Anger is a normal human experience. It’s a function of hurt: scratch one, sniff the other. As we will see with all of these deadlies, the problem is taking them to excess, or to defect. That’s right: the extremes can go in either direction. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, sinful anger is an immoderate and irrational desire for revenge.
It’s funny in a tragic way that even Christians take the Old Testament “eye for an eye” prescription as normative for their own experience—or rather, they take their misreading, and take it long and deep. The original intent was that one should not exact any more than the harm one had incurred: in other words, not a life for an eye, an arm and a leg for an arm. Left to ourselves, Mark Shea writes, “the ancient Israelites were…barbarians just like us.”
Our anger can run hot with explosiveness, hostility, and fury, or it can run cold with denial, resentment, or depression (“anger turned inward”). Left untreated, I think it shows up as the headaches and stomachaches we often get without detectable cause. Anger comes out sideways as sarcasm, which registers very high in these troubled times, especially in the social media. Passive aggression retains the level exterior but thinly masks volatility, lending daggers to smiles.
Anger is very much tied up with unmet expectations, either regarding the past (resentment) or the future (fear). Parents know well the tantrums of childhood that can stop cold shopping, worshipping, or just about any other pursuit. No foe of calculated chaos, I threw my fair share, and repent of it to this day whenever I see one in action. As adults, our tantrums usually just get a bit more sophisticated. They can give quite a rush.
We have to admit the inadequacy of the lex talionis (law of like-for-like), the (un?)intended result of perpetuating the cycle of guilt, shame, and rage in our world. In place of sinful anger, we are invited to insert humility, courage, and forgiveness. In the face of human sin, Jesus responds with anger channeled into mercy. He allows mankind’s violent streak to strike Him, upon the holy and life-giving Cross, where alone it ends up accomplishing untold good.
To Jesus we can offer our own sadness, fear, and resentment—but not “just” to Jesus. What do I mean? We don’t want prayer to become a “holy” way of stuffing down what ends up coming out sideways and shamefully. For me, safe conversation, exercise, and creativity help me deal with life’s real or perceived inequalities. They can help you too.