For some readers of the Gospels, Jesus might appear to be offering two contradictory messages about anger.
On one hand, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus compares the punishment for anger with the judgment facing murderers: “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” (Matt. 6:21-22).
Yet in Jerusalem, He himself seems quite angry at the Pharisees as he pronounces a series of woes on them, even calling them children of hell: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matt 23:15).
What are we to make of these apparently conflicting passages about anger?
Crime and Punishment
Anger is a desire to punish. As a passion, anger itself is neither good nor evil (see CCC, 1767). Anger can be noble if it is directed toward maintaining justice and correcting vice (CCC, 2303). In this case, it is not so much about getting even with the person who hurt us, but about seeking the good of the community and even the good of the person being punished.
This seems to be the kind of anger Jesus has in his confrontation with the Pharisees in Jerusalem. It is his last showdown with his chief opponents who have rejected him as messiah and are about to bring him to his death. In order to show very clearly how dire their situation is, Jesus—out of great love for the Pharisees—sternly warns them of the deadly path they are pursuing. If they persist in their rejection of the Son of God, they will be closing themselves out of the very kingdom Jesus wants to offer to them, and they will lead many of their followers with them. If Jesus did not truly love the Pharisees, he would not warn them of the eternal punishment toward which they are heading. Jesus’ anger, thus, is rooted in love—in desiring what is best for them—as he hopes this clear warning might lead some of them to repent.
Being angry about the right things and in the right way is virtuous. But avoiding anger at all times may be a sign of weakness. St. Thomas Aquinas notes how it is a vice not get angry over things one should. He calls it “unreasonable patience.” A failure to seek punishment of the unjust encourages the wicked to persist in their evil deeds, since there are no reprimands for their actions. It also causes confusion in the community over what is truly right and wrong, and thus may lead even good people to do evil.
Take, for example, the problem of abortion. The killing of innocent babies in the womb is one of the most grave injustices of our times. Thousands of babies are killed each day by abortion in the United States alone. We should be angry about this! We should seek to outlaw abortion in order to protect human life. Yet when Christian leaders fail to condemn abortion and the governmental polices that support it, the abortion industry is encouraged to further its evil practices and even more women and children will suffer. And Christians themselves will become softened and increasingly apathetic about the pro-life cause if they perceive their leaders take a lukewarm stance toward this issue.
Unreasonable patience can take place right in one’s own home. While sinful anger is a difficulty in many families today, the failure to discipline can also be problematic. Remember, anger itself is a desire to punish, and it can be very good if it is rooted in love for the community and for the person who has done wrong—if it is seeking to maintain justice and to correct the vice of the wrongdoer.
This is why parents sometimes need to punish their children when they are misbehaving. Such punishment, of course, should never flow out of frustration, selfishness or rage, and it should always be done moderately. Most of all, it should be rooted in love If a parent truly loves his children, he wants what is best for them, since to love “is to will the good of another” (CCC, 1766). Since virtue and holiness are what is best for our children and is what will equip them for a happy life, parents need to train them in the good habits of the virtuous life. This involves much education, encouragement, example and prayer to be sure. But it also entails discipline.
Failure to discipline will have serious consequences for a child’s future, for they will not be as equipped with the basic human skills—the virtues—they need to navigate through the challenges of life. They will be more prone to act according to their emotions and appetites, and their pleasures and fears, than according to what is truly best.
Dare to Discipline?
Why do parents fail to discipline their children? Some parents have good intentions, but feel uncertain about how to discipline since they did not have good parenting models from their own upbringing. Some might be afraid that, if they punish, their children will not like them. Others might even have a faulty view about punishment being unloving.
Still other parents might simply be lazy. After all, constantly staying on top of our children’s moral development (which is a perpetual endeavor!) and doing so in a loving, relational way is quite demanding. When there’s a cry of injustice between siblings in the basement or a certain tone of voice with a child in the kitchen or a discipline issue brewing in the living room, it’s tempting to downplay it or ignore it all together. Indeed, it is easier to continue to watch that game on TV, or to talk to our friends who are visiting or to check one more email than it is to drop everything to deal with a misbehaving child.
But small acts of misbehavior typically do not go away on their own. When we fail to take time to calmly but firmly discipline children on smaller matters that pop up in the day, unruly conduct progressively gets worse. And when things get out of control, the inattentive parents often end up yelling at their children in frustration as if the problem is primarily the child and not their own negligence in discipline.
Being angry over the right things is important. But we also want to steer clear of the many ways anger can be sinful.
According to Aquinas, anger is sinful, first, when we are angry over the wrong things—over things that are not unjust and thus not worthy of punishment. Some examples: a lazy student who did not study but is angry at his teacher for receiving a poor grade; a family member who is angry that you are not coming home for Thanksgiving dinner even though you are very sick; a child who is angry because you asked them to pick up their toys. None of these people have a just cause for anger; their anger is sinful, for they are angry over the wrong things.
Another way we might fall into sinful anger is in our motives. When someone hurts or upsets us, we might be driven by a vindictive attitude that wants to see that person suffer. Part of us might wish that person failure or harm. We might hope their wrongdoing will be exposed—not for their own good, but merely because we want to see their demise. Virtuous anger, however, seeks the well-being even of one’s enemies. Thus, the virtuous man hopes those who do evil will repent of their wickedness and return to what is good. But when we are sinfully angry, we do not care so much about the soul of the person who hurt us. We just want to see them “get what they deserve.”
Third, our anger can be sinful if it is too fierce. This can happen in two ways. Without saying a word or inflicting any physical harm upon others, we can be too severe internally in our thoughts. This can happen, for example, when we hold a grudge, have too great a displeasure toward someone or secretly wish that person harm. Immoderate anger also can manifest itself externally in the way we act toward a person who upset us if, for example, we respond in a fury over a small matter, if we punish a child too severely, or if we avoid basic courtesy toward the person who hurt us.
Sinful anger in any of these forms is a capital vice in that it gives birth to many other vices. It tends toward sinful thoughts about a person, whereby we have strong displeasure toward him or ill-will. It also leads to sinful speech, as we are more likely to speak injurious words either to his face or behind his back, mocking him, criticizing him or trying to get others to turn against him. Finally, sinful anger can even lead to injurious actions against the person.
This seems to be the kind of anger Jesus was condemning in the Sermon on the Mount—not the virtuous anger that seeks the rehabilitation of evildoers (the anger He had toward the Pharisees), but the vicious anger that seeks the harm of those whom we abhor. Virtuous anger builds up the community by correcting vice. But sinful anger tears it down by merely hoping for the demise of those who hurt us.