Among the more common passions of our times, anger occupies a special place, not least of all because modern man has learned to masterfully justify his anger with a thousand reasons. Unfortunate circumstances, fuss and hustle and bustle, fatigue, poor health, stress… Of course, we all understand that behind such excuses stands the banal inability to behave and an unwillingness to do anything about it. However, everyone is subject to anger, and every time we justify someone else’s anger, we also allow ourselves the possibility of getting angry at any convenient excuse.
In addition, we firmly believe that anger must not be contained, as it is allegedly harmful to the psyche and even has a destructive effect upon it. And this should not be underestimated: When I was young, I myself thought people were crazy when they said such things seriously, and that was only a quarter of a century ago—and now in confession the most frequent question I hear is how to deal with anger when, on the one hand, it’s a sin, and on the other, we shouldn’t restrain it? It’s clear that in such conditions, even the most normal person who feels or knows that it is not the restraining of anger that has a destructive effect on the soul, but anger itself, has little chance of resisting the temptation to prefer looking for chances to justify this anger over battling with sin.
And there are certainly enough opportunities in our distorted world today. Moreover, even believers have their own, so to speak, exclusive opportunities. For example, are you familiar with the concept of “righteous anger?” I think it’s well-known. However, this phrase is also known to non-believers. The communists practically wore this phrase out. Even I, who lived under the Soviet Union for a little more than a decade, well remember that “righteous anger” filled the hearts of soviet people regularly and often on command; for example, when the newspapers wrote that the Department Against Misappropriation of Socialist Property had identified more looters of socialist property, or when party meetings denounced the disgrace of parasites and drunkards, as well as when the program Time told about the horrors of the Chilean military, or when history students were taught about the incompetent shooting of Fanny Kaplan and the Spanish Civil War. Of course, this wasn’t righteous anger at all, but as Leonid Filatov once aptly put it, “political malice” (which, I must say, is well known to us by the events of recent years in Ukraine), so that is what’s important. However, more about this malice later.
Anger truly can be righteous. For example, in righteous anger, aroused by zeal for the house of God, Christ drove out the money changers who had turned the holy place of the Temple into a bazaar. Moved by righteous anger, the prophet Elijah executed the priests of Baal after the sacrifice on Mt. Carmel. With a sense of righteous anger, one of the New Martyrs, shot in Petrograd together with Metropolitan Benjamin in 1918, “in his dying hour, mocked the executioners.” At the same time, the righteous anger that is characteristic of the saints can also be found in ordinary people. For example, anger directed not at your neighbor but at the enemy of mankind is a wonderful incentive for fighting the passions and for the spiritual life in general. A sober and honest attitude to life sooner or later leads man to the understanding that all of his problems, misfortunes, and troubles are exclusively his own fault. Therefore, anger directed at whomever and for whatever reason is not only sinful, but groundless. Those who are completely honest with themselves get angry only at themselves, even when someone is truly guilty before them. Such truthful anger can also be called righteous to a certain extent.
At the same time, with all the clarity of the issue, it is easy to be deceived in anger. When you are angry at some sin, try not to be angry at the person who committed this sin. Don’t be surprised—it’s possible. There is one important criterion that distinguishes sinful anger from righteous anger. And it’s familiar to us. It is the malice already mentioned above. It is the absence of this that testifies to anger as a manifestation of spiritual zeal, not as a sin. The object of the anger is unimportant here. If there is malice in your anger, it is sinful by definition, and it does not matter at all what caused this anger in us: an insult we suffered, an infringement upon our self-esteem, a clear transgression, or even blasphemy.
When a man is angry with malice, he always sins, no matter how plausible the pretext: being swindled in a store, medical malpractice, harassment of the defenseless, theft in a church, or the outrages of schismatics. And it is when anger appears at first glance to be justified and just that it is most dangerous. After all, the harm caused by anger and malice to the soul of man takes place regardless of whether the person is rightly angry or not. But if vain, empty, or unjust anger is recognized more quickly, sharply and more often as sin, then sin that is substantiated and justified by a sense of self-righteousness is often perceived as the norm and imperceptibly becomes a permanent spiritual property, appearing more and more often with time, until, eventually, you no longer need to be right for your own justification. Should we, in end, marvel at the fact that those who are forever lacking both the strength and desire to overcome ordinary anger within themselves, which, as Scripture says, worketh not the righteousness of God (Jas. 1:20), are the same who love most of all to speak of “righteous anger?”
The conclusion, as usual, is simple: We must fight against anger, with love, including anger that seems at first glance to be correct, or even righteous. The habit of being angry engenders malice in a man, but malice and righteousness are incompatible. In other words, only he who gives not a single opportunity to ordinary anger is capable of righteous anger. In any other case, “righteous anger” is nothing more than a clumsy justification for the habit of unrighteous anger.