Anger: The Fire Within

The latest in our series on the eight evil thoughts;  Sr Rose Rolling o.p. reflects on anger.

Introduction: Anger in the spiritual journey

This preaching series is dedicated to the Eight Evil Thoughts, from the Desert Father Evagrius the Solitary. Last month, Sr Ann spoke to us about sadness. This topic marked a point of transition in our spiritual journey: we have now entered a point Evagrius equated with a kind of spiritual adolescence, when our thoughts replicate the inner moods and growing pains typical of teenagers – an alternation between the strong emotions of sadness and anger on one hand, undercut by a complete lack of interest, distaste or tiredness called acedia, on the other.

Tonight, we will look at the second of this triad of teenage-like thoughts, which is anger. 

What is anger?

The New Testament generally uses the Greek word thumos to refer to a human emotional reaction[1], literally meaning a ‘boiling up’. Evagrius says that anger “is defined as a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury — or is thought to have done so”[2]

This description of ‘boiling’ perhaps suggests the image of a cooker or a kettle. In a chemical reaction, when you bring the elements of water and energy together and place them on a high heat they react through boiling. The place of reaction here is key: anger is initially a reaction to stimuli – to something one sees as unfair or unjust and which makes one want the unjust thing punished and the unfair thing set right. This is what sets anger apart from some of the other thoughts, like pride or vanity, which can happen on their own apart from an external stimulus.

The response to stimuli can induce our anger in the form of a feeling, a state of mind or an action – one or all of these experiences may be present in a given situation. A feeling of anger can be an immediate mental or physiological response to a stressor – for example, someone punches me and my mind switches my body into fight or flight mode, preparing for my defence. A feeling is something that ‘happens’ to us – we cannot decide to experience it and it is morally neutral. 

A state of mind is when we have associated these feelings with various perceptions, thoughts and fantasies. Hence anger has a strong cognitive element to it. For example, my neighbour may cross the street when I am passing by: I could either tell myself that clearly her intention is to ignore and slight me, or I could tell myself that she is in a rush to go somewhere and simply did not see me coming. My cognitive appraisal of the situation will affect how my feelings are turned into a state of mind and in turn, this will affect my future behaviour – do I ignore or insult my neighbour next time to teach her a lesson, or do I greet her warmly as before?

Finally, the feeling of anger or an angry state of mind can be the motivation or the consequence of action. Actions are initiated by an act of will. This is where our moral freedom comes in. It is possible that I may feel angry or be in an angry state of mind but choose not to act on it. While anger is most associated with acting out through deeds of destruction, it can also be put to good use. The medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas associated anger with the desire for an arduous good, meaning something that is difficult to obtain. We use the idiom ‘fire in your belly’ to mean the state of a strongly determined person – think, for example, of St Teresa of Avila’s task of reforming the Carmelite Order in proper observance of the Rule. So it is important to realise that there is not a necessary link between anger and destructiveness.

Roots.

So, anger can be a feeling, a state of mind or expressed in action. But let’s go deeper, to the roots of the issue. Evagrius locates the roots of anger in two main areas, and I will complement what he says with four insights provided by modern psychology. 

The first is in our frustrated bodily desires, which are rooted in our basic survival instincts. He first says that one’s anger is not “aroused unless one is fighting for food or material possessions[3]”. These desires may stem from frustrated legitimate needs – such as adequate food or shelter.

This lack of basic human goods links with one of the recognised psychological roots of anger, which is oppression. We can experience either the anger of the oppressed or the anger for the oppressed. This anger may be targeted at individual people, but more often it applies to structures of injustice –  laws and institutions which perpetuate keeping people down. Anger in this case can be linked to the prophetic call for justice and mercy as expressed by the Old Testament prophets.

Alternatively, our frustrated material desires may originate from a litany of wants – such as the latest upgrade of my phone or car. On this point – the frustrated desire for accumulation – Evagrius says that “it often happens that people become excessively worked up for quite trivial reasons. Tell me, why do you rush into battle so quickly, if you are really above caring about food, possession and glory? Why keep a watchdog if you have renounced everything? If you do, and it barks and attacks other men, it is clear that there are still some possessions for it to guard” (Evagrius pg. 41). So here we see some overlap between avarice and anger.

Aside from frustrated bodily or material desires, the other area Evagrius locates anger is in our desire for what he calls “the esteem of men”. This is where we see some overlap between anger and vanity – anger here stems from our mental delusion that we are better than we are, and we respond with indignation when others do not accord us the high esteem and attention we believe we deserve or when others receive more recognition than we do.

