Slow to Anger

A few months into the pandemic, I received a lovely postcard in the mail. It read, “This is only part of the story. This is not the whole story. This is God’s world.” It is good to be reminded that this is God’s world. Because over the past two weeks, the news has been grim. Consider alone the latest COVID news reports: the rapid spread of the delta variant, the strain on health care systems, the increase in test-positivity rates, and the heated debates about how all this might impact the return to school. Masking policies have triggered outrage, vitriol, and even physical violence around the country. In protests in at least four states, some people have compared mask mandates to Jews being forced to wear yellow stars during the Holocaust. Not only does this fail the basic standards of thoughtful analysis but it also fuels outrage and deepens communal divides.

Last week’s blog explored the topic of wise speech. It’s characterized by gentleness and calmness, honesty and accuracy, restraint and good timing. And slowness to anger.

Over twenty wisdom sayings in the book of Proverbs deal with human anger. And make no mistake: the sages do not place much faith in it. The New Testament epistle of James, which is deeply influenced by Old Testament wisdom literature, minces no words: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (1:19). This deserves repeating: our unbridled anger does not produce righteousness . . . no matter how much we are convinced otherwise.

Of all the qualities of wise speech, this one, slowness to anger, may be the most needed in our current context, and the most difficult to cultivate.

Six verses between Proverbs 12 and 29 explicitly say that the wise are “slow to anger” (12:16; 14:29; 15:18; 16:32; 19:11; 29:11). They demonstrate “great understanding,” presumably of others, of themselves, of relationships, and of God (Prov. 14:29). More specifically, those who are slow to anger “ignore insults” as well as a whole host of other foolish comments. Proverbs 12:16 says, “Fools show their anger at once but the prudent ignore an insult.” Proverbs 19:11 is more pointed: “Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offense.” Overlooking an offense is glorious? How counter-cultural! If someone makes an insensitive remark and we let it go instead of ruminating on it: this is not only commendable but also noble and beautiful. This is not to say that Proverbs advocates turning a blind eye to harmful speech and actions. Naming a thing what it is, abuse for instance, is essential to the flourishing of community. But so is letting go of off-handed comments that bruise our egos.

The sages liken slowness to anger to glory, because it is God-like. We imitate God through our patience, charity, generosity, and steadiness. Psalms 86, 103, and 145, for instance, promise this: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8).

Proverbs affirms that the wise calm not only themselves but also others. They encourage harmony and model peace. In today’s parlance, we might say that their own emotional self-regulation helps regulate the emotions of others, especially those who have “flipped their lids” in anger. The wise meet outrage with calm and clarity. They adeptly de-escalate rather than escalate contentious conversations. 

Those who are genuinely strong display self-discipline in relation to their anger. This is particularly necessary for leaders because of their potential—by virtue of their positions—to spread indignation throughout organizations, communities, and nations. Proverbs 16:23 declares: “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled [is better] than one who captures a city.” Invective is not found on the lips of trustworthy, respectable leaders. In contrast, leaders who exude wrath and fury are dangerous. If we want to be wise, we ought not provoke them. Proverbs 19 and 20 compare a king’s anger to a growling lion. “Anyone who provokes him to anger forfeits life itself” (20:2).

Proverbs addresses “anger” in the contexts of friendship and parenting as well. “Make no friends with those given to anger, and do not associate with hotheads” (22:24). Be wary of those who take offence easily, who react with fury regularly, who tweet their resentment for all the world to see. Avoid people like this if you can; do not listen to them or take their words to heart; or, give them wide berth if they are present in your circles. Not surprisingly, Proverbs warns parents against disciplining their children in anger; to do so is to act unjustly and to diminish their well-being. “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity and the rod of anger will fail,” says Proverbs 22:8.

Given all this, we might ask, “What do we do with our anger? We all feel angry at times and perhaps more so now after eighteen months of a pandemic. How do we understand our anger and transform it into wise speech for the sake of our common good?”

Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, spent his entire life helping people transform conflict and find ways to live in peace and justice. He mediated conflict between Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda, between Jews and Palestinians, and between countless others caught in cycles of violence. He wrote, “Anger can be valuable if we use it as an alarm clock to wake us up—to realize that we have a need that isn’t being met and that we are thinking in a way that makes it unlikely to be met” (Nonviolent Communication, 144).

At the core of anger lies an unmet need or even a cluster of unmet needs. Needs are simply qualities that contribute to the flourishing of human life: things like peace, justice, belonging, understanding, reciprocity, intimacy, purpose, health, and so much more.  So, to use a simple example from my own life, if I am angry because one of my colleagues has been talking for fifteen minutes of our fifty-minute task force meeting, it is likely because I need and value consideration, respect, collaboration, and inclusion of all voices. But I may not have access to those needs when I am caught up in judgment, accusations, and blame: “He shouldn’t be so domineering. How inconsiderate and narcissistic. He should learn to listen more. Hasn’t he read the book of Proverbs?” This kind of thinking fuels anger. The more we think this way, the angrier we become.

In contrast, Nonviolent Communication teach us to stop, slow down, and breathe whenever we start to feel angry. Then we simply can notice all the “shoulds” and “judgments” running through our minds. If we can, then we translate those into needs. What do we long for? What really matters to us? What is the lifegiving quality that we want to see manifest in this relationship or context? If we can connect to what really matters to us (i.e., our common needs), then our anger will shift. Because anger is a secondary emotion that usually masks hurt or fear. We may start to feel sadness, because we realize how frequently these needs are unmet. Or we may feel peace and contentment, because we are grounded in our most cherished values. In any case, we are no longer swept up in the blame, shame, judgment, or vitriol. No longer “shoulding” on ourselves or others, we can speak assertively, compassionately, and wisely in service of human flourishing.

When I was a seminary professor, I taught semester-long courses on Nonviolent Communication and regularly spent one whole week on anger. One moment stands out: a student volunteered to be coached by me in transforming her anger. She was livid at a high-ranking politician; and she wasn’t alone in this. She spewed out judgments and blame, like so many others, with great ease. By slowing down and paying attention to the needs embedded in all of that rage, her feelings shifted. She felt grief and then some compassion for this leader. Though she still disagreed with him, she stopped ruminated about his misdeeds. She focused instead on what she valued in leaders and what she wanted for all people: respect, honesty, justice, dignity, health and wholeness. Connecting with these values was life-changing. She felt so empowered that she ran for political office. She didn’t win but her campaign was marked by integrity, passion, and wisdom. She was like a light shining in the darkness and a beacon of hope in a brutally partisan context.

So, the next time we feel swept up in outrage, let’s remember the wisdom of Proverbs and the God in whose image we made: The One who is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and mercy. Let us slow down and breathe and connect with what we long for most, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our communities: that all creatures might flourish and be made whole.

This blog is a shortened version of the Sunday radio program, Faith Alive, posted on Aug 22. To listen to the full program, visit Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church.

Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).


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