Under the banner of honesty, anger has been made into a virtue. Under the banner of psychological well-being, the expression of anger has been made into a necessity. From the beginning, it was not so.
Years ago when I was serving as a branch president, a young adult in our ward came to see me. She explained that she had just been with her therapist. The therapist was helping her work through many issues including a feeling that she had been neglected and deserted by her father. The therapist invited her to take part in an unusual exercise. She invited the young woman to mentally bring her now-deceased father into the room. Sit him in a chair before her. And give him hell. Tell him about her pain, disappointment, and years of loneliness. “Tell him just how you feel. Let him have it.”
After she described the bitter confrontation to me, she paused. “What do you think of that idea?” Perhaps she asked me because she knows that I relentlessly test every idea by the teachings of Jesus. I did not have any preconsidered response to her question, but I had an impression. “I think it depends on what your object is. If you want self-justification, there is nothing as useful as blame. But if you want peace, I recommend a different course.” I told her that, like her therapist, I recommended that she mentally invite her father to sit in front of her. But rather than stand and berate him, I suggested that she kneel at his feet and invite counsel from him. She might ask, “Dad, if you had not been sick, if you had not been overwhelmed by mom’s demands, if you had been able to do what was in your heart, what might we have done together? What daddy-daughter dates might we have had? Tell me about the times that we might have stayed up late laughing, snacking, and talking. Tell me about the shopping and movies we might have shared. Tell me how you love me.”
If our souls will be peaceful, our minds can hear the words of comfort from those who love us from the other side of the Veil. If we let them tell us all that is in their hearts, our pain will be swallowed up in assurance. Immortals gladly do what weak mortals struggle to do.
Any time we presume to judge another person we are usurping the role of God. “Behold what the scripture says—man shall not smite, neither shall he judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord, and vengeance is mine also, and I will repay” (Mormon 8:20). The Lord’s discussion of motes and beams (see Matthew 7:1–5) underscores the mortal risks of such an undertaking. Criticism is always presumptuous and ungracious.
And that is the problem with anger. It presumes that my view is the standard of truth. It exalts my needs while dismissing yours. It fills me with indignation in my least righteous moments. It assumes that the best way for me to help you is to paint your errors in vibrant colors.
“When a battered, weary swimmer tries valiantly to get back to shore, after having fought strong winds and rough waves which he should never have challenged in the first place, those of us who might have had better judgment, or perhaps just better luck, ought not to row out to his side, beat him with our oars, and shove his head back underwater. That’s not what boats were made for. But some of us do that to each other” (Jeffrey R. Holland, 1984).
Years ago Heavenly Father taught me that I did not have the right to correct anyone I did not love. That seemed reasonable enough. Little did I realize the trap at the time. When I feel genuinely loving toward someone, I lose interest in correcting them. I just want to love and bless them.
“All the religious world is boasting of righteousness; it is the doctrine of the devil to retard the human mind, and hinder our progress, by filling us with self righteousness. The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. My talk is intended for all this society; if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 241).
The prophet’s observation is elegantly harmonious with God’s ultimate commandment as expressed in Luke:
Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful
Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven:
Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again” (Luke 6:36–38).
When we are filled with judgment and anger we make our worst moments into some ultimate reality. We forget charity and love and eternity. Today’s indigestion defines eternity’s relationships and truths.
It is true that God gives us permission to reprove with sharpness—but only when moved upon by the Holy Ghost (D&C 121: ). We only have the right to chide and challenge when we are His messengers with a specific commission. And we must be willing to “[show] forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death (D&C 121:43–44). That does not describe our routine bouts of anger.
“Let all Latter day Saints learn that the weaknesses of their brethren are not sins. When men or women undesignedly commit a wrong, do not attribute that to them as a sin. Let us learn to be compassionate one with another; let mercy and kindness soften every angry and fretful temper, that we may become long suffering and beneficial in all our communications one with another” (sel John A. Widtsoe, 1954).
Brigham Young challenges us to keep angry feelings and words out of our homes: “In our daily pursuits in life, of whatever nature and kind, Latter day Saints, and especially those who hold important positions in the Kingdom of God, should maintain a uniform and even temper, both when at home and when abroad. They should not suffer reverses and unpleasant circumstances to sour their natures and render them fretful and unsocial at home, speaking words full of bitterness and biting acrimony to their wives and children, creating gloom and sorrow in their habitations, making themselves feared rather than loved by their families. Anger should never be permitted to rise in our bosoms, and words suggested by angry feelings should never be permitted to pass our lips” (Discourses of Brigham Young, pp.203–204).
The Christian writer, Frederick Buechner, makes keen observations about anger: “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you” (Wishful Thinking (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) p.2).
It used to be thought that Type A or intense personalities were at greater risk of heart disease. Research reported by Redford Williams showed that it was not the intensity that killed people. It is hostility and cynicism. In fact, he aptly titled his book, “Anger Kills” (1993). When we feed and celebrate our anger, when we see others in the worst light, we are destroying our own hearts. Anger is like taking poison and waiting for that hated person to die.
The doctrines of the world teach us that we must get our anger out or it will fester and come out in monstrous forms. It will destroy you!
But research tells a different story: Expressing anger is not cleansing and it is not cathartic. It is addictive. The more we talk about our anger, the angrier we get.
When we are flooded with anger we have more than one option. Rather than spewing hot lava on the heads of offending humans, we can seek the divine gift of forgivingness. We can beg heaven for compassion. We can cry out with Alma, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness” (Alma 36:18). Replace this fretful clog of humanness with divine grace. Help me to see as Thou seest. Teach me to love.
The best research on marriage shows that even the best marriage partners get angry. But partners in the best marriages are better than those in poorer marriages at soothing and bounding their conflict. They are better at accepting influence from each other. They see each other in gracious, forgiving ways. They show more kindness. Maybe we never entirely overcome the impulse to anger in mortality. Yet we never stop trying.
Again and again we are reminded of that new commandment Jesus gave for those who be true disciples. Between His washing of the apostles’ feet and His inexpressible agony in the garden, He commanded us, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).
Anger is not the expression of some unhappy but real truth that must be shared and discussed. It is one of Satan’s ancient tools to eclipse love with indignation. If we learn to give family members the benefit of every doubt, reason patiently through every problem, and keep their greatest strengths always central in our minds, we still fall short. Only when heaven opens and gives us a glimpse of the eternal stature of those who are our partners, brothers, sisters, and children do we understand the great honor and trust that we enjoy. The great truths always come from Heaven.
Holland, J. R. (1984). A robe, a ring, and a fatted calf. Brigham Young University 1983-84 fireside and devotional speeches (Provo, UT: University Publications), pp. 51–58.
John A. Widtsoe (1954). Discourses of Brigham Young. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.