Conversatio Divina

Part 2 of 7

Interview With Rebecca DeYoung

Rebecca DeYoung

01.  Glittering Vices

GWMFirst of all, Rebecca, thanks for being willing to take the time to answer some questions inspired by your wonderful book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. It is a remarkable contribution to the spiritual formation movement.
As you know, we are creating a learning experience on Conversatio Divina which features Glittering Vices, and a few of your other contributions on the specific vice of wrath and virtue of hope. And I should say up front, I may sometimes use the word “anger” instead of “wrath.” But, thanks to you I know that technically one (wrath) is a vice and the other (anger) an emotion.
Now, given all of surrealistic events of the year 2020 and the current political climate in the US, it seemed like a good time to focus on these topics—especially anger, its good and bad (wrath) forms, and its remedies.
Let’s start with a softball question. Who came up with the idea for the cover? It’s brilliant.
RDYI agree that it’s brilliant. It is a gift that keeps on giving. Jeff Miller from FaceOut Design created it; he also touched it up for the second edition. Truth be told, I had absolutely nothing to do with it, so I can take zero credit for how cool it is. (Perhaps they wisely chose not to let an academic anywhere near the marketing part of the process!) I do think that it would be fun to have apples at book-signings, so people could carve their favorite vice into an apple with one of those precision pumpkin-carving tools. The only problem would be, how could you possibly choose only one vice? I personally have at least two to three favorites.
GWMIt is so difficult to not ask you about your three favorite vices. But I know how many other questions I have for you, and since my Enneagram number is “1,” I’ll control those impulses. So, moving on to a slow fastball question, what was your fondest hope for Glittering Vices?
RDYGlittering Vices is essentially a translation project, recapturing Christian wisdom and insight from the past and recontextualizing it for our time. I hoped that the people who read it would find this wisdom as convicting and liberating as my students and I had found it.
GWMThat is a very humble response. So, we’ve already ruled out vainglory for one of your favorite vices.
RDYActually, that is one of my favorites, which might explain why I wrote a book on vainglory all by itself, and also why I feel horribly conflicted about the wonderful endorsements on the back cover!
GWMThat’s funny.
RDYTruth be told, I have many favorite vices—to study as well as to practice (unfortunately). That made Glittering Vices very hard, but also helpful, to write! However, I wouldn’t have even begun to write it if I had found a book already in print for my students to read that was so convicting. Most of what I found either trivialized sin entirely or was dismissive of it (this from secular authors), or it was largely ignorant of where the list came from and what it was for (this often by Christians!). So, I wrote it to provide an alternative—a book that was historically informed and took the Christian ideas of sin and spiritual formation seriously. It’s important to know where you come from and where you are going, so in that sense, it is a book for all Christians on the road of discipleship.
GWMYour blending of scholarship and accessibility is quite an accomplishment.

