Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Mad as Hell” first appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Touchstone.
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Mad as Hell
S. M. Hutchens on the Sixth Commandment
“You shall do no murder.” This is the Sixth Commandment. The primal murder is presented by Scripture as an essentially irrational act, fueled by an anger that the primal murderer was given a chance to overcome, but which he allowed to overcome him, opening himself as a vehicle for sin, as his parents before him had. The tree planted by Adam and Eve here bears fruit in their firstborn son, who confirms that sin runs in the human family.
When Cain’s offering—an offering taken by the Lord to represent not just a tribute to himself, but as a presentation of the very being of the offerer—was not accepted, it did not mean the way to God was closed in his face. On the contrary, it meant that temptation opened two paths before him, as it had before his parents. If he did well, he would, the Lord said, be accepted. So the possibility of doing the right thing, and of pleasing God, was freely available to him. If he did not do well, then the sin that desired to master him would do so. Of his own will he chose the wrong path.
Cain’s redemption would certainly have involved joining himself to the acceptable sacrifice and to his brother Abel, so that Abel’s good offering would be Cain’s as well. It is the act required of every believer that they become joined to the sacrifice they cannot offer, that can only be offered by someone other than themselves. It was a difficult test that the Lord laid before Cain—for the older son to humble himself to ask for his younger brother’s help and intercession—but it was made plain that the test could be passed if Cain worked on it. Instead, however, of joining his brother—and this would involve loving him and becoming united with him in a redemptive bond that would have set an example for the entire human race thereafter—he chose to do away with him. Except you cannot really do away with anyone. The voice of the brother’s blood speaks to the Lord God from the ground.
Some of our translations have it, “Thou shalt not kill.” It is better translated, of course, “You shall do no murder,” for this is clearly not a prescription against taking human life at any time, but taking it unjustly. Biblical law prescribes the death penalty for a large number of offenses, not only for murder, but certain types of rape, for adultery, homosexual activity, criminal negligence, witchcraft, blasphemy, and even incorrigibility. These are sins God viewed as so serious that those who committed them should be cut off from his people. Also, there is clearly no prohibition against taking the life of an enemy in battle, or even genocide, when commanded by the Lord, who commanded at times the extinction of entire cultures—men, women, children, livestock—every living thing. This is not murder, but the just taking of life predicated on the inestimable value of human life. People and societies that brought spiritual death to the world were to be taken out of the world. Those who mutilated the image of God that is in man have performed a killing act that is itself worthy of death.
Murder accompanies anger, of which we must now speak at some length. Is anger in itself an evil thing? No, it is anger occurring in people who are sinners that easily and quickly becomes evil, just as wholesome desire can be subverted into lust. We are told by St. Paul in the letter to the Ephesians to “be angry, but do not sin.” Anger is the appropriate reaction in some situations, and it drives us to do what needs to be done. Our Lord was angry on more than one occasion, such as when he drove the money changers from the temple, or denounced the scribes and Pharisees.
Shall we say that anger directed at particular people is bad? That we may hate the sin, but must love the sinner, and that loving him involves not being angry at his person, only at the evil he is doing? I think here of homosexual activists who accuse Christians of hating them, a hatred they call homophobia. But if we hate the sin, loving their souls, what happens when they identify homosexuality as a part of their essential being? There is no difference, they are telling us, between me and the thing you call my sin; you can’t divide my homosexuality from my deepest personal identity. Love me, love my sin; hate my sin, and you hate me. Our own redemptive desire to divide the sin from the sinner, hating one and loving the other, is rejected. At a certain point God, in judgment, allows the stubborn sinner to keep his sin and sends him to hell. And before that time our own anger is going to be directed to the person so directly (for he wills it to be so) that it appears to arise from hatred of the person, even when this is not our desire or intention.
But we are on dangerous ground here, for as people whom sin touches and influences every part of our being, it is far too easy to be angry with people in a way that we shouldn’t. We are not allowed to hate the sinner, even if the sinner wants us to, and let our anger follow our hatred. When we do we are stepping over into the area of God’s prerogative to judge. When our Lord said that we were not to judge others lest we ourselves be judged, I am convinced that he did not mean we weren’t to identify their actions as contemptible and treat the person as befits a doer of such actions. What he meant is that we haven’t the right to despair on their behalf, that is, the authority to judge their souls, to identify them as fools in the ultimate sense of people who have rejected God with finality. In other words, we may go so far as to say that a person is acting like a fool, but we cannot call him a God-damned fool. Only God has the right and power to do this, for only he knows the soul to its depths. “Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yea, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God and who pleads for us!” Our own anger must stop at the appearance of evil, for we see only the outside.
