The Case Against Anger


Imagine, for a moment, a world where few, if any, marriages end in divorce, few children shout at their parents, no parents abuse their children. Imagine a world of safe neighborhoods, peaceful governments, and healthy citzens—largely without hypertension, headaches, or backaches.

Sound like a never-never land, unpeopled by mortals? Yet I have just described some of the probable effects of a world absent only one simple emotion—anger.

Few of us reach adulthood without experiencing anger—our own or someone else’s. In fact, society seems to tell us that occasional anger is inevitable and normal, even healthy. I believe, however, that anger is not only unhealthy and harmful, but can be eliminated. A few basic ideas about the nature of anger can help us see the gospel answer to purging anger entirely from our lives, thus taking a giant step toward the charity and self-control we all seek to develop.

The first step in eliminating anger is understanding it. There seem to me to be four principles which describe its operation.

Personal responsibility for anger

First, we are ultimately responsible for our own anger. For us to feel emotion, we must first be aware of some stimulus—an event, a thought, a memory. Then we interpret that stimulus—and that’s when the emotional response comes. Our interpretation can be relatively positive, neutral, or negative. That our emotion rises out of the interpretation we give rather than from the stimulus itself (the experience, the thought) is clear when we recall those situations where people around us received the same stimulus we did and yet responded very differently. You may remember the story of the two missionaries in Germany who were standing on the porch talking to the woman of the house when her husband came up. When he found out they were Latter-day Saint missionaries, he became very angry. After inviting the elders off the porch, he slugged one elder and knocked him down. The elder calmly got up, brushed off his pants, picked up his hat, put it on, said “Thank you,” and walked away with his companion. The man was so impressed by the elder’s response that, after recovering from his amazement and astonishment, he ran after the elders, invited them to return, and had them teach him the gospel. (Yes, he joined the Church.)

The gospel teaches that each of us is responsible for his own thoughts; since our emotions are determined by our thoughts, it follows that we are then responsible for our emotional responses. Brigham Young gave us a colorful, and helpful, explanation:

“Suppose, when you arrive at home from this meeting, you find your neighbors have killed your horses and destroyed your property, how would you feel? You would feel like taking instant vengeance on the perpetrator of the deed. But it would be wrong for you to encourage the least particle of feeling to arise like anger, or revenge, or like taking judgement into your own hands, until the Lord shall say, ‘Judgment is yours, and for you to execute.’ When anger arises, … know that it arises in yourselves. …

“… Dismiss any spirit that would prompt you to injure any creature that the Lord has made, give it no place, encourage it not, and it will not stay where you are.” (Journal of Discourses, 2:134–35.)

Thus, instead of blaming events or the people around us for our anger, we should remember that no one else can “make” us angry. We make ourselves angry. What others say and do is usually a part of the equation, but anger cannot arise without our contribution. I find this a very freeing idea. As long as we decide our own emotions, we can change and control them. If other people or events were, in fact, responsible for what we feel, we would not have the freedom nor ability to change—unless we could control those other people and events, which is usually impossible. And so we have the first principle defining anger: we are ultimately responsible for the anger we feel.

Anger is the result of sin

The second bit of evidence against anger is this: Anger between individuals is the result of sin. Let’s analyze for a minute what kinds of thoughts create anger.

In order to get angry at a person, we first have to judge that person. When we judge, we’re doing one of two things—we’re either discerning the nature of our experiences (weighing evidence), or we’re condemning. All of us, hopefully, are continually discerning, but not condemning. In Matthew 7:2 (Joseph Smith Translation) the Savior says, “Judge not unrighteously, that you be not judged, but judge righteous judgment.” [JST, Matt. 7:2] I suggest that discerning between rightness and wrongness, discovering the true nature of a given act under the inspiration of the Spirit, is appropriate or righteous judgment. Condemnation is the unrighteous judgment referred to. In the act of discerning we do not get angry. It’s only when we judge and condemn another that we get angry, when we look at what was done and decide that he or she is bad. Thus we have to have sinned—condemned another—to make ourselves angry.

Another kind of thought that gives rise to anger is selfishness. Selfish thinking includes most of the “shoulds” that we apply to other people—we think a person should or should not do something because we do or don’t want them to, or we demand that they gratify our wishes and desires. We think that a coworker should see things our way, or that a wife should have had dinner ready sooner, or that a husband should help around the house more. As President Kimball stated in one of his general conference addresses, there are three major things we need to do in order to truly become Zion, and one of them is to overcome our selfishness (see Ensign, May 1978, p. 81).

The primary function of anger is to control others. Some people have learned this art very well. They get what they want by becoming loud and angry. The target of such ire tends to do what the angry individual wants in order to placate him. Anger thus has the unrighteous goal of attempting to diminish the freedom of others.