02.  The Seven Vices and Sin

GWMRebecca, you begin with a summary of ways that the vices are dismissed by contemporary culture. And in such treatment, there is, it seems, a disrespecting of centuries of Christian teaching. Why the current climate of dismissal?
RDYThe topic of sin has never fit American culture very well. Our cultural identity is built on being fundamentally good and valuing self-sufficiency or independence—a fundamentally humanist picture. We are all about happiness projects and cleaning up our act and self-improvement programs and the power of positive thinking and, generally, being “can-do” about life. Because we are pragmatic and like results, we prefer doing to being, empirically observable outcomes to slow or mysterious transformation processes—especially ones not completely under our control.
GWMI certainly prefer the “self-sufficiency” or preference for an “egoic operating system” as a way of thinking about sin, as opposed to putting the focus on specific behavioral markers.
RDYExactly. The point of studying the outward symptoms is to track them down to their inner roots in our hearts. Notice that this is exactly what Jesus is doing with the law in his Sermon on the Mount. There’s a long tradition of Christian ethical reflection based on that.
But Americans are moving away from the Christian tradition—or any tradition—in this cultural moment. It’s not just that we have a very short attention span. We also tend to prefer what’s new to what’s old, what’s progressive or innovative to what’s historical or deeply rooted. As the culture tends toward greater secularization (following Europe), Christianity can feel like an increasingly ill-fitting remnant from a now-irrelevant past. (The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor articulates this well.) The role that was previously played by sin and Christianity is now played by psychology and therapy, which work from an explicitly non-religious framework.
So, all of that adds up to a resistance to sin-talk. When I first wrote the book, there was a brief resurgence of interest in the seven deadly sins, thanks largely, I think to the fact that Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman starred in a film about them. (Interesting fact: the film got all of them wrong except the last two, envy and wrath). If Brad would endorse the second edition of Glittering Vices, maybe that would help bolster book sales a bit! But even that might not help enough to swim against the cultural tide.
GWMThat’s pretty funny, the Brad Pitt part. And maybe he will. He was drawn to doing The Tree of Life, film. So, I think you should call him.
A follow-up question. Are vices different from sin?
RDYI would frame it this way: We can describe sin as falling into three separate categories, that distinguish between (at least) three levels of generality. The first is our fallen human nature in general. This condition is sinful in the broadest sense: we are bent toward our own way, against God’s way. By contrast, sin in the narrowest sense would include individual sins or sinful acts (these can include further categorizations such as “in thought, word, and deed”). The third category, vices, fall in between these first two senses. Vices refer to recurrent patterns in our character, bad habits that result from repeated sinful actions. Of course, we are susceptible to vices because of our fallen human nature. But the point of thinking of them as vices is to point out patterns and characteristic responses that have gradually become part of who we are.
GWMVery helpful to think of vices in terms of “recurrent patterns, or “characteristic responses.” In an Ignatian sense, perhaps vices can be seen in terms or whether we are more habituated to be moving toward (consolation) or away from (desolation) God.

