How often do you change your mind about something? I mean, really change your mind? A few years ago I had the privilege of co-authoring a book on Orthodox Christian Marriage with Ireni Attia, and one of the things we discussed was anger. My initial attitude was that anger has no place in a truly healthy, happy relationship. But working with a professional in Ireni, she helped me to realise that anger is a very normal human emotion that is neither good or bad in itself. It is how you use it that matters. The more I thought about it, the more I realised she is right: psychologically, biblically, and philosophically.
It is a basic psychological principle that merely suppressing or burying very real feelings inside us is never good. The fact is, I get angry, and to pretend otherwise can only cause harm to my own mental health, and to my relationships. Such a denial is unsustainable in the long term. But I’ll leave the psychological dimension to the experts (you can check out Ireni’s section in the book).
Biblically, I was astonished that I never picked up on this before. Our modern sensitivities tend to downplay the anger inherent in Christ’s driving moneychangers from the temple:
Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” (Matthew 21:12–13).
I simply cannot imagine Jesus gently strolling up to the moneychanging table, smiling and passing a few polite pleasantries, and then taking permission: “Would you mind terribly if I turned your table over now, sir?” This was an act of anger, and He left no one in doubt about that. Surely, then, if the Word of God Incarnate, the Perfect Man, could rightfully be angry, it must also be possible for us to be rightfully angry. What is it then, that distinguishes the good use of anger from the bad? St Paul gives this advice:
“Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath (Ephesians 4:26).
Is that not odd advice from a preacher of the Gospel of divine unconditional love? Can it ever be loving to be angry with someone? It turns out that St Paul is quoting Psalm 4:4, word for word from the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament most familiar to Jesus and His disciples (Ps. 4:5 in the Septuagint).
ὀργίζεσθε καὶ μὴ ἁμαρτάνετε
orgizesthe kai mi hamartanete
The first word, orgizesthe, is a passive construction—roughly, it means to be provoked to passion or anger. So the first thing to note here is that the Psalm (and St Paul) are acknowledging that there are things in this world for which the right response is anger. I can think of a few: the poverty and hunger of millions while a tiny number of rich people keep everything for themselves; the oppression and exploitation of the weak by the strong; the injustice of thousands of innocent people dying at the hand of a state simply because they are too poor to afford expensive lawyers who can navigate a complex legal system; lies being peddled as truth for selfish purposes … the list could go on. If such things don’t get you at least a little hot under the collar, the question to ask is why not?
The last word in that quote, hamartanete, comes from the root word commonly used for the concept of sin in the Bible. Hamartia is missing the mark, failing to be what you were meant to be. Anger may be justified, but if misused, it makes you tremble so much that your aim goes astray and you miss your target. If the target is to right wrongs, unbridled or misdirected anger can make you the cause of even worse wrongs. If you are going to be angry, then, do not let your anger make you miss the mark.
How do we miss the mark? When is anger a sin?
Simply: whenever it contradicts the Gospel of love.
There is a difference between getting angry at someone who has slighted me and plotting my revenge upon him on the one hand, and getting angry at world poverty and being moved to action to do something about it. The first is motivated by self-love, the second, by love of others. The first leads to acts of violence that hurt others, the second to acts of charity that save others. The first breeds hatred, the second breeds gratitude. It is the first—this “wrath of man” untempered by divine love—that “does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
In brief, then, ‘good’ anger arises from ‘good’ motivations, is properly justified, and leads to ‘good’ actions and outcomes, while the reverse is true of ‘bad’ anger. Bad anger is a failure of love, but good anger is the appropriate expression of love. The proper purpose of anger is to move us to act against evil, whether in ourselves, or in our relationships with others, or in the communities we share with others. Arising from love, it is always tempered by love and by all the other virtues that come with love: wisdom, discernment, humility, truth.
Another way to think about this is through the lens of the Stoic Greek philosophical concept of adiaphora—things that are ‘indifferent’ or neutral, neither good nor bad in themselves. The Stoics divided stuff up into three main categories. There is stuff that is intrinsically good—that’s basically the virtues, things like wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. There is stuff that is intrinsically bad—that’s basically the vices, the opposites of the virtues, things like foolishness, injustice, cowardice, and excess. Everything else is indifferent (adiaphora)—neither good nor bad in itself, but capable of being used for good or bad.
There’s a couple of interesting things to notice here. Some of the indifferents tend towards being good, but can also be turned to bad. For example, health tends towards the good, but if I use my health break into a house and steal from a poor widow, then it has become bad, not good. Likewise, disease tends towards being bad, but can also be turned to good. For example, if my disease leads me to contemplate more deeply the meaning of life and become a wiser person, then it has become a good thing.
So where does anger fit into the Stoic system? It is an indifferent, neither good nor bad in itself, but it becomes so, depending on how you use it. Perhaps, like disease, it tends in practice more often to produce evil, but that should not discourage us from harnessing its power in the service of the good, along the lines I described above.
One more qualification is helpful here, and it comes from St Paul again. “Do not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26). In order for anger to be good and remain good, it must be under control. Without control, anger can be more like a wild animal that rages without caring about the harm it does. So even when angry, I should continue to be sensitive to the reactions and feelings of the person in front of me. St Paul’s direction to put a time limit on anger suggests that good anger is anger that is under my control—I can tone it down or even let go of it all together when it is better to do so. And it is almost always better to do so within a relatively brief period of time. Prolonged anger is not only bad for my blood pressure (and that of those who have to bear it)—it also loses its effectiveness after a while. If it goes on too long, nobody pays attention to it anymore. It is wiser to reserve it for the things that really matter.
Anger is a very tricky beast to tame, yet it can move us to do great things. It should be approached with care, used sparingly, only when really necessary, and always practiced with self-control, unselfishness, and love. For most of us, it is not something we can completely cut out of our lives (nor perhaps, should we). But it is certainly something that can be tamed and turned to good. I’m so glad my understanding of anger has changed, but I’m a little cranky with myself that it took me so long to change it!