Slow to Anger
February 2003

“Slow to Anger,” Ensign, Feb. 2003, 59

Slow to Anger

What can we do to overcome the tendency to be easily provoked?

Elder Gordon T. Watts

A man can rather accurately be measured, it has been said, by the size of a thing that makes him angry. Unfortunately, far too many individuals today are easily provoked. Unchecked anger—whether expressed verbally, physically, or both ways—can lead to a host of problems such as ill health, “road rage,” conflicts in the workplace, and damaged or disrupted relationships.

Additionally, anger is sometimes perpetuated for generations when children learn from their parents that irrational, outraged behavior is acceptable and tolerated. Note the result when the letter d is added to the front of the word anger. Not only does contentiousness harm others; it harms ourselves as well.

In Proverbs we find, “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Prov. 16:32). What can we do, then, to rule our spirits and be “slow to anger”?

Seek to Understand

The story is told of a parent who angrily scolded a child for completing an artful masterpiece on a newly painted wall. The child tearfully responded, “But I saw you painting the wall and was only trying to help!” So much anger and heartache can be avoided when we seek to understand another’s point of view.

The interchange between Moroni and Pahoran, as described in the book of Alma, is instructive on this point. Fearing for the welfare of his army during a difficult conflict, Captain Moroni sends a message to Pahoran, governor of the land, in which he solicits much-needed aid and assistance. Moroni uses some rather harsh words in his letter:

“And now behold, we desire to know the cause of this exceedingly great neglect; yea, we desire to know the cause of your thoughtless state.

“Can you think to sit upon your thrones in a state of thoughtless stupor, while your enemies are spreading the work of death around you? …

“But why should I say much concerning this matter? For we know not but what ye yourselves are seeking for authority. We know not but what ye are also traitors to your country” (Alma 60:6–7, 18).

Moroni’s lengthy complaint against Pahoran comprises the entire 60th chapter of Alma. Moroni does not know of the difficult circumstances Pahoran himself is encountering. As we read Pahoran’s response, we gain insight into his wisdom and restraint:

“I, Pahoran, who am the chief governor of this land, do send these words unto Moroni, the chief captain over the army. Behold, I say unto you, Moroni, that I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul” (Alma 61:2).

Pahoran then proceeds to inform Moroni of his own desperate situation, and then in cordial and composed language he writes:

“And now, in your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart. I, Pahoran, do not seek for power, save only to retain my judgment-seat that I may preserve the rights and the liberty of my people. My soul standeth fast in that liberty in the which God hath made us free” (Alma 61:9).

What a remarkable example! Given the circumstances, some might say Pahoran would have been justified in responding harshly to Moroni. But because of Pahoran’s love and respect for Moroni, his desire to understand Moroni’s situation, and his own self-control, he replaces anger with kindness. Let us seek to do likewise, even in situations in which we are unjustly accused.

Develop Patience and Love Others Unselfishly

Anger can be conquered by developing patience and sincerely desiring to love others more than self. I have learned this lesson many times from the example set by my parents.

As a youth I worked long, hard hours on the family farm. My parents had ample opportunity to respond in anger as this novice son made numerous mistakes in learning the art of farming. Nevertheless, they continued to be patient, even when some of my inadvertent blunders resulted in financial losses as well as the loss of valuable time.

During the pea harvest one year, I was entrusted with the responsibility of transporting freshly cut pea vines from the field to the vinery in a horse-drawn wagon. The hours were long, and the harvesting time was short. Late one afternoon, while proceeding along the farm road, I became drowsy, closed my eyes, and relaxed my hold on the reins. The horses were well trained and continued their journey without the guidance of their wagon master. When we came to a sharp turn in the road, the horses made the appropriate turn, but the wagon did not. I remember being abruptly jolted as the wagon collided with a large telephone pole. Fortunately, the team stopped, but not before extensive damage was done to the wagon. As a result of my afternoon catnap, a much-needed piece of equipment was taken out of service in addition to needing costly repairs. However, my father spoke no angry words, only expressing concern for my welfare. I vowed I would be more responsible from that time forth.

As I reflect on this experience, the counsel given by Paul comes to mind:

“Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged” (Col. 3:21). Because of the patience and love my parents consistently showed me, I was able to learn and grow through my mistakes rather than feeling overwhelmed and discouraged by them.

Use Humor

Another tool that can turn the tide of anger into a calming wave of peace is the wise use of humor. Anger can be kindled when one unkind remark is followed by a retaliatory response from another. If you find yourself in a tense situation, even if it appears a negative response is warranted, the use of humor where appropriate will often endear you to others.

Someone once made the disparaging remark to Abraham Lincoln that he was “two-faced.” Without being the least bit offended, President Lincoln gave the clever response: “I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?” (quoted in Russell Freedman, Lincoln: A Photobiography [1987], 1, 4).

Deflecting an offense with humor requires a concerted effort. Perhaps no individual is more adept in the wise use of humor than our prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley. Time and again he has used humor to defuse a tense moment. One seeking an excellent role model would do well to follow the prophet.

Seek Inspiration through Prayer

The Savior said that he who has a spirit of anger and contention “is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.

“Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away” (3 Ne. 11:29–30).

Prayer is a powerful weapon through which anger and contention can be “done away.” Blessed are those who, when stirred to anger, engage in silent prayer, thus making themselves more receptive to the guidance of the Spirit. Nephi counseled, “But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (2 Ne. 32:9).

I know from personal experience that Heavenly Father will indeed guide our actions when we turn to Him in prayer. For example, when I was employed with a large manufacturing firm several years ago, my assignment required that I work daily with a senior manager in some rather tense and difficult situations. Over time we had repeated conflicts, which resulted in feelings of resentment. I struggled to know how to keep my composure, accomplish my task, and refrain from responding in anger. In what seemed like a hopeless situation, I turned to prayer, pleading with Father in Heaven for direction. There followed a prompting to invite my associate to accompany me on a few sales presentations in Salt Lake City. I followed the prompting, he accepted my invitation, and shortly thereafter we were conducting business in Salt Lake.

One evening I invited him to join me on a tour of Temple Square. He accepted. We attended the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearsal, then proceeded to the visitors’ center. As we stood in front of the Christus for a moment of silent contemplation, I witnessed in him a soberness and kindness I had not observed before. He was appreciative and cordial, and we had a warm, heartfelt conversation. From that time on, our relationship was different. In fact, he became my strongest supporter and friend. How grateful I am for the great gift of prayer.

Follow the Example of the Savior

The Savior is the supernal example of one who exercised patience and self-control. This was evident during His mock trial when the high priest Caiaphas asked Him, “Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee?”

Then the divine example:

“But Jesus held his peace”(Matt. 26:62–63).

Following His agony in Gethsemane and before His death on the cross, the Savior pleaded to His Father for those who had been so unkind and despicable toward Him: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

We learn from the Savior that in our quest to be slow to anger, there are times when we must “hold our peace.” We must be forgiving of others and harbor no malice or desire for revenge. And we must seek to love others unselfishly as the Lord loves us.

“A new commandment I give unto you,” said the Savior; “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.

“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34–35).

I testify that unrighteous anger is done away in Christ and that following His example will bring true personal happiness.

Let’s Talk about It

Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions. The following questions are for that purpose or for personal reflection:

  1. In what situations are we too easily provoked? How can we learn to respond to these situations differently?

  2. How can we allow the Lord to help us control our anger?

Illustrations by Greg Thorkelson

Painting detail by Judith Mehr

Art by Carl Bloch