03.  The Seven Vices and the Enneagram

GWMBut moving on, speaking of sin, the Enneagram, and its emphasis on “signature sins” has become remarkably popular recently. If you were just now writing your book, do you think you’d find a way to put “enneagram” in the tittle?
RDYIt’s easy to get trendy with self-analysis, but philosophers have never been known for their trendiness and I have no intention of breaking that streak!
GWMWell, to be honest, I was just doing a sin-check to see if you might struggle with envy. I am still working on your own top three.
RDYOnly two more to go, then! If I keep resorting to diversionary tactics to avoid the question, you might surmise that acedia (sloth) is also on my list.
GWMNo, actually, I would never have guessed that one. Well, that is until I read your chapter and realized I had been misunderstanding sloth.
Okay, since the vices list is for self-examination and not finger-pointing, maybe I will stick to my own problems for now. Back to the enneagram—is there a connection with the vice list there?
RDYThere is certainly some overlap in the two lists. If you peel pride off the list of eight capital vices, and add fear and deceit, the vice list maps on to enneagram types (their shadow sides). To be clear, though, the kind of spiritual discernment work we really need comes through a long-term relationship with a spiritual director and a lifetime uncovering layers of self-deception through spiritual disciplines, not a quick enneagram quiz on the internet. We have to resist oversimplifying and superficial uses of both lists. Self-knowledge is harder than you might think.
As a philosopher, I understand the impulse to seek self-understanding, as well as the desire to peel away the obstacles to greater maturity and wisdom. But I also think people are more excited about taking the quiz and slapping an easy label on people than undergoing the heart surgery of real transformation.
GWMWell said and a wise caution. My real question concerning the Enneagram is this: Are you surprised that seven of the nine Enneagram numbers seem to reflect the seven deadly sins, and the other two (fear and deceit) seem to be “first cousins.”
RDYIf you read enough human history, there are no surprises!
GWMYes, but that can take a long time. I’m hoping you’ll save our readers a few decades.
RDYOkay, then, here is my take on fear and deceit. Deceiving others is a common strategy for getting what you want or need when you don’t have power to openly go after it. Self-deception, on the other hand, is a common feature of all of these responses—whether vices or enneagram types. For these reasons, I wonder if deceit should count as a distinctive item on any such list.
GWMYes, it’s definitely a wide-ranging spiritual problem. There is much hidden in our hearts (Jer. 17:9—“The heart is deceitful above all things...Who can understand it?”), are we’re often hiding both from others and ourselves.
RDYYes. Here’s one reason why: self-deception might also be linked to pride. One author who is familiar with both lists once wrote that people will go through hell rather than face up to their true (but idolatrous) self-image. Giving up who we want to be or have made ourselves “successful” is the last move we have to make when confronted by the transforming power of the Spirit.
Personally, I would be tempted (!) to put “fear” as a source motivation of most of the items on both lists, parallel to pride’s place as their root. In the epilogue of Glittering Vices, I suggest that when we pursue our own picture of happiness, we do so either because we are privileging our own judgment and will over God’s (pride), or, in a similar move, we are fearfully grasping for the same goods because we don’t really believe God can be relied upon for our good. Either way, we describe the source: our lack of trust in God is the deepest spiritual problem we have. What we do to compensate—or overcompensate—is the story behind both the list of vices and the enneagram.
GWMI love that! I have often thought that sin and vices are best seen as the ways we have found to manage our fears which have us more dependent on ourselves than in trusting God.
RDYAgreed. Starting with fear is also a more pastoral way into this topic of heart-examination than starting with a caricature of pride, where it’s a vice only for brash, arrogant people who don’t have any fears. Despite the affinities between the lists, however, I think there are differences, too. To the best of my knowledge, the vices list is older than the enneagram, distinctively Christian in origin, and grounded in Christian spiritual practices.1 But whatever tool we are using for self-examination, the key is not to oversimplify. Human beings are remarkably deep and complex beings, and any reductivist approach to “signature strengths” or “enneagram types” (or other typologies) is going to disappoint. It might also be worth mentioning that in the deserts of Egypt, communities of Christians expected people to experience all of these temptations, not to struggle with a single main one.
GWMThank you, Rebecca. That is very helpful.
Dallas Willard was fond of saying that there are only three things that deserve to be the primary goals of spiritual formation. These are learning to: (1) love God with our whole person; (2) love our neighbor as ourself; and (3) remove our automatic responses against the Kingdom. The first two are obviously a reference to the two supreme commandments of Jesus, and Dallas is referring to becoming habituated toward love. The third one is found to be a bit unclear by some. But would you consider the process of removing our automatic responses against the Kingdom to be another way of saying to overcoming our vices?
RDYYes, that’s a perfect way to describe them. They are our instinctive ways of clinging to our old picture of the good life and loving that over and against life with God. Framing the vices this way also fits Willard’s description of the first two goals in terms of “love,” because unlearning our disordered loves, that is, learning to detach from our excessive attachment to created goods, is the flip side of learning to “order our loves” rightly, as Augustine puts it (in the City of God).
For example, if envy means you see personal worth in competitive, conditional, zero-sum terms—“the more someone else has, the less I have”—then unlearning envy means learning to appreciate the goodness of God wherever we find it, whether in others or in ourselves. Moving from resentment of others’ excellence to appreciation of it is a road that will therefore need to go through my own heart. To overcome envy, I will need to learn to see and appreciate myself as unconditionally beloved by God. But that’s exactly what will also enable me to love God and others fully.
GWMThank you, And would you give an example of how the practice of a particular spiritual discipline could become a remedy for a particular vice?
