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The Fifth Commandment and Anger

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present meditation is on anger.

In the last meditation we reflected on the sanctity of human life. Remember we are reflecting on the fifth commandment of the Decalogue.

We saw that to take the life of a human being, whether our own or the life of another person, in the plan of God, He alone has the right to determine how long a human being, even though just conceived in the womb, how long the human being is to live; the reason being is the human being has a mind and a will, endowed with these faculties in order to glorify God. In our present meditation we shall see what our Lord, Christ, God incarnate did to elevate the fifth commandment. As narrated by Saint Matthew in Christ's several chapter discourse in the Sermon On the Mount, our plan is to look at this very simple but complex subject of our faith. Under five perspectives, first just to hear the words of our Lord then briefly to explain or comment if you wish, on the meaning of what our Lord was saying when He gave us His version of the fifth commandment. Third we will ask ourselves and explain in the Church’s language what is anger. Fourth what are the recognized effects of anger and finally how are we to cope with our irascible tendencies. In a word how are we to not merely master but actually profit from the sinful tendency that we all have to anger.

First then the words of Christ. And I am using the vulgate translation. "You have heard that it was said to the ancients that you shall not kill and whoever shall kill will be liable to judgment. But I say to you anyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. And whoever says to his brother “empty headed” shall be liable to the Sanhedrin. Whoever says “you fool” shall be liable to the fires of hell therefore when you are offering your gift at the altar and you remember that your brother has anything against you leave your gift at the altar and go at once to be reconciled with your brother. And then come and offer your gifts." Our Lord. Our Lord's understanding of the fifth commandment.

Now some explanation. We ask ourselves what exactly is Jesus telling us in this narrative Of the Sermon on the Mount? Just before giving what we read, Christ explained at some length that He did not come to destroy the law and the prophets. No, He came to fulfill them and significantly, the first of the ways in which Christ explained how He was fulfilling the law, the first one, is the fifth commandment and He is identifying anger with the fifth commandment. Coming first in a long series of teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Coming first as we know Christ not only revealed in what He says but even in the order which He said, whatever He revealed. Clearly in Christ's mind, mastery of our irascible urges is fundamental to the practice of Christian morality. So we ask ourselves, how did our Lord elevate the fifth of God's commandment? He does so in many ways. I count five:

First, in the Old Testament, precepts forbade actually killing someone. Christ prohibits even being unjustly angry with someone. I don’t even touch a person, I do that person no harm, but in my mind and in my heart I am angry. In other words, the foundation of the fifth commandment Christ is telling us is deep down inside the soul.

Secondly, where the Old Testament precept centers on the external crime of murder, Christ concentrates again on the internal passion which is at the root of murder. In other words, Christ assumes and He implies that whatever would have been our condition before the fall, having a fallen human nature, people can provoke us and, spontaneously on our side, is a reaction to that provocation.

Thirdly, whereas the Old Testament forbids the killing of an innocent person, Christ forbids even the use of offensive language against someone whom we dislike, who has offended us, or with whom we are somehow, as we casually say, we are irritated. Note the sequence in Christ's discourse. Having stated that in the Old Testament overt willful homicide is a crime, Christ then tells us that was the law, and that remains, but I am telling you, control the movement of your irrational instincts.

To somehow do harm to the ones that you think have harmed you. At the heart of anger is vengeance. We are all—and dear Lord how much I have learned in my forty years in the priesthood—given our own sinful nature, we are all prone to vengeance. Then, as we've just seen, not only are we to control, and we'd better control, those inner movements because repaying what we consider evil with evil, but we'd better control our tongues. I thought I would in this conference, quote and explain at length the third chapter of St. James Epistle. Read it. Meditate on it. Profound wisdom and the Holy Spirit through his Holy Apostles telling us how the same tongue with which we can praise and bless God can—and can we ever—curse our neighbor. And let me tell you—and I mean it—give me a dagger in my heart any day compared to some peoples venomous speech. What is Jesus saying? We can commit murder with our tongues and let me tell you people, do they do.

