sinful action of another who freely and willfully tried to tarnish our good name. Their action was sinful. My reaction was natural. But what do I do with it?
There are three solutions:
Solution A: I could call them up and give them a piece of my mind! This is not a good response, just an automatic reaction that will further destroy our relationship.
Solution B: I could let it go and continue as though nothing had happened. This could be a good response if we know the person to be irascible and a request for clarification would blow up in our faces.
Solution C: We could pray about it and speak to the offender in person, asking if it actually did occur and, if it did, ask the other what was the purpose of the unkind remark and can we deal with that and move on in the relationship. This could be a good move provided the other is capable of truthfulness and correction and if the relationship we are in is important enough to us that we are willing to clarify and reconcile with the other.
Of the three solutions, Solution C is the best use of the energy of justified anger since it seeks to correct and amend a relationship, restoring it to a level of grace.
Anger is a fact of life. It can be a good or an evil depending on our free choice in how to respond to it. People who simply react usually make matters worse. There is a difference between justified, positively-used anger and the destructive vortex of wrath, resentments and vendetta. The choice, I’m afraid, is ours. Anger will not go away. But we can use it or be used by it. We can either manage anger or it can manage us.