Abba Agatho said: “If an angry man raises the dead, God is still displeased with his anger.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers10.13

I have discovered over the years that this teaching is perhaps more controversial than I would have thought. The fathers seem to be fairly unanimous in the conclusion that anger has but one purpose, to be directed at our own sins and nothing else. Is such a view too extreme?

The primary objection that I have heard tends to be that Jesus himself, after all, overturned the tables of the merchants in the temple. Therefore, I am told, sometimes externally oriented anger must be righteous. If such were the case, I would feel compelled to agree, but I think that a careful examination of the story shows that it is not so clear-cut.

(The story is recorded in all four Gospels. The account in the Gospel of John may actually be a separate occasion, but whatever the case, I will only examine St. John’s account here. The other three add nothing regarding the possibility of Jesus being angry.)

According to St. John,

Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” Then His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house has consumed Me.” (John 2:113-17)

Just as the story about Mary and Martha is often read too narrowly, I think that the same can be said of this text. The scene certainly sounds like one of anger in our context, I must admit, and I’m sure that popular portrayals of this scene do nothing to help our picture of it. However, one must not forget a few things.

First of all, people who wrangled animals used whips all the time to get them to go where they wished. There is nothing about Jesus’s making and using a whip that necessitates anger.

Second, while pouring out the money and overturning the tables can be done angrily and violently, it need not be. Furthermore, the Greek word translated “overturned” more often means “returned”; thus portrayals of Christ flipping tables in a rage, while a possible interpretation and much more entertaining, are not necessary.

Third, the passage itself characterizes Jesus’s actions as zealous, not angry. The fact that no one seems to know the difference between the two anymore does not impute the latter to Christ. He was zealous for his Father’s house, not necessarily angry at those defiling it.

Last, and most important, Jesus happens to be fully divine and consubstantial with the Father. While this does not mean that he is beyond the standards of good and evil, the fact that he may be able to rightly express righteous indignation in no way guarantees that we can, and it is presumptuous on that basis alone to assume so.

That said, when considering our own capabilities (or lack thereof) I find the words of St. John Cassian to be instructive:

No matter what provokes it, anger blinds the soul’s eyes, preventing it from seeing the Sun of righteousness. Leaves, whether of gold or lead, placed over the eyes, obstruct the sight equally, for the value of the gold does not affect the blindness it produces. Similarly, anger, whether reasonable or unreasonable, obstructs our spiritual vision.

And Christ himself has warned,

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder,” and “whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.” But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22)

With this in mind, Abba Agotho’s statement seems a little more plausible: “If an angry man raises the dead, God is still displeased with his anger.” It is similar to the sentiment of St. Paul: “[T]hough I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). It shows us that the state of our hearts is far more important than the form of our actions.

In my experience, anger—or irritation, at least, which only differs from anger by degree—most often comes from having a divided will. When we are preoccupied with anything other than our current context, especially the person or people before us, we find any interruption by the present to be an injustice. In other words: we find reality to be unbearable. Indeed, even when we are angry about a real evil, are we not distracted from what really matters by our own inflated egos? When is anger at evil ever better than compassion towards those who suffer and pity toward those who sin? When is impatience ever better than patience? When is being dominated by our passion ever to be preferred to choosing, instead, to radically love?

This is a hard saying, I know, but I have found it to be very true. And I hope that, though I may never raise the dead, with God’s help I might put anger to death within me before the hour of my resurrection arrives.