Works of the Flesh: Wrath

By warning the Galatian Christians regarding the dangers of immoral thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and the importance of manifesting the character habits of godliness, the Apostle Paul has given us helpful, concise lists of the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:17-24. He identified the “works of the flesh” as the following in Galatians 5:19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

Paul began the list with the kinds of transgressions highly tempting for those coming out of the Gentile Greco-Roman world: those of a sexual nature (fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness), idolatry, and sorcery. Paul has since spoken of transgressions which heavily impact relationships: enmities, strife, jealousy, and now wrath.

The word translated here as “wrath” (in other versions “outbursts of anger” or “fits of anger”) is the Greek word thumos, defined by Thayer as:

1) passion, angry, heat, anger forthwith boiling up and soon subsiding again
2) glow, ardour, the wine of passion, inflaming wine (which either drives the drinker mad or kills him with its strength)

Thumos is a difficult word to properly convey in English; “passion” or “ardor” perhaps come closest as single terms, but thumos is best exemplified in the heroes of Homer’s Iliad, who would be moved in their thumos to act. It almost seems to describe the impulse to act based on emotional ardor.

Perhaps in Revelation 14:8, 18:3, thumos maintained its core meaning of passion: “Babylon,” an archetype of Rome, compelled the nations to drink the wine of the thumou of her sexually deviant behavior, possibly referring to “rage” or “madness,” but most likely “passion” or “ardor.” Otherwise in the New Testament thumos consistently referred to the expression of great anger and hostility. Moses proved willing to forsake Egypt even if it meant suffering the hostility of Pharaoh (Hebrews 11:27). The Ephesian rioters cried out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” in rage (Acts 19:28). The earth would suffer the fury of Satan the dragon when he was cast out of heaven (Revelation 12:12). Many would drink the unmixed cup of the wrath of God (Romans 2:8, Revelation 14:10, 19, 15:1, 7, 16:1, 19, 19:15). Thumos as a kind of intense anger was condemned by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:20, Ephesians 4:31, and Colossians 3:8 as in Galatians 5:20: a passion to be put away and contained, not given full venting.

Thumos, therefore, refers to a powerful and animating passion borne from deep emotion, and in the New Testament particularly the exercise of that passion in strong anger and hostility: wrath. Thus Webster defines wrath in English:

1. Violent anger; vehement exasperation; indignation;
2. The effects of anger;
3. Just punishment of an offense or crime.

Wrath goes well beyond the flush of anger; wrath is akin to the explosion of a nuclear bomb, wreaking relational devastation and havoc whenever set off. For good reason Achilles in Homer’s Iliad represents the archetype of wrathful rage: full of power and emotion, sensitive to slights against his honor, he at first sulked, immersing himself in his anger and dishonor. When his best friend Patroclus fought and died in his stead, he directed his mindless rage against the Trojans. Only the tender appeal and vulnerability of Priam, king of Troy, restored Achilles to any sort of humanity and compassion.

When consumed in his wrath Achilles disconnected from his humanity, becoming as a raging beast. Such is the danger of all forms of anger, and such is why Paul echoed Psalm 4:4 in Ephesians 4:26:

Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath.

“Wrath” here is a Greek word somewhat synonymous with thumos (parorgismos); Paul’s exhortation can help sort out the human quandary in regards to anger. Anger is a deeply primal passion easily instigated as an almost instinctive response to perceived slights and injustices. To this end Paul recognized that Christians will feel this passion; the question will be what the Christian will do in response. Paul exhorted Christians to not sin in their anger: they ought not immerse themselves in it and allow their anger to morph into wrath. They must recognize the passion welling up within them and do whatever it takes to not allow it to pour out. Science is now validating the reason for the concern: when we get angry, the chemical response leads our brains to shut off “higher level” thought processes. Have you ever been angry, gave vent to your anger, hurt some people you love, and when it was all over wonder why you said and did such things? You literally stopped thinking; thumos took over. The results are never pretty.

Wrath, beyond a manifestation of a lack of self-control, devastates relationships like a tornado, hurricane, or nuclear detonation. Achilles’ wrath almost doomed the Achaean army; our wrath can doom our relationships, our employment, and our lives. Once words and actions are done in anger and wrath, they can never be fully repaired: yes, people can forgive, and relationships can be mended, but a legacy of hurt and damage will never go away. We all know this intuitively: think about the people you love, and whether you ever heard from them a word or experienced an act from anger and wrath. Even if you have forgiven that person, you still likely remember exactly what they did or said, and if nothing else, you remember exactly how those words and/or deeds made you feel. A lifetime of diligent work to build goodwill can be entirely ruined in one outburst of wrath.

No wonder wrath is reckoned as a work of the flesh: in humanity it works entirely contrary to everything God is working to accomplish in Jesus. In Jesus God would reconcile and heal (Ephesians 2:1-3:12); wrath divides and hurts. In Jesus God would tear down walls between people (Ephesians 2:11-18); wrath gives those who suffer it every reason to create distance and build walls against those who inflict it. Relational unity and wrath cannot mix; and thus the anger of man cannot accomplish the righteousness of God (James 1:20).

To avoid wrath does not mean to cease feeling; feeling is a major part of what makes us human. We will feel anger because of injustice and dishonor, and woe to us on the day if and when we cease feeling and lapse into ungodly indifference. We must feel, yet without sin: we must keep discipline and not allow our great-hearted passion within us to pour out as wrath. Our relationships prove far too precious to destroy by outbursts of wrath. May we stand against injustice, hunger and thirst for righteousness, and maintain discipline in our feelings of anger, so as to reflect Jesus the Christ and obtain life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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