Because we are sinners we must take strict care to control our anger. Do not, says St. Paul, let the sun go down upon it. An excellent rule! If you sleep with anger, it will become pregnant and bear you very ugly children. Cain’s anger was plainly nurtured, making the murder of his brother a lurking, brooding, finely cultivated and carefully justified thing, something that controlled the man rather than the man having control of it. If anger rises within us past a certain point, even if it is justified to begin with, it becomes a fire that runs quickly out of control.
I have a friend who tells me anger is his besetting sin. He must fight it all the time, for it masters him easily. I can remember myself reaching on more than one occasion the place he describes where anger is actually enjoyable, where one wants to keep it, nurture it, and enlarge it.
“Steve,” he told me, “at one point in my life I loved my anger, fed it, housed it, and glorified in it. In return it justified me. It gave me the feeling that I was, against all the fools and prigs and morons and toads and self-righteous, boot-licking hypocrites, most unquestionably and positively RIGHT. Anger made me king of all I surveyed, and the principal sighted man in the land of the blind.
“It dawned on me one day, however, in a moment of clarity, that I was no longer my own man. As long as I was angry I was king, but anger was king over me. I did and felt what it told me to do and feel. Charity and good sense and forgiveness beckoned, and along with these peace of mind for my tormented soul, but anger said, ‘None of that!’ So I became angry at anger, and have been at war with it ever since. It is a good war, and by God’s grace I am winning it. No man had a greater right to be angry with me and the whole human race than did our Lord on the cross. He would have been perfectly justified in calling out a couple of the larger caliber angels to destroy the world. But he looked down upon us and asked the Father to forgive. I am ashamed when I do not find strength to do the same.”
Anger of the sort my friend describes has not a bit of goodness in it, and must be put down forcibly as soon as it begins to appear. It was this very thing the Lord told Cain he must do: master your anger before it masters you. The Delphic maxim applies here: Know yourself! If you are a person given to anger, remember the word of the Lord that he who does not forgive his brother from the heart will not be forgiven his own sins by God. He who says to another, God damn you, by that act damns himself. If you have done this, run to confession. There are whole cultures and nations that risk condemnation by their refusal to forgive, and their stubborn habit of keeping their anger. I know of people who claim to be Christians who are still nursing thousand-year-old grievances bequeathed them by their parents and grandparents, who have made this contemptible wickedness part of their own righteousness. Do not allow yourself to hate all the people your relatives hate unless you want to follow them into hell.
One more word. I have not thought this out very completely yet, but something needs to be said about the peculiar nature of anger directed at the innocent, of the murder of innocence by anger that becomes progressively more intense and irrational in proportion to the innocence or goodness of its victim. The most horrible murder in history was committed on the most innocent man by people who were completely blinded to reality, righteousness, and goodness by their anger. The judicial murder of Jesus recapitulated Cain’s murder of Abel, who was killed by his brother precisely because he pleased God, and in full knowledge of the fact. It was Abel’s goodness, his acceptance before God, that enraged Cain. Whether or not abortion is murder in the juridical sense of the word, the killing of these children by our own culture is a supremely irrational act, committed against the most innocent beings we can find, and bears the same mark as every massacre of innocents in the history of the race. It is satanic to the core.
Understand that the Enemy of our souls hates our flesh as well, and will do what he can to destroy both. Murder is, as our Lord said, characteristic of the devil, for he has been a murderer from the beginning. He not only hates human beings because they possess a body to house their souls—a body he does not have, and covets—but he also hates Christians most of all, because they have taken into themselves the flesh and blood of Christ and are therefore part of the most hated body of all. All over the world, they have from the beginning felt the brunt of his anger against simple goodness; the better the good, the more vehement his hatred, and the crueler his assaults against it.
It is particularly this anger we must fear when we see it in ourselves. I have felt it sometimes when in the company of people I suspect are much better than I. When it comes it is a surprising and dismaying thing, and one of the chief reminders of what kind of creature I am and how far I have to go. To be angry at someone because they are, through no fault of their own, good! This is the sin of Cain, who was in some respects simply Steve Hutchens, strong enough to act on his impulses. Lord forgive me, and you, too, for if you look into your souls you will see the same. Let us do no murder, small murders or large ones, for such does not befit members of the household of God. •
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.
“Mad as Hell” first appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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