RDYOne example I have practiced with my students is the discipline of silence, as a remedial response to the vice of vainglory. Vainglory is a vice defined by a desire for excessive attention and approval from others. Because it was a classroom exercise, instead of total silence (say, on a silent retreat), we practiced silencing all self-talk for a week. What this discipline showed us was how much more we were talking about ourselves than we realized. At first, we could hardly even remember to practice it! We’d be half-way through a conversation and catch ourselves talking about ourselves again. (Like Abba Agatho, we needed to keep a pebble in our mouths for 3 years to teach ourselves silence.)
GWMDo you know if chocolate would work for that?
RDYHa ha ha, Why didn’t I think of that?
GWMCould be that sloth thing. Just kidding and don’t dignify that with a response.
RDYI wouldn’t think of it.
We (my students and I) were both shocked and dismayed to find that so much of our self-talk was, in fact, an attention-grabbing maneuver or subtle reputation-management. Clearly, detaching ourselves from desiring and seeking glory was needed, even more than we had thought. At the same time, however, practicing silence also created room for others to speak and share. One of the most interesting things we noticed after only a week was how much our relationships had been deepened by simply paying attention to others and being receptive to what they wanted to share and listening well. Of course, self-talk isn’t bad in itself, but this double-check exercise revealed our excesses. Without regular practices of silence, we found ourselves quickly getting swamped by vainglory.
GWMThank you. And, given that my second highest score on the Enneagram suggests vainglory, I’d love to hear more.
RDYOne reason these practices need to be regular rhythms of life is that transformation takes time! It’s a common feeling when first practicing the spiritual disciplines is that they feel inauthentic or unnatural to us. The first day I tried silencing self-talk, my kids asked me if I was feeling okay, because they noticed how out of character it was for me to be quiet! (Ouch!) In my book, Vainglory, I distinguish between being a hypocrite and being a learner or an apprentice. Hypocrites try to fake virtue by putting on an outward appearance that belies or masks what’s in their hearts. But virtue is a heart disposition. So even if you can pretend to have it on the outside, you won’t have it on the inside. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is trying to get his listeners to see that God wants your heart—he wants the law to be written on our hearts. This will take the work of the Holy Spirit.
How does this contrast with being a learner, or an apprentice? If you are genuinely trying to learn to be more Christlike, you will initially feel like virtuous behaviors don’t feel natural to you; they don’t “fit” who you are. You might feel like a hypocrite! Only if you are honest and open about that, however, can mentors, teachers, and encouragers help you keep improving. “Putting on” Christlike virtue again and again so that it starts to feel like second nature to you takes a long time.
The true learner—the real disciple—will admit her flawed imitations in hopes of their becoming more genuinely her own, eventually. She longs for integrity. The hypocrite wants only the appearance, and only as long as it wins him the right reputation. But they are both at the stage of the process where the inside and outside don’t match.
GWMThank you. And, if a virtue can be seen as acting in accordance to love, I wonder if a vice can simply be seen as acting in a way that imposes one’s will on another. Is that fair? And if so, can you relate this to Richard Foster’s famous book title, Money, Sex and Power.
RDYI think I might put it in terms of the opposition of our will to God’s. (Not all sins or vices impose our wills on others, or they do so as a side effect; primarily, they are self-destructive. In this sense, they are also a form of disordered self-love.)
The Christian tradition will eventually put pride at the root of the list of vices and make them all spring from the impulse to substitute our own picture of the good life for God’s. We want our own way, and don’t want to follow his way.
What is the picture of the good life that we are chasing? Well, it could be any of the other capital vices—we could mistake approval or status or control or pleasure or comfort or security for “what’s good for us” or “what we want for ourselves” or “what looks like happiness” to us. We then go after these goods with our own power, on our own initiative, rather than being willing to receive them as God’s good gifts. We are making Adam and Eve’s mistake over and over again. We don’t trust God to tell us what’s best. We decide for ourselves, and then pursue the good life on our own, without listening to him or relying on him.
Richard Foster gets right to the heart of this in Money, Sex, and Power. (Notably, the book is later retitled, The Freedom of Simplicity.) Whichever title you use, the focus is what we make the center of our lives. What good are we building our lives around? Whatever it is—whether money, sex, or power—we take that created good and seek to fill and fulfill ourselves with it. It is the center of our world, our identity, our happiness. This is originally how the “capital” vices got their name—they were fountainheads or fertile sources or so many other sins, because the goods to which they attach us serve to anchor a life and a sense of self. Happiness is our deepest longing, and everything else is directed by whatever we put in that place in our hearts and lives. Everything else springs from that root.
In Glittering Vices, I use greed as an example. It’s easy to caricature the vices or focus on surface symptoms, but this is a mistake. Greed is not just about having lots of money or spending lots of money or even hoarding lots of money. It’s about whether money (or possessions—things money can buy) is the center of your life. Greed approaches life with two thoughts: “Is it mine?” and “It’s never enough.”
When we are greedy, what we possess lies at the heart of our happiness. Do your hopes rest on future purchases, do you feel better when you think about what you own, are you preoccupied with security, do you love to be self-sufficient? Do you spend most of your time on getting things and caring for your possessions? Do you ever find that buying something new quells a restless feeling in you? Do you understand yourself as entitled to what you have? Does gratitude occupy the periphery of your emotional life while a strong sense of desert fills the center? Do you think of people who have less than you as victims of their own laziness? Have you ever referred to vulnerable human beings as a “burden on society’s resources”,? Do you measure relationships in terms of a cost-benefit analysis? Greed is a subtle, insidious thing, but naming it as a capital vice acknowledges its power to claim our deepest love and allegiance.
Simplicity also wills only one thing. It is devoted to whatever God says is my good. Those who practice simplicity keep God at the center. Their whole way of living is an expression of trust in God to provide. Simplicity is therefore the anti-thesis of greed.

