Is anger a sin?

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[Exodus 20 vv 1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1 vv 18-25; John 2 vv 13-22]

I have had a number of conversations, in a number of different places this week about sin, and particularly the sin of anger. Some people have maintained that anger is a natural emotion and expressing it is not only not a sin, but actually good for us and our society. In fact, it seems that I am the only person in these conversations who maintains the church’s traditional teaching about anger, so I want to take this opportunity, with the help of other better, theologians to look a little closer at the subject.

But before we look at anger, let us look at sin. Sin, “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law: we have sins of commission (a sinful action) and sins of omission (a sinful failure to perform an action)”. With the word itself probably derived from the Latin sons, sont , meaning “guilty”; definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), but not particularly helpful in our contemplations.

The Oxford companion to Christian Thought, however, describes sin as “denot[ing] human disruption of the relationship between humans and God; working against God’s intention, presence and action in creation and salvation, and causes us confusion concerning, truth, reality and goodness (and thereby our judgements concerning what is good and right) resulting in disorientation in our relationships to ourselves, our bodies, one another and the natural world”.

Or perhaps more simply, sin damages our relationship with God, reduces our ability to see God in the others we meet and live with and ultimately does us harm, both in our bodies and our souls. Sin distances us from God and what he wants for us.

With anger we get a little more help from the OED, which describes the noun as a ‘strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure or hostility’. Well, we probably knew that, but what I didn’t know is that the word is derived from old Norse, angra which means to “vex” – a similar definition to what we think of now, but originally coming from angr which means “grief”. Our use changed from the latter to the former in late middle ages. Wrath – another word for anger used in the bible – has old English and German roots and is related to the Dutch word for ‘cruel’.

Aristotle recognised three forms of anger;

  • a sudden loss of temper;
  • long lasting resentment; and
  • the anger that seeks vengeance.

The desert Mothers and Fathers made no distinction between good and bad anger, maintaining that anger is always a barrier to prayer and thus to our relationship with God.

Cassian, building of the teaching of the same Mothers and Fathers, describes anger as “a deadly poison which must be rooted out from the utmost corners of the soul”, and maintains that “as long as this virus abides within us, it blinds us to reality and deprives us of the ability to decide rationally”.

Gregory, shortly after Cassian, however, thought that anger was appropriate in rebuking vice.

Thomas Aquinas describes anger as “one of the more unstable of passions where feelings lead to words and on to actions”. Anger leads to hatred and leads to harm.

Dante condemns the unrepentantly angry to the fourth level of hell: if violently angry they are condemned to continual, eternal fighting, and if resentfully angry, to an eternity beneath the surface of the river Styx, where their resentment literally bubbles up from their mouths.

Christopher Jamison of the “Monastery” TV series, in his book Finding Happiness, notes that “anger, though directed at others wounds the self most of all and is ultimately self destructive” and further that we “have no business hating ourselves, resenting others or intending harm to ourselves – which is precisely what we do when we hate, resent or harm others”.

Scripture gives us further leads:

Exodus: 10 commandments, all those ‘thou shalt not’s……,’

there shall be no other Gods, no idols, no profaning the name of God, no working on the Sabbath, no murder, no adultery, no theft, no false witness, no coveting, you must honour your Father and Mother.

All of these actions – as with Thomas Aquinas – come from the thoughts that we have. It is lust that precedes adultery, greed or envy that precedes theft and anger that precedes murder.

We, as Christians, are called not to operate as the world operates. St Paul reminds us in the first letter to the Corinthians that “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” – that “God will destroy the wisdom of the wise”, and that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, foolishness to gentiles but to those who are being saved, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God”.   The world in its wisdom tries to persuade us that humans know better.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus himself talks of anger and its’ consequences, (Matthew 5 vv 21-26), saying that those who murder will be liable to judgement, but also that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgement, if you insult them you will be liable to the council, and if you call them a fool, you will be condemned to the hell of fire. The message here is surely that we should remove all vestiges of anger from our thoughts and actions.

So what of overturning the tables in the Temple we read in John? We should not be surprised to find these goings on, of course you would find people selling sheep and cattle, doves in the Temple, and the money changers making it all possible. This was what was required of the temple system, sacrifices had to be made, they had to be pure and so outside the normal system of exchange and trade. What Jesus does in his zeal, is to render the old system redundant, these sacrifices are no longer required, because it is He that will be the final sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. This final sacrifice is free to all, there is no longer any need for the system.

But what would be Jesus’ motivation for turning the tables over, we assume He is angry, but there is no mention of emotions in John or the three other versions of these events recorded in the synoptic Gospels; indeed anger would be contrary to his own teaching on the subject. And a whip would be useful – as it continues to be today – in moving the cattle, sheep et al from the temple precincts.

So I would argue that Jesus was not angry as in vexed, and if there was any emotion at all, it would be a sense of grief, grief that his people were locked into a system – a system which was potentially abusive and that would ultimately do them no good.

A final thought. Jesus says earlier in Matthew 5, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. To be blessed is to be closer to God, closer to God’s heart; to mourn is to grieve for the gaps and distortions in our society and for those who are affected by them; and we are only comforted when we take it upon ourselves to do something about it. Jesus did precisely this. In our journey of discipleship, our attempts to emulate him, what is it that we need to do?

Shrove Tuesday – A New Beginning

The day before the Christian season of Lent begins has traditionally been a time for an examination of conscience and for using up or putting away all those things that might distract us in the coming weeks from recognising the love of God that is ever present with us (hence the giving up of some foods and using them in a final blow-out by making pancakes).

This blog is intended to be a place where I share some of my reflections on my journey as a disciple of Jesus Christ, but not more than once each week.  But Who am I?

I am a husband and father, a priest in the Church of God, and responsible for four country parishes in East Northamptonshire, England.  I love my life, my family, all the highs and lows of parish ministry and am fascinated by many things: Land-rovers, mountains, poems and music, St Benedict, ancient churches and people.  I see my role within the community as one of saving souls, trying to bring to my own life a peace and tranquility that I can share with others – but I am no expert, each day I begin again.

Any views I express here are my own, and I hope we can exchange thoughts on how to make our world a better place.  I will accept robust debate but expect that our exchanges will recognise my view that each of us is created in the image of God, that we are called to love him and our neighbour and so expect our posts will reflect that.

In case you are wondering, food is one of the things I struggle to control so this lent I will be giving up chocolate and eating between meals and adding to my usual cycle of prayer and meditation the reading of “Meeting God in Mark” by Rowan Williams.

Every Blessing for a Holy Lent

Fr Colin