Anger: What It Is and What to Do about It—Part Five

What does it look like to offer good gifts (right sacrifices, Ps. 4:4–5) to someone who harmed you? That's the question we'll reflect on in this last of five blogs on anger.

In my previous blogs I said it's a good thing we can get angry. Yet much of what the Bible says about human anger involves warning and caution because it's easy to sin when we're angry. Therefore, Psalm 4:4–5 says: "Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord" (ESV). In my previous blogs, I also unpacked the first three steps in searching our hearts.

The first step is "Cool Down." When hot anger rises inside, we must learn to cool down instead of "going south" and reacting in sinful ways.

The second step is "Look Inside." This is where we get our heart right with God and toward the one who harmed us. We cannot do right until our heart is right. To help us get our heart right, James 4:1 asks us some very important questions such as, "What causes fights and quarrels among you?" James says at the root of our anger are desires that battle within us (4:2). We want something, don't get it, so we "kill." We must face, feel, and name those desires. They present us with an opportunity to either go north and trust God with our deepest emotional needs or to forget him, go south, and commit many sins. 

The third step is to "Yield." We yield first to God and then to the one with whom we've been angry. Yielding involves listening. We listen in order to understand and to discern what a right sacrifice/response might look like to the one who hurt us. What does it look like to humbly and courageously offer God's mercy and strength to someone with the hope that they will both know God and love others better? What will it take to seek to restore the relationship? Once we understand what that might look like we can take the fourth step called "Go." 

Step Four: "Go"

The fourth step is represented by a green light.


Once you've worked through the first three steps, take appropriate action. When people cool down, they often avoid action. That can be good if after reflection we realize we were blowing things out of proportion. Now that cooler heads prevail, we can let the offense go. But lack of action may be avoidance due to fear of rejection. Whether you decide a right sacrifice requires that you let the offense go or it requires you talk it out with the person, do it redemptively; for the good of the person, for the good of your relationship, and to honor God.

If you're just not sure whether you should talk to the person who harmed you, keep this in mind: If you're one who tends to fear and flee conflict, repentance may likely mean you take the risk to go and talk with the person as you entrust your fear of rejection to God, believing his love meets your need for acceptance regardless of how the person may respond. An excellent book for those who fear conflict is The Coward's Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those Who Would Rather Run Than Fight by Tim Ursiny. 

On the other hand, if you're one who tends to attack and dump your thoughts and feelings quickly, repentance for you may likely mean you choose not to go. In so doing you can take the risk of letting God have control in the process of changing the person instead of you trying to make things happen by your talking and strong arming. 

If, however, the issue is too big to ignore, we must ask what it will look like to serve the best interests of the person with whom we are struggling (Eph. 4:29). Two character qualities—tenderness and strength—are always needed. Tenderness without strength is weak, compliant, and self-protective. Strength without tenderness is harsh, intimidating, and soul crushing. It too is self-serving. God is both strong and loving (Ps. 62:11–12). He is never one without the other. Some situations and confrontations may call for more tenderness while others call for more strength but true love always has both qualities (see Bold Love by Dan Allender, esp. chapter nine, "Giving Good Gifts").

What does a right sacrifice look like? What is needed (Eph. 4:29)? Do you need to humble yourself, go, and apologize for your part in the conflict without demanding the other reciprocate? Do you need to talk to them about something they did that harmed you by speaking truth in love to them (Matt. 18:15–17)? Do you need to draw a boundary (see Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend), call the police, or take them to court if they are driving drunk or abusing you or a child? The purpose here is to protect victims and to offer a gift to the abuser that is intended to help him or her face their self-centeredness and hopefully repent. What it means and looks like to offer a right sacrifice is not always clear. But even when we don’t know exactly what to do, we know what we can “be” (Eph. 4:1–3). Pray for wisdom (James 1), search the Scriptures, talk with a godly person to gain wise counsel, if need be, and then go.

Note: If you are being abused sexually, physically, or emotionally it is important you talk with a counselor, pastor, or mentor right away. If a minor is being abused call Child Protective Services, a domestic abuse hotline, or law enforcement authorities in your area. To understand what a right sacrifice toward your abuser looks like, I recommend three books: Bold Love by Dan Allender, The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patrica Evans, and The Emotionally Destructive Relationship by Leslie Vernick.


Tips for Having a Face-to-Face Confrontation

1. Go in assuming the best about the person instead of the worst.

2. If at all possible, begin by affirming the relationship. Talk about where you have seen Christ in them. "Sue, I so appreciate your willingness to meet with me. I know you are a person who loves God and you care about people. Therefore, I believe we can work this out."

