For this Lenten season, I finally decided to confront one of the deadly sins that has beguiled me since childhood: sinful anger. Over the years my anger has waxed and waned, but it has been an ever present struggle and a constant sin for me to Confess. The reasons for why this anger developed doesn’t matter so much as how I learn to deal with it now. Lent is a time to reach deeper into holiness and that means confronting our deepest vices, so that we can live in conformity with the virtues. For me to go deeper into Christ I must learn to abandon sinful anger.
Anger can come about for many reasons: the state of the world, past hurts, childhood, chronic pain or illness (this may very well be mitigated depending), hormone issues, habit, and a variety of other reasons. The common denominator is that we are the only ones with the power to banish sinful anger from our lives. It is very difficult to parse righteous anger from sinful anger within ourselves because the passions have such an integral part to play in our responses. I have often claimed righteous anger when it was clearly sinful anger that occurred within me. In order to help me on my Lenten journey and the journey I will walk for the rest of my days on this earth, I picked up a copy of Fr. T.G. Morrow’s wonderful book, Overcoming Sinful Anger. He cuts right to the chase with the title and he doesn’t mince words in the book either. He provides the fraternal correction far too many of us need, even though it is difficult to confront this ugliness within ourselves. The pain, humiliation, and struggle are necessary, but will be rewarded.
What is Sinful Anger?
Chapter One of Morrow’s book begins with a couple of clear definitions of sinful anger. Anger in itself is a feeling of “displeasure” typically. Feelings are neutral, it is how we respond to them that matters. Anger in the beginning is an emotional response and not sinful in itself. Quoting Henry Fairlie in his book The Seven Deadly Sins Today, the first definition of sinful anger is:
Anger as a deadly sin is ‘a disorderly outburst of emotion connected with the inordinate desire for revenge’…It is likely to be accompanied by surliness of heart, by malice aforethought, and above all by the determination to take vengeance.
Does this sound familiar? How about when that man or woman cut you off in traffic and you cursed under your breath? Or when you yelled at your spouse for some failure or when they didn’t meet your expectations? Perhaps it is the silent treatment you gave to your father or mother for days, months, or years? How about when you yelled at your children? Or even attacked people on social media? I’ve done all of these things and I am not proud of it, not in the least. Sinful anger is a major impediment to our eschatological goal of seeing the Beatific Vision. We cannot walk the path to Heaven with a heart frozen by anger.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is even more blunt about sinful anger:
By recalling the commandment, “You shall not kill,” our Lord asked for peace of heart and denounced murderous anger and hatred as immoral.
Anger is a desire for revenge. “To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit,” but it is praiseworthy to impose restitution “to correct vices and maintain justice.” If anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin. The Lord says, “Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.”
Injuring our neighbor does not only include physical violence. It also includes slanderous gossip, plotting to harm someone emotionally, in reputation, or in retaliation, passive-aggressive behavior, explosions of temper, and using vicious words towards persons.
Common Reasons for Anger
In his book, Fr. Morrow goes through some of the common causes of anger and angry behavior. They are: A need for power and control, pride or a refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions, and habit. It is important in the latter to understand that sinful habits have to change and something learned in childhood is not an excuse to continue on in sinful anger.
Power and Control
Many people who struggle with sinful anger battle an inordinate desire for power and control over other people, whether it be within the family, workplace, church community, or other areas of life. Often these individuals will use manipulation techniques to get what they want. This can be through explosive outburst that essentially beat someone into submission emotionally or through passive-aggressive techniques like the silent treatment. Neither of these are born of charity and are in great violation of charity. Love requires the free will of the other person and manipulation aims at barring the will of the individual from making a free choice. In order to properly order love, we must be willing to allow for others to make choices we do not agree with or even like. We do not have power over other people’s choices. We only have power over our own choices, and if we desire holiness, then we need to learn to love freely without a desire for power and control over others.
The root of all other sins is pride. Pride is our desire to be God. We want to always be right and to never take responsibility for our own failures, mistakes, or to accept the choices of others. Pride is often like the sin of the Pharisee who is thankful that he is not like him or her. Pride is destructive and it is a deadly sin along with anger for a reason: It greatly impedes the spiritual life. Pride is the anti-thesis of Christ. Humility is the proper stance for human beings before God and in dealing with other people. Humility is not self-deprecation; it is a proper ordering of one’s self in relation to God. Pride is destructive in marriages. It leaves couples at a stalemate and never solves serious problems. We have to be willing to admit our own failings before God, our spouse, friends, other family, and even our children. Frequent Confession is essential in that it guides us through the sins we struggle with daily and gives us the grace to overcome them. If you struggle with pride, anger, or any of the other deadly sins, consider more frequent Confession such as monthly, bi-monthly, or weekly. Nobody ever regrets frequent Confession. Most of our recent Holy Fathers have gone weekly or bi-weekly.
Unfortunately, not every child is given a good example from their parents in these matters and we learn anger at a young age. Parents are broken, just like us. My own experience of parenthood opened me up to the realization of how hard it is to be responsible for the physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual well-being of another “embodied spirit” like myself. For parents who fail to recognize the destructive power of sinful anger for their children, it then becomes habitual and a serious impediment to their child’s relationships in adulthood. However, no matter our situation growing up, we are no longer in that situation and we must move past those hurts in order to overcome this sinful habit. We have to be willing to desire happiness over our learned habits. All virtue comes through habit and sinful anger can be overcome by establishing new habits.
The first is by making a concerted effort to stop yelling or using passive-aggressive behavior. It will require focus and control of our emotions. We have to be willing to think before we act in a situation that makes us angry. We also need to be willing to walk away when a situation requires it rather than let our pride keep a fight going. Second, we need prayer. Overcoming a deadly sin means a reliance upon fervent prayer and the realization that only God can truly release us from this sin and give us the grace to overcome it. Third, as I already said Confession is so important. This is a much underutilized Sacrament and the one in which God reaches down into our hurts as the Divine Physician and binds our wounds, including our woundedness from sinful anger. Fourth, we must forgive past hurts and move forward. We cannot blame our childhood, a priest, the state of the world, ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, terrible boss, childhood bully, or any other person for our sinful anger. We are responsible for how we respond. It’s time to let it go and focus on a new habit free of sinful anger that leads to beatitude.
Mary, Queen of Peace
I am still working through Fr. Morrow’s book and I ask for your prayers as I go through this difficult Lenten journey. I will be praying for all of you. It is always painful to confront our failings, but an absolutely necessary part of the spiritual life. I decided that I need a spiritual guide on this journey. My regular Confessor is Redemptorist and he is always telling me to foster a deeper connection to Our Lady. I decided to follow his advice and adopt Mary under her title, Queen of Peace, to guide me in my journey of moving away from sinful anger and deeper into virtue. This title is a reminder that sinful anger robs others and me of peace. She can show me the way to peace as I abandon the tumult of sinful anger. Mary never lets us down and she will always take us to her Son. Another good title to use if you are searching for her as a spiritual guide would be Mary, Undoer of Knots, which is a devotion our Holy Father has to her. Under this title we can pray for her to undo these sinful knots of anger that are binding us.
Looking deep inside at the dark areas within us is a difficult task. It hurts and wounds. It is how Our Lord prunes us so that we might flourish within the Mystical Body. If you struggle with sinful anger, now is the time to confront it and work to overcome it, by the grace of God. We were made for happiness and we cannot be happy if we are enslaved by anger. Let us search in earnest for ‘the peace that surpasses all understanding.’ May God bless you on your journey.