Fourth way that Christ elevated the Fifth Commandment of the Decalogue. There again the Old Testament forbade out-right murder. Christ prescribed no option; thus Christ prescribes reconciliation with the person we have some very deep grievance [with]. The humility that this must take, the mastery, the practice of the highest Christian virtues. Only those sincerely, honestly are to be reconciled with those whom they consider their enemies. Once more, I repeat this, is Christ giving His version of the Fifth Commandment. Wherein the Old Testament the fifth Commandment forbids willful homicide, Christ tells us not only to be reconciled with someone against whom we are angry, He tells us that we are to leave our prayers, symbolized by leaving our gift on the altar, going first to be reconciled with the one we consider to be our enemy, and only then return to the altar, meaning back to our prayers. I've learned an awful lot in my priestly ministry. Much of it necessarily will die with me. There is one thing I can share with you. For most people their most fundamental problem in prayer is they are not on friendly terms with certain people. The whole focus of Christ's teaching is on the root cause of what may even become physical violence to someone, which is anger not even necessarily manifested in the body. Anger in the soul. With that as a background I shall call it—We can ask ourselves what is anger? Remember, it is Christ —what shall I say —not only association with the fifth Commandment, it is His New Testament elevation of both the prohibition and, of course, the precepts. And at root the precept is the precept of meekness. That is why the only direct imperative given to us by Christ and recorded in the New Testament, ‘learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.’ In other words, the Fifth Commandment is indeed a prohibition [from the] Old Testament forbidding murder [and] the New Testament forbidding unjustified uncontrolled anger. But the Fifth Commandment is also a solemn precept. It is a precept of meekness, and with divine wisdom, the only time He directly tells us to learn from Him. He associates meekness with Humility. In other words, meekness is humility in practice.

In the lives of all of us, God has placed, and He will place, provocative angry inducing persons and situations. What are we being told? Be humble and you will be meek. Be meek and you will control what we have to use. We have a temper: to use it and never lose it. So now what is anger? As understood by the Church, anger is the inordinate desire for revenge. And again, a little longer but still the Churches definition of anger. Anger is an emotional sense of displeasure and usually of antagonism aroused by real or apparent injury. And maybe we should note that anger can be either passionate or dispassionate. In other words, anger can be deep and strong but not arouse the emotion or conversely emotions can be powerfully aroused. Let me tell, you do not judge the depth of your own anger or that of someone else by the amount of, shall I say, passion displayed. People can be livid with anger and remain as cool as a piece of ice. Anger is deep and the church wisely distinguished between what she calls passionate emotional and dispassionate anger. We ask ourselves, is there such a thing as justifiable anger? Yes, when the reason or grounds for the indignation is or are justified and where the indignation is consistent with the evil that provokes the anger. Needless to say, the subject that we are covering (I hope) in less than an hour deserves days of commentary because it is so basic to the spiritual life.

We know that our Lord, shortly after beginning His public ministry; —remember He went into the temple and saw money changers there desecrating His Father's house. What did He do? Made a whip and drove the money changers out of the temple. And how thoughtful of Jesus. Remember, those who were selling just doves, no big business. He just told them pick up your wares and get out. But the others he turned over their tables. Of course we are speaking here of unjustifiable anger. The anger which Christ condemned. Even anger condemned by Christ meant eternal punishment. Our next area of reflection.

The Effect of Anger

No two people either get angry in the same way or manifest their irascibility in the same way. Nor indeed are the consequences of anger the same on any two people. I want to repeat what I said before. It is not coincidental, believe me, that Christ, in his prolonged Sermon on the Mount began, after declaring that He came to elevate the old law, he began with the fifth commandment, and identified sinning against the fifth commandment by our uncontrolled anger toward a person or persons who may have or we think they have offended us. What we are dealing with here is the Church's theology of the fifth commandment as given to us by our Lord. Especially six effects are identified by Catholic moralists. I will first name them and then briefly explain each one.

  • First - indignation,

  • Second - mental disturbance,

  • Third - uncontrolled speech,

  • Fourth - blasphemy,

  • Fifth - abuse, and

  • Sixth - quarrel and conflict between individuals and even whole nations.