The second characteristic of anger, then, is that anger against others is a result of sin, or unrighteous thinking.

Anger itself is a sin

We have seen that anger against another can only result after we commit sin (think unrighteously), but there is something in the nature of anger itself and its consequences that is also sinful. Anger itself is a sin when sin is defined as anything that retards the growth or progress of an individual. This is the third characteristic of anger that we need to recognize.

All anger will inevitably be expressed some way. It may come out openly; it may be expressed passively with responses such as tardiness or not keeping commitments; it may be entirely suppressed and manifest itself only in deep-seated psychological or psychosomatic problems.

Assume, for example, that the anger is suppressed. John is angry with David, who he feels has misrepresented him to their boss and thus prevented John from getting a promotion. John cannot even bring himself to say “Good morning” to David at work; he avoids him in the hall; he lets little criticisms of David slip in to conversations with others; he is constantly thinking of ways he can “get even” with him. His work begins to suffer; coworkers notice that John is becoming bitter, cynical, unpleasant to be around. John’s anger is thus harmful to himself, to those around him, and to David.

Anger can also be physically destructive to the angry person. Though the exact results of anger are not totally known, we do know that it creates excess acid in the stomach, inflammation of the stomach blood vessels, and increased stomach movement. And most of us know that suppressed anger and rage are often cited as a major cause of ulcers. We do know, too, that anger elevates both the systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Therefore, physicians feel safe in saying that anger is a main cause of hypertension. Some headaches are also associated with anger.

Thus, there seems to be plenty of evidence for this third characteristic of anger; in terms of personal consequences, anger is not only a result of sin, but is also a sin in itself. (We should realize, of course, that we do not usually decide to be angry. Anger is a result of the types of thoughts we have already discussed; often we are angry at something immediately—it is almost a reflex. But we are still responsible for this kind of anger because we have previously established that pattern—we have trained ourselves to react with anger to certain situations.)

Anger causes sin

There is one more principle that can help us define anger. Anger usually has harmful interpersonal consequences—it often results in conflicts, contention, injury to the self-esteem and dignity of another, and/or erosion of mutual respect. There are, of course, ways to express anger neutrally and even constructively. An angry person may be motivated to confront another and rationally discuss a problem. An improved relationship may well result.

But there are ways to get to that happy solution without anger. Anger isn’t a necessary prerequisite to a helpful conversation; it usually, in fact, prevents it. My point is that virtually all, if not all, anger between individuals is destructive. The scriptures state, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice” (Eph. 4:31); “be … slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20); and “wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous” (Prov. 27:3–4).

Modern prophets have also warned against anger: “Never suffer anger to arise in your bosom; for, if you do, you may be overcome by evil” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 6:290); “The moment a man or woman becomes angry, they show a great weakness” (Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses 4:98); “Anger that leads a man … to condemn his brother is crime” (David O. McKay, Pathways to Happiness, comp. Lewellen R. McKay, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1957, p. 321).

The idea that anger is inevitable is a philosophy of the world, not of the gospel. From a gospel framework, our goal is not just constructive release of anger, but the elimination of anger.

The Lord’s “anger”

But, some may ask, “Why is it that God himself gets angry?” The scriptures make reference to God’s wrath or God’s anger. Would God command us not to get angry and yet be a God of anger himself?

At this point we should look at our definition of anger. I am using it in the sense that it is an emotion that results from judging others unrighteously, wanting to control others, or selfishly wanting our own ends met. I submit that God does not get angry when anger is thus defined—or as we commonly use the word. In Mark 3:5, after the Savior healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, we find the people seeking to accuse him. “And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved at the hardness of their hearts, he said unto the man, stretch forth thine hand.” There are some critical phrases in that statement. First of all, the Savior was “grieved” because of the hardness of their hearts. He was concerned about them, caring, compassionate. His “anger” did not arise, as does ours, out of a judgmental condemning of others, out of selfishness to get his own ends met, nor out of the desire to control people and deny them their freedom.

Anger is a feeling of hostility, resentment, wrath, or ire. None of these feelings was present nor, I believe, ever is present with God. I believe God’s actions are interpreted at times as arising out of anger because he applies consequences, including punishment, for violation of his laws. But when we look at God’s punishment, we find that it is just—there is no element of hostility or revenge. This is certainly true in the case of Christ driving the money changers from the temple. He did so with sternness, but his motivation was from a desire to serve God and bless his children, not a desire to harm others.

Good parents also apply consequences to their children’s behavior to help them learn the truth. Many scriptures state that the Lord’s chastisement and the suffering that comes from it are for the benefit of his children and arise out of compassion.

One other thing might help us understand the use of the word anger as it is applied to the Lord. Doctrine and Covenants 1:24 tells us, “These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” [D&C 1:24] In other words, I believe that the word anger is applied the way it is in the scriptures because we understand that language and because it has the clearest, most positive effect on us (see D&C 19:6–7).

