We’re back to our study of the deadly sins. Today’s sin is illustrated for us in the first lesson from Exodus. Wandering through the desert wilderness, the Israelites have begun to wonder about provisions for themselves and the livestock they brought with them from Egypt. It certainly was impressive how Moses commanded the plagues to help them escape from Pharaoh. Then when the Red Sea rose up like walls of water on either side of them, and then came crashing down on the pursuing army, well, those are certainly stories to tell the grandkids. But the showmanship seems to be over, and what they really need is something very simple. They’re getting thirsty. What are you going to do about that, Moses?
Poor Moses. He’s just trying to do what God is telling him told to do – AND lead thousands of people, practically all by himself. That’s a pretty tall order all by itself. That’s multi-tasking of Biblical proportions. Now those thousands of people are beginning to get agitated. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt,” they asked Moses, “to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” When they become angry enough to prepare to stone poor Moses to death, the deadly sin of wrath takes over. You’ve got to be pretty angry to want to stone someone. You’ve pretty much got to shut off any perception that the person you’re targeting is another human being. These people are just about out of control. Their anger has hijacked their humanity. Their emotional lives and well-being is being killed by their own out-of-control emotions. Their wrath is beginning to overflow their emotional lives and negatively effect the physical life and well-being of another person. Anger and wrath is a powerful sin.
This deadly sin that we call wrath is manifested in the individual with the replacing of love for fury. It is also known as Anger. Human beings are actually hardwired for this feeling. Perhaps this is one sin that is actually unreconcilable. According to the book The Travelers’ Guide to Hell, wrath is a complex sin. Authors Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls write that anger is the Sin most likely to harm other people, particularly when mixed with another Sin. For example, Anger + Envy = armed robbery. You might say Anger + Lust = rape. Facaros and Pauls might be on to something, but I’m not sure what Anger + Sloth might equal. They provide a short story to illustrate how the deadly sin Wrath works.
“One day it became rather important that I get from Washington D.C. to Miami, where a friend was experiencing a certain crisis. Airfares were prohibitively expensive, so I called Amtrak to see if they could help me out.
“They couldn’t. In fact, when I was finally allowed to talk to a human being after a wait of over twenty minutes, I was put on hold a few more times while the customer service agent got some coffee, rearranged her closet, regrouted her aquarium, and took a Calculus class. Understand that I really really wanted to get out of Washington D.C. at this point – that night, even – and that each passing minute might have made the difference between catching the night train, or not. Amtrak treated me with the care you would expect them to extend to any convicted serial killer.
“I was peeved. I hung up. I didn’t go to Florida, which turned out to be perfectly fine. But the damage was done: my sales agent was only guilty of a little rudeness, but I was guilty of the Sin of Anger. And while she will probably eventually get fired, I will baste in the fires of eternal damnation.”
Do you see how this person’s anger toward another person put him in a position to dehumanize the Amtrak agent? The crisis in Miami was not her fault, nor was his crisis her crisis. His anger caused him to see this stranger as an adversary. When all was said and done, the Amtrak agent did her job and moved on to the next customer, but the soul of the writer of this story will always be darkened by how he treated the person who was trying to help him.
Psychologist Doctor Leon Seltzer, whose clinical practice includes over 20 years working with a variety of anger issues observes in an article in Psychology Today, “in my own clinical experience, anger is almost never a primary emotion in that even when anger seems like an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to provocation, there’s always some other feeling that gave rise to it.” He asserts that anger is secondary to a heightened sense of fear. He writes, “Cycling from the heightened arousal level of fear to an equally intense anger happens with such breathtaking speed that almost no one can recollect that flash of trepidation preceding the anger.”
I would hazard to guess that whatever the crisis was in Miami, it made the writer of our story feel fear. Perhaps he was afraid of losing something or someone. Perhaps it was the fear of helplessness. The intensity of his anger mirrored the intensity of his fear. He must have been really afraid of something.
In our first reading today from Exodus, what we may actually be observing is fear at work in the Israelites, more than anger. They’re afraid they and their livestock will die from dehydration. Back in Egypt, they had the Nile as a constant and reliable water source. Out here in the wilderness, who knows when they’ll pass the next stream? Their fear is not unreasonable. The area of our planet where they wander is very dry, and there are few water sources. I’d be afraid of dying of thirst too. Theirs is an issue of survival. The deadly sin we’re trying to understand this week might be Anger or Wrath – the result of fear – but fear may in fact be the more deadly sin.
How often do we succumb to fear? How powerful fear is as a motivator and dictator of our actions. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it was the only thing we had to fear. God often tells us to calm our fear, and everything that springs from it. Psalm 37: “Let go of anger and leave rage behind! Don’t get upset—it will only lead to evil.” Proverbs 14: Short-tempered people make stupid mistakes. Jesus warns us off feeding our wrath in Matthew 5: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.” Paul seems more understanding of our struggle with anger. In Ephesians 4 he writes, “Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger.” Anger can overstay its invitation and corrode our souls and our relationships with others.
Perhaps as an innate coping mechanism, anger helps us soften the blow of fear. There is a healthy benefit to confronting our fears with anger at breathtaking speed. For those who find themselves in situations that are detrimental to their health, swift anger can be a survival mechanism. If a fearful response would enable your victimization, wrath could save your life. But we’re not talking about crisis situations. We’re talking about the habitual dwelling with the sin of Wrath.
Fortunately, like all the deadly sins, we have a corresponding virtue to help us. The virtue for Wrath is Patience. Patience is forbearance and endurance. Patience helps us resolve conflicts and injustice peacefully, as opposed to resorting to violence. Patience helps us accept the grace to forgive, and show mercy to sinners – even ourselves. There’s a sense of peaceful stability and community in Patience rather than suffering, hostility, and antagonism. Where Wrath is powerful and encompassing, so too is Patience. When we apply Patience to our Anger we open up a portal to discovering a growth opportunity. Dealing directly with what scares us, rather than covering it up with wrath, helps us move beyond debilitating fear to a happier, healthier, more peaceful and serene life. That is a far better dwelling place than living with fury, contempt and violence.
What we learn today is that Wrath and Anger may only be the tip of the ice berg of deadly sin. But we need not have our peace and serenity hijacked by an unbridled emotion – especially one that may be camouflaging itself from something even more important for us to understand.
The good news for us today is that Patience, the corresponding Virtue to the deadly sin of Anger, is an important tool that is just as powerful as its Vice. It helps to ground us in the moment. Patience keeps us from being carried away with our anger such that we might cause harm to someone else or even ourselves. Patience gives us perspective on situations. It helps us to realize that things might not be as bad as we might think, or that given time, things will work out without our having to get worked up.
As we make our way through Lent, let us practice Patience. It takes 40 days to get through this season, no matter what we do. There’s no shortcut to Easter. Patience gives us that much-needed moment to consider what it is we think we’re doing in this season and why.
When you go home today, spend some time remembering the most recent few times when you felt anger or wrath. Being patient with yourself, try to discern what other emotions your anger or wrath was masking. Maybe our anger is telling us we need some help overcoming something we’re afraid of. Maybe this hardwired coping mechanism that we call a Sin is actually and indicator to something more important. Discovering that more important thing requires the careful application of the Vice’s corresponding Virtue. This deadly sin of Anger might actually turn out to be unique opportunity for grace.