It’s been nearly two years since I stepped away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the faith I have loved passionately my entire life. About a year ago, after a lengthy conversation about this with a close friend, my friend gently urged me to consider who I was becoming in this process and observed that I had revealed some unresolved anger. When he said this, my heart sank. I felt aware both of his loving concern and my own desire to avoid becoming a bitter person, as well as my own concern that my friends would write me off as “angry” and not actually hear me.
In the grand scheme of things, I have found that speaking my truth and then letting go is healthier than trying to force somebody to understand something they haven’t experienced. But this issue of anger(and negative emotions in general) has been a consistent point of interest for me as I’ve grown into my new self and seen others of my friends who have “fallen away” interacting with active Mormons. Looking back I can see how Mormonism shaped my ideas about negative emotions and how I responded to those emotions in unhealthy ways, which largely contributed to my depression and anxiety. I write about this, not to condemn Mormonism per se, but in an effort to point out something that might help others, as well as myself, be a little more healthy in how we think about our emotions, especially anger.
My approach to anger in my younger years was heavily influenced by several scriptures and teachings of the Church. The first verse that comes to mind is 3 Nephi 11:29:
“For verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of 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;”
Of course, there is wisdom in avoiding a “spirit of contention”. To me, this implies somebody who is just looking for a fight, or somebody who stands to benefit selfishly by distracting people with anger and in-fighting. And that is an interpretation I can stand by and agree with; but is that how we apply it? Another verse may provide a little more nuanced insight to some problem-areas in our beliefs about anger. Matthew 5:21-22:
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…”
Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount has to be one of the most beautiful sermons ever given in history, and I can’t count how many times we read this verse in Sunday School and Seminary. Again, I stand by these verses as true and insightful. But what I find most telling about Mormonism’s problem with anger is the Joseph Smith translation of this verse. For those who are unfamiliar, Joseph Smith acknowledged the problem of the Bible containing mistakes due to its ancient origin and having passed through so many translations, so in order to correct these mistakes he went through and changed small portions of the text, using revelation to “re-translate”. He changed the words in Matthew 5:22 to read, “whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment…”, omitting the words, “without a cause”. I believe this to be the most telling tweak in terms of how we, as cultural/doctrinal Mormons, handle our emotions.
On the one hand, I see value in the distinction in that anger is something we need to be able to manage, regardless of our reasons for being angry. The reason for our anger may not leave and we can’t always wait around for an apology. We have to deal with that anger and move on. However, that’s not exactly what the Joseph Smith version of that verse actually says. It actually says that God commands us to never be angry. Hmm…how has that gone for you guys? It hasn’t really worked for me. And believe me, I’ve been trying (and praying for help) my whole life.
The first time a therapist told me that anger was a perfectly normal, healthy response in life, I just sat in silence for a while, both stunned by the obviousness of it and feeling like I could breathe for the first time. Negative emotions can be so unpleasant, and adding on top of that the belief that they are of the devil puts a lot of pressure on a person. One thing we have to start understanding is that the most powerful glue that binds us to our negative emotions (and bad habits in general) is shame. I’ve seen first hand that feeling guilty about being angry only leads me to fixate on it in an attempt to blot it out. Even when I tried to let go of it, my viewing anger as an evil thing made me afraid of it, which led me to hide it from myself and others, rather than actually negotiating with it, understanding it and working through it. Expressing anger in a healthy way is key to working through it. If we approach anger as a normal emotion requiring sensitivity, rather than Satan’s influence, it’s easier to own it and take responsibility for it. If we’re afraid of anger, we might be more likely to take the passive route of blaming someone else by saying things like, “You always…” or “You never…”. When we own it, we say things like, “I get so angry when….” It’s also helpful to find other healthy responses to the anger that give us the freedom to express it while being less hurtful to others. A physical action like going running or punching a pillow(as cheesy as this sounds) can also be helpful.
One of the reasons unhealthy responses to negative emotions can be such an issue in the Church is that there is a constant reminder that righteousness=happiness and wickedness=misery. The gospel is intended to be a guide for how to live a happy life and be a good person, but teaching it in this rigid, one-size-fits-all way sometimes naturally leads us to morally judge ourselves and others based on whether we are exhibiting positive emotions or negative emotions. This is an automatic recipe for shame, fear and self-loathing when we are inevitably confronted with negative emotions in our daily lives. And that shame can cause us to fixate on the negativity, solidifying the anger rather than resolving it, as well as causing anxiety about our own worthiness.
While this isn’t something that everyone experiences within Mormonism, it’s an experience that I’ve heard many describe and it’s one of the reasons I personally had to step away. Since then I have noticed how this shame extends beyond how we treat ourselves into how we treat each other. Often when someone expresses something about Utah, or about the Church that has been very damaging to them, the stand-by response by those who feel defensive is to point out that the person is angry, thereby delegitimizing whatever it is that they have just expressed. Within this logic, since anger=evil/the devil, the conclusion that anything someone says when they’re angry can’t be trusted. In reality this argument is a manipulation to get the upper hand, whether it’s done consciously or not.
It is important to allow people(especially loved ones) the freedom to express their anger in honest, healthy ways. This isn’t always easy. Sometimes when I hear certain teachings over the pulpit that have specifically led me down painful and damaging paths, I feel angry that those ways of thinking are still being perpetuated. But I also recognize that some people find those teachings truly uplifting and helpful in their lives. The fact is, different people are affected by things differently and there’s nothing we can do about it! That’s the challenge of co-existing with people who are different from ourselves.
If someone expresses anger it doesn’t mean they’re saying you have to feel the same way. Their anger doesn’t mean they are deceived by the devil, and it doesn’t mean that you have nothing to learn from them. It means that something is hard for them and they need to let it out and move on. Telling someone they are wrong because they are angry is a lazy and uncharitable way of shutting them down rather than actually taking the time to listen to what they are saying. If you are in a situation where you don’t feel you can be the one to support this person at this time, take ownership of that and be honest. (That’s ok) Maybe you are feeling too fragile, or your feelings are hurt by their anger and they should be talking with someone else about their anger. Own up to that and kindly be honest. But also keep in mind that ideally we “hope to be able to endure all things” and that if someone asks us to go a mile with them, we should go two. (13th Article of Faith; Matt 5:41)
A year ago when I was talking with my friend and he encouraged me to think carefully about who I was becoming, I took that to heart. He was sincere. He didn’t shut me down. I knew he couldn’t fully understand my feelings, but he listened to me. And he was right. I had unresolved anger. Since then I have been working hard to make peace with my anger and acknowledge that although it is painful, it is also really normal and valid. In doing this, I’ve found it easier manage my negative emotions, rather than letting them control me.