In the Letter to the Ephesians we read, 'even if you are angry, you must not sin: never let the sun set on your anger' (4:26). Is anger not a sin?
The above sentence seems to indicate that the feeling of anger does not have to be always connected with sinful or evil behaviour. Some theologians and thinkers of the Church, for example Saint Thomas Aquinas, listed anger among virtues, which may be astonishing when we consider the fact that wrath belongs to the canon of cardinal sins.
Trying to solve this problem we could refer to the universal foundation in all moral questions and the foundation is the commandment of love. When love guides us we are on the right way. And we will never get lost.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1765) 'love causes a desire for the absent good and the hope of obtaining it'. However, our daily 'desire for good' is tested. We can switch on television, read daily press or sometimes look through the window to see how much injustice there is around us. Furthermore, cases of injustice are not often caused by lack of proper means that could ensure justice but by ordinary human mindlessness or lack of good will.
A man who is emotionally mature cannot be indifferent towards people who have been harmed or people who harm others. If harm is done to children, the sick or the defenceless we feel sad and want to oppose this. So we feel 'holy anger'. It is holy anger because it explodes when the order of love, which God established, is upset. To sum up, anger can sometimes result directly from love.
Jesus of Nazareth himself gives us an example of 'holy anger' when he violently and categorically opposes trade in the temple in Jerusalem (cf. Matthew 21:12-17; John 2, 13-22). When a person defiles what is sacred or in cases of injustice 'holy anger' seems to be our duty. The First Book of Samuel shows us the figure of Eli who neglected his duty and was punished: his sons were brought to death.
Anger and human dignity
We feel angry when we fall prey to injustice. We have the right to defend ourselves: to defend our dignity and good name. The Teacher from Galilee teaches us this lesson, too. He says during his trial before his death, 'If there is something wrong in what I said, point it out; but if there is no offence in it, why do you strike me? (John 18:23).
Similarly, we can read the verse in the Gospel according to Saint Luke, 'To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too (6:29). This is not a call to be passive at all. One of the possible explanations is the reference to certain ancient custom. To slap someone on the right cheek (cf. Matthew 5:39 speaks about the right cheek) means hitting with the upper part of the palm. It was the slaves that were hit, which meant hitting people of lower status. But to present the left cheek was to demand that your dignity is respected. Apart from this custom we should stress strongly that Christians cannot answer evil by doing evil but should resist evil and conquer it with good (cf. Romans 12:21).
The teaching of the Catholic Church precisely defines that anger should not be a desire for revenge. 'To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit' (cf. Catechism, 2302). We cannot direct anger against a person but against evil (cf. Matthew 5:22). We can demand punishment but do not desire to harm anyone. Thus all sanctions can aim at changing improper attitudes and behaviour.
Love excludes a desire for revenge.
It is very important to control the intensity of our passions. They are powerful forces. They can influence our behaviour to a considerable extent. And anger can change into hatred and aggression that aim at complete destruction. For example the Apostles James and John were overcome by such emotions when the Samaritans did not receive Jesus they proposed their Master, 'Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to burn them up? (Luke 9:51-55). But he rebuked them.
Anger and we
Our opposition can be wrong when we follow 'our self love'. Sometimes pride causes us not to accept our people's successes. Instead of rejoicing we show envy. We do not appreciate other people's work but we point out mistakes. We think that our defeat was caused by someone's success. And this makes us angry. And similarly, when things happen not the way we have planned, when someone takes decisions not the way we wanted. In such cases we resemble Jonah who preferred his good to the lives of the people of Nineveh ad who fell into a rage that a hundred and twenty thousand people were saved (Jonah 4:11) although he prophesised their destruction. It is worth reflecting whether we sometimes need such a lesson Jonah received from God. Perhaps we need some 'worm' to 'destroy' our 'castor-oil plant'. Then we will understand that there are more important things than our whim.
Sometimes we get angry with ourselves because we do not meet our own expectations. We create expectations we cannot fulfil. We aim at perfection. Our anger causes divergence between our desires and the way we actually are. An expression of this attitude can be our inability to accept words of criticism. Our reaction is not a form of reflection on our conduct but our reaction is changed into rage, irritation and anger. Then we can justify all our mistakes. We blame all people and we never blame ourselves.
Anger, like most emotions and feelings, seems to be morally ambivalent. From the psychological point of view we show emotional reactions to failures or we fall into a rage that sometimes changes into cry, chaotic gestures and even fisticuffs. But our anger can be certainly mastered. This can be done by means of two things: responsibility and mildness. By showing anger we often avoid responsibility when we are not able to solve difficulties. Whereas mildness characterises mature Christian personality (cf. Philippians 4:5 'let your tolerance be evident').
We need great prudence so that our anger does not change into sin. A lot depends on our temperaments and predispositions. If we know we get easily irritated we should avoid conflicts. It was Seneca who wrote that the best thing was to resist the first symptom of anger, nip it in the bud and do one's best not to fall into a rage at all.
We should get to know ourselves. I do not mean some kind of private psychoanalysis. The best way is daily prayer and examination of conscience. Doing this we can show God our reactions, emotions and intentions. But we get to know ourselves through the perspective of love. Let God act since only he can change us.