Righteous anger, sinful anger and forgiveness


Part of a series of articles on forgiveness in the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

I had written in my last article: “Forgiveness does not deny the anger and pain one feels. However, forgiveness channels these natural emotional reactions away from destructive tendencies — hostility, resentment and revenge. Forgiveness releases the offended one(s) from living the past in perpetual resentment toward a future of healing and reconstruction.”

When we are offended, we become angry. This is a natural reaction to a wrong, to a pain or humiliation inflicted upon us. If one does not get angry at an offense then something is abnormal. Anger, in a good sense, is a form of protection against a wrong or evil. When a wrong has been committed we ought to be angry! The therapists Matthew Linn and Dennis Linn wrote, “…denying anger is unhealthy and can destroy us. Feeling anger, on the other hand, is as healthy a reaction to being emotionally hurt as feeling pain is to being physically hurt.” Thus in fostering forgiveness we have to first recognize that human beings who love themselves and love others do get angry when a wrong has been committed against them or against a loved one.

Thus there is such a thing as a healthy or righteous anger. This is the kind of anger that Jesus felt toward the scribes and Pharisees. This is the type of anger one feels regarding injustices in society: abortion, poverty, discrimination, corruption, war, etc. This is the kind of anger one feels when one has been deeply wronged. Anger is healthy when it helps someone to identify the offense and lead him or her to deal with it in a constructive way. Anger is constructive when one can identity a wrong or an injustice and take positive measures to change that wrong. Examples of righteous anger are found in Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez. Denying anger or repressing it can cripple people in a number of ways: morally, spiritually, emotionally, socially or physically. As Linn and Linn wrote, “…denying anger is unhealthy and can destroy us…Anger must be dealt with or it will deal with us.”

Anger that is repressed, denied or becomes hostile is unhealthy or even sinful. Linn and Linn wrote, “The capital sin should not be feeling anger but nursing unresolved anger resulting in hostility, the attitude leading to hurt another by negative humor, destructive criticism or other unloving behavior. Feeling anger is healthy; acting in hostility is usually unhealthy and sinful.” Scripture itself distinguishes between sinful anger and anger without sin: “If you are angry, let it be without sin. The sun must not go down on your wrath; do not give the devil a chance to work on you” (Ephesians 4:26-27).

Thus anger becomes sinful when it evolves into resentment, hostility, revenge and destructive behavior. Hostility and revenge are warped ways of seeking justice. Righteous anger seeks true justice and retribution; hostility and revenge seek to destroy and to “even the score.” In the end, the one who exacts such “punishment” is, in effect, hurting (destroying) themselves and their loved ones; instead, righteous anger can lead to constructive changes for individuals and for society.

For more on the subject of forgiveness and anger, I recommend Dennis Linn’s and Matthew Linn’s Healing Life’s Hurts: Healing Memories through the Five Stages of Forgiveness, New York, New York, Paulist Press, 1978.