3. Humble yourself. Go with the purpose to understand and restore the relationship instead of merely wanting to confront the person, win, or just get your way. Remember our second blog—you could be wrong about the person's motives for doing or saying what they did to you. Prayerfully listen to understand.

4. If you have several issues to discuss, start with one versus dumping the whole truck load. Be patient. One at a time. Working through everything may take a few meetings. And be sure the issues you're bringing up are worth fighting for versus letting love cover some of them.

5. Let your desires be known. Other people can’t read your mind and don’t automatically know what you want. Take the risk to communicate your desires in a clear and respectful manner. "When I share ideas you tend to quickly disagree with me. On occasion you mock me. That hurts and causes me to feel small in your eyes. I would like it if you would first try to better understand my ideas by exploring my thoughts and asking me questions. That would communicate you value me."

6. When you address problems in the relationship, own your own feelings and struggles.  Example: “I am feeling disappointed about . . .”  or “I am struggling with . . .” vs. “You make me so angry when you . . .”, “You always . . .”, or “You never . . .” Global statements like those always provoke defensiveness and such statements usually come from unrighteous anger that is trying to win. If that is where you are, go back to step two in processing your heart.

7. When someone comes to you with their hurt or disappointment, follow the advice in James chapter 1: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (vv. 19–20).  The best thing to do is to listen and ask questions to get clarity on what the other person is trying to tell you. Example: "Tell me more about how that made you feel. . . . What were you hoping for in that situation? . . . Help me understand why that is important to you. . . . How could I have done that better? . . . What did you long for from me?"

8. Moreover, when someone comes to you with a confrontation, don’t "turn the tables" on them by pointing out ways they hurt you. That clearly communicates you don’t care about what they're saying.  Choose to park your disappointments for another conversation.

9. Also, don’t quickly apologize or defend yourself when someone tells you how you've hurt them. Quick apologies and defensive statements typically shut down hope of genuine reconciliation. They communicate you don’t want to talk it through—"I'm sorry. Let's be done with this and move on." Or "I was only trying to be helpful. You shouldn't take things so personally." People want to feel respected by being explored and understood before apologizes or legitimate explanations are offered. Ask questions and seek to truly understand what they are saying so they know you hear them and care. Once you've done that, an apology can be very helpful. Explanations versus defensive statements can also help where misunderstanding has truly occurred.

10. Do take responsibility for your part in the conflict such as your choices, feelings, and behaviors. Be willing to acknowledge your part and ask for forgiveness where you can honestly see that you were wrong. If you can't see where you were wrong in the moment, ask for time to pray about the matter (usually there is some way we could have said or done something better). If after prayer you are still unable to see any wrong in what you have done, you may have to be content with disagreement in the situation. But you can still show empathy for the other person’s feelings.

11. Learn to accept that there will be disagreements in the way that you each see things. You are different people. That's okay. You are each allowed to have your own perspective on things, and it's not necessary to make the other person see it your way. But by all means, try to understand the other person’s perspective even if you cannot agree with it.

12. If, after repeated efforts to work through a conflict, you are not getting anywhere, acknowledge the impasse. Having a third party can be helpful. Seek to agree on someone you both trust who can assist you.

13. Don't confront in writing (email, text, letters). It's too easy to misunderstand the intent of the words since voice inflection cannot be heard. Face-to-face communication is best, but if that's not possible due to distance, phone or Skype are good alternatives. 

14. Follow up. After a few days have passed since the conversation, it's not uncommon to struggle again with what was or wasn't said or to feel things aren't fully resolved. Come back to the person and check in, "I appreciated your willingness to meet and work this out. I'm checking to see if there are any further issues. Are we good or would it be helpful to talk again?"

15. If no further meetings are needed, choose to push through any further awkwardness by being kind and civil to the person when you see them. Say hello. Show them simple acts of kindness when appropriate and pray for God's best for them and your relationship.


Questions for Reflection

1. Is there a current conflict where you are avoiding appropriate action? If you are, what is causing you to hold back? Is it fear, confusion about whether you should or shouldn't go, or something else? How might this blog be helpful as you seek to sort this out? Do you need to seek out wise counsel?

2. Do you tend to be more strong or tender when you confront someone? What can enable you to find an appropriate balance of both qualities so you can be a safe person; that is, one who is not condemning but tenderly honest?

3. What have you learned from this blog or the entire five-part series that has been helpful? How might you handle conflict differently in the future?

4. What is one step you can take that will help you deal with anger and conflict redemptively, thereby reflecting the heart of God to others?