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    When we feel stirred with anger we ought to call upon God for help.

    By Dallas Willard, Augustine of Hippo, Francis de Sales, and William Blake

    September 8, 2021

    This article is an excerpt from Following the Call: Living the Sermon on the Mount Together.

    You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:21–22)

    Dallas Willard

    According to Jesus, contempt is a greater evil than anger and so is deserving of greater condemnation. Unlike innocent anger, at least, it is a kind of studied degradation of another, and it also is more pervasive in life than anger. It is never justifiable or good. Therefore Jesus tells us, “Whoever says ‘Raca’ to his brother shall stand condemned before the Sanhedrin, the highest court of the land.”

    The Aramaic term raca was current in Jesus’ day to express contempt for someone and to mark out him or her as contemptible. It may have originated from the sound one makes to collect spittle from the throat in order to spit. In anger I want to hurt you. In contempt, I don’t care whether you are hurt or not. Or at least so I say. You are not worth consideration one way or the other. We can be angry at someone without denying their worth. But contempt makes it easier for us to hurt them or see them further degraded.

    Today, of course, we would not say, “Raca.” But we might call someone a twit or a twerp, maybe a dork or a nerd. These are the gentler words in our vocabulary of contempt; when it really gets going, it becomes filthy. Our verbal arsenal is loaded with contemptuous terms, some with sexual, racial, or cultural bearings, others just personally degrading. They should never be uttered.

    The intent and the effect of contempt is always to exclude someone, push them away, leave them out and isolated. This explains why filth is so constantly invoked in expressing contempt and why contempt is so cruel, so serious. It breaks the social bond more severely than anger. Yet it may also be done with such refinement.

    How often we see it, in the schoolyard, at a party, even in the home or church sanctuary! Someone is being put down or oh so precisely omitted, left out. It is a constant in most of human life. In the course of normal life one is rarely in a situation where contempt is not at least hovering in the wings.

    And everyone lives in terror of it. It is never quite beyond the margins of our consciousness. …

    Jesus’ comment here is that anyone who says, “Raca,” to an associate is rightly to be singled out by the highest authorities in the land – “the council,” or Sanhedrin – for appropriate and obviously serious penalties. Contemptuous actions and attitudes are a knife in the heart that permanently harms and mutilates people’s souls. That they are so common does not ease their destructiveness. In most professional circles and “high” society, where one might hope for the highest moral sensitivity, contempt is a fine art. Practicing it is even a part of being “in good standing.” Not to know whom and how to despise is one of the surest of signs that you are not quite with it and are yourself mildly contemptible.

    In his marvelous little talk “The Inner Ring,” C. S. Lewis comments that “in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”


    Photograph by Wil Stewart

    To belong is a vital need based in the spiritual nature of the human being. Contempt spits on this pathetically deep need. And, like anger, contempt does not have to be acted out in special ways to be evil. It is inherently poisonous. Just by being what it is, it is withering to the human soul. But when expressed in the contemptuous phrase – in its thousands of forms – or in the equally powerful gesture or look, it stabs the soul to its core and deflates its powers of life. It can hurt so badly and destroy so deeply that murder would almost be a mercy. Its power is also seen in the intensity of the resentment and rage it always evokes.

    But Jesus notes one stage further in the progression of internal evil that may be there without murder occurring: “And whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall merit condemnation to the fires of Gehenna.”

    “You fool!” said with that characteristic combination of freezing contempt and withering anger that Jesus had in mind, is a deeper harm than either anger or contempt alone. …

    The fool, in biblical language, is a combination of stupid perversity and rebellion against God and all that sensible people stand for. He is willfully perverted, rebellious, knowingly wicked to his own harm.

    To brand someone “fool” in this biblical sense was a violation of the soul so devastating, of such great harm, that, as Jesus saw, it would justify consigning the offender to the smoldering garbage dump of human existence, Gehenna. It combines all that is evil in anger as well as in contempt. It is not possible for people with such attitudes toward others to live in the movements of God’s kingdom, for they are totally out of harmony with it.

    Augustine of Hippo

    We are not delivered from offenses, but it is equally true that we are not deprived of our refuge; our griefs do not cease, but our consolations are equally abiding. And well do you know how, in the midst of such offenses, we must watch lest hatred of anyone gain a hold upon the heart, and so not only hinder us from praying to God with the door of our chamber closed (Matt. 6:6) but also shut the door against God himself; for hatred of another insidiously creeps upon us, while no one who is angry considers his anger to be unjust. For anger habitually cherished against anyone becomes hatred, since the sweetness which is mingled with what appears to be righteous anger makes us detain it longer than we ought in the vessel, until the whole is soured, and the vessel itself is spoiled. It is incomparably more for our soul’s welfare to shut the recesses of the heart against anger, even when it knocks with a just claim for admission, than to admit that which it will be most difficult to expel, and which will rapidly grow from a mere sapling to a strong tree. Anger dares to increase with boldness more suddenly than people suppose, for it does not blush in the dark, when the sun has gone down upon it.

    Francis de Sales

    You will ask how to put away anger. My child, when you feel its first movements, collect yourself gently and seriously, not hastily or with impetuosity.

    Sometimes in a law court the officials who enforce quiet make more noise than those they affect to hush; and so, if you are impetuous in restraining your temper, you will throw your heart into worse confusion than before, and, amid the excitement, it will lose all self-control. If you are like the Psalmist, ready to cry out, “Mine eye is consumed for very anger,” go on to say, “Have mercy upon me, O Lord,” so that God may stretch forth his right hand and control your wrath. I mean that when we feel stirred with anger we ought to call upon God for help, like the apostles did when they were tossed about with wind and storm. And he is sure to say, “Peace, be still.” …

    Further, directly when you are conscious of an angry act, atone for the fault by some speedy act of meekness towards the person who excited your anger. It is a good remedy for anger to make immediate amends by some opposite act of meekness. There is an old saying, that fresh wounds are soonest closed. More-over, when there is nothing to stir your wrath, lay up a store of meekness and kindliness, speaking and acting in things great and small as gently as possible.

    William Blake

    I was angry with my friend;
    I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
    I was angry with my foe:
    I told it not, my wrath did grow.

    And I waterd it in fears,
    Night & morning with my tears:
    And I sunned it with smiles,
    And with soft deceitful wiles.

    And it grew both day and night.
    Till it bore an apple bright.
    And my foe beheld it shine,
    And he knew that it was mine.

    And into my garden stole,
    When the night had veiled the pole;
    In the morning glad I see;
    My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

    Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 149–154. Copyright © 1998 by Dallas Willard. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Augustine, Letter 38 (AD 397) in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, vol. 1, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887). Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (London: Catholic Way Publishing, 2015), 132. William Blake, “A Poison Tree,” in Songs of Experience (1794).

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