Slow to anger

Published on 20 Feb 2019

‘Count to ten before replying.’  This is an old recipe for putting a brake on anger.  The picture is of an emotion which is very hard to control but which can just about be kept in check by extraordinary measures.  To the problem of how to cope with anger the Gospel suggests a very surprising solution: to the person who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too.

From the practical point of view, this peaceful response to something which could readily have provoked violence might defuse anger not only in oneself but in the other also.

Anger can test of all our religious impulses and claims. There we are: under pressure; the blood is up; our sense of injury strong; how do we react?  Do we look to the Gospel and follow the Lord’s counsel of forbearance or do we allow ourselves to be carried along by justified indignation? Violence or peace? The sharp reaction or the other cheek? 

The Old Testament presents the possibility of an angry, vengeful act as a test. 

Today God has put my enemy into my power; so now let me pin him to the ground with his own spear.  Just one stroke!  I will not need to strike him twice. 

Anger, here, seems to be cost-free: there is nothing to fear.  What is the consideration in 1 Samuel which impedes violence?  Do not kill him, for who can lift his hand against the Lord's anointed and be without guilt   Such a thought might restrain us also today. The person who has offended me is loved by God, as I am myself.  How gratifying nevertheless to be able, like David, to leave incontrovertible proof that one could have behaved in another less magnanimous way.  Often when we don't give in to anger the only witness is God.  No one else knows.

Few are seriously opposed to curbing temper and controlling anger at least long enough for thought.  However merely stifling anger can seem an unhealthy policy even if it avoids, temporarily anyway, some unpleasant scenes.  Bottled-up anger is often thought to be damaging. We need, for permanent emotional and spiritual health, not just a brake on anger but a therapy for resentment. The Gospel precept turn the other cheek is much more than a prudent suggestion that we count to ten before giving in to our first angry impulse. Jesus teaches us a new attitude of heart. He seeks a deep change in us as well as more peaceful behaviour in the occasional crisis.

Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who treat you badly.

This is very strong medicine. It is an effective cure for anger which doesn’t store it up but rather channels it away. Someone hurts us: we pray for them. Someone behaves badly: we go so far down the road of understanding and compassion as to behave generously in response. The praying for the one who injures us is much more than a counting up to ten so that fury cools a little. It is a commending of that person to the loving, forgiving God in whose presence we are ourselves trying to live. We are all greatly in need of God’s love. We are all in profound need of divine forgiveness. 

Our solidarity with those who hurt us is a communion with Jesus Christ. The Lord, very hurt by us, has turned the other cheek to us. Sinned against, he has blessed us. Let down, he has helped us. 

My soul, give thanks to the Lord and never forget all his blessings.

We are not counting up to ten so much as enumerating the kindnesses of God to us.  We weigh not the harm that some other human being has done to us but the good that God has done for us. Is this calculation so difficult? We have received much. Furthermore: the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.  

This sense we can sometimes have of being blessed despite our troubles is a goad to generosity. 

Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your property back from the one who robs you. 

Ingratitude makes us resentful. Being taken for granted makes even the saint angry. However actions performed and words uttered are more important than the first furious thought. Grateful, forgiving, long-suffering deeds and words shape further thoughts. They school the heart. The Lord wants our heart to be like his: a font in which resentment is dissolved not stored up.

The end of all anger?  Furious reactions sometimes return unbidden and undesired.  We sometime learn a lot from other people's loss of temper with us.  In their ire we hear some difficult truths. Their loss of temper communicates to us an unwelcome picture of ourselves.  In response, we repent. We blush and amend.

God himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked,

But, also, we believe, a judge capable of deciding sternly.  We must not anticipate his judgement on anyone, even ourselves.  In the meantime: be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourself; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned.  Pardon comes because: the Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.

Fr Peter Gallagher SJ