The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Genesis 4:6-7 NRSV
Cain didn’t listen to this wise, loving counsel. He couldn’t contain his anger, and in his anger he couldn’t listen to reason or appeal. He felt offended and couldn’t forgive the offense. He went out and let his anger overwhelm him, killing his brother instead.
What can that have to do with us? More than I once thought. It struck home in a conference when I heard the nun who was teaching say that when we hold onto anger we no longer engage with that person as a whole person; we’ve made him or her into an enemy. The more we turn away from others in anger (she said), not talking, not even really seeing them, the more we’ve effectively removed them from our world. She called it “spiritual murder.”
Her words were shocking, but there’s a certain truth in them. “Spiritual murder” was the sin that lurked at my door waiting to pounce when I was angry. I tended to withdraw from my offender and avoid him until, without consciously wishing it, it was as if he was dead to me. It’s still a struggle not to withdraw when hurt or offended and anger swamps me. But in the end I know it’s ourselves we kill, bit by bit, when we can’t let anger go or reach through it to forgive.
Though it’s the only way to heal the destructive force of anger, it isn’t easy to forgive. Even in the midst of anger’s powerful feelings I know I need to forgive, not only because the Holy One who loves me requires it, but also because my own anger tears me apart. But the emotional freedom necessary to forgive doesn’t come with the speed of the quick-rising tide of anger. So the struggle is often long and painful, even when the one I’m angry with is someone whose friendship I don’t want to lose.
What makes forgiving so hard for me, though, isn’t letting the other off the hook of blame that I’ve hung them on. It’s wrestling with myself, bearing the pain of the battle to uncover the root of anger. When I’m able to get my heart quiet enough to hear past my own ranting, in the company of one who is safe (whose judgment I don’t fear), I can hear the painful, critical questions: “Why am I angry? Why do I endlessly repeat the offense in my mind, feeding on its poison, hugging it to myself like a shield? What is it shielding me from?”
Only as I begin to seek the answers to these questions does the truth emerge for me, a slowly brightening light. Finally I find that the battle ends, forgiveness washes anger away, and peace settles in my heart.
[This is adapted from a blog I posted to the Spiritual Directors International newsletter, September 25, 2014]