We read in the Book of Sirach, “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” Why? What is the reward for holding on to something hateful and painful like anger? When we look into our hearts, we can see that “hugging anger” gives us a momentary feeling of energy, a sense of rightness and purpose: I am right. I am better. I will not put up with this! Sirach asks further: “Should a man nourish anger against his fellows and expect healing from the Lord?” To “nourish” anger is to feed it, tend to it, nurse it, protect it. It is like the expression “holding a grudge.” Why do we “hold” a grudge? The payback is the exhilarating sense of power and self-importance.
Clearly, Sirach is not speaking about the normal emotional reaction of anger, but the choice of holding on to anger, which is usually fueled by the sin of pride. Emotions will always come and go, but if we “cherish wrath,” we allow the emotion to blind us. When we are angry, we cannot see straight, or think clearly; we “see red.” The first thing to go is good judgment. So Sirach tries to restore a right perspective, telling us: “Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!” This is an example of the wisdom tradition known in Latin as memento mori (“remember that you will die”). In light of our inevitable future, death, we can reflect on our anger and ask ourselves, “How important is this? How important will this be at the end of my life?”
In his best-seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey included among the seven principles, “Begin with the end in mind.” Although this advice was given chiefly to keep people on track towards their business and personal goals, it is a good principle for us as well. When we remember our true final goal, heaven, we can see everything else in proper perspective. Often what strikes us as intolerable offenses are really not as big as they feel in the moment, and even the truly grave evils look much different in God’s eyes than in our own. We can make better choices to grow in virtue when we “begin with the end in mind.”
Sirach also advises us to “think of the commandments,” and to remember “the Most High’s covenant.” In other words, he is urging us to reflect on how God deals with sinners who provoke him. Today’s Psalm gives us an answer: “The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” Not that the Lord never gets angry, but that he does not let anger overcome his mercy. He does not hold grudges. “He does not keep his wrath forever.” He forgives, overlooks mistakes and treats his children with compassion. Although the Lord is perfection itself, he is not perfectionistic with his children. Some people see God in this way, as a harsh and perfectionistic father, looking for mistakes to punish. Of course they do not want to draw near to such a god – but our Father in heaven is not like that. Yes, the Bible teaches that “the vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance,” but this is a way of acknowledging that God allows us to experience some of the natural consequences of our own sinful choices.
The unforgiving debtor in today’s gospel parable is “handed over to the torturers.” This is not a justification for torture, which is always “contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity” (CCC 2297). Rather, this is a vivid description of the torment we suffer when we refuse to give up our anger, when we refuse to forgive. Then we are our own worst enemy. The angry servant feels that he has a right to torment his fellow servant because of his debt; “Pay back what you owe!” How quickly he has forgotten! He himself has been forgiven a much larger debt, one that was impossible for him to pay. In his refusal to forgive, he is harming himself much more than his debtor.
Whenever we are tempted to “hug anger,” to hold a grudge or to demand strict justice, the Lord pierces our conscience with this question: “Should you not have dealt mercifully with your fellow servant, as I dealt with you?” The only proper way for us to relate to one another is with mercy! When we realize how merciful the Lord has been to us, we want to show others the same kindness and mercy. Indeed, we recall whenever we pray the Our Father that forgiving and being forgiven go together. To benefit from the Lord’s mercy, we must be merciful.
The last line of the parable, the moral of the story, says, “My heavenly Father will treat you in exactly the same way unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” To forgive “from the heart” requires that we make a decision. We cannot wait until we “feel better.” We must decide, from the heart, to forgive, confident that the Lord will make it possible, for he has already forgiven us from his heart.
When do I hold on to anger? Why do I find it difficult to forgive others? Am I willing to make a decision to show mercy towards those who have offended me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 13, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.