04.  The Vice of Wrath and Today’s Cultural Climate

GWMThank you. This is very helpful. I hate to move on, but I think we should transition to the vice of wrath. And I didn’t pick this vice just because I often score as a 1 on the Enneagram, which really makes me mad, by the way. I have mentioned that. And I digress.
We have also selected a blog that you wrote on anger as well as a chapter you have written on good and bad anger for an upcoming book. [Note: there will be links and references to these pieces below].
As we move from 2020 to 2021, we felt it would be a good time for help in understanding the vice of wrath and also to think about some remedies.
By the way, I loved your reference to the Anne Lamott quote about living in anger being like taking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.
I used to say in the days before I became a recovering psychologist, that anger is the emotion of a frustrated goal. You want something very badly. The acquisition of that thing or condition is blocked. The natural human response is anger. By this way of thinking, anger is not inherently bad, but can become a vice when it attacks the wrong targets, gets out of control, or becomes too deep or disproportionate to the frustration.
Would you say more about how we know when our anger is a natural human response to a frustrated goal—and can even play a role in a virtuous life—versus when it can become a life-sucking vice.
RDYThe desert Christians have a key question: What is your anger guarding? Which is to say, Why are you so angry? Usually, it’s because something you love is threatened. That means that the emotion of anger is a clue to what we love.
But here’s the rub: our deepest loves can be well-ordered or disordered. Aquinas notes that anger’s rightful target is injustice—we get angry when we see things that are not right and we want them to be set right. Wrath, the name of a disordered form of this emotion, either has the wrong target—selfish interests, rather than a concern with justice—or its expression takes an excessive, harmful, or destructive form—e.g., it’s too vehement, it harms others, or we hold onto it too long.
Because we’re so good at rationalizing our wrath, stepping back to do self-examination is an effective strategy for discernment. Keep an anger journal for a week or two. Note when you are angry, how angry you are, and what you are angry about. Here’s what such an exercise will usually show: first, you tend to get angry when you are tired, stressed, physically uncomfortable (sick, in pain, hungry). In these cases, your anger may be an expression of physical need; it is a desperate last gasp in cases when we’ve neglected good self-care and self-protection. Second, anger—as psychologists like to put it—is a secondary emotion.
GWMWell, I am a “recovering” psychologist, and I think you are on safe ground here.
RDYThank you.
Calling anger, a “secondary emotion,” just means it’s usually “safe cover” for other, deeper responses we don’t want to deal with or admit, such as shame, disappointment, grief, hurt, feelings of powerlessness, or dashed hopes. If we deal well with those underlying emotions, then anger also dissipates.
This is why space and permission for lament is so important spiritually. (God appears to understand this well about us: as much as a third of the Book of Psalms gives voice to laments of various kinds.)
Third, anger journals almost always reveal a further pattern: they show us how much of our anger is disordered and misdirected because it is anchored in disordered self-love. We might be shocked to find out that most of our anger is not about justice at all (especially justice for others). It’s about getting my own way, securing my own status, and furthering my own agenda unimpeded. And that’s the place any spiritual discipline is going to have to dig down to. That’s why Evagrius asks, “What are you guarding?” Here’s one way to interpret his question: “What picture of yourself are you in love with, and why do you have to work so hard to protect it—even from God?”
Now, let’s get very specific and very contemporary. In your chapter on anger, you reference James Baldwin’s quote: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”2
Can you help us with this in the context of the unrest of today. For those who have experienced injustice and for those who feel highly motivated to fight injustice, what are a few guidelines for keeping the fight in the virtue column and not the vice column?
RDYAnyone who is familiar with systematic forms of discrimination—a black person in America, a person with disabilities, a women in a sexist workplace, just to mention a few of the most obvious examples—is going to have to figure out how to deal with persistent structural injustice. In these cases, the whole system is bent toward denying people the dignity or equal standing or respect that they deserve. Hence the term “structural.” (Systems shape deep biases, but rarely make it all the way up to conscious intentionality.) And systems rarely change quickly.
Hence the term “persistent.” How does one respond well to that? Making anger habitual is dangerous. But so is ignoring the problem and pretending that people aren’t actually being harmed by it. So being in a rage all the time is a self-destructive response to injustice, but complacency just continues to perpetrate injustice by turning a blind eye. We need a better response.