Again, to add some psychological nuance, another root of our anger and the other side of our desire for the esteem of others can be a false humility, a chronic niceness or a repressed and spiritualised denial of our desire for a basic human need for recognition, all of which secretly boils away inside us. This is an often forgotten but particular risk for Christians, where a misunderstanding of the nature of pride and humility can lead to being a doormat, a risk  of not saying how we really feel or of denying any experience of negative emotions. This can lead to all the pettiness, feuding and backbiting which has been known in Christian communities since St Paul’s epistles (e.g. 1 Cor 1.10-13; Gal. 5:15). Nietzsche called Christianity the ‘religion of resentment’ for this reason. 

Finally, two other psychological origins of anger – which can either be experienced as frustrated material or social needs – are vulnerability and loss.

Vulnerability derives from the Latin noun meaning ‘wound’ and refers to our capacity to be hurt. These threats could be physical, emotional or existential. Not only are we sensitive to present threats, but anger can originate in past hurts such as rejection, abandonment or betrayal, and we can react when new offences remind us of past experiences. One of the attributes that anger shares with sadness is that memory has a significant part to play: the phrase that 'time is a great healer' is not true from a psychological or spiritual perspective. Unless we are healed through reconciliation and forgiveness, past experiences will continue to trigger and replay sadness and anger in our reactions.   

Loss is an even more pervasive experience. We experience the pain of loss because part of being human is to create attachments to others which sooner or later must be broken – the end of a relationship, a job, retirement, moving house and at its most devasting – death[4]. These are tangible losses, but we can also include the collapse of our aspirations and hopes, a loss of any sense of value or meaning in our lives” [5] as one of the most devasting experiences for human beings. Anger in these cases can be part of the grief process, one which cannot be rushed and must be faced as part of the process of letting go.

To recap: the roots of anger are in frustrated material needs, desiring the recognition of others, vulnerability, loss, oppression and denial. 

Manifestation:

There are several ways in which unresolved or unintegrated anger can manifest in our thoughts or actions. These manifestations of anger can be through fantasy, a lack of inner peace, interior or exterior noisiness, isolation and violence. Let’s look at these in turn.

One manifestation is through fantasy, which is feature shared with the temptations against chastity. Evagrius writes that the demon of anger “suggests images of our parents, friends or kinsmen being gratuitously insulted; and in this way he excites our incensive power, making us say or do something vicious to those who appear in our minds. We must be on our guard against these fantasies and expel them quickly from our mind, for if we dally with them, they will prove a blazing firebrand to us during prayer” (Evagrius pg. 48).

Returning to what I said about the relationship between anger and memory, our fantasies may originate or be strengthened by brooding over past wrongs. The Scripture reading for Wednesday’s Night Prayer from the Divine Office gives us the admonition from Ephesians 4:26-27: “Do let resentment lead you into sin; the sunset must not find you still angry. Do not give the devil his opportunity”.  

St Paul gives us physiologically sound advice: being angry at night can disrupt our sleep by making it harder to fall asleep, cause poor sleep quality, and make us more prone to nightmares. Sleep deprivation in turn makes anger more likely as our ability to think clearly and control our emotions is undermined when we have not had sufficient rest.

Not only that, but The Journal of Neuroscience found that sleep enhances memories, particularly emotional ones, and going to sleep while still angry may reinforce or “preserve” negative emotions. Dr Allen Towfigh says that “sleep seems to help us process and consolidate information we acquire while we are awake”. So going to bed after an argument will likely cause that experience to be consolidated more effectively than if you went on to remain awake for that same eight-hour period[6]. This all increases our susceptibility towards angry fantasies during our waking hours.

Another manifestation of anger can be through a constant lack of inner peace. This comes about because peace is the fruit of justice which is about being in right relationship with ourselves, God and with others, whereas anger leads us to self-hate, spiritual despair or denial and deeming others unworthy of what they have, making plans to acquire or destroy what is in their possession.

The third manifestation of anger is interior noisiness. This noisiness is the inner racket which criticises, complains and compares with other people. This ‘noisiness’ was expanded later in the tradition by the Rule of St Benedict, where he describes it as ‘murmuring’ or grumbling of heart. Those struggling with anger may find it difficult to actually be alone, quiet and still because of the relentless inner noise.

