Mental Health
5 min read

It’s OK to be angry about this, right?

Anger's real gift is the desire for action.

Anthony Baker is a theology professor at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He is currently exploring the intersection of classical accounts of Christian holiness with current issues in ecology. 

In a darkened room, a man's angry face is lit as he rests on arms folded tightly around it.
Abhigyan on Unsplash.

When is anger appropriate? When we hear of hideous acts of war in civilian villages, shouldn't we be angry? When I read about a shell exploding in a Gaza hospital, I get angry. I do also when something unjust happens to me, or to someone close to me. Some moments seem to call for anger as the right, and perhaps righteous, response.  

But I often don't feel very "right" when I'm angry. In fact, I feel a bit out of control, like some other force or energy has taken over my body and my will. This is especially true when my anger leads me to say or do something that is hurtful to someone else.  

Is there such a thing as Christian anger? If so, what does it look like? How can anger be the sort of emotive response that deepens, rather than erodes, my connection to God, myself, and others?  

It is the act, and especially the amalgamation of acts into habits, that leads to virtue or to vice. 

Anger is a passion 

The ambiguity of anger stems from its grouping within what Thomas Aquinas, here as usual following Aristotle, calls "the passions." A passion is a creature's reaction to either the loss of something or to a gaining of something. We are passive, or receptive, to this giving or taking. Sickness is a loss of health; sorrow is a lack of happiness. When on the other hand a friend sees me sick or sad and brings me a bowl of soup, I am receptive not only of the soup but of a passion, or a feeling—a receiving rather than a losing in this case— of pleasure.  

The passions are morally neutral: we cannot really be praised or blamed for being sad or pleased any more than for being sick. They often do, though, lead to actions, and this is where virtue and vice come into play.  

Love, for instance, is a passion: it identifies a desire within me, received through contact with something or someone beyond me. The act that this gives birth to might be virtuous: kindness or affection toward that something or someone. In these cases, the passion becomes the catalyst to the greatest of the theological virtues, caritas, or charity, translating the Greek word "agape", used by St Paul. It may also, however, be vicious, as when my desire leads to me to attack someone whom I perceive to be standing in its way (think “crimes of passion” here).  It is the act, and especially the amalgamation of acts into habits, that leads to virtue or to vice.  

Anger originates in such a taking or giving. Something or someone is taken from us, and we get angry: something that I perceive—rightly or wrongly—as belonging to or with me. Or perhaps something inappropriate (which literally means "not my property") is given to me which is not mine to have: a false accusation, say, or a punch to the jaw.  

When anger leads me to hurt someone as a result of that loss or addition, I commit sin. But sometimes it also leads to virtue. How does this happen?  

But this next act, as any parent or teacher knows, is likely not to be the right one. That's because I will be tempted to simply to act, rather than to seek counsel to ensure that I act prudently. 

Prudence is the virtue anger needs 

The key to understanding how anger about such losses or gains could lead to a virtuous, or let's say a righteous act, is in another virtue - the one Thomas calls prudence. Prudence is the form wisdom takes on within human practices. Its goal is wise action shaped by the particular context in which it is needed. The prudent person knows how to calibrate the next thing she does so that it leads will to the specific end she is pursuing.  

This "know how" in turn comes through counsel. I know the next practical step not because I have memorized formulas in right action, but because I can learn from others, past or present, in ways that will instruct me in the art of finding the next right thing.  

Prudence is the key to understanding righteous anger because anger is supremely a passion that demands activity. Anger wants action, as the therapists teach us. It pumps blood through my body, it makes my muscles flex and my jaw clench, and so prepares me for some bold and likely aggressive act.  

But this next act, as any parent or teacher knows, is likely not to be the right one. That's because I will be tempted to simply act, rather than to seek counsel to ensure that I act prudently. Most likely I will act out of a desire for revenge: to cause equal or greater harm. What I need in that moment is the outside input that can help me shape my act in accordance with reason. This is how, Thomas says, the neutral passion becomes meritorious passion: anger becomes righteous.

Righteous anger has a gift to give 

Anger's desire for action is in the end its real gift. Notice how anger and sorrow are different sorts of passions. In sorrow, what is taken from me is joy. I long for the lost joy and am tempted to become even more passive. Depression takes me to the zenith of inactivity. Even getting out of bed or calling a friend feels like too much action.  

Anger though is all about action. Yes, to act too brashly, too quickly, to seek revenge on the one whom I perceive to have harmed me. Or even to harm the nearest one to me regardless of their involvement (the sin of kicking a dog or abusing a child). Still: anger calls me to act, and for all its risky unhinged-ness, this is potentially a good thing. 

