By Vir Christi
The term “wrath” gets used routinely in everyday language. People like to use it to describe unchecked fury. Books and movies have glorified it, in many cases, to the point where wrath is seen as a sort of noble pursuit of justice. Because of this, great confusion surrounds the term. Subsequently, most people underestimate the danger that this particular sin presents.
Wrath is yielding to excessive anger, or a refusal to practice forgiveness. This sin is extremely dangerous because feeding raw anger and allowing it to fester can make a person feel powerful, like their strength is being substantially increased, as well as destroying relationships and clouding your ability to perceive God’s will. It’s important to understand what wrath is, and how to avoid it.
Anger vs. Wrath
There’s an important distinction between wrath and anger. Anger is a normal human emotion, a sense of outrage towards an injustice that has been committed. In fact, there are some cases where it’s bad not to show anger. For instance, a parent may need to show anger to impress upon a child how serious a certain offense was, so that they avoid repeating it. If used in a proportional way, anger is healthy.
God gave us emotions to help us desire things that are good, and flee from things that are bad. For example, Our Lord was angry when He saw people commercializing the temple. Jesus was not seeking vengeance. He was merely seeking to correct an injustice—returning God’s house to its original purpose—by His actions. Another example of righteous anger is St. Paul addressing his audience as “stupid Galatians” in one of his letters. Does Paul actually believe the Galatians are stupid? Of course not, but he’s angry with them for straying so quickly from the faith that he had taught them, when he was so sure of the strength of their faith.
There are two ways in which anger can become problematic and lead into the sin of wrath. The first is the focus of the anger. If you are angry and are actively seeking to “punish” the person responsible for your anger, that is sinful. The right of punishment belongs to God alone, and outside of cases where God delegates that power—such as a lawful authority having the right to maintain order—no one else has the moral authority. The second is the duration of time for which the anger is allowed to fester. If you purposely feed it and allow it to grow, then you’ve entered into the sin of wrath.
The Dangers of Wrath
When someone says “anger,” the image that comes to mind for many of us is someone losing their temper. While that is ultimately at the root of the sin of wrath, it’s not just contained in that one specific instance. Wrath has different forms, some less serious and others more serious. Irritability, resentment, and impatience are minor forms of wrath which, if left unchecked or allowed to build repeatedly on one another, can lead into serious sin. Graver instances of wrath, such as murder and physical injury caused to another person, always begin with little moments of irritability or resentments that are allowed to stack up.
We all objectively recognize that uncontrolled anger is an issue; otherwise, things like anger management classes wouldn’t exist. But there are other dangers to which wrath can lead, if left unchecked.
First, all sin is rooted in pride. Specifically, wrath furthers pride by fueling resistance to the growth of humility (pride’s countering virtue). Pride says “my way is best,” and then wrath cements it by tricking a person into believing their anger at not getting their way is righteous.
Second, wrath inhibits the growth of charity. We should desire the correction of wrongdoing for the sake of the repentance of the sinner, but wrath prompts us into desiring the wrongdoer be punished for punishment’s sake. That starts with an inability to forgive minor offenses and wrongs, and eventually balloons into an inability to forgive major offenses.
How Do I Avoid It?
Patience is the great virtue that balances out the vice of wrath. Wrath fosters a mindset of, “My perception of justice is correct, everyone else’s is wrong, and therefore I’m entitled to my feelings no matter what.” Patience and meekness, on the other hand, foster a spirit of, “I don’t know what’s going on in their lives, but I’m going to ask forgiveness for them.” Praying for patience is one of the surest ways of avoiding this sin.
The world glorifies excess. It sneers at people who hold themselves back from overindulging in things that make them feel good. Those people are perceived as being weak or having a slavish devotion to a belief system that doesn’t make sense. But the virtue of humility helps us avoid going overboard with emotions, and makes it harder to fall into wrath.
Another important habit is giving the benefit of the doubt. Wrath is oftentimes born from a mindset of assigning the other person the worst possible motive. “That person didn’t hold the door for me; they only care about themselves and are so rude.” “That person cut me off in traffic; they’re so selfish and only want things their own way.” What if that person who didn’t hold the door open for you was distracted with a heavy burden at home? What if the person who cut you off was in a hurry to get to the hospital to see a dying loved one? Whether or not the excuses are true is immaterial. The point is to remind yourself that we’re all imperfect, and most of the time when someone does something negative to you it’s not personal. And if it is personal? That still doesn’t make it your duty to dispense justice.
A third tip: deliberation and good discernment are from God, while excessive haste and rash decisions are from the enemy. When you feel anger rising in you towards another person, stop and examine it. Allow yourself a moment to pause, and consider what the other person did. Is their offense so bad as to warrant extreme anger? If it’s not, engage in self-examination: what is it about yourself that is causing the anger? Are you hungry or sleep-deprived? Are you subconsciously stressed about something else, and you’ve failed to notice it affecting other areas of your life? Often, in the course of that self-examination you’ll be calming yourself down, and by the time you finish and return to the outer world the anger will have dissipated. If it justifies anger, acknowledge what you feel, but then remember the words of Our Lord: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Lastly, form the habit of offering it up. Striving to eliminate that anger and preventing it from turning into brooding, malicious wrath is a sacrifice, because human nature is inclined towards the quick temper and the desire for vengeance. If you’re struggling with overcoming this sin, at the beginning of each day pick someone in your life you know is struggling with something. Every time you have to offer it up, offer it up for the sake of whatever that person is going through. You gain grace for yourself by avoiding the sin, as well as gaining grace for the other person! Such a habit makes the devil more reluctant to tempt you, and leads you and others closer to final spiritual victory.
Vir’s heart has been on fire for the Church from day one, and he dreams of the day when Constantinople will be a city again. He has a competitive drive satiated by sports and board games, but is also just as happy to sit down and read a good book for hours on end.