This inner nosiness may not be as silent as we think either. Anger has a presence, whether or not anything is said or done. The Desert Father Abba Isaiah (8) said: 'When someone wishes to render evil for evil, he can injure his brother’s soul even by a single nod of the head.' In today’s language, we may label such an encounter as passive-aggression, the passive hostility and avoidance of direct communication which freezes out, subverts and shuts down, whether consciously or unconsciously.   

When we think about the inner manifestations of anger, we should also remember the dangers of anger denied, displaced or nursed into a condition of continuing hostility which may later manifest through other, exterior symptoms. For example, anger denied can lead to physical illness or psychological distress, particularly depression, guilt and social isolation. Anger displaced can manifest through hostility towards something other than the thing itself, usually because the real thing is too frightening or big to confront. For example, shouting at your child because your boss reprimanded you at work. Anger nursed takes the form of grudge-bearing or hatred, and which at its most dangerous, manifests through acts of violence.

Consequences

On that note, this brings us to anger’s consequences. Evagrius believed anger was corrosive to both body and soul and he lists several damaging consequences of it for our spiritual lives.

While all of the eight evil thoughts can hinder our prayer life, Evagrius thought anger above all others had the most disruptive impact on our prayer. He says that “if you long for pure prayer, keep guard over your incensive power” (pg. 52).

Why is anger the most descriptive thought to our prayer life?  Perhaps because pure prayer – otherwise known as contemplation – is connected to our vision, to our ability to see reality.  Heaven is, after all, called the beatific vision – seeing God face to face. Anger, on the other hand, clouds our vision – we even have the idiom ‘blind rage’ to express this experience of being unable to see and perceive properly when we are caught up in anger.  When we are unable to see clearly, our judgement, perception and integrity are compromised, and with it goes our ability for prayer.

Anger can also lead us to quickly give up on the Christian life when we do not see instant or pleasing results, since anger is connected to impatience. This is also not surprising considering that the bedrock and defence of our spiritual life is prayer – if our prayer is blocked by the harbouring of grievances, then we are highly vulnerable to spiritual attack.

Along with preventing prayer and hindering our judgement, anger can have powerful behavioural consequences. It can manifest physically through acts of violence, intimidation, workaholism or an overly critical, urgent or demanding attitude. It can lead us to treat others as less than human, or cause us to isolate ourselves and so compromise our own humanity. Evagrius labelled anger as the sharpest thought precisely because of its capacity for committing such acts of destruction towards other people.

Transformation

On this sobering note of anger’s consequences, let us move onto a point of hope. Up until this point, we have explored the definition, causes, manifestations and consequences of anger. But in order to give a Christian understanding of anger, we must not end here. Instead, we must bring our anger to bear on the goal of our lives, which is transformation in Christ and union with God.

There are two tasks for the Christian in transforming our anger. The first task is to identify and integrate anger into our character. The second task is to learn how to discern whether what we are experiencing in a given situation is just or unjust anger. In the transformation process, we want to integrate righteous anger and dispose of unjust anger.

Integrating Anger.

The capacity for anger is in every human being. Integration is about learning how to make it a constructive rather than destructive part of our personality. Our ability to practise certain virtues – for example, meekness or courage – requires the presence of a well-harnessed anger impulse. For example, the inability to stand up for oneself may look like gentleness but would in fact be cowardice. For virtue to be present, there must be genuine free choice, the possibility of acting differently, and this we develop by taming and integrating our dark impulses.

The decision to try and practise virtue at all is connected to our anger impulse, for as St Thomas Aquinas says, anger is the desire for an arduous good, meaning something that is difficult to obtain. Think about how your capacity for anger is meant for your holiness, which is the most difficult good we can strive for.

One of anger’s peculiarities is that it is the only one of the eight evil thoughts which can in itself be harnessed for a good end. For example, when writing about the demon of unchastity, Evagrius says that our incensive power is also a good defence against this demon. When it is directed against evil thoughts of this kind, such power fills the demon with fear and destroys his designs. Such anger is a useful medicine for the soul at times of temptation” (pg. 47). So integrating anger and directing it towards a good end can help us grow in virtue.

In order to discern our anger then, we need to ask ourselves: what is the origin of our rage?

A basic understanding of sin – meaning what God commands and what He forbids – will be our first litmus test as to whether our anger is just or unjust.

