Dear James (E)–The Walls of Wrath

Dear James,

You’ve asked a couple of questions that I’ll respond to specifically. First, am I “suggesting that all sin is a distraction from duty?” I have indeed linked many of these reflections on sin to distraction, but it doesn’t follow that the essence of sin is itself distraction. Rather, I think that distraction is a frequent byproduct of our sinfulness. Trapped in sin, we fail our duty (which further complicates sin!). So, not all sin is distraction, but in sin I am almost always distracted from my God-given duty.

Second, “To what degree can a sin be purely a matter of the body, and to what degree can we have a sin which is purely of the soul?” In the tradition, sins like Lust and Sloth were considered to be purely bodily sins, and therefore of a lesser significance that more spiritual sins, like Pride and Greed. But I am wary, first of all, of overly dividing the body and soul. Is it really possible to commit a physical sin that doesn’t in some sense impact my spirit? And is it really possible to commit a spiritual sin which doesn’t have some necessary impact on my body? As I’ve treated our sins so far, I’ve made an explicit point to try and exhibit them in both bodily and spiritual form, not dividing one from the other. This seems like good sense. Additionally, I’ve avoided ranking them, especially because I feel that the essence of sin is something that separates us from God. If a sin of the first rank can separate us from God just as effectively as the sin ranked seventh, then the rankings are clearly irrelevant.

Does this suggest that all sin is equal? In one sense, yes. In another, no. All sin is equal in its capacity to separate us from God, and in this adultery is every bit as bad as murder or theft or covetousness. But in the no sense, sins are unequal in their effects on other people. So while the consequence of Envy could potentially affect only me (ruining my capacity for joy), the consequence of Murder necessarily affects another person. My sin is not merely a sin of the inner life, nor a sin against my own body, but a sin against someone else’s body. In this sense, it seems to me that some sins are clearly worse than others.

This suggests that we can view sin in three different capacities—sin as it affects the inner life, sin as it affects the body, and sin as it affects the community around me. Consider, for example, Wrath. As a sin of the inner life, Wrath seems to involve the undue embrace of anger at another person or situation. In this, you are angry when you have no right to be. Now we have lots of reasons to be angry (and for the record I think anger is one of God’s gifts to us). But we have times to be angry, and purposes for our anger, and Godly means of exercising, discharging, and dispensing with our anger—and these are conditions which I would suggest are always filled by God’s Wrath in the Scriptures. Sinful Wrath, to me, seems to involve a failure at one of these points—angry at the wrong time, for the wrong purpose, and discharged without Godliness. Paul famously commands us to “be angry and do not sin.” Be angry. Feel what is wrong with your life. Experience this particular pain. But do not sin in it! Wrath is sinning in anger.

The bodily aspect of the sin of Wrath may seem opaque at first, but I think it clear enough upon reflection. When we prioritize our anger it has a habit of flattening out all our other emotions. The man who lives in the grip of an ongoing rage feels little else—sadness, joy, melancholy, interest, happiness, etc. Ironically, sometimes, I’ve found that people will almost subconsciously adopt Wrath as their dominating emotion simply so that they won’t have to feel anything else. Their hearts are wrapped in a Wrath of self-protection. Wrath is then a sin against the body by limiting my capacity to experience the world God has given me, in all its joys and sorrows.

With regard to community, Wrath generates what we might call a dishonest distortion. Instead of seeing a person, I see red; instead of really hearing, I hear only talking points for arguments. Wrath, having flattened my own emotional life, then flattens my perception of other persons as well. This is perhaps something of what is going on in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says that calling our brother “fool” and “emptyhead” leads to a murder of the heart. Instead of receiving his accusation that I’ve done wrong, I dismiss and label him. Once labeled and dismissed, in Wrath I can do away with them in my heart. It’s a kind of murder, certainly.

In this, Wrath is the sin which builds up walls around the heart. It keeps other people, and other emotions, at arm’s length. It is a self-protective sin, and it seems to me that times of quiet prayer and meditation can especially provoke those strongholds of Wrath. God, after all, pursues us in those places where we try to hide, where we are attempting to cover up. And I wonder if what is often our Wrath at God is not the manifestation of the walls we’ve erected to keep Him out? Not that we can’t be angry at God (the Psalms make that possibility clear!), but when our anger becomes a habit of life, ongoing, undischarged, and disallowing of other emotional states.

I remember counseling a man who lived in the grip of Wrath to listen to sad music. It seemed to me fairly clear that if he would open his heart to experiences other than anger, then perhaps it might jumpstart his capacity to feel other emotions on a more regular basis. How many men, I wonder, have simply forgotten how to feel any other emotions?

The church service you mention sounds marvelous. I’ve enjoyed a fair share of the “smells and bells” services in my time, and you’re absolutely right that our material worship matters for our spiritual capacities for worship. What a medieval insight!

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios