The Seven Deadly Sins: Wrath

This post is the fourth in an 8-part series on the Seven Deadly Sins.

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

He was a carpenter, but we have only one example of his workmanship: a whip that He made out of cords (cf. Jn 2:15). It is ironic indeed that the only instance of this meek and humble Carpenter’s handiwork is connected with anger. And He was indeed angry. One hardly supposes that He, whip in hand, politely asked the money-changers to leave. If it was not too much of a problem, that is. And pretty please. No, He held the whip for a reason. Employing that instrument of anger, He drove them out and overturned their tables. But at no moment did He sin.

Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple – Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306

Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple – Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306

“Be angry, but sin not,” the Psalmist says (Ps 4:4). Likewise Saint Paul: “Be angry but do not sin” (Eph 4:26). And then our Lord’s example of sinless anger in the Temple. They all indicate that there is a legitimate form of anger, the passion that prompts us to defend ourselves against a real or perceived threat. As an emotion, anger is in itself morally neutral. What we do with that emotion makes all the difference. It is possible (although perhaps not as easy as we think) to be angry…and not sin. Sometimes anger is the proper response, as our Lord Himself indicates.

But when anger jumps the rails of reason (which it does quite easily), then we have wrath. Saint Thomas observes that the more necessary something is, the more important that it be ruled by reason. Since anger serves one of the most important things — self-preservation — it is all the more important that it be ruled by reason. This powerful instinct for self-preservation, once detached from reason, becomes a dangerous force. So, the passion of anger can be a proper, reasonable response to evil. But the vice of wrath is a train careening off the rails, heading for destruction.

So how does our anger become wrath? First, when we get angry about the wrong things. In our culture we blithely accept the widespread destruction of unborn children, the euthanizing of the elderly, and the evisceration of marriage. Meanwhile we fly off the handle at a perceived slight, out of petty attachment to our possessions, over inconvenience in traffic, etc. Our anger is inordinate because our loves are disordered. We love things rather than persons, our own estimation of ourselves rather than the truth, the things of this world more than those of heaven.

Second, wrath comes from the inordinate expression of our anger. Even in those instances that call for anger, we respond disproportionately. Instead of a stern word, we yell and scream. Rather than correct the action, we correct the person. When a scalpel will do, we launch nuclear weapons. And we justify our excess by pointing to the righteousness of our cause — as if being in the right is a free pass to harshness. In fact, the more just our cause for anger is, the more careful we have to be not to respond excessively.

Like many others, this vice finds a useful instrument in social media. We can electronically liquidate someone fairly quickly. Comment boxes and tweets are full of rants and harsh responses. The electronic world is an easy place to allow our wrath to run free. Worst of all, in that arena we will rarely feel the effects of our wrath. We can rant anonymously and never have to face the fact that we have hurt someone terribly. Inured to the negative effects of our wrath, we never learn to repent and be delivered from it.

Thus, whether by way of its cause or expression, this disordered anger accounts for much of what we see in ourselves: impatience because our Almighty Schedule has been violated…harsh words because we think we have been insulted…lashing out to defend our own insecurity. And the interiorization of all this leads to the grudge — harboring resentment and judgment against another. Consider that: harboring something evil; giving harbor to the enemy…allowing an enemy vessel to drop anchor in our souls.

The virtue that militates against wrath is meekness. Now, most of us would not like to be described as meek. It does not strike us as admirable. We associate meekness with weakness. Heck, they even rhyme. But He Who is the example of all virtue points especially to this quality in Himself: “learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29).

He shows this meekness most of all…in His anger. Meekness makes not milquetoast! Saint Thomas observes that meekness “moderates anger according to right reason.” It is a power, a strength that does not do away with anger but controls and directs it to the good. Thus, it is precisely Jesus’ meekness that restrains His anger in such a way as to keep it within reason. It is still anger…He is still punishing…but there is nothing there unreasonable or sinful.

Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine!

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