Ambition and Anger

I like St James, whose feast we keep today. I like the fact that he and his brother are Sons of Boanerges (Sons of Thunder) and that whenever he pops up in the New Testament in propria persona, the dust flies. In my mind’s eye, I can see him looking dark and dangerous, glittering with ambition, and not too scrupulous about how many toes he treads on. He gets his mother to ask for a seat at Jesus’ right hand in the kingdom, because, of course, he’s worth it; he helpfully suggests raining fire and lightning down on recalcitrant villages because he knows he can; he alone among the apostles is recorded as having been martyred by Herod Agrippa — he was just too much of a nuisance to go unpunished. He is, I think, a wonderful patron for those of us who have problems with ambition and anger.

I’m quite sure that some of my readers will protest that they are not ambitious or that they are not angry persons. They should stop reading now. This post is for those of us who are both. St James is a fine example of how qualities many regard as ‘unChristian’ can be transformed by grace so that they become not merely neutral qualities but positive helps to salvation. Without his ambition and drive, St James would have been a lacklustre servant of the Church; without his anger and the energy it gave him, he would have been much less courageous. It is worth thinking about that. The very qualities that we might fear in ourselves or others were, in him, vehicles of grace.

That doesn’t mean that, as far as we are concerned, anything goes. On the contrary, and using St James as an example again, I think it was his close friendship with Jesus that transformed natural ambition and anger into something gracious and grace-giving. Can we say the same of our own anger and ambition? Are we ‘friends’ with Jesus? The Christian life is sometimes presented as a war against everything that comes to us naturally and humanly. That is, in fact, an enormous heresy. The Christian life involves struggle, of course it does, but we start with what God gave us — this body, this intelligence, these emotions, these circumstances — and we allow God to make of them, and us, what he wills. Co-operation with grace is the key point, and that co-operation can only be achieved if we become close to God — friends with Jesus, if you like — through prayer.

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