Wrath is the only one of the Seven Deadly Sins we attribute to God. And, as pastor Bob, my confirmation teacher in 8th grade would be glad to know I remember, the definition of sin according to the catechism of the Evangelical Covenant Church and similar to most Christian traditions is that sin is “all in thought word or deed that is contrary to the will of God.”
This definitional conundrum raises a few questions. Is it wrong to speak of God’s wrath? Wrong to list wrath among the Deadly Sins? Or are there certain things that are only sins if humans do them but are appropriate to the Divine?
I would argue that yes, wrath can be sinful, but it is not necessarily so. And that during this Lenten season the challenge is not always to suppress wrath but expressing a wrath that is in fact the appropriate response to injustice we see around us every day. In fact, a misguided attempt to avoid wrath can lead to a sin of omission in the failure to practice the “Cardinal Virtue” of justice.
To Wrath or Not to Wrath
Wrath, in contemporary usage, distinguishes itself from anger in its intensity. Anger at a real or perceived wrong can be understandable but wrath connotes a disproportional and uncontrolled response and loss of a rationality and temperance. At an even more basic level, wrath is an animated form of anger. Wrath is anger in (re)action.
Is it wrong or at least a poor descriptor to say that God is a god of wrath? One common perception of the Divine today that offers a response to this deadly sin conundrum is that God left behind (or biblical authors were mistaken in their writings) Old Testament anger and wrath in exchange for the love and mercy expressed so clearly in the New Testament.
But, God’s wrath is a consistent theme throughout scriptures, not just the Old Testament. Jesus displays what could be considered wrath at several points throughout his ministry in overthrowing the tables in the temple (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2), cursing the fig tree (Mark 11), and condemning “the goats” in Matthew 25 to a place prepared of eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
So, is wrath not a sin? The answer would seem to be, not always. While God is slow to be angry (Ex. 34:6) God’s anger is expressed regularly against thing sins like idolatry (Ex 32:8-10) and injustice (Zech. 7:9-12).
Anger, as defined in the Catholic tradition, is the desire for vengeance. Vengeance is the desire to harm those who have done a real or perceived wrong or harm to another. And, in scripture, we are warned that vengeance is to be God’s, not ours to have (Deut. 32:35, Rom. 12:19, Heb. 10:30). This could then mean that wrath is unique in that it is righteous when exercised by the Divine but sinful as soon as mimicked by a mere mortal. The Divine, in this case, would be unique in being the one who is able to respond in wrath because they are already righteous. However, humans in their imperfection react to things in the wrong way for the wrong reasons and wrath can then be sinful.
Vengeance is not the same thing as, but is often closely related to, the cardinal virtue of the desire for justice. Vengeance desires harm for the one who has caused harm, while justice desires a restoration or restitution related to a wrong done. Both a desire for justice and a desire for vengeance occur from a strong reaction to a wrong that has been done and a desire to respond to it.
Now, it is possible that justice, might require harm. When there is a person who is consistently committing violent acts against others, then a forceful arrest, imprisonment, and limiting of freedom and self-determination might be the required response. Vengeance, however, is different than justice because vengeance is concerned with the harm that is inflicted. Justice is concerned with whether the responsive act is able to correct or restore that which is broken in the first place.
Wrath as Animus for Justice
If we understand wrath as uncontrolled anger whose effect is the infliction of harm without concern to justice, then it is accurate to always classify it as a “deadly sin.” But, if by wrath we me the animating desire to react in response to harm and injustice, then there is the possibility those acts might actually be righteous.
Jesus looked at the temple courts and usurers who were taking advantage of the poor, and his response was to make a whip and overturn the tables. His response was a righteous wrath for two reasons. First, because the object of his wrath was a sin. Second, because his reaction to that sin was to act in a way that might change, transform, or give restoration to a wrong that was done — which is justice.
Wrath is indeed a sin that is a problem within our culture as a whole. One only needs examine the violent crime statistics to see this borne out. Thousands are killed on our streets through gun violence; homicide rates have declined in recent years but are still high in comparison to other industrialized nations; and a full one in four women will find themselves in an abusive relationship or the victim of assault.
And yet, our culture also suffers from a vacuum of righteous wrath. We have in many ways become inoculated to a right sort of anger. Callouses have formed on our souls and instead of responding to injustice with an appropriate sense of anger, we respond with indifference. Or, if our consciences are pricked, the feelings of moral indignation at things that we should feel morally indignant are often as short lived as the commercials or news reports through which we learn of them. Wrath can and should serve as an animus in our lives to respond to injustice.
The failure to feel anger in response to injustice is not a sign of righteous temperance but of a dead and dying conscience. To not (re)act when faced with violence and harm does not necessarily indicate self-restraint but the loss of the very moral instinct that central to our human identity. Our responses should always be prudent and appropriate to the harm done, but to have no anger at all is a manifestation of deadly moral decay.
When we feel anger rising into wrath, we can either channel towards an appropriate desire for justice, a sinful desire for vengeance, or we can try and suppress it. But, when we don’t express it, the wrath does not simply disappear. Rather, it sits and smolders. The danger is that it turns into sullenness or bitterness.
Sullenness is the suppressed emotion that never finds outlet and the anger is turned into a belief that things will never change. Bitterness is when the failure to express anger at a particular thing means that anger is now expressed at other things or even everything. Sullenness destroys us from the inside out and bitterness lashes out to inflict harm on anything it can reach.
A Lenten prayer for the righteous wrath of God:
Oh God, guard our hearts against sullenness that robs our hope and protects us from bitterness that destroys all that surrounds us. May the things that break Your heart break ours. When anger rises out of our broken hearts may we turn away from vengeance and to a lifelong desire for Your justice.
Tim King is Chief Strategy Officer for Sojourners.
Image: Man screaming, ollyy / Shutterstock.com