The Beast of Anger

The spiritual-cognitive component of anger were long recognized by our Church Holy Fathers, Saint Basil the Great recognized the loss of reason in anger. “It makes a man completely bestial…in fact, it does not even allow him to be a man at all, because he no longer has the help of his reason.”

An interesting spiritual issue arises in this context. In order for us to perceive ourselves to be “intruded on” to the extent that it justifies, anger, vengeance, and retaliation we have to see ourselves as ‘important.’ Saint Basil the Great tells us “Anger nurses a grievance. The soul, itching for vengeance, constantly tempts us to repay those who have offended” (Saint Basil the Great, Homily 10). I am so important, so above others, I have the “right” to act uncharitably toward others.

What is the root of this reaction? The passion and sin of pride. Saint Mark, the Ascetic (Philokalia V. I) wrote: “The passion is strengthened especially by pride. And as long as it is so strengthened it cannot be destroyed…Thus the structure of evil in the soul is impossible to destroy so long as it is rooted firmly in pride.” From the Shephard of Hermas (Book II Commandment 5) who saw the Holy Spirit choked by anger: “For he is choked by the vile spirit, and cannot attend on the Lord as he wishes, for anger pollutes him. For the Lord dwells in long-suffering, but the devil in anger.” Abba (Father) Agathon wrote that anger can produce spiritual death: “An irascible man, even if he is capable of raising the dead, will not be received into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Another holy desert Father Abba (Father) Poimen saw anger as obliterating he who would consider himself a monk: “A complaining, vindictive monk, prone to anger, cannot exist.” That is to say that, any who have such faults are not actually monks, even if they wear the schema.”

Mankind is created in the image of God and as creatures of God, we are called to be “like” Him. (Genesis 1:26). The Church Holy Fathers define the image of God in us as our free will and intelligence. To be like Him meant that mankind must choose “the good.” For our first parents, choosing good was to obey their Creator — not to make themselves into gods by tasting the fruit of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). Noting mankind coveted a spiritual power above its created nature Blessed Augustine interpreted this passage to mean that Adam and Eve thought of themselves as having the knowledge of God.

When God further revealed His Will in the form of the Law: the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-21), and other proscriptions listed for His people. When the fullness of time had come and God sent His “Only Begotten Son” our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, He revealed to us the fullness of what it was to be “like” Him. Our Lord tells us “And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you so you must love one another” (St. John 13:34, 35).

What greater love could the Father have for us that even though He is God, nevertheless, send His Son to take on our nature so we — all mankind — can be lifted up to Him? “For God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son: that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (St. John 3:16). Let us ponder some of the things our Lord has told us about love. “If you forgive the faults of others your Heavenly Father will forgive you. If you do not forgive the faults of others, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you” (St. Matthew 6:14-16). “My son your sins are forgiven” (St. Mark 2:5). “If you want to avoid judgment, stop passing judgment” (St. Matthew 7:1).

How do we achieve this love shown to us by the Father and His Son, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ?  Saint Paul tells us: “Get rid of all bitterness, all passion, and anger, harsh words, slander and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God as has forgiven you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:31). Our calling as part of God’s creation, as a member of Christ’s body, the Church, is to grow and actualize ourselves; to find those imperfections in us that are barriers preventing us from being “like God”; that prevents us from loving and forgiving. In keeping with Saint Paul’s words, our emotions, such as anger, are just such an imperfection or barrier. By making ourselves less angry we can grow in the love of God and our neighbor.

Current research psychology has helped us understand cognitive structure supporting and triggering anger. Besides aiding in helping us to understand how anger comes about, this research also helps us to employ psychological techniques that can aid in overcoming and preventing anger. The cognitive-behavioral model of emotional dysfunction has been shown to be effective in this regard…

We upset ourselves over people and events, by our “interpretations” of them, thereby making ourselves dysfunctionally angry, anxious or depressed or simply functionally annoyed, concerned and disappointed. If our thinking is clear, rational and non-distorted we have normal feelings like bearable nuisances, caring and livable letdowns. If our “interpretations” are irrational or distorted we get enraged, intensely worried and despondent.

From a spiritual perspective, we are to reflect on the life of our Lord. He was bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, and died for our salvation. He Himself told us: No servant is greater than his master (St. Matthew 10:24)–why would we expect to be treated any differently than our Lord. It is a blessing if we are treated and honored, but we have no guarantee…

“…We can reflect on the words of Saint Mark the Ascetic: “Do you want the tree of disorder–I mean the passion of bitterness, anger, and wrath–to dry up within you and become barred so that with the ax of the Spirit it may be ‘new down and cast into the fire’ together with every vice (Matthew 3:10)…If this is really what you want keep the humility of the Lord in your heart and never forget it…Call to mind Who He is, and what He became for our sakes. Reflect first on the Divine Light of His Divinity revealed to the essence above [the Angels] (Ephesians 1:21)…Then think to what humiliation He descended in his ineffable goodness, becoming in all respects like us who were dwelling in the dwelling of darkness and the shadow of death (St. Matthew 4:16).” Petition our Lord’s help in this way to help restructure.

This “time-out” can be accomplished by something as simple as going to the restroom. Restructuring should also be incorporated into evening prayer, especially during the examination of conscience and prayer for forgiveness of sins. This active approach toward our becoming like Christ is our vocation as Christians. Saint James tells us “So you see, then, it is his actions that a person is put right with God, not by his faith alone” (St. James 2:24). All the wishing or prayer we do, if it does not lead us to actively make ourselves like Christ is empty.

“Since you are God’s dear children you must try to be like Him, Your life must be controlled by love…” (Ephesians 5:1-2). Work, vivified by prayer and sacraments, is the way to advance in our likeness in Christ. Only then will we be able to say with Christ: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (St. Luke 23:34). This is true anger management.

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