The daily battle to master our emotions—especially anger—gives us a chance to imitate the Lord’s perfect integrity
Once I heard a talk by a religious sister who, shall we say, did not have a classical theological formation. She opined that after he drove the money changers out of the temple, the Lord would, in a calmer moment, have thought to himself, Maybe I could have handled that better.
Well, no. The Savior was morally perfect, and this means he had full control of his feelings. Indeed, “control” would not accurately describe to us his emotional life. He never restrained an impulse; rather, all his feelings—desire, aversion, hope, fear, sadness, joy, and even anger—were always in perfect accord with the reality of things.
Jesus did not “lose his temper.” He was never “in a bad mood.” He was never ravenous. Yet he could be angry and he could be sad and he could be hungry, and of course his happier emotions were also never exaggerated, but just right.
Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich tells us that Our Lord first gently admonished the vendors on one day, and he and his disciples helped them set up in a more reverent location. Then he had to correct them again, and he warned them that the third time he would have to be more forceful. And so he was. Since the Gospels do not contain most of what Jesus did and said, as St John tells us, I find her explanation very credible. In any case, his anger was expressed prudently, and he corrected in an orderly, not explosive way.
We tend to think that our emotional ups and downs show that we are “only human,” but in fact they show that we have a hard time being human. The most truly human thing would be to experience feelings in accord with what we know to be right and just, with what is reasonable and loving, in line with the rational and free nature we possess as God’s image and likeness. Think humane.
You see, we possess a fallen nature that, even if we are living in the grace of God, still besets us with its effects. Before the fall, when our first parents were most perfectly human, their emotions we governed by reason and love. They had what is called the “gift of integrity”: the harmony of our feelings, passions, and emotions with what we know to be true and good.
The playing field, or better, battlefield of our spiritual life on earth is mostly the scene of our continuing struggle to live with our minds, which know the truth, and our wills, which love the good, governing well the feelings that come from the experience of our senses—whether external (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching), or internal (imagination and memory and the cognitive sense). Anyone who has tried sincerely to live according to the commandments of God knows that this involves a struggle.
Anger is a key area of this constant battle, since we have a keen memory of things we regard as unfair or offensive, and desire is another, as we are naturally appreciative of things and persons that provide us with pleasure. The day all these passions are at peace with truth and goodness, then we will really be fully alive as human beings. The great martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch writes in his letter to the Romans that he longs for martyrdom and heaven, when he will be free from passions and “truly be a man.”
The fact is that we have little idea as yet of what being fully human is all about, since it such a struggle to persevere here below against the world, the flesh, and the devil, against the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.
Just like a beginner at a sport, or at a musical instrument, or any art or craft, doesn’t yet feel like a black belt, or a recital pianist, or a master painter or builder, so we too must accept that in this earthly life, no matter how much progress we make (and should make), still we feel like beginners and have only a vague idea of the perfection and happiness of God’s completed work in us after this life is over. But when it is over, then we will have an eternity to be all we are meant to be, this earthly exile being an infinitesimal part of our actual existence. That’s a happy thought indeed.
One of the Lenten collects speaks of the “healing remedies” that the Lord offers us. Christ heals our unruly feelings. In his goodness he has given us the means of grace, the sacraments, the sacred scriptures, the examples and prayers of the saints, our friends and family, holy images, and sacramentals, works of mercy and works of penance, and, let’s not forget, the daily duties of our state in life. These all combine to provide us in every situation with something we can do to become more human: winning a battle against the passions.
We are never without help. This is because Jesus will always have his way, driving out the defects from our souls, whether softly and gently, or if we are resistant, by some trial or punishment, so that we may be fit temples of the God of truth and love, who loves us more than we love ourselves.