Essay / Theology

On Anger and Justice

Regarding the vices and virtues, Athanasius of Alexandria writes, “It is required that not only with the body should we fast, but with the soul. Now the soul is humbled when it does not follow wicked opinions, but feeds on becoming virtues. For virtues and vices are the food of the soul and it can eat either of these two meats, and incline to either of the two, according to its own will. If it is bent toward virtue, it will be nourished by virtues, by righteousness, by temperance, by meekness, by fortitude, as Paul said: ‘Being nourished by the word of truth’ (1 Timothy 4:6). Such was the case with our Lord, who said, ‘My meat is to do the will of My Father which is in heaven’ (John 4:34). But if it is not thus with the soul, and it inclines downwards, it is then nourished by nothing but sin… For this is the food of sinners… Therefore, in order to withdraw and turn them from vices, He commands them to be nourished with the food of virtue; namely, humbleness of mind, lowliness to endure humiliations, the acknowledgment of God. For not only does such a fast as this obtain pardon for souls, but being kept holy, it prepares the saints, and raises them above the earth” (Festal Letters 1.5). With this motivation set before us, let us examine the vice of anger.

John Climacus, the seventh-century author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, defined anger as “an indication of concealed hatred, of grievance nursed. Anger is the wish to harm someone who has provoked you.” Gustave Thils, a modern spiritual writer, defines it as “a movement of vigorous reaction provoked by some moral or physical opposition.” In simplest terms, anger is the desire for vengeance. We should worry that we have anger in our life, for as John Cassian wrote, “In the fourth struggle it is the deadly poison of anger that must be totally uprooted from the depths of the soul. For as long as it resides in our hearts and blinds our mind’s eye with its harmful darkness, we shall be able neither to acquire the judgment of a proper discretion nor to possess a good contemplative vision or a mature counsel, and we shall not be sharers in life, tenacious of righteousness, and certainly not receptive to the spiritual and true light, because, as it is said, ‘my eye has been disturbed by anger'” (Psalm 31:9; Institutes 8.1). It has been suggested that “there is no greater obstacle to the presence of the Spirit in us than anger” (John Climacus). The New Testament is filled with teaching against anger:

(1) anger is to be put away (Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8);
(2) whoever is angry is in danger of judgment (Matthew 5:22);
(3) anger is one of the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-20);
(4) anger does not bring out God’s righteousness (James 1:20);
(5) anger is the prerogative of God, not man (Romans 12:19); and
(6) anger must not cause us to sin (Ephesians 4:26).

Yet, you may be thinking, “but Jesus was angry.” This is true as we learn from Mark 3:5: “He looked around at them in anger…” In spite of this, I do not want to concentrate on God’s anger, for it surely is not the same as our anger considering that God is completely holy and we wholly corrupt. The anger of God is a deliberate reaction to all that violates his holy nature whereas our anger is retributive.

How can we do away with anger? Let me allow others to make a few suggestions:

  • First is the habit of reflecting a few moments when we think it is necessary to become angry;
  • Then we should decide to keep a peaceful and measured tone no matter what happens;
  • Finally, “it would be good if the people who are the object of our [anger], knew that our harsh words in no wise arose from our temperament but rather were required by the situation” (Gustave Thils).

Ultimately, however, these are mere suggestions since “the seething movement of our anger and of our other passions arises for many different reasons, so that the same cure cannot be offered for all of them” (John Climacus). Beyond these practical suggestions, let me suggest that anger is controlled when we cultivate the virtue of justice, in particular, the justice of God.

God’s justice is a familiar topic in the Old Testament:

(1) Psalm 7:6 — “Arise, O Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice”;
(2) Psalm 45:6 — “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom”;
(3) Isaiah 5:16 — “But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness”; and
(4) Isaiah 30:18 — “Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!”

Using these passages as a backdrop let me try to flesh out a fuller understanding of God’s justice. In his book The Existence and Attributes of God, Stephen Charnock writes, “Sin cannot escape due punishment. A hatred of unrighteousness, and consequently a will to punish it, is as essential to God as a love of righteousness. Since he is not as [a] heathen idol, but hath eyes to see, and purity to hate every iniquity, he will have an infinite justice to punish whatsoever is against infinite holiness. As he loves everything that is amiable, so he loathes everything that is filthy…” In light of this, there are three reasons why God must be just according to the Scriptures. First, God’s detestation of sin must be manifested. Psalm 11:5-7 reads, “The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates. On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot. For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face.” Here we see that God will punish the unrighteous because he is righteous. In other words, God cannot tolerate sin for it is against his character. “He cannot approve of it without denying himself” (Charnock). God’s righteous character demands his exercise of justice. Second, as God’s holiness is natural and necessary, so is the punishment of unholiness necessary to him. Whatever is contrary to the nature of God, will fall under the justice of God otherwise, he would violate his own nature, deny his own perfection and seem to have no love. “God cannot but be holy, and therefore cannot but be just, because injustice is a part of unholiness” (Charnock). Leviticus 20 provides us with a long list of sins and in the midst of this list there are two significant and important verses: “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the Lord, who makes you holy” (vv. 7-8). What this tells us is that sin must be punished because God is holy. God’s holy character demands his exercise of justice. Third, there can be no communion between God and unholy spirits: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial ? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16a). For God to have pleasure in wickedness, and to allow evil to dwell with him, are impossible to his nature: “You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell” (Psalm 5:4). God’s very character demands his exercise of justice. Please know that the justice of God means that he is fair in the administration of his law. God does not show favoritism or partiality, therefore, who a person is, is not significant. What a person has done or not done is the only consideration in the assigning of consequences or rewards. In short, to say that God is just is simply to speak of his holiness in relation to humankind. God never violates his holiness; neither does he allow us to violate it without full payment and satisfaction for our sins. Thus, God is just. Zephaniah 3:5 reminds us, “The Lord… is righteous; he does no wrong. Morning by morning he dispenses his justice, and every new day he does not fail…”

In conclusion, we must now answer the question, how do we overcome the vice of anger with the virtue of justice? Well, the answer is quite simple: we must always remember that when we become angry it is because of sin–whether our own or someone else’s. Our anger is never (or rarely) righteous and is motivated out of a desire for revenge. God, on the other hand, acts against people who have offended his holy and righteous nature. God’s response to anger is always just. This is illustrated well in Psalm 73:

A psalm of Asaph.
Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
in their arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
They say, “How can God know?
Does the Most High have knowledge?”
This is what the wicked are like:
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been plagued;
I have been punished every morning.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
As a dream when one awakes,
so when you arise, O Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.

Here we see Asaph complaining to God that his attempt to keep his “heart pure” is in vain since the wicked prosper. By the end of the Psalm, however, Asaph has learned that justice belongs to God since the actions of the wicked have not offended him but have offended the “Sovereign Lord.” Consequently, when we are tempted toward anger by others, we must keep God’s holiness before us. When others sin against us and provoke us to anger, we must keep God’s holiness before us. In a sinful and unjust world, we must expect that we will be lured toward the vice of anger. To keep us from sinning, however, we must be ruled by the virtue of justice.

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