For an angry age: Henry Fairlie and the “rights” obsession

“Don’t call me mad,” Bill Cosby warned. “Dogs get mad. People get angry.”

Dr. Cosby’s point – from an episode of The Cosby Show – is well-taken. To be “mad” is to be crazy, insane, off-your-rocker. Yet is there not a sense in which anger unchecked can produce in us a kind of mental illness?

In previous posts, we’ve looked at both pride and envy and their negative effects. Henry Fairlie’s The Seven Deadly Sins for Today (Notre Dame, 1978) addresses anger (from the Latin ira) as the third deadly sin. Admitting that there is a legitimate place for anger in the full spectrum of human emotion, Fairlie defines sinful anger that is closely related to hatred or the desire for vengeance (pp. 88-89). Such anger is comparable to fire (p. 89):

We think of Anger in terms of fire: blazing, flaming, scorching, smoking, fuming, spitting, smoldering, heated, white hot, simmering, boiling, and even when it is ice-cold it will still burn. It has been called the Devil’s furnace, and the other sins will fuel it.

The Bible talks about anger

In the same way, the Bible allows for some varieties of anger. Exhibit A is the Lord’s anger as he drove the money-changers from the Temple, declaring that what God intended as a “house of prayer” they had made a “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13). Paul cautioned the Ephesians not to “sin” when angry (Ephesians 4:26), implying that anger without sinning is possible. Yet anger appears on the same list as “rage” elsewhere in Paul’s writings, as something of which we must rid ourselves (Colossians 3:8). Both “anger” and “wrath” are divine prerogatives, and God will display them one day toward the wicked (Romans 2:7-9). In short, Scripture is careful to delineate a legitimate place for anger both for the human being and for God, while careful to warn of a type of anger that is destructive.

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