We should also re-examine the instruction in Doctrine and Covenants 121:43. “Reprov[e] betimes with sharpness.” [D&C 121:43] I suggest that sharpness here means pointedly, in a very direct, confronting way, so that we will not be misunderstood, “then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.” I suggest that the only way we can really show that increase in love, unless it be some time afterwards, is to have not been angry in the first place, but to truly have been moved upon by the Holy Ghost.

The gospel cure for anger

With this understanding of the nature of our anger, and of the Lord’s “anger,” what help does the gospel give for preventing that emotion? In one sense, the entire gospel is addressed to this end. Here are selected gospel truths which seem to me most helpful:

Faith. We must really believe that we are expected to reach the point where we do not feel anger and that such is a possible goal. We must believe the words of Nephi, “I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Ne. 3:7).

Knowledge—awareness. As in the first step of repentance, we must be able to recognize not only our anger but the reasons for our anger. We must realize that we make ourselves angry, that our anger comes not because of what others say or do but because we are condemning them, making selfish demands of them, or trying to control them. As Brigham Young said, “Much instruction has to be given to enable us to overcome our passions, and to govern and control our feelings and disposition.” (Journal of Discourses, 3:52).

Stewardship. We should recognize that everything we have, including our body, is a gift of God. Destruction or injury to ourselves or someone else, through anger, is mistreatment of God’s creations—and possessions.

Purpose of life. In addition, recognizing that this life is a time of experience and testing, we should remember that the irritations, difficulties, and provocations which come into our lives will teach us valuable lessons.

Self-discipline. Focusing on how we could improve our behavior (first casting the beam out of our own eye), we, of course, would not be focusing on the faults and failings of another. And as we examine ourselves and persist in eliminating harmful impulses, we learn great patience and control.

Forgiveness. Suppose we are truly and purposely slighted. The counsel of the gospel is to forgive: “Ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin” (D&C 64:9).

High self-esteem. It is generally accepted that high self-esteem goes hand in hand with a lower rate of anger. As we accept ourselves as children of God, persons of infinite worth, always loved by our Heavenly Father and our Savior, our self-esteem inevitably rises.

Genuine love. The gospel tells us to focus on helping the needy and, especially, those who offend us. Paul told the Romans, “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1). He told the Galatians, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:1–2.)

The Holy Ghost. A vital element in our efforts to eliminate anger is the companionship and influence of the Holy Ghost. President John Taylor counseled, “What will enable you, brethren and sisters, to govern yourselves? The Spirit of God; and you cannot do it without the Spirit of the living God dwelling in you—you must have the light of revelation, or else you cannot do it.”

Our model: the Savior. Finally, each of us needs a model that we can look to with complete and unquestioning faith. That model is the Savior. If we think of his responses to provoking situations, his compassion, his tenderness, his constant caring, making him the focus of our thoughts, we will eventually become as he is. I love the message in Matthew 11:28–30; here we find the key of lightened burdens and rest. “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me for I am meek and lowly in heart and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Italics added) [Matt. 11:28–30] Our burdens can be light—our anger dissipated—and we can enjoy rest if we just take the Lord’s yoke upon us by truly representing him and learning of him.

I firmly believe that if we follow these gospel guides, we will not need to worry about controlling anger because we will eventually not have any anger to control.

You may be wondering, with my awareness of these principles, do I still get angry? Unfortunately, yes. But not as often, not as intensely, and not for as long. When I stop and consider these principles, my anger fades away.

In the meantime, until we achieve our goal of no anger, we need to remember that the gospel does contain guides to the constructive release of anger. One of them comes from Ephesians 4:26: “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” [Eph. 4:26] In other words, deal with the expression of anger as it arises rather than allow it to fester.

One other point that helps me deal with anger more constructively: I try to remember that my anger is a signal that I need to correct some of my thoughts (those that induced it), that it is a reminder of weaknesses I need to overcome.

I realize that the goal of eliminating anger is a tremendous challenge—and not one to be conquered in a single step—but I testify that as we strive to do so we will not only markedly improve our own relationships with others and increase in joy and happiness, but also enjoy better health, more energy, and more vitality. Further, as we conquer anger we will prepare ourselves to help others eliminate the destructiveness of anger from their lives. The more experience I have in counseling others, the more convinced I am that until we have really met a challenge ourselves, we have little success in helping others to meet it.

I also believe that we will not really know the blessing nor the purpose of living this commandment until we have lived it. The full blessings and understanding come after having lived the commandment, not before (see Moses 5:6–8).

[illustrations] Illustrated by Don Seegmiller

Burton C. Kelly, on the Counseling Center faculty and professor of educational psychology at Brigham Young University, serves as executive secretary in the Orem Utah South Central Stake.