Archpriest Igor Fomin, Rector of the house church of St. Alexander Nevsky on the premises of the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs, answers a reader’s question on “How to manage anger”.
Question: Father Igor, I think that not only the letter’s author but also many people who consider themselves Christians and aspire to learn patience are restrained solely by willpower. So are they following the wrong path?
Answer: Patience is certainly a great virtue. We know how much attention was paid to it by the Savior Himself in His sermons: by your patience possess your souls (Luke 21:19) and by His disciples: …rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer (Romans 12:12). Like any perfect virtue, patience does not come to a person at once: …giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-8). Patience is instilled in people. It is also granted only when they make an effort.
His Holiness Patriarch does not consider the attempt to control one’s emotions with clenched fists and teeth to be a supreme virtue. Naturally, it has nothing to do with true patience, because it is possible to restrain oneself by willpower not only for a good reason, but also out of cowardice, sycophancy, meanness and so on.
The simplest example: I did not respond to some of my boss’s comments, but I exploded because of exactly the same comments from my loved ones. In the boss’s case it was nothing short of sycophancy, it was the patience directed at oneself, at one’s comfort. However, the letter’s author writes about something else. When you think about your spiritual world, when you understand that you want to live differently, that you want to love, respect, heed advice, and not to get angry at your loved ones, not to respond to every remark of your abusers: of course, you have to start somewhere, you have to take the first step. The attempt to restrain your emotions by willpower is exactly the first step on the path to the virtue of patience. This stage, let us say, is psychological and not spiritual. This is only learning: not a product, not a result of an action, but only a path to action. Yet without going through this stage we will not understand how to proceed.
Hence a young person who clenches their teeth is on the right track. At the same time, one should ask themselves a question: how long will you keep yourself on a short leash so as not to explode? If a saucepan is completely covered and there is no space for steam to escape from, then it will simply explode from the pressure growing inside. In similar fashion a person suffers again and again, and then goes ballistic.
The conclusion is the following: yes, absolutely. If you want to be like a Christian, you need to clench your teeth. I wish to stress the word “like” here. However, having learned not to repay evil with evil, one must also learn to fight this evil. Not externally, but within oneself. This is another step on our path to virtue.
Question: What is the fundamental difference between patience with clenched teeth and patience as a Christian virtue?
Answer: The fundamental difference is that patience as a virtue justifies another person in their actions. A loving person always finds justification. Such patience sees a benefit for the neighbor and not for themselves in any given situation.
Let us suppose, a mother-in-law is patient with her incompetent daughter-in-law. She does not say anything bad about her neither in her face nor behind her back. On the contrary, she showers her with love, justifies her, “It is okay, it is okay, she will get the hang of everything eventually. She will learn to cook, iron the shirts, and keep the house in order”. This is the patience with another person with their habits, behavior, and inexperience. This attitude to people will certainly yield good results.
When a person is patient in a Christian way, they do not clench their teeth, but understand that in any unpleasant situation, whether it is a provocation, a frame-up, or a slander, they get what they deserve and through such situations they are taught by God who loves them. Then a person accepts these circumstances with humility, joy, and gratitude.
I believe, His Holiness was talking about exactly this state of mind. He rightly pointed out that if God had meant clenched fists by patience, it would have been too plain and primitive.
This is not what God expects of us. He does not want sacrifices but mercy, that is a sweet heart that loves and justifies every single person. After all, it is not the patience with abusers that God calls us to have in the Gospel. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. (Luke 6:27–28), – says Christ.
The virtue of patience has nothing to do with restrained aggression, anger, and hatred. It is about love. Perfect patience does not leave scars, resentment, and misunderstanding of what is going on. It exalts humiliated people, raises them to a new level of a spiritual life.
Question: Let us start from the very beginning. A person tries to be a Christian and realizes: yes, I am irritable, I am ready to respond to every word offensive to me that is said by my family and friends; I am quarrelsome, but I want to change my ways. How do I do that? What steps are there on the path to learning true patience?
Answer: The number of steps will probably differ for everyone and it is important for me as a spiritual father and a priest to understand the reasons of these negative emotions in a person. Therefore, I cannot give the same advice to everyone. I can only share my own experience.
At some point I caught myself thinking that no matter how kind and nice I seemed from the outside, I am irritable, touchy, and quarrelsome inside and towards the closest ones and I am not patient at all.
Then I understood: water boils in a teapot until you turn off the fire. If you do not do anything to the fire, a teapot will simply burn down. The same goes for anger: it boils inside me until I tackle the reason of this boiling.
Otherwise, my emotional expansiveness may lead to my downfall, my spiritual death. When I realized this, I was terrified. Then I started trying to solve this problem.
How? The best cure for anger is prayer, of course. I started trying to fervently pray to God so that He helped me to cope with negative emotions that were inside me and sometimes got unleashed on my loved ones. I confessed these sins and at the same time tried to be patient clenching my teeth and fists. This is what the letter’s author wrote about.
It has to be said that such patience did not bring me any happiness or satisfaction. However, at least to some extent I understood that my attempt to be patient brings peace to my relationships with loved ones and to my own life. There has been a dawning realization that one clenches their teeth not for some benefit, but for the sake of their spiritual state. It eased my soul so much! I remember having a need to look for what the Gospel and the church’s Holy Fathers say about patience.
I slowly began to clumsily, as best I could, apply this in my life. At this stage I realized that I did not want to stop, that I wanted to continue: to continue with a thirst to learn the virtue of patience and to secure it in my heart.
Of course, this path can inevitably go downhill. The most important thing to do is to get up, to repent, and to continue trying to improve.
Perhaps, you experience special feelings when the parable of the prodigal son from the Gospel translates into your reality. When God allows you like a prodigal son to take a journey “into a far country”, to show anger and your true self. It is for you too realize that you are nothing without God. Then you weep for your sins, repent and try to improve with all your heart, to return to the Father.
Sometimes you wonder: are saints the only people who could have the true Christian patience or are there such people in our mortal life? You realize that perhaps truly patient people are those who are always joyful. They are like that not because they do not have problems: it may be that they have more of them than we do. They are like that because they know how to live with them. This is what patience is.
Question: So, in your opinion, is it possible for a person to deal with their anger alone?
Answer: Of course, it is. We know that sometimes God gives us what we ask for just like that, without any “ifs”. However, one needs to try hard occasionally. If you set this goal, start looking for what the Holy Fathers and the Holy Scriptures say about anger, then with due time you will get a clear picture of the sin to which you drew your attention. This is what an independent study of the problem is. It always takes more time than, let us say, studying with an experienced teacher. Therefore, pastoral counseling, which has a long history, shows that the experience is certainly better learned from those who have got through these or other temptations and trials. This path is easier to get through with a spiritual father.
Last but not least, an attempt to cope with an ailment is impossible for Christians without church: without prayer, without confession, and without Holy Communion. For some people the help of a professional psychologist would be useful. Yet it is essential for the psychologist to be a like-minded person, even a church person if possible. Then what you will discuss will not diverge from what you will hear from a spiritual father or read in the Scripture. There are many fields and schools in psychology, and some of them are ideologically far from Christianity. Therefore, it is very important to find such a psychologist, communication with whom will not be harmful.
Question: Is there some phrase which is the most striking to you associated with patience from the Holy Scripture or from the Holy Fathers that you are constantly turning to?
Answer: Certainly. But he who endures to the end will be saved (Matthew 10:22). We think of salvation not as deliverance from sin, but as being with Christ. In order to be truly blessed, joyful, and happy, that is to be with Christ, one can be patient a lot indeed.
Interviewed by Daria Barinova
Translated by Julia Frolova