The spirit of anger, which Evagrius focused on, is an attitude influenced by evil spirits which include feelings or actions of jealousy, envy, competition, comparison, fury, rage, terror, tragedy, trauma, any form of fighting or arguing, misunderstandings, hatred, rebelliousness, bitterness and resentment, mercilessness, cruelty, self-harm, and many more. A regular examination of conscience will allow us to become attuned to these bad fruits and get a handle on them before they grow.

Righteous anger on the other hand, is caused by what is truly unjust – abuse, exploitation, material deprivation, impiety etc. When we think about the wrath of God in the Bible, we see that it is closely related to prophecy, a calling out of what is wrong, and a demand for repentance and renewal.

This call to repentance may involve the individual but is often addressed corporately, as it was to the nation of Israel. I think we have to be careful in the spiritual life not to ‘psychologise’ anger to such an extent that it becomes only an individual matter. Freedom from anger may also need to include liberation, which is both a personal and a political task – to feed the hungry, to comfort the oppressed, to set prisoners free. As a country, as a Church, as a community, we may need to turn in repentance and work to rectify injustices. It is worth reflecting on what it is that we as a people need to repent for.

So, understanding the origin of anger requires careful discernment and growth in self-knowledge.

Practical Tips

Finally, what are some of the practical tips for aiding the transformation of our anger into a force for good?

On a basic human level, learning to manage our emotional response can be done through a formula of: acknowledge, identify, understand and communicate.

  • Acknowledge anger through tuning in to our feelings and thoughts. This also requires acknowledging that not all situations can be resolved (bereavement would be an example of this).
  • Identify its source – this is where discernment comes in – for example, is it a fantasy in my mind or is it a concrete situation?
  • Understand the nature of the frustration or threat – for example, what exactly do I fear or am I experiencing – loss, oppression, wounded pride etc.? Does it lead me to resent other people or to advocate for their good?
  • Communicate, if possible, with those who have made us angry so that we can avoid spiralling into resentment or revenge. What was it that made you angry or feel hurt? If direct communication is not possible with the person or cause of our anger, is there someone else we can share our experience with – for example, a friend, a confessor, a support group?

Sometimes, we may need physical outlets for the angry energy in our bodies: exercise generally, playing sport and especially martial arts are good for this. 

What about spiritual supports? Different things may be more effective depending on the cause of anger.

Evagrius recommends Scripture as the main tool to overcome all evil thoughts. The second reading from the Second Letter to Timothy at this Sunday’s Mass said that “all Scripture is inspired by God and can profitably be used for teaching, for refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be holy. This is how the man who is dedicated to God becomes fully equipped and ready for any good work”. This sums up the power of Scripture as both a preventative and remedy for our conversion.

In particular, Evagrius recommends the Psalms for overcoming anger. Perhaps this is because the whole spectrum of human emotion is present in the Psalms – there are sure to be some words we can identify with and make into our own prayer as we cry out to God in the midst of our inner battle.

If the cause is pride, vanity or fantasy praying the Rosary can be an effective way of growing in patience, humility and meditation, which counteract these bad vices. The Rosary is an opportunity to build our resilience to instant gratification, overstimulation, superficiality and rush of the world, and turn to Our Lady to help us to face the moments of difficulty, repetition, boredom and distraction in prayer, all the things that can contribute to our anger.  

If the cause is frustrated desire, injustice or loss, Evagrius recommends abstinence, fasting, almsgiving and acts of compassion to practise self-control, kindness to others and surrender. These practices are a physical and spiritual emptying which remind us of our total dependence on God and challenge anger’s self-righteousness and self-sufficiency.

If the cause is from inner wounds or memories we need to seek out inner healing through prayer ministry (deliverance prayer, the healing of memories), the Sacraments of the Eucharist and spiritual friendship. Inner healing prepares our souls to be good soil so that God’s grace can permeate and led to the development of the virtues, especially faith, hope, fortitude, patience, meekness and forgiveness, all the virtues which challenge destructive anger.

Conclusion:

So, use your anger for your holiness – direct its energy and power towards good and you will set the world on fire. 

[1] The Gospel of Anger. Alastair V. Campbell. 1986. SPCK. London. Pg. 18.

[2] Praktikos 11.

[3] Philokalia 38.

[4] The Gospel of Anger. Alastair V. Campbell. 1986. SPCK. London. Pg. 100.

[5] Ibid. Pg. 95.

[6] 10 Things You Should Never Do When You’re Angry. Time Magazine. 2014. Available at: https://time.com/85874/10-things-you-should-never-do-when-youre-angry/ [Accessed 19.10.22].

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