Many of these commandments have read like prudential wisdom literature – giving two contrasting options of what happens when one does good and when one does evil. This fifth mandate is no exception, to the extent where I find I ought to describe its content in terms of the good/evil contrast, rather than in terms of a unilateral command. This mandate is about patience vs. anger.
Be patient and of good understanding, and you will rule over every wicked work, and you will work all righteousness. For if you be patient, the Holy Spirit that dwells in you will be pure. He will not be darkened by any evil spirit, but, dwelling in a broad region, he will rejoice and be glad; and with the vessel in which he dwells he will serve God in gladness, having great peace within himself.
But if any outburst of anger take place, forthwith the Holy Spirit, who is tender, is straitened [constricted], not having a pure place, and He seeks to depart. For he is choked by the vile spirit, and cannot attend on the Lord as he wishes, for anger pollutes him. For the Lord dwells in longsuffering, but the devil in anger.
The two spirits, then, when dwelling in the same habitation, are at discord with each other, and are troublesome to that man in whom they dwell.
Before I go on, let’s look more closely at what is being taught here. On the ethical level it’s pretty clear and almost unremarkable – patience is good, anger ruins it. What’s curious is the spiritual explanation that supports the ethical arguments.
Most noteably, the Holy Spirit gets a lot of attention here. It’s great to see him so well personified (the third person of the Trinity is often neglected in this matter). At first it was shocking to see him say that our sins “darken” the Holy Spirit – how can God, who is perfect, be tainted by our sin? Is this implying the Holy Spirit isn’t a person of God? After giving this some thought, it strikes me that the thinking here is that if Christ could take on our infirmities and become sin for us, we can do the same thing to the Holy Spirit. Now with Christ, he came specifically to take away our sins and have them dealt with. But the Holy Spirit is given to those who have already repented and cast their sin onto Christ. Considering the strict view of Shepherd of Hermas about limited post-baptismal repentance opportunities, it makes sense, then, that it describes the Spirit’s preference to depart when someone commits the deadly sin of anger.
What strikes me as potentially problematic is the teaching here that a little sin ruins the perfection of God’s Spirit. God’s grace is greater than our sin, surely? But it would seem that Hermas makes a distinction between the grace of initial conversion/repentance and the grace of helping Christians avoid sin. It proceeds to give the analogy of putting a small piece of wormwood (which is very bitter in flavor) into a jar of honey, ruining the whole jar with just a small intrusion. On one hand, I’m used to parables saying the opposite, like how the yeast of the gospel can make a small lump of dough into a large loaf of bread, but I suppose the Bible does also affirm that one small sin results in guilt under the entire Law. Then again, Paul seems to suggest that it works both ways (that both the gospel and sin can have huge impacts in one’s life).
As you can imagine, then, at this point, the angel who’s instructing Hermas warns that “if you do not guard yourself against it [anger], you and your house lose all hope of salvation.” So this caution of losing salvation remains.
The second half of this mandate primarily looks at how anger works:
- Actions of anger throw the Christian away from righteousness;
- Those who are “full of faith” aren’t swayed by anger, because God is with them;
- Therefore, it is the “thoughtless and doubting” who get thrown off by anger.
Now it is fair to note that “doubting” doesn’t mean any small weakness in faith that can pop up in ordinary Christian life, but refers more to a larger-scale loss of trust in God, as we’ve already seen in the 4th vision. What this implies, then, is that truly committed Christians are not prone to serious bursts of anger, so if a Christian does act with great wrath, it’s a sign that his or her faith is suffering quite profoundly.
How anger does its work is interesting to read, too. It gets into peoples’ hearts whenever it sees a chance, making them bitter about stupid little things like food, careless words, and such. But patience isn’t bothered by the stupid little things in life; it’s “great, and mighty, and strong, and calm” in all situations, much like Paul’s learned content despite his circumstances. Anyway, it starts with bitterness, which can lead to anger, which can lead to frenzy. Frenzy seems to be this translation’s version of wrath, one of the seven deadly sins, for it is described as ending in “great and incurable sin.” I notice now that it says it ends in incurable sin, not that it is incurable sin. So simply committing anger/wrath/frenzy isn’t necessarily a “mortal sin,” if I can use such language, but it points the way to it.
But it is at this point that the Holy Spirit is brought back into the picture. He’s described as “tender,” and is not “accustomed to dwell with the wicked spirit, nor with hardness,” which I think is a fun way of describing the situation of the heart, if a little worrying (and heretical for those who believe that the Spirit’s presence indicates guaranteed salvation). What Hermas says is that if/when the Spirit departs from one’s heart, that person is emptied of righteousness, and is dragged all over the place by the evil spirits which replace God’s Spirit. But if we obey this commandment and “put on patience, and resist anger and bitterness,” then we’ll be “able to keep all the other commandments.” For even though a little bit of sin easily leads to lots of other sins, so too does one strong virtue bolster the others!