One of my favorite movies of all time is “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” a story about a genetically engineered superhuman (Khan) who has a Captain Ahab-like obsession with revenge against Admiral Kirk for marooning him some 15 years earlier.
Wrath, of course, is another name for anger. Traditionally, wrath is the word used to refer to one of the seven deadly sins, and for good reason. However, wrath and anger are not the same thing. Anger is a common human emotion, something that we all experience. Wrath, on the other hand, is anger out of control.
Unlike anger, wrath cannot be confused with feelings such as irritation, annoyance or displeasure. Wrath is an inordinate and uncontrolled feeling of hatred and anger. As such, it is the deadliest of the deadly sins because it can so quickly lead to violence, whether physical or verbal.
Accepting the notion that anger is a deadly sin can be difficult because we all experience anger. The truth is, we can experience the feeling of anger to a degree without entering into the realm of sin. It is when we experience an excess of this feeling or allow it to take control of us (rather than us controlling it) that we encounter danger.
Angry vs. fierce
Despite what seems to be a bevy of biblical examples of God’s anger, the people of Israel continued to express a very different personal experience of their God as one who is “slow to anger,” a description of God that appears over a dozen times in the Old Testament.
Likewise, the New Testament provides us with an example of Jesus apparently showing anger as he cleansed the temple of the money changers.
How can we reconcile Jesus’ apparent anger with the notion of anger being a deadly sin? First, we don’t know that Jesus was angry. We do not have a description of his inner state of mind. What we do have is a description of bold behavior and fierce action.
There is a difference between being angry and being fierce. In fact, Jesus’ disciples describe his actions in this scene as reminiscent of a passage from Scripture: “Zeal for thy house will consume me” (Ps 69:10).
In other words, the disciples characterized Jesus’ demeanor as being zealous, not angry. Jesus’ anger, if indeed it is anger, is not designed to bring harm to the money changers nor is it motivated by hatred or a need for vengeance. Anger that is righteous, properly channeled and not driven by hatred is not considered sinful.
When is it a sin?
So, practically speaking, what kind of anger are we talking about that is worthy of the description, “deadly?” While anger is a natural emotion, we need to remember that even moderate anger can hurt others. We venture into the realm of sin when our anger translates into words or actions that hurt others.
Anger management specialists teach us to own our feelings and to express them in “I” statements rather than in accusatory “you” statements. From my own example as a catechist, there’s a big difference between me saying to my classes, “I’m really getting angry that some of you are not taking class seriously,” and “Stop it! You guys are acting like idiots!”
The former expresses a valid human emotion, the latter is an accusatory statement that can result in hurt feelings. This type of anger can venture into “deadly” territory meaning that it can lead to a total disruption of our relationship with God and neighbor.
When our anger flares into wrath, becomes inordinate, uncontrolled and motivated by hatred or vengeance, it can lead to words or actions that may bring irreparable harm to others.
To counteract our angry impulses, we can turn to the virtues of gentleness and patience. Anger is something expressed without thinking. Gentleness and patience enable us to pause and think before we act.
St. Paul, believed by some to have had a temper of his own, wisely advised, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger” (Eph 4:26). He realized that, as human beings, we all experience anger. It is an act of holiness, however, to acknowledge that anger and to control it, tempering it with patience so that our actions flow from loving and not sinful attitudes.
At the end of “The Wrath of Khan,” Khan’s wrath, directed toward Kirk, resulted in his own death, fulfilling what Proverbs 19:19 predicts: “A man of great wrath will pay the penalty.” Studies at the Harvard Medical School show that “angry” people are three times more likely to suffer heart attacks by age 55 and three times more likely to develop forms of heart disease! Bottom line? Chill out.
Paprocki is the national consultant for faith formation for Loyola Press in Chicago.