5th Thought – Anger
I wonder what comes into your mind when you hear the word Anger. Maybe a report of a road rage incident or a drunken youth taking offence at something someone said or did and retaliating violently or the tragic event of the schoolboy stabbed because of a dispute over a biscuit.
Most of us have learnt sufficient self-control that we don’t react in those ways. So when I started to read the chapter on Anger my initial thought was, I’m afraid, a complacent one, that I am not an angry person. Maybe you feel the same. But as we think more deeply it becomes clear that the incidents I spoke of initially are not anger itself but the result of the feeling and emotion of anger and that is something quite different. We may have learnt to control our actions but that doesn’t mean that the emotion and sin of anger are not sometimes present.
In his chapter on Anger, Abbot Christopher starts by looking at psychological approaches to our emotions.
He writes of his personal experience at the time when he was a headmaster: a major development was taking place in the school and he was let down badly by a colleague. He was under a great deal of stress because of this, with extra workload and the feeling of being let down. Eventually he realised that he was suffering from anger and sought professional help .The emphasis on concentrating on his inner self eventually freed him from the anger he had experienced.
One psychological approach to our thinking about anger is that our feelings and reactions are generated by our thoughts and not by the events themselves. An event leads to thoughts that cause us to see that event in a certain way, and that in turn leads to our reaction and behaviour.
As an example, if a friend passes us in the street without speaking we can think, “He’s ignoring me because he doesn’t like me. He’s telling me I’m worthless.” So as a result you feel depressed and avoid him in the future.
Or in the same situation we can think, “He probably has something on his mind and didn’t notice me, he’s a friend whatever state of mind he’s in, I’d like to help him,” which leads to feeling concern for the friend and calling round to see him.
So it is not what other people do but the way we think about it which determines our emotional reaction and behaviour. We are not at the mercy of other people’s actions. They themselves don’t cause our reactions.
We have been learning that finding happiness is about reaching human fulfilment. Abbot Christopher says this: “It is about choosing a belief that will generate the right emotions that will lead to human fulfilment. It is about a way of living that makes discerning choices and believes in taking action to avoid that which is psychologically destructive.”
Happiness is impossible if we are experiencing the emotion of anger. Anger is something to be avoided always. Cassian, the fourth century monk who wrote down many of the teachings of the desert fathers, spoke of anger as a deadly poison, harmful to the one who is angry. He quoted from the scriptures to show that anger destroyed wisdom and judgement and inner contemplation and said that the only time when anger is useful is when we are angry with our own faults and failings. He quoted the passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which we heard this morning:
“In your anger do not sin; do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,”
and emphasised the next verse: “and do not give the devil a foothold.”
He went on to talk about how even if we do not act angrily we may still be harbouring anger in our thoughts and that will mar our relationship with God and block his spirit from us. That’s exactly what Jesus said. Being angry with our brother merits the same judgement as murdering him. That’s a very daunting statement and should certainly stop us short and make us examine our thoughts more carefully.
Cassian commented too on Jesus’ words about reconciliation:
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you. Leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift.”
Those words are often thought of as us needing to be in a good relationship, holding no resentment or anger for others when we come to God, but Cassian pointed out that it is talking about someone being angry with us. “If your brother has something against you.” We cannot pray if we have caused anger in others. We have a responsibility to help them avoid the sin of anger.
But is there a case for rational anger? Anger against injustice or cruelty? Abbot Christopher says no: he argues that it is better to be against all anger, and to support zeal for justice as something quite different. He cites Nelson Mandela who worked tirelessly against apartheid. He had a great zeal for justice yet all he did was without anger, and when apartheid ended and he came to power he continued to have friendly relations with his white jailer. Getting angry about a problem does nothing to change it. If we feel strongly about something we need to actively work to change it.
There is no denying that anger is a major issue in everyday life of individuals and of nations and it is how we handle it that determines our happiness and spiritual well-being.
So when did you last experience anger? Most of us grow from the toddler temper tantrum stage towards a mature attitude which enables us to control our emotions. But the fact that we do not resort to verbal or physical violence does not mean that anger is not present. What matters is how we deal with the situations which have caused us to feel angry. If we continue to harbour angry thoughts we are doing ourselves great damage. The anger festers and has a corroding effect on us and even worse it is a sin which mars our relationship with God.
So the challenge for us today is to identify and recognise the existence of thoughts of anger in ourselves and with God’s help to deal with them, remembering that their very existence is as much a sin as the actions of aggression which might rise from them.
Cassian taught that constant awareness of the interior life was the way to purity of heart. The Devil is only too willing to distract us from this state of mind and bring us to sinful actions if we are not vigilant. Cassian’s advice for us in that situation was to use a verse from the psalms:
“O God come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me.”
We need to remember that however calm and caring an image we present to the rest of the world, God knows our inmost thoughts. We may be able to deceive ourselves into a complacent attitude but we cannot deceive God. We need his help every day to see ourselves as he sees us and to show us where we need his help to change. If we do that we may, as Paul says, “be imitators of God as dearly loved children and live a life of love.”
Sermon by Joy Kiley on Sunday 16th October 2016