Experiencing anger and conflict in life is inevitable but responding to those experiences in helpful ways is not. In fact, research tells us the number one reason relationships fail (work relationships, marriages, parent-child relationships, friendships, our relationship with God) is due to unresolved conflict. That’s because most people fear conflict and avoid dealing with it. People who fear conflict tend to “stuff” or hide their thoughts and emotions inside and withdraw from people with whom they’re angry. Consequently, the relationship fails to thrive and may even die.
On the other side of the continuum are those who tend to “dump” their thoughts and emotions out on people. Anger, instead of fear, drives their dumping. In fact, angry dumpers tend to pride themselves on the notion that they’re not afraid to speak the truth. But they don’t care about the harm their words have on others due to their lack of sensitivity and empathy. Consequently, relationships fail to thrive.
Certainly there are people in the middle of the continuum who have learned to handle conflict and anger well. They’re emotionally intelligent people (EQ). They acknowledge, understand and handle their anger in ways that enable them to be safe people who have the wisdom to speak the truth in love. They know how to navigate choppy waters with a skill that facilitates a win-win resolution when opinions differ, emotions are raw and the stakes are high.
I've been a counselor for thirty years and a pastor for twenty. I've literally worked with thousands of people. In my opinion, the lack of emotional intelligence is one of the most significant reasons for the demise of relationships. When we're offended, we naturally and habitually default to reacting in anger. We say and do things we regret. There's no doubt that the vast (did I say vast) majority of us need a lot of help in learning how to understand and deal with anger and conflict well.
At this point it’s important to say that it’s a good thing we can experience anger. It’s part of living with passion in life. It's part of having fun when we get angry at the ref for missing an obvious call. It’s also part of being created in God’s image. God experiences anger. D. A. Carson is Research professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He comments on what the wrath of God is not and what it is:
Furthermore, experiencing anger can be good because the Bible commands us to hate what is evil (Rom. 12:9). We should feel angry over issues like domestic violence, racism and any form of social injustice.
Warning and Caution
But for the most part, (this is important) what the Bible says about human anger involves warning and caution. For example, Psalm 4:4-5 says, “In your anger do not sin. When you are on your beds search your hearts and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.” Hear the warning and caution: “In your anger do not sin.” I've found that it’s easy to sin when I’m angry.
Recently I visited someone in the hospital. As I left the hospital I was driving on the ramp through the parking garage toward the exit. When I turned a corner in the parking garage, low and behold, there was a lady walking down the middle of the ramp! I slowed my truck way down. As I approached her I thought to myself, It wouldn’t be kind to lay on the horn. I could startle her. She could have a heart attack. I decided to be patient. I followed behind her for some distance. Now here’s the kicker: The lady knew I was behind her and she refused to budge. Yep. She continued to walk for another hundred feet or more. As I continued to inch my way behind her my frustrations grew and erupted into anger. My angry self-talk (she didn’t hear any of this) went something like this: What in the world are you thinking! This is a road not a sidewalk! As my emotions grew in intensity I believe the Holy Spirit spoke to me. A thought came to my mind—Gary. I don’t think this is the way Jesus would be talking to her. I know, that sounds a bit cheesy but that sentence stopped me in my tracks. In fact, I laughed out loud at myself because as I was powering up with anger I lost sight of an obvious truth: This is not the way Jesus would be talking to her. I was reminded of Psalm 4:4—“In your anger do not sin.” I sinned against that lady by how I was thinking and feeling about her. Now you might be wondering what Jesus would have said to that woman if he were driving my truck. I don't know for sure. But I do know he would have been patient and kind toward that woman who is created in the image of God.
“In your anger do not sin.”
It’s easy to sin when we’re angry.
Say it out loud right now: “It’s easy to sin when I’m angry.” Take a moment to think of how that has been true in your life. When have you sinned against people in the past six months with your anger? Who has sinned against you?
And because it’s easy to sin when we’re angry, Psalm 4:4-5 calls us to search our hearts and be silent when we’re emotionally powering up inside. Why? So we can find the way to offer a right sacrifice that will help rather than harm. That's not easy. But learning to do that is at the very heart of living the Christian life. And that’s what this blog series is about. I will walk through the process of what it means to search our hearts when we're angry so we can see more clearly what it means for us to trust God and love others instead of forgetting God and harming others.
Questions for personal reflection
1. Think about a time when you were angry and sinned. What happened? Did you “stuff” or “dump” your thoughts and feelings? Why do you think you chose to handle your anger that way; that is, what were you trying to accomplish by your stuffing or dumping? How might that have been self-serving?
2. What do you think it would have meant for you to search your heart in that moment of anger? Do you know what you would have searched for?
3. What would it have meant or looked like for you to offer a right sacrifice? What do you have to trust in the Lord for in order offer such a sacrifice?