How can we keep anger at injustice in the virtue column? I think the two most important things to keep in mind are your individual call and communal discernment.
Because anger puts us into “threat” mode, it tends to narrow our vision and fuel rationalization. So, having a community to help us sort through complex problems of injustice and the best responses is necessary. It helps especially if you have a community large enough to include people who might disagree with you or have a perspective different enough to make you check your instinctive reactions, who know some history, and who are deeply immersed in the Word of God. Having these conversations takes time but it also situates our anger within a larger group of people who can provide a safe place to practice lament and accountability. Both time and communal discernment help us distill our anger into more constructive responses, whatever form they take.
Second, not everyone is called to respond to injustice in the same way. There’s no one-size-fits-all “right way” to be angry or to redress injustice. What if the best way to respond to injustice is to have some people praying over the situation, some listening and lamenting the situation, some patiently working within institutions for long-term structural change, and some speaking and writing articulately about what’s gone wrong? I think this kind of vocational diversity is healthy in the body of Christ. None of us is big enough to take on serious and systemic injustice problems alone. Being part of something bigger than ourselves is also a source of hope. In some cases, developmentally, a person might not be spiritually mature enough yet to tackle something in a constructive way. Other times, a person might be called to lead others into the fray.
Ultimately, though, the test is this: What fruit is your anger bearing . . . in you? In the world? If your anger is rooted in a love for justice and it’s expressed in Christlike ways, the fruit will look different than if your anger is rooted in self-love and pride and a grasping for control.
GWMRebecca, that is extremely helpful. What a great question to ask ourselves with every occurrence of anger. What is my anger guarding and what is the fruit growing form my anger.
Going forward, you point out that many of the vices seem to have their roots in pride. But when you discuss the vice of wrath (or perhaps the emotion of anger), you make the observation that it is often deeply connected to our love for ourselves, especially our vulnerability and fears. I understand this, especially in terms of the body’s fight or flight response. But understanding anger this way can also make is seem more hopeless to move past something as ingrained as our sympathetic nervous system. Sorry for the tough question, but do you have advice for the person where there seems to be a connection between anger and fear?
RDYFor better or worse, anger is often a protective response centered on what is most important to us. But as an emotion, it is trainable. The long-term response to these two facts is to find something worth guarding and learn to love it well. Until we are truly invested in what God loves, our anger won’t be able to expand beyond self-love or self-protection. (Think about the way a parent loves a child—self-sacrifice for the child’s sake becomes as natural to them as self-protection used to be.)
Jesus’ advice here is “seek first the kingdom” and then “follow me.” Jesus’ way of being angry always stems from a deep love of the people he is with and it expresses itself in being for their healing. (Even the temple clearing restored a space for prayer, and that event prefigures the scourging he bore in his own body, the pre-eminent temple, for the sake of healing and restoring the broken relationship between God and his children.)
That seems like an incredibly high bar, doesn’t it? But it’s what he calls us to. To put it practically, the “most excellent way” of love that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 names no less than four different expressions of anger in a row: love “does not dishonor others [is not rude], it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5, NIV).
In the sense that our deepest loves, including our self-love, need to be transformed, dealing with anger is no different than dealing with any of the other vices.
GWMVery helpful. Rebecca, you note and contrast two different polarities concerning how to handle our anger. Aquinas represents the argument that anger is a natural human response which needs to be guided by reason. Anger can be part of a virtuous life. John Cassian represents desert spirituality, the more ascetic approach, and the view that human anger regularly reveals disorder within, the roots of which should be dug up and put away.
In helping the reader navigate this divide you raise, and to circle back for a moment, the important question to ask ourself, “What is my anger guarding?” What would be an example of a vice answers to that question? And would be a virtuous answer:
RDYEvagrius (Cassian’s mentor) says that often a vice-formed answer to that question is “my own reputation or good name” or “others’ good opinion of me.” Sometimes, it’s also what I take myself to “own” or have mastery of or be entitled to. In such cases, the “barking dog” of anger is guarding a “house” (heart) full of vainglory of avarice. I’m guarding my own will, my own kingdom.
