It’s Lent. Forty days of penance, prayer, and mortification with the hope that we can begin to let go of our earthly attachments, and thereby become more attached to Christ. I’d give up coffee, except our pastor told us we shouldn’t give up something if by doing so we only make everyone around us miserable. I have taken his words to heart.
Moses and the Israelites were 40 years in the desert. (And I think 40 days is bad!) Now Moses was not a patient man. In fact, he was punished severely for his impatience and anger (Numbers 20:7-13). When the Israelites were without water in the desert of Zin, they complained to Moses and Aaron, “Why did you lead us out of Egypt, only to bring us to this wretched place without even water to drink?” God appears to Moses, and tells him to command the rock to bring forth water.
Moses is so angered by the Israelites that he says, “Listen to me, you rebels! Are we to bring water for you out of this rock?” In his anger, he strikes the rock twice. For this, he is not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Whoa, harsh!
Did God punish Moses because he disobeyed? Or because Moses had been angry? A beautiful interpretation was offered today at Mass. The waters of Meribah are the healing waters of God’s mercy and forgiveness, a foreshadowing of the blood and water of divine mercy that flowed from Christ’s side at the Crucifixion. Moses did not want the water of Meribah to flow from the rock, because he did not have forgiveness in his heart. He was too angry with the Israelites. “Are we to bring water for you out of this rock?”
How often do we stand in the way of God showing forth His mercy? Are our hearts so hardened that the healing waters of forgiveness cannot flow through? Are we hardened in resentment, bitterness, or anger? These forty days of Lent are the perfect time to reflect on our own attachments—especially to those hidden attachments of the heart, such as pride, unforgiveness, and self-love, and to pray that our hearts will be transformed.
It’s also a good time to examine our hearts: is there any anger or resentment that is hurting my relationships? Angry feelings, of themselves, are not sinful. In fact, anger is sometimes appropriate and even praiseworthy. When Christ became angry at the Pharisees and called them “whitewashed tombs” or when he used a whip on the money changers in the temple, he was responding with righteous anger. Anger can impel us to take action against injustice or evil, fight through obstacles to achieve a difficult goal, and express ourselves more passionately and convincingly. Father Bernard Maturin writes, “Anger is the sword which God puts into man’s hand to fight the great moral battles of life.”(1)
But sometimes, anger is inappropriate. Anger may reveal a bad habit or a character (I am angry because I didn’t get my way). Excessive anger (screaming at a small child for spilling his milk) or inappropriate anger (kicking the dog because I am angry with my boss at work) is wrong. Sometimes anger masks a deep-seated emotional wound (I become enraged when my boss criticizes me, because it triggers feelings of being unloved as a child). Instead of being the sword that fights great moral battles for God, anger can be turned selfishly inward. It can become the weapon that drives loved ones apart and kills the very life of grace in our souls.
And there is another type of anger that is important to consider, and it is the type of anger implied in the gospel of Matthew. “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:22). Scripture scholars have speculated that what Christ is condemning here is the habit of being angry, rather than a one-time emotion. Being in a chronic state of anger is poisonous to the soul.
Being perpetually angry or resentful (or being vengeful) is different from an outburst of anger. Feelings of ongoing resentment and anger are often the result of past emotional wounds. If I have low self-esteem or an unresolved hurt from the past and someone makes a critical comment, I might respond in anger to mask my feelings of unworthiness. Responding angrily gives me a temporary feeling of being in control, and temporarily relieves my anxiety or sense of shame.(2)
Dr. John Gottman, renowned marriage researcher, discovered that all couples (even happily married ones) will sometimes fight and utter angry words they later regret. It is not so much the occasional fight or expression of anger that can cause trouble in a marriage. Gottman’s research shows that it is, rather, a pattern of constant criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling (the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”) that leads to unhappiness in marriage.(3)
Contempt, however, is poison. When spouses were treated with contempt, they felt that their marital problems were so severe they could not be resolved, and they often became ill over the next few years (4). Simple anger did not have the same reaction. Contempt views the other person as inferior, asserts power over them, and shows no empathy. Contempt makes loving, respectful, and affectionate communication nearly impossible. Christ wants us to reduce and to eliminate these states of anger before they poison our hearts and hurt those we love. Otherwise we may find ourselves condemned to the spiritual desert of bitterness and resentment.
So, let’s use this time of Lent to detach from our unforgiveness, resentment, or habitual anger to allow the mercy of God to flow forth—even from the rock of our hardened hearts. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”