First then indignation, the internal reaction to something provocative that someone has said or done, which, as we say offends us. Indignation is deep down inside and, given our fallen human nature, it is spontaneous. It rises before we even have a moment to realize what is going on. Second, know the masters of the spiritual life say in different words the same thing. Mental disturbance: the mind looses some of its capacity for thinking correctly. Angry people can think all right, but their thinking is not rational. Thirdly, to control first of all the inside reaction to an offense and then our speech. Angry people say things, how well I know, that can be devastating and then five minutes after having said something the angry person can have forgotten what he or she has said. HA - but for maybe the rest of the other person's life they will never forget. How we all need, how we need this meditation. Beginning with the speaker, surprisingly blasphemy. What are we being told? That temptation that arouses to anger with another person, that temptation then leads to become angry with God! You can not read from pages of the atheist Niche the philosopher, whose books are widely circulated and used in one American University after another, Niche is a professional blasphemer angry with God. Abuse in other words. The urge to do harm to the one that makes me angry. In my estimation and of course only God knows, but in my estimation most of the 60 plus million abortions in the world every year are the result of anger. I have reasoned, counseled, and talked to women who want to kill the child in their womb because they are so livid with anger against the father of that child. In the last month a women called me from out of state. She talked this language while she was pregnant. I should add pregnant out of wedlock. I strongly advised against keeping the child, she would not listen and now she is in a deeper mess than she ever expected. Reasoning over the telephone with an angry women. Thank God she did not kill her child. Now she wants to kill the father. And finally conflict. Anger is the seedbed of all the quarrels of human history. And those quarrels, as we know, can be not only between individuals, but also between nations. Over the years as I read and re-read Karl Marx, Marx was a very angry man. We are still on the effect. On the spiritual life it is imperative that each one of us knows what provokes our temper. Oh what silly jokes are made about anger, but anger is not funny. To know how we manifest —and the word is manifest —our anger, so then once we honestly admit before God how we show our anger, then we get to the root cause of that anger. And work it may take a lifetime to do it. To cultivate the meekness without which we shall never control our irascible passions and our humility growing in humility to become like Christ tells us to do to become like Him, Meek and Humble of Heart.

Finally remedies. If we wish to master the vice of anger —and that is the language of the Church—the vice we are told by the Church's teachers, there are six recommendations. First, to see what arouses us to anger. And as far as possible be protected, avoid being unnecessarily exposed to what we may call anger inducing situations. This can mean much more than most of us realize. We cannot read day after day our newspapers. If there is a spark of sanity in a persons system, the newspapers are consciously designed to arouse anger. Did you know that? And then the anger can become addictive, otherwise known as a vice. Secondly, immediately recognize that the mind realizes the first rise of anger. Most people wait much too long. By the time they realize with their minds what is going on they may be so aroused, that barring a miracle of grace they just carry through. Thirdly, once the mind realizes I'm being provoked, or as we casually say, I'm being angered - that's a verb, we should resist. Reject the first movements, think of something else. Turn your mind to another object; above all, do not dwell on the provocative thought, feeling or emotion. Fourth, pray instantly the moment the mind realizes I'm being provoked. Have recourse to God's grace by at least a momentary prayer. Maybe just the Holy Name or it may be an aspiration for the person who is provoking you. Fifth, cultivate the habit of meditating on Christ's teachings and example. He is our great divine Master who assumed our human nature to teach us, as He told us, to learn meekness whose foundation is humility.

And finally, with the help of God's grace, try to see everything, and the word is everything, as coming from God. Offensive people, insulting words, rejection, coldness, you name it; see beyond the person who is provoking you to an angry retaliation. See God —and here especially, I know what I am talking about—the Passion of Christ, is the perfect lesson we need surely. Surely Christ as man had every reason on earth to react against that angry mob who shouted for His crucifixion. But He saw His Father's will. HA - what grace we need to see this, the will of God behind the words that pierce us to the heart or behind the action that we might prefer that the person kill us in our body rather than commit homicide in our souls. But we believe all of this mysteriously, but truthfully, are part of the providence of God.


Lord Jesus, the only two virtues that you explicitly and directly taught us to learn from you; meekness and humility. This Dear Savior is your teaching of the fifth commandment of the Decalogue. We beg you Dear Savior, by the grace you won for us on the cross, to make us like yourself, meek and humble of heart so that we may not only repeat or understand the fifth commandment but live it as you elevated it for our own sanctification on earth and our salvation in the world to come.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit Amen

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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