by V. Rev. Fr. Dimitri Cozby
St. Anthony the Great Mission
San Antonio, TX


"'Be angry but do not sin'; do not let the sun go down on your anger and give no opportunity to the devil" (Ephesians 4: 26-27).

The first words of this passage from one of Saint Paul's letters quotes the Psalms (Psalm 4:4). It presents us with something of a puzzle. How can we be angry without falling into sin? We generally consider the stirring of anger within us to be wrong. If we are really honest, we must admit that every convulsion of this emotion leaves us with an aching conscience and the sad awareness that we have not felt or behaved as God would want.

The Apostle would certainly encourage such feelings. In Galatians 5:19-23, he lists anger among "the works of the flesh", that is, as products of our fallen and passionate state. He then contrasts them with "the fruit of the Spirit," the change in our lives as we grow in grace. These virtues — "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control" — are definitely not characteristic of a person embroiled in anger. The Apostle presents them both as the means by which we cast out anger and the other passions and as the characteristics of our new way of life, free from passions.

Our Lord goes a step further: He makes anger the equivalent of murder: "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire" (Matthew 5:21-22). Our Lord's words receive confirmation from our very first encounter with anger in the Bible, in the account of the killing of Abel by his brother Cain. "The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell" (Genesis 4:4-5). Out of the first anger sprang the first murder.

The Fathers tell us that anger is not a natural human trait. Saint Gregory of Sinai notes that the fall introduced the corruption of sin into human existence, and that sin sets up an unnatural conflict between body and soul. Without divine grace, coupled with particular watchfulness on our part, the body prevails in this struggle, and the soul loses control. Then we are driven by our physical instincts, and many of our natural virtues were corrupted into vices. He singles out especially anger and lustful desire as perversions of courage and love, respectively. To restore peace to our lives we must return the soul to its rightful supremacy, so that, cleansed by repentance and fortified by divine grace, it may lead us into righteousness.

One obstacle to overcoming anger is our tendency to lay blame for it on someone else. We make others' transgressions, real or imaginary, the excuse for our anger. "X makes me so mad," we say, or "Y did something bad to me (or to someone else)." In reality, we are merely denying our responsibility for our own passions. Saint John Cassian asserts that other people cannot be the sole source of our anger because, if left alone, we find ourselves getting angry even at inanimate objects: Chairs that get in our way, light bulbs that burn out, buttons that will not button, all become targets for our displeasure.

Saint John does not deny that others may injure us or innocent third parties, and that, in such cases, righteous indignation may be justified. He points out, however, that properly assessing these situations requires clear spiritual vision. Anger, however, clouds our spiritual insight; it "excludes the splendor of the radiance of the Holy Spirit." Thus, we may not have the discretion or the discernment to know if our anger is truly righteous indignation or merely unrighteous wrath. "Nobody," he observes, "however unreasonably he is disturbed, would say that he was angry without cause … Therefore, the athlete of Christ ought to root out the feeling of wrath." Besides, our progress in virtue should not and cannot depend on others becoming righteous. "That we are not angry ought not to result from another's perfection but from our own virtue, which is acquired through our own forbearance, and not through another's patience."

Saint Anthony echoes these thoughts: "We should not become angry with those who sin, even if what they do is criminal and deserves punishment. On the contrary, for the sake of justice we ought to correct and, if need be, punish them ourselves or get others to do so. But we should not become angry or excited, for anger acts only in accordance with passion, and not in accordance with good judgment and justice...The wicked must be punished for the sake of what is good and just, but not as a result of the personal passion of anger." Too often our anger arises from a thirst for vengeance, not from the desire to see justice done.

Anger's true origin lies within us, in our own passions. Saint Nilus the Ascetic says that anger is akin to gluttony; both result from our craving for personal physical pleasure and psychological self-satisfaction. When these yearnings are thwarted, however trivial the desired object may be, we become angry.

Even more frequently, anger springs from injured pride. Saint Maximos says, "whatever a man loves he clings to, and in order not to lose it rejects everything that keeps him from it." Although Saint Maximos recognized "self-love" as "the mother of the passions," he accuses it of being the particular cause of "anger, irritation, rancor, and so on." The Scriptures too link anger with pride, as we see in Proverbs 29:22-23: "A man of wrath stirs up strife, and a man given to anger causes much transgression. A man's pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor."

If we should not direct our anger even at those guilty of transgressions, how should be understand Saint Paul's and the Psalmist's words, "Be angry but do not sin"? We convert anger from sin by properly directing it. Saint John Chrysostom says that anger can be put to good use by turning it against our own sinfulness and against temptation. "Anger is implanted in us," he says, "as a sort of sting, to make us gnash our teeth against the devil, to make us vehement against him, not to set us in array against each other … Are you prone to anger? Be so against your own sins: chastise your soul, scourge your conscience, be a severe judge, and merciless in your sentence against your own sins. This is the way to turn anger to account."

Above all, we must direct our anger away from others. Saint Maximos says we begin by becoming "indifferent to fame, dishonor, and material things." Desire is our preference for things of the flesh over those of the spirit and for the visible and transitory over the eternal. "The reason why you fight against your brother is clearly because you seek after transitory things and prefer them to the commandment of love." When we put to death such desire, we root out anger at its source.

We must also overcome pride. In part we do so by increasing awareness of our own sins and directing our anger against them, as discussed above. Pride is also subdued by submission to the first great commandment, to love the Lord your God with all our heart. Saint Mark the Ascetic advise us to keep Christ's humility ever before us. He reminds us of our Lord's incarnation, beginning with His humble birth in a cave and culminating in His death on the Cross — all of which He undertook out of love for us and for our salvation. He concludes, "Can anyone keep perpetually in mind the humiliation that the Divinity of the only-begotten Son accepted for our sake, and all the sufferings that we mentioned, and yet be so hard and stony-hearted as not to be shattered, humbled, and filled with remorse? … Then what anger, wrath or bitterness can take possession of us?"

We must remember also the other great commandment, love of neighbor. Saint John of Damascus says that we destroy anger "by goodwill and love for all men." Saint Maximos, speaking of the vices in general, affirms that "love and self-control overcome both kinds (of passions), the first curbing the passions of the soul and the second those of the body." Saint John Chrysostom asserts that we turn our anger against the devil "when we are merciful to those of our own spiritual family and are peaceably disposed to one another."

Our Lord, who turned His own violent, unjust death into the means of salvation, can also give us the power to turn our anger against itself, to wreak havoc both on itself and on a host of other passions. He who "trampled down death by death" will also enable us to root out sin by sin. May we find the insight and courage to use our anger, not to harm ourselves and others, but to lay siege instead to vice and temptation. And may our hearts be filled henceforth with the Savior's love and peace.

From The Dawn
Newspaper of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America
March 1998