Disordered, which is to say un-counseled by practical wisdom, anger can lead to harm. In these cases we make matters worse by calling our anger righteous: that self-justifying claim may in fact be blinding us to the real price of our next act.  

But well-ordered, anger can draw us into deeper community with God, ourselves, and others. First comes the passion itself: I am angry and primed for action. Then comes the seeking of counsel, so that my desire for action can shift from the immediate to the prudently discerned. Finally comes the act itself, which anger was calling for in the beginning, now tempered by practical counsel. In such moments I am enacting a right and righteous anger.  

And on those days when a loss or an unwanted gain is enough to make me wish to withdraw from the world of human activity, anger may be just the gift I need.  

4 min read

No mercy on the Megabus

Why is sin such a sickly, sticky thing in the human heart?

Jenny is training to be a priest in the Church of England. She holds a PhD in law and previously researched human rights issues in extractive industries.

An upset man holds his hands on his head as he misses a bus.
Nick Jones/

“I’m begging you, I’m begging you,” pleaded the passenger. His two large suitcases lying around him, the Nigerian man knelt on the pavement outside the Megabus station. The bus driver stood surly-faced, arms crossed. The passenger’s jacket was ripped where the driver had shoved him off the bus. The passenger had one too many bags; he had not read the Terms and Conditions on his ticket.  

The man groaned – “I must get to Heathrow, I have a flight to catch! I’m willing to do anything – to pay for an extra ticket, to pay the extra bag fee, I have money, see?” He showed the driver his wallet pleadingly, demonstrating his possession of several bank cards.  

A few concerned passengers stepped off the bus. “We don’t have a bag in the hold; we’re happy for this man to have our space.” Another person said, “I booked a ticket but my friend didn’t come – there’s a whole seat’s worth of luggage space available in the hold.” Yet the bus driver would not budge. Even though Megabus has an excess baggage policy, it was down to the driver’s discretion. The driver alone had the power of life and death, to say “yay” or “nay” – to restore a man’s dignity or completely ruin it, along with his jacket.  

As the minutes ticked on, other passengers began to get irate with the Nigerian man – “just buzz off mate, you’re making us late!” “You should have read the rules!” “You’re making the bairns on the bus cry!” Stony faces pressed against the window as the man knelt on the pavement. Even those who had tried to help him left him in the harsh hands of the bus driver and his colleagues, tiny kings in a kangaroo court For the bus driver, there was no backing down – he was pacing, sweating and red-faced, repeating over and over again to himself his side of the story. And in the end, we left the Nigerian passenger in the heartless hands of bus bureaucracy, wiping our hands of the injury done to him – “we tried.”  

How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The whole experience on the Megabus that day left me feeling sick. We all like to think of ourselves as decent folks, as long as we do our “bit”. But on that bus I realized the difficulty: what is “my bit”? Who decides what is “enough”? How quickly a petty issue of baggage can descend into a power play. How quickly do ordinary nice people become a mob when they are outraged or inconvenienced. How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The only word that feels strong enough to me to describe this condition is “sin”. This word may sound like a relic of a bygone Britain, but I think it’s as relevant as ever. It’s a serious word, loaded with a sense that the things we do mean more than we know. Sin suggests that I am accountable for how I treat people – not just to my own perception but some higher standard that safeguards the dignity of all human beings. Christians believe that it is God who safeguards our humanity, who sets the standard for how we should and should not treat others. We are accountable “vertically” – to God – as well as “horizontally” to each other.  

It seems to me that “sin” is not a laundry-list of rules but more like a tangled knot of slippery threads – I can’t see where it begins and where it ends, in my own heart or in the world at large. The Christian Eastern Orthodox tradition often likens sin to sickness or a dis-ease of the soul; it infects our reasoning, our emotions and our actions. And that’s why the hurt and pain we cause each other is so “sticky” – no one is left untouched by the effects of the damage we cause each other.  

It was quite clear to me that there were some “sins of deliberate fault” on the Megabus that day – the bus driver’s behaviour was patently unfair and verging on abuse. But I would say sin also flourished in the self-defending logic of the passengers who just wanted to stay in their lane, and for the Nigerian chap to stay in his. Don’t bother me, with your problems. I look after me, you look after you. There were sins of ignorance too – I felt this sick sense in my stomach as the bus pulled out of the station that there was more I could have done, but I didn’t quite know what. All I know is that every person needed mercy on that Megabus, whether we knew it or not. Ironically, the Nigerian man was the most innocent of all.