A popular saying goes, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” These words are commonly attributed to St. Augustine but no one seems to know where or even whether he actually expressed such a thought. To be honest, it sounds more like something a modern would say. The view of the ancients was much less approving of anger. Their attitude was more like the one expressed by the fourth-century desert father Abba Macarius: “If when you want to reprove someone you are stirred to anger, you are pandering to your own passion. Lose not yourself to save another.”
The old monk’s restraint seems peculiar to us. Everybody gets angry. Some people deserve our anger. Anger is just an emotion, an expression of our righteous indignation. When it is rightly employed, anger can be the fuel that energizes change. At least, that’s how we think about anger. Perhaps we are right in thinking this. As the words attributed to St. Augustine suggest, maybe anger really is the offspring of hope. Is it possible that this anger that I feel within me is actually a fire kindled in my soul by a vision of a different world? Maybe the moderns have it right after all. That’s why they have removed anger from the list of deadly sins and declared it a cardinal virtue.
But if I am truly honest with myself, I will have to admit that there is often more indignation than righteousness in my anger. Anger itself may have its origin in the fires of God’s justice. But once it is in my hands it turns into something else. Upon closer inspection, my anger proves to be exactly what Macarius warned that it would be. Instead of a passion for justice, it is simply pandering to my own passion. Our anger often bears little resemblance to justice as God’s defines it. We would do better to call it sentimentalized outrage.
Jeremy Begbie observes that the pathology of sentimentality has three primary features. According to Begbie, the sentimentalist misrepresents reality by trivializing evil, is emotionally self-indulgent and avoids taking costly action. It is my contention that all three of these marks are prominent in much of the anger that is directed at injustice today. It misrepresents evil, not by denying its existence, but by oversimplifying its nature. Difficult complexities are ignored in favor of a superficial diagnosis which can be easily turned into a stereotype. The emotional self-indulgence of our anger is evident in our rhetoric, which usually gives off more heat than light. We are quick to speak, slow to listen, and too intellectually impatient to do the hard work of analysis that is really needed to understand the nature of the problem or divine a solution. We are willing to shout, carry a sign, or post to social media. But that’s about as far as our plan of action goes. Anger is our only real contribution to the cause.
The level of comfort we feel with our own anger is matched only by the degree of discomfort we feel when it comes to God’s anger. The notion of a wrathful God has largely fallen out of favor. This is true even among those who believe that such wrath exists. We treat God’s wrath the way we would the awkward personality trait of some family member. We hardly ever talk about it. We would rather not think about it. Instead, we attempt to put the best face on a bad situation. Sure He flies off the handle once in a while but that’s not really who He is. He is a good guy, once you get to know Him.
Yet we cannot really grasp the Bible’s view of justice without taking the wrath of God into account. God’s wrath is not a divine personality flaw but a measure of the distance that sin has introduced into our relationship with Him. It is this same sin which interjects the fatal flaw into our anger. It is not wrath in itself that is the problem according to James 1:20 but the fact that it is the wrath of man which “does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” Sin is also the reason we cannot grasp the biblical idea of justice without taking into account divine wrath’s complementary attributes of grace and mercy. Grace reflects God’s disposition toward us in Jesus Christ. Mercy describes His action. Together they are able to quiet the accusing voice of divine justice. In the person of Christ, God took the punishment that justice demanded upon Himself and offers us forgiveness in exchange.