When my mind became embittered,
I was sorely wounded in my heart.
I was stupid and had no understanding;
I was like a brute beast in your presence.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 7:21-22 (BCP Version) – September 21, 2012)
Today’s evening Psalm is ascribed to Asaph who, according to the genealogies in the Books of Chronicles, seems to have been one of King David’s chief musicians. His sons, we are told, were assigned by David to “prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals” (1 Chr 25:1). Asaph seems to have been something of a psychologist, for in these two verses he draws the connection between anger and stupidity – being embittered and “wounded in heart” leads to lack of understanding and brutish behavior. Was there ever a truer observation?
There is nothing wrong with anger per se. In fact, St. Paul commends anger that is controlled: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Eph. 4:26). It’s the loss of control that is the problem. As we read in the Book of Proverbs: “One given to anger stirs up strife, and the hothead causes much transgression.” (Prov. 29:22) In fact, we find Asaph’s point repeated in Proverbs: “One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly, and the schemer is hated” (Prov. 14:17) and “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (14:29). Someone who flies off the handle and cannot or does not control their anger will say things they wouldn’t normally say and do things they wouldn’t normally do – stupid things!
A Japanese Buddhist sage, Nicherin Daishonin, once wrote, “The extremity of greed, anger, and stupidity in people’s minds . . . is beyond the power of any sage or worthy man to control.” Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” Does the extreme, possibly infinite, amount of uncontrollable stupidity in the world suggest that there is a similar infinite amount of anger and rage?
The Hebrew word for anger in the verses from the Book of Proverbs quoted above is anaph, which seems to be derived from a root word referring to the flaring of one’s nostrils. It calls to mind those cartoons of raging bulls with smoke puffing from their nostrils, which reminds me of the Psalmist’s image of the angry individual behaving like a “brute beast.”
Two words are used in the original Greek of the New Testament to name anger. One is thumos which the lexicon defines as “passion, anger, heat, anger forthwith boiling up and soon subsiding again.” Its origin or root is a word that describes the immolation or burning of animal sacrifices. It refers to an uncontrolled outburst of blazing anger. It is a sudden outburst of anger, a flying off the handle that rages like a fire out of control. The other is orge with the lexicon defines as a “movement or agitation of the soul,” wrath or indignation; it comes from a root meaning to stretch. The word implies a slowly building, controlled, and slow-burning anger, what we might call “righteous indignation”. It is the first type of anger that leads to stupidity; the second can lead to positive change.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book Strive for Freedom laid out six principles of nonviolence, the first of which acknowledges the positive potential of controlled anger:
Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is a positive force confronting the forces of injustice, and utilizes the righteous indignation and the spiritual, emotional and intellectual capabilities of people as the vital force for change and reconciliation.
The lesson I take from this bit of the Psalm is “Don’t be stupid!” Don’t let uncontrolled anger cloud your judgment. There’s more than enough stupidity in the world already (possibly an infinite amount, as Einstein suggested); don’t add to it. If your nostrils flare . . . use them to take a deep breath and get control! Controlled anger, righteous indignation, can be a force for good. Stupidity never can. Be righteous, not stupid!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.