Confession and Anger
For nearly all my life I have justified my anger. I do so even today. I call it righteous because of sin, or more specifically, because of the sin of others, because of their being unrepentant or because of their failure to see the truth as I have seen it. Unmerciful and unforgiving, I react against real and perceived injustices and resent the ones who would hurt others and myself so carelessly.
In the discipline of confession, one must first acknowledge that he or she has something to confess. Perhaps that seems elementary, and I suppose it is. And yet I show that I do not understand this elementary truth every time I justify my anger before God, every time I miss the evil of my own heart, every time I fail to show mercy or offer forgiveness. Confession requires prayer and interior examination. For me, anger is a daily struggle. But the truth about my anger over a real or imagined injustice is that it is rarely, if ever, about the actual injustice (though this may have sparked it) and more about my pride and my pain.
In Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, he writes, “And ‘don’t sin by letting anger control you.’ Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Scripture speaks of Moses’ anger after receiving the Ten Commandments and descending the mountain to witness the Israelites’ idolatry. It also speaks of Jesus’ anger in the temple. We understand that there is such a thing as righteous anger— anger unaccompanied by sin—but its possibility does not make my anger righteous. We also read of Cain’s anger, the anger of Saul, and Moses’ striking the rock. James admonishes us, “Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires” (James 1:20). And our Lord teaches us to offer the other cheek to be struck (Matthew 5:39), teaches us of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35), and even teaches us of our obligation to show mercy (Matthew 6:12). These examples and so many others suggest that my anger is nearly always wrong. Jesus says that I should not react in anger but rather uphold my obligation to love all people, to love this person striking me, ridiculing me, disagreeing with me, sinning.
I am an angry man. I look over my life and can’t recall a time my anger was unaccompanied by sin. So while I might have a moment of righteous anger on hearing about an objective evil or some grave injustice, it quickly turns into resentment and anger against the perpetrator, the offender, and it revels in and is fueled by judgment. That is not righteous anger. I am obligated to love the person as I have been loved. I must show mercy. I must pray for the person (and not with the embittered prayers that so often accompany my anger and pride—the prayer that accuses or says “thank you that I am not like him”). I forgive because I have been forgiven so great a debt; I forgive that I myself might be forgiven. So the proper response to sin, to those who continually offend, is to ask God for his mercy for them and for me. When someone offers rumor of a brother’s sin, my response should be, “He is just a sinner like me.”
Some wounds are old and deep, requiring that I work daily at this business of forgiveness. Perhaps I forgive one day and then the next the same person offends me and stirs up the same old resentment. I begin again. I do not work to win Christ’s favor, but to rid my soul of the resentment that so easily takes root there. I show myself, time and again, to be the unmerciful servant of Christ’s parable.
People sin—they sin against God, against you and me. But is judgment or resentment my business? In The Paradise of the Desert Fathers there is recounted the following story: “A brother sinned and the priest ordered him to go out of the church; Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, ‘I, too, am a sinner.’ ”
As a sinner, how can I judge your sins? Who is sufficiently good to be both angry and holy? I am not. Examine your heart and confess your sins. With whom are you angry and why? What does your anger accomplish? With confession there is grace and mercy and forgiveness.