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Be Ye angry, and Sin Not: Let Not the Sun Go Down Upon Your Wrath

July 10, 2013

Cognitive therapists and the ancient fathers would agree that misdirected anger causes much human misery, destroying relationships, smothering compassion, and bringing about untold suffering in the form of emotional wounds and even physical injuries.  Both classes of healers would also agree that there are therapeutic interventions that can be applied in order to bring relief to the scourge of anger.  However, before I discuss similar therapeutic interventions in future posts, it’s important to note that cognitive therapists and the ancient fathers understand anger in quite different terms.

In their cognitive therapy manual entitled, “Anger Management for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Clients,” authors Patrick M. Reilly, Ph.D and Michael S. Shopshire, Ph.D. define anger in the following fashion:  “In the most general sense, anger is a feeling or emotion that ranges from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. Anger is a natural response to those situations where we feel threatened, we believe harm will come to us, or we believe that another person has unnecessarily wronged us.” This definition makes sense from a biological and cognitive perspective, fitting equally well for human beings and wild beasts.

The fathers, however, define anger in a theological way, meaning on the basis of the revelation of Christ, the New Adam Who calls us, His children, to purification, illumination, and deification. Thus, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Saint John Climacus describes anger as “an easily changeable movement of one’s disposition and disfiguration of soul,” emphasizing the life of the Spirit. For the fathers, anger is understood of in terms of a passion which I have characterized in an earlier post as “that which persistently nestles in the soul for a long time, forming therein a habit, as it were, by the soul’s longstanding association with it, since the soul of its own free choice clings to it.’ Several important notions are contained in this passage.  First of all, passions are habitual modes of responding over time, which indicates that they are learned or, to be more precise, overlearned ways of reacting.  Second, since a person chooses to invest himself in the passions, they adhere to him in a profoundly individualized way.”

The distinction between a primarily biological and a chiefly spiritual perspective will necessarily result in a divergence between therapeutic goals.  For cognitive behavioral therapists, the emotional, cognitive, behavioral responses of anger are to be managed and controlled for easier interpersonal relations, while the ancient fathers believe that the insatiably pleasure-loving, sickly self-loving (philautia), insanely proud passion of anger must be rooted out of the soul that desires to love God and neighbor with all her heart. Thus, on the one hand, the authors of the Anger Management Therapy Manual view the problem of anger as a matter of degree writing, “anger becomes a problem when it is felt too intensely, is felt too frequently, or is expressed inappropriately.”  On the other hand, fathers such as Saint John Climacus maintain that there can be no quarter given to the passion of anger, because human beings are called to the perfection and holiness of Christ. Hence, the Saint writes, “If the Holy Spirit is peace of soul, as He is said to be and as He is in reality, and if anger is disturbance of heart, as it actually is and as it is said to be, then nothing so prevents His presence in us as anger.”

In spite of these admittedly vast differences, there are important points of convergence in terms of helpful therapeutic interventions.  In the first chapter of Ancient Christian Wisdom I address this issue and provide the guiding methodology employed in my book as well as in this blog:  “An Orthodox Christian theological worldview can be outlined and serve as a standard for evaluating the implicit Weltanschauung of cognitive therapy.  Relevant pastoral advice and ascetic teachings by the fathers can be selected and arranged in order to form a patristic context for examining discrete components of cognitive therapy.  In this way, we can strive to follow along the bold path of those conquerors of death into the promised land of the Church where ‘the mystical trumpeters of the Spirit’ proclaim the truth of the faith: ‘all things are possible to him that believeth’-Egyptian gold can be forged into a censer by the Christian hand.”

Such will be my goal in the next few posts on the therapeutic interventions offered by cognitive therapy and the ancient wisdom of the ascetical tradition with respect to the universally human problem of anger.

  1. Shelly permalink

    Father, bless! Thank you for this timely topic. Having personal experience with anger (ha!), I have tried to figure out the therapeutic and patristic response to such a large problem. I have also understood anger to mean ‘a response to an unmet need’ and I notice that tendency in myself. I do much better if I can calmly let my need be known, if appropriate, and then I’ve noticed that the anger dies down in me. Is there any truth to this scenario? Can you offer an alternative view?

  2. The Lord God bless you, Shelly!

    From a psychological perspective, anger is sometimes conceptualized as a reaction to compensate for the feeling of powerlessness that ensues from a situation or action that blocks something a person values. Calmly letting one’s need known would offset that feeling of powerlessness and so quite understandably lessen one’s feelings of anger. In cognitive therapy for anger management, this would be understood in terms of learning the option of being assertive in addition to being passive or aggressive. So, yes, the short answer is there is certainly some truth to that scenario. The next question, though, is it the best Christian answer? Not necessarily. There are certainly instances where it is right and meet to make such a choice especially if it is out of love for God and neighbor. But there are other instances in which an acceptance of powerlessness can lead to humility and turning more fervently to God or alternatively in which our anger can tell us something about our pride or inappropriate priorities. In such cases, letting our needs be known might douse our anger, but not lead to spiritual growth that we need.

  3. Shelly permalink

    Fantastic. Thank you, Father! You have given me quite a bit to think and pray about. I always look forward to your posts.

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