by Bert Ghezzi
One week after the tragedy of 9/11, my wife, Mary Lou, and I were traveling to visit family in Pittsburgh. At the Orlando International Airport, we stood in a long security check line. When we reached the agent, he asked for our identification. I handed him my driver’s license, but to my shock, Mary Lou said, “I didn’t think I needed my ID. I decided to leave it at home.” I completely lost it! “You decided to leave your license at home?” I shouted. “I can’t believe it! We’re at the airport at a time when they’re looking for terrorists, and you deliberately left your ID at home?”
I continued my rant, jumping up and down and spinning in rage. Some people near me laughed at my ridiculous behavior. Others shrank back in fear. It’s a good thing that no one made a cell phone video of the scene — it would have gone viral instantly. You have just read my confession of my worst experience of erupting in rage — a testimony to anger as a passion for bad. You may have identified with my shameful behavior, for most of us at one time or another have lost control of our anger.
— a testimony to anger as a passion for bad. You may have identified with my shameful behavior, for most of us at one time or another have lost control of our anger.
THE GIFT OF ANGER
But we must not jump to the conclusion that anger is always bad. Often it may trouble us as a problem. But anger is a normal part of our human nature, just like touch, sight, or desire. We receive it as a God-given gift designed to help us get through challenging situations. Consider the example of Mike, a student at a state college, a new Christian with a history of problem anger.
One term he enrolled in an anthropology class and soon discovered that the professor reveled in debunking the faith of religious students. At first Mike roiled with rage but kept it in control. Then one day he got fed up with the teacher’s ridicule. He blew up and shouted his objections to the delight of both the professor and his fellow students. After reflecting on his bad behavior, Mike resolved to use his anger for good. He decided that when the professor mocked him, he would channel his anger into endurance. He told the other students that he would no longer defend his faith in class. And if anyone wanted to talk about religion, he said he’d be glad to speak with them in the student lounge. During the next 12 weeks, the professor continued his mockery. And Mike still got angry, but he transformed it into endurance. Anger served him as a passion for good.
THE BIBLICAL APPROACH TO ANGER
Scripture teaches a threefold approach that shows how we can express our anger and use it for good:
✦ Be angry.
✦ Express anger under control.
✦ Replace bad anger reactions with good behaviors.
The Bible and the Church direct us to express our anger (see Ephesians 4:26). The best practical advice says that we must not suppress it. If we push anger down, it roams around inside us, looking for a way to break out. And it will. In several places St. Paul warns us against rage (see Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8). We must not let our anger get out of control or let it control us. Abiding by these scriptural restrictions, we can employ anger for good purposes or to oppose evils.
Scripture also shows us how to substitute good behaviors for bad reactions. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul gives a picture of the way the Lord deals with emotions like anger. He says that the Holy Spirit has changed us so that we have shed our old nature and put on a new one that, “is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10). In this transformative process we can replace sinful behaviors, including rage, with good behaviors such as patience and self-control. Paul calls these behaviors the fruit of the Spirit. Notice that Scripture does not deal much with the flare up of anger. It focuses on our reactions to anger and charges us to exchange them for good behaviors. We do this by channeling our anger into a fruit of the Spirit such as patience, as Mike did when he funneled his anger into endurance.
We have a universal call to holiness.
A PASSION FOR GOOD
Applying this biblical approach activates our anger as a passion for good in three ways:
✦ Anger can make us holy.
✦ Anger can motivate us to work for justice.
✦ Anger can fuel our zeal for evangelization.
Anger can make us holy. All of the popes since Vatican II have declared that we have a universal call to holiness. Translated, that means we must aim to become saints. Not all saints on a list of candidates will be canonized, but Christians who live to please the Lord every day. How are we to become saints? When St. Thomas Aquinas’ sister asked him that question, he said, “Will it!” We can decide to become a saint, and God will make it happen. The saints tell us when they decided: Thérèse of Lisieux at age 3, Aloysius Gonzaga at 7, and Francis of Assisi at 19. And anger can make a big contribution to our holiness. We have already seen how it works. When we channel our anger into patience, kindness, and mercy, we are becoming like Christ. These behaviors are the character traits of Jesus himself. To use the image of C.S. Lewis, anger can help us become “little Christs.”
Anger can motivate us to work for justice. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. modeled for us the power of anger to motivate us for setting things right. Rev. King said that a force of anger drove him to work selflessly for racial justice. An experience as a teen triggered his lifelong, wholesome anger. A teacher took 14-year-old Martin to a speech contest at a town some distance from Atlanta. He won the competition (what else would you expect?). Then exhausted, the teacher and Martin boarded a bus for the long ride home and rested in their seats. But when some white folks boarded the bus, the driver in a very nasty way ordered them to give up their places. Martin steamed with rage. He refused to budge until his teacher prevailed on him, explaining that they had to obey the law. Later Rev. King said that he was never angrier than he was that night. That anger stayed with him, supporting all his service in the civil rights movement.
We can let our anger over injustice work in us the same way. Anger can drive us to work for pro-life issues such as opposing abortion and euthanasia. And it can drive us to implement the corporal works of mercy in caring for the homeless, hungry, imprisoned, and other marginalized people. Anger can fuel our zeal for evangelization just as it fueled Rev. King’s passion for racial justice. All baptized Christians share in the Church’s mission to bring everyone into a relationship with Christ and the Church. We have an obligation to do the work of evangelization. It’s not an optional extra. Anger can help us recruit people and bring them into the body of Christ. Not that we should express anger toward those we are evangelizing. We should approach them with friendliness and encouragement. We should direct our anger against those worldviews that draw people away from God and the Church.
The day before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in a homily, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” Relativism and its associates — secularism and materialism — have persuaded many people that they can define their own truths. They have come to believe that they do not need any authority, including the Church and God himself, to tell them what to believe and what to do. We should get good and angry at these views that are destroying lives, and we should learn ways and reasons to refute them.