Anger is deadly. In Matthew 5:20-26 (today’s Gospel), we hear Jesus tell the people that anyone who is filled with anger towards his brother will be judged harshly by God. These words can seem startling. Haven’t we all been angry? Anger seems like such a common thing that our first reaction is to view such a declaration as a kind of pie in the sky ideal. It seems as though Jesus is setting us up for failure when he tells us not to be angry.
Or worse, it seems like such an outlook is a recipe for scrupulosity. We can read these passages and think that every time someone cuts us off in traffic, we have to run off to confession. Some might use this passage to argue that Christianity’s teachings embody an unhealthy psychology and are too much focused on sin.
The truth is that Jesus is not telling us that we should never feel angry. Anger, like all the emotions, is beyond our control in that our emotions are simply a first reaction to our environment. In this way, our emotions are important because they give us input about what is going on around us. Remember, Jesus himself became angry at times. That does not mean that Jesus was simply being cryptic or duplicitous. Anger can lead us into grave sin, and he is calling us to something more.
The ideal that Jesus offers is that as we begin to rely more on God and less on ourselves, we no longer become slaves to our emotions. We still feel angry, but instead of the raw emotion dictating our response, we learn to patiently discern God’s will. When Jesus acted on his anger, it was a deliberate choice made in full conformity with the Father’s will. We too are called to that same kind of freedom in which the heart is free to know and do the Father’s will with complete surrender. Unfortunately, our interior life is still affected by sin, and thus we are not able to so harmoniously discern God’s will.
So we have to learn that we do not have to confess our emotions but rather the actions which derive from them. It can, however, be helpful to share our interior struggles with a confessor or a good spiritual friend. By doing this, we learn to have a non-judgmental awareness of how anger is moving our heart, and in this we gain mastery.