The quality of “slow to anger” ( אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם) is a divine attribute. When the LORD reveals himself to Moses after the golden calf incident, He passed before Moses proclaiming his divine attributes to him (Exo 34:6-7). This passage is the first time that “slow to anger” was made known to Israel. Subsequently, this attribute was mentioned in Number 14:18 when Moses appealed to this quality of the LORD in asking for mercy after Israel refused to enter the Promised Land (cf. Neh 9:17).
Psalmist & Prophets
The psalmist also mentioned this quality of the Lord. In Psalm 103:8, the psalmist points out that in the time of Moses, the LORD is slow to anger in dealing with Israel. In Psalm 145:8, the psalmist extols the LORD for his goodness toward Israel describing him as gracious, merciful, abounding in steadfast love and being slow to anger. In Psalm 86:15, the psalmist contrasts the LORD with ruthless men who were seeking his life. The psalmist appeals to the LORD to deliver him because he believes that the LORD is who he said he is. One of the divine attributes that the LORD said about himself is “slow to anger”.
The prophets also point to this quality “slow to anger’ to urge the listeners to repent. The prophet Joel urges Israel to repent from their sins because of the LORD’s goodness, which includes being slow to anger (Joe 2:13). The prophet Jonah did not want to preach to the Nineveh because he knew the LORD is slow to anger (Jon 4:2). The LORD will relent from bringing disaster if the Ninevites repented. The prophet Nahum, who also preached to Nineveh, appeals to them to repent because the LORD is slow to anger (Nah 1:3)
This divine quality of being slow to anger is considered an attribute of being wise or understanding. The author of Proverbs said that a person with great understanding will be slow to anger and will not have a hasty temper (Pro 14:29). Such a person will have good sense
and will overlook an offense (Pro 19:11). A person with good sense will quiet contention by being slow to anger and will not stir up strife (Pro 15:18). This person is better than any strong person because it is better to rule one’s spirit than to conquer a city with might (Pro 16:32).
Cultivating this Quality
Since our heavenly Father has this quality, we who acknowledge that God is our heavenly Father are to cultivate this quality in our own lives. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus urges us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. This exhortation is an overall command to cultivate God-like qualities in our own lives. This exhortation means we are to cultivate the quality of being slow to anger just like our heavenly Father.
The ability to cultivate this divine quality is already implanted in us. In Ephesians 4:24, Paul urges the readers to put on the new self, which he described as created in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (cf. Col 3:10). The verb “created” is past tense, meaning God has already created a new self in us. While we have a new self, we must put it on. This means practice living it out in our attitudes and behaviors when interacting with everyone.
The ability to practice living it out is part and parcel of the new self. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, spiritually we have died with him and resurrected with him (although in the future we will resurrect physically to be like him (cf. Phil 3:20-210) (Rom 6:4-5). This enable us to walk in the newness of life. Thus, we are able through aid of the Spirit to break all sinful habits (take off the old self) and cultivate new habits (put on the new self) according to the likeness God (cf. Rom 6:11-14; 8:12-13; Eph 4:22-24).
In replacing the old self with new self, time is needed. While some specific sinful habits belonging to the old self could be broken overnight, the new habits belonging to the new self still needs time to develop. The taking off the old self, however, is more than just removing some specific sinful habits. It is removing all the old habits of the old self, both sinful and otherwise, and replacing old habits with all new habits that flow from the new self. Over time, the new self will become prominent in attitudes and actions. This replacement process will take time and will continue until we die.
In the parable of the Sower, the seeds that fell on good grounds bear fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty or some thirty (Mat 13:8, 23). In farming, we know that planted seeds do not grow overnight. It takes time for planted seeds to germinate, grow toward adulthood, and bear fruits. The growth of planted seeds is inevitable unless the growth is being stunted by bad farming practices. Similarly, the new self is a new seed that God has planted into our heart through the Holy Spirit. Just as planted seeds will inevitably grow over time, the new life will grow inevitably unless we stunt its growth by grieving or quenching the Spirit that gives us new life (cf. Eph 4:30; 1Th 5:19).
How to Cultivate being slow to anger?
On the other hand, there are true believers, who may lack good fruit because they have not been cooperating with the Spirit to cultivate the new habits of the new life. Particularly, how do we cultivate the habit of being slow to anger?
In James 1:19, James provides a way to cultivate being slow to anger. It is “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak”. Naturally, when we observe something, we would voice out what we saw. This is well and fine if what we observe is strictly what we observe. Often, we interpret what we observe based on our presumptions, which we did not verify.
We assume that our presumptions are accurate and made an interpretation that what we observed is right or wrong. We then assume that our interpretation is right, without verification, and we act based on our interpretation. So, we quickly jump to conclusion that what we observed is right or wrong based on our unverifiable presumptions and assumptions. We then get angry based on our presumptions and assumptions.
In the field of communication, this way of reacting is known as jumping up the Ladder of Inference. The following diagram gives an example of how people normally jump up the Ladder.1 They will do something based on their beliefs at the top of the Ladder. However, they will not take time to verify their presumptions and assumptions behind their beliefs.
If we want to learn to be slow to anger, we must learn not to jump up to the top of Ladder at the first instance. We can ask the Spirit to give us the grace to cultivate the habit of stopping ourselves from acting based on what we immediately assume and presume to be right or wrong. We should go down the Ladder and stay at what is observable fact (I notice certain information & experiences).
What does this mean? First, we must not assume or presume that we know people’s motives. We can only observe actions or behaviors, but we cannot see the motives in the heart. If we want to know the motive, we need to ask. If we cannot ask, let us be generous to assume good motive (cf. 1Co 13:7).
Second, we must respond only to the observable actions. If we overheard a fellow believer gossiping about another, we should immediately stop the gossiping because we overheard it. If we did not observe it first hand, we should hold our peace.
Third, we must not get angry based on hearsay. When a person reported what he saw or heard, the reporter will unwittingly add his or her emotion to the reporting. Even if the reporter did not put his or her emotion into the report, it does not mean that the report is accurate. Thus, there is always a need to verify a report independently.
The above three ways will help us not jump quickly up the Ladder of Inference and acting without verifying our assumptions and presumptions. It takes time and effort to practice these three ways. The author of Proverbs writes, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Pro 14:29).