A virtuous answer would be “God’s kingdom and God’s justice and God’s glory” and I would add—“in God’s own perfect timing.” I personally would like “a passion for the restoration of human dignity” to be something my anger can guard well. I have a godly friend and spiritual mentor who has been incarcerated for over 25 years. He is living in a messed-up system, and he is praying for his own release. But he is waiting with a peace-filled heart (and he is much better at this than I am). The joy and peace and trust that anchor his heart, amid his aching and longing for restoration is often incomprehensible to me. But I know Christlikeness when I see it, and I can see his prayers being answered.
GWMGod’s kingdom. The realm of willingness, obedience and surrender. Thank you.
Speaking of virtue. We see that Jesus chose to live in an even more traumatic time than our present day. And he had a lot of advice relevant to the anger. Immediately after his attention-grabbing introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, a series of jaw-dropping announcements about how his kingdom turns the world’s order on its head, he goes to the heart of the matter, the human heart. What does Jesus point to as the first two symptoms of a sick heart? Anger and contempt. Any thoughts on why he made anger his opening example of a non-Kingdom heart?
RDYThe Sermon on the Mount is all about our heart. So, Jesus keeps going after what our deepest priorities are (which kingdom we are serving), and the way that law needs to be written on our hearts, well beyond our surface behavior. Pentecost showed us that ultimately this is the Spirit’s work.
I think Jesus starts with wrath because control and trust are at the heart of the Christian life. Wrathful expressions of anger come from trusting ourselves and wanting to be in control of our own lives. I don’t want to trivialize this in any way, but I often use the metaphor “being in the driver’s seat” when I talk about wrath. Think about why people are so ill-tempered behind the wheel of a car. It’s because this is a micro-metaphor for our whole lives—we want to be in charge of our own direction, destination, and speed, and we resent anything that gets in our way. But what if God wants to be in control of our lives? Resenting him for getting in our way is the ultimate idolatry, and a path toward death, not life. In many ways, we are our own worst enemy.
We had better wind things down. You’ve given a lot of great illustrations and examples. But as a compulsive summarizer, I need to ask you this. What are your top three remedies for anger, when it has clearly moved to the vice category?
RDYSlow down, be silent and still [i.e., take a break from the news or whatever else gets you wound up], and spend time with Jesus—telling him your deepest fears and hopes, laments and loves.
GWMWay to go to the heart of the matter, Rebecca. I will spend some more time with those three.
You have underscored that anger incorporates both lament at injustice (things are not the way they are supposed to be) and hope for shalom (putting things right again). We’ve addressed the lament and brokenness side of things. But what about hope? How does hope capture some of anger’s positive agency toward changing things for the better? How can we practice this virtue?
RDYThe spiritual disciplines are ultimately about our receptivity to God. In what ways are we paying attention to him and allowing him space in our lives? I think hope requires that we deliberately keep our eyes, minds, and hearts full of what is good, beautiful, and worthy of praise. If you watch the news more than you spend time with Jesus Christ, what do you expect to happen to your heart and mind?
In Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne fills his prison cell with art, he fills his life and others’ lives with a library full of books, and he plays Mozart over the prison’s public address system. He keeps his eyes fixed on what is good. And he encourages others to do the same. Both friendship and the prayers of others can keep hope alive—friendship through personal presence in our weeping and rejoicing, and prayer by presenting our requests to God for the goods we long for, trusting him to fulfill our greatest longings in the fullness of time. In prayer, we enact our reliance on him. Aquinas holds that prayer is the central and essential act of Christian hope.
Are we meditating on what’s good, and beautiful, and true? That would be a good place to start. And when the road gets weary and we start to lose heart, as we inevitably do, that’s when it is essential to have friends to encourage us along the way. (Those friends can be far or near, or remain alive to us in the books or music they left behind for us as gifts.) I remember when my father died, we all gathered around his grave, and even though I could not choke out the words of the Apostle’s Creed, the congregation surrounding me still professed their faith in the resurrection of the dead. They stood with me, and spoke for me, even when I could not. In this way, hope is always something we hold together as the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses.
GWMI have no idea how you have found time to do such scholarly research and watch so many movies. But your books are the beneficiaries.
My last question for you is this. And be forewarned, it may be way too
