Well, faithful readers, we have reached the end of our series on the Apostolic Fathers. Today’s installment will be the last before we switch gears. I want to begin a new series on Augustine next week, which I am excited about. Be on the lookout for those blogs in the future. Today’s post returns us to the Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century text which we have looked at previously. I wanted to highlight a small passage on anger from Hermas.
The picture above is of the character “anger” from the recent movie, “Inside Out.” Obviously it’s a bit of a humorous take on a very real and very powerful emotion. The picture of anger in Hermas is unfortunately much darker. The passage we are examining today comes from the “Commandments” section of Hermas, which, as the text relates, were given by the Shepherd to Hermas in order that they might be written down for later generations. The passage is from chapter 33:
“3 But if an angry temper approaches, immediately the holy spirit, which is very sensitive, is distressed because it does not have a clean place, and it seeks to leave the place. For it is choked by the evil spirit and does not have the room to serve the Lord the way it wants to, because it is polluted by the angry temper. For the Lord lives in patience, but the devil lives in an angry temper. 4 So if both spirits live together, it is unfortunate and evil for that person in whom they live.” (Hermas 33.3-4)
I find a few things intriguing about this passage. The first being that the holy spirit is “sensitive.” Now, it’s possible that Hermas is just talking about a “holy spirit” and not the third person of the Trinity. For example, above in verse 2, the text says, “If you are patient, the holy spirit that lives in you will be pure, uncontaminated by some other, evil spirit; living in a spacious room.” Side-stepping a possible question about the Holy Spirit being contaminated, I would argue that since the text is likely from the second century, it is unlikely that the author had a strong Trinitarian understanding of God. Therefore, the big theological question that one might want to ask, can’t be asked of such a text. Suffice it to say, Hermas understood there to be a holy spirit dwelling in believers that was indeed “sensitive” to other, evil spirits.
Additionally, the spirit can be “choked” by the evil spirit which comes from anger. I don’t know if this scares you as much as it does me, but the very idea that 1) our anger arises from an evil spirit and 2) that said evil spirit limits or obstructs a spirit from God shows just how powerful anger is. For those who have been angry before (likely most of you, I think) you know how anger can take over in a flash, compromising our ability to see things clearly and intelligently. That fits in with Hermas’ depiction of anger here.
Another element from the above passage is that the “Lord lives in patience” and the “devil lives in an angry temper.” Again, the attribution of anger to a demonic source is unsettling to say the least. However, it might be equally unnerving to note that in verse 6, Hermas notes that “if an angry temper is mixed with patience, the patience is polluted, and its intercession is no longer useful to God.” If we connect the dots here, it would seem that the author cautions against anger because the the devil can use it to pollute the patience in which the Lord lives (v. 3). Is the devil that powerful? Is anger? What about when Jesus is angry and “cleanses the temple?” Is that the devil’s work? Just some fun questions to leave hanging. (I honestly don’t know what Hermas would say with regard to Jesus using anger in cleansing the temple, but it would be a fun exercise).
To begin to wrap up our discussion today, I wanted to address the conclusions drawn above, namely that anger is the key to the devil unraveling God’s plan within our lives. Now, as with the rest of the Apostolic Fathers, Hermas should not be weighed the same as biblical books, despite the fact that some of the books in the collection were included in early codices, including Hermas). Hermas obviously is cautioning against allowing one’s anger to flourish within his or her own life. The purpose in doing so could be reflective of a culture which generally saw emotional outbursts and other displays of emotion as a weakness, particularly among men. See Peter Brown’s The Body and Society in my “Recommended Books” page.
However, I think the point that Hermas makes regarding anger is appropriate: that it is a dangerous emotion that has side effects which we mostly do not want in our lives. We should take heed that anger, especially going unchecked, can begin to breed other habits or general sourness of disposition. Hermas in the next chapter describes the chain of emotions that are linked to anger: “An angry temper is first of all foolish, fickle, and senseless. Then from foolishness comes bitterness, and from bitterness wrath, and from wrath anger, and from anger vengefulness. Then vengefulness, being composed of all these evil elements, becomes a great and incurable sin.” (Hermas 34.4)
To close, I think that many emotions can be linked to anger; certainly bitterness and vengeful thoughts. However, if we make an effort to curtail anger, can we stay on the side of patience, as Hermas would seem to suggest? Also, is anger at situations, people, places, injustices all on equal ground? Can there be good anger? If so what does it look like? These are some grandiose questions which I have considered for many years, particularly the latter two. I think I have come to the conclusion that “good anger” is truly hard to define, but does exist. Helpful right? What do you all think? I’d love to hear from you on this.