As I studied Galatians 5 a few weeks ago, I found that the Apostle Paul taught the Galatian Saints to “walk in the Spirit” in verse 16. Further into the chapter in verses 22-23, Paul listed some of the fruits of the Spirit. Between these verses, Paul listed a series of sins that he called “the works of the flesh” (verses 19-21). The New Testament Student Manual – Religion 211-212 says that the sins listed by Paul fall into four general categories: (1) Sexual sins (fornication and lasciviousness), (2) Sins from the religious realm (idolatry and witchcraft), (3) Sins against other persons (hatred, wrath, strife), and (4) Sins associated with alcohol (drunkenness and revellings) (page 419).
About the same time that I was studying Galatians, the lesson in my marriage skills class was about bad behavior in marriage and what causes it. It was an interesting lesson, and I learned new information or at least connected some points that I already knew. When someone gets angry and starts throwing things, we see the results of anger, but we may not understand the origin of it.
I understand a little bit more about controlling anger after several weeks of study. Throwing things is bad behavior that comes from a secondary emotion known as anger. Anger comes from a primary emotion, such as fear, shame, hurt, or loneliness. The primary emotion comes from a core need not being met. Core needs are things that all human beings need, such as love, security, acceptance, respect, and fairness. When our core needs are not met, primary emotions come to the surface. We may not even know that we feel hurt or afraid, but we might develop a secondary emotion, such as anger or anxiety. It is the secondary emotion that brings out bad behavior in most cases.
About this same time period I was reading a book titled Snow Rising by Matt Baldwin. I assume the book is fiction, but I found some life lessons in it. The story is about a man who was withdrawing from his wife and two children. They were still living together, but he did little with his family because he was so angry with himself for his own behavior, both past and present. He loved his wife and children, but he could not share himself with them. His wife was ready to leave him, and his teenage children were pleading for better relationships. Things were tense between them when he left to climb Mt. Hood in Oregon.
The man’s guide for Mt. Hood was a woman who noticed that he was struggling. She shared some life lessons with him, and he began to change. The woman taught principles from the gospel of Jesus Christ, but she called them axioms. She taught the man that he can choose what to believe and how he will act. However, accountability comes with each choice. When he believes and acts in accordance with the “axioms” then he is happy. When he believes in the axioms but does not act in accordance to them, he is unhappy. The axioms as defined in the novel are compassion (love in action or the ability to see the suffering of others), humility (a commitment to learn and the recognition that the world does not revolve around us), gratitude (an acknowledgement of the blessings in our lives and a commitment to be happy today), and conscience (the ability to make moral choices or to know the difference between right and wrong). The man learned that he could not be angry and compassionate at the same time, and the same was true with humility and gratitude.
After I pondered the above information for a couple of weeks, my marriage skill lesson was on controlling anger. I learned in this lesson that anger destroys many families, and I was reminded that Satan is waging a war on families. He uses every tactic available to him, and one of his favorite tools is anger. Because anger is a secondary emotion, Satan builds on primary emotions that come from the “me first” mentality that is so prevalent in our society.
I was reminded that anger is a choice. We do not get angry for no reason. We get angry because someone pushes the right “button.” This button is known as a stimulus or a trigger. Between the stimulus and our response, there is a space or pause. It is within this space that we can use our God-given gift of agency, or the freedom to choose. No one forces us to get angry. If people could force us to get angry, we would not have agency. However, we do have agency. Therefore, we decide how we will respond to the stimulus.
The goal is to make the space between the stimulus and the response as large as possible to give us adequate time to choose wisely. When we choose to stay calm, we enlarge our space, but when we get angry, we shrink it. Other things affect our ability to enlarge the space, such as lack of sleep, hunger, or poor choices in the past. If we get angry today when that button is pushed, we are more likely to get angry tomorrow when it is pushed. However, if we stay calm today, we will increase our ability to stay calm tomorrow.
There is an example in the scriptures of an experience where all the above information came together. Lehi, Sariah, and their four sons departed from Jerusalem about 600 B.C. because Lehi’s life was in danger. He had prophesied that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed if the people did not repent, and the wicked people in Jerusalem threatened to kill him. Lehi was commanded by God to take his family and depart into the wilderness. Even though Lehi was a wealthy man, he did not take his gold, silver, and precious things with him. His family took only their tents and provisions when they left Jerusalem. They traveled in the wilderness and were about two weeks out from Jerusalem when Lehi received another commandment. He was told to send his sons back to Jerusalem to get the Brass Plates from Laban, a kinsman who kept the family records, and the sons left on their journey to Jerusalem.
Sariah had not been blessed with the spiritual experiences of her husband, and she was worried about her sons. Were they still alive? Would she ever see them again? Did robbers or wild animals attack them in the wilderness? Did Laban kill them? What would become of Lehi and Sariah if the sons did not return? Sariah was feeling insecure about the whole situation, and she became fearful. Because of her fear, she expressed it in anger, doubt, and blame toward her husband. She called him a visionary man and blamed him for the loss of their sons.
Lehi could have gotten angry with his wife, but he did not. He recognized that her words were based in her fears about her sons, and he responded with humility, compassion, and gratitude. He was humble in that he recognized that he was following the commands of God, and he was grateful for the guidance. Yet, he could see that his wife was full of fear, and he acted compassionately. His soft answer gave her the security that she needed at the time. When her sons returned a few days or weeks later with the Brass Plates, she knew for sure that her husband was a prophet and was following God’s commands. (See Book of Mormon – Another Testament of Jesus Christ, 1 Nephi 5.)
This post began with Paul’s counsel to “walk in the Spirit.” I assume that most of my readers have more problems with sins against other people than the other three groups of sin. Since anger is such a prevalent problem in our society and so destructive to marriages and families, I suggest that we all work on controlling our anger by enlarging the space between stimulus and response. We can practice exercising humility, compassion, gratitude, and agency, and we can learn from the example of Lehi. I know that we can learn to control our anger and replace it with patience and tolerance, and I invite my readers to join me in my quest to do so.