A lot of our readers know that you have been courageously battling cancer for several years. Regina, the woman to whom I’m married, and I went through a cancer-scare last year. It was surrealistically bad, but also surrealistically good in so many ways.
If you are willing, do you mind sharing with our readers how what you have learned about anger, and also hope, during this trial?
RDYTo be honest, I usually dodge these questions, because the last thing I want is to be a poster-child for cancer. I want my life to be about what’s good and true and beautiful—teaching philosophy to my students, loving my kids, hiking with my husband in the Rockies, laughing with my friends, reading good books, enjoying beautiful music, praying and worshiping with my incarcerated brothers in Christ. Please don’t reduce my story to this disease, or even let it dominate the storyline.
But yes, the cancer part of the story is scary. And hard. I hate thinking about it, driving past the places I’ve had treatment, and listening to prayers in church that use the word. I don’t think “trauma” is too strong a word to use here.
The first thing I’d say about my experience is that if I could, I’d scrub the “battle” metaphors from this topic altogether. If I’ve learned anything on this seven-year journey, it’s that cancer is not about control (i.e., my “power” to “fight”)—it’s really about suffering and enduring. It’s about trusting God with your whole life in all circumstances.
I have already told my husband that if this disease eventually takes my life, he must not say in my obituary that I “lost my battle” with cancer—because it’s not up to you whether you win or lose! As Americans, lacking that kind of agency is pretty much anathema to our way of life. That’s why “cancer” functions symbolically in our culture as the most disastrous diagnosis you can receive. Existentially coming to terms with the fact I am not in control is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. And I’d be the last one to suggest that I’m done learning that lesson.
But when circumstances take your own power and control (or the illusion of it!) away, you also get a pretty amazing view of God’s provision. What I wrote about friendship, prayer, and hope resonates with my own experience. I simply couldn’t endure this without the people God has graciously provided to walk with me through the valleys. And that is an unspeakably amazing and unimaginably diverse group of people. Generalities aren’t adequate here because I have life-changing stories to tell about so many of these relationships. I am so grateful for these people. I have witnessed the power of their prayers as they have walked with me. Of course, I would prefer not to have to walk through the valleys at all. But Psalm 23:4 says “even though” not “if.”
Sometimes people feel angry with God. I’m more angry at the way cancer destroys people and hurts families. Those losses are real and they are painful. Cancer will always get a fist-shaking “No!” from me. I grieve the damage, and I know God is willing to hear all of that from me, because the Psalms give voice to all of those emotions.
It’s been a tremendous consolation to me to know that Jesus voices his own raw emotions on the cross in words from the Psalms. You’re allowed to say that it hurts and that you feel alone and that you wish God would take this cup away from you! At one desperate point, I had the Lord’s prayer distilled down to two petitions: “daily bread” and “deliverance from evil.” That was literally my breath prayer on the way to work each day. But if the cross of Jesus Christ shows us anything, it reveals there is no evil—physical, political, spiritual, whatever—however great, however ugly, however destructive, that cannot be used by God to redeem things. So, you can name it as evil and also trust God to be bigger than that and to be at work for your good, even if you can’t see how.
Regarding anger, sometimes people say, “Don’t you feel like it’s unfair that you got cancer—at age 43, with four kids, at the height of your career, especially after losing your dad to cancer, too, etc. What a rotten, undeserved deal!” My answer is, “Well, if the cancer is undeserved, so is all the grace I’ve also been given. During treatment, I also have experienced love and faithfulness from my family and church family, and I’ve been given life-changing friendships that I could never have even imagined.” If you want to talk about things being undeserved, you have to be fair and acknowledge both sides. Life is both full of garbage you don’t want and gifts you could not have imagined.
Can I make sense of that? Not really. I’m a philosopher—a wisdom-seeker—by vocation. What do you do with unanswered questions about how it all fits together? You admit that you don’t have the whole story...but you still know that your story is being told by someone whose first and last word to you is love. Is love stronger than death? Ultimately, you have to decide how to answer that with your life. And if you have had experiences of his presence, then you know what the answer has got to be.
GWMThank you, Rebecca, for all of your important work and also for sharing your heart with us.

1. For further discussion, see Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective (NY: Crossroad, 1990, 2016), 6–14.

2. James Baldwin, et al., “The Negro in American Culture,” Cross Currents: A Quarterly Review to Explore the Implications of Christianity for Our Times, Vol. XI, No. 3, Summer 1961, 205.


Part 5 of 7


Dallas Willard
February 9, 1986