I had to learn early that it is not a good idea to rage and scream at immortals.
Forty-five years ago, I was a mid-teen who was going places. People pegged me for a leader-type. I was athletic enough to be a three-year, two-letter varsity sports jock, did the honor roll thing, attended church youth group, managed to have a friend or two, and even had a couple of girls who liked me (it helped that they wore very thick glasses).
So you can imagine my surprise when a high school buddy named Bill told me that no one in my church youth group liked being around me, adding with more than a little scorn: “Tim, you are so angry so often that everyone wants to stay away.”
Apparently there was something about my critical spirit and yelling tone that people didn’t like. Go figure.
A HISTORY OF TOXICITY
There was history here. Check my bio and you’ll see that I had a problem. Maybe I was so angry because I myself didn’t feel like an immortal. After all, the young teen version of me had a zit problem that could have served in a pizza ad—or at least I assume so, since “Pizza Face” was the moniker school bullies attached to me.
No doubt being the third of four highly competitive brothers didn’t help either. We were four apples that hadn’t fallen far from a very competitive tree. None of us liked losing, but I was the worst. Defeat unleashed explosive words and destructive acts. My high school tennis coach could testify to this, since he had to replace several rackets that I smashed in my rage.
My brothers could confirm this, too; both the one over whose head I obliterated a Ping Pong paddle, and the one whose backside I smote with a two-by-four. For the record, I did not know there was a nail in that board. Only when he yelled as if Robin Hood had misfired did I realize that my assault had produced sharp force as well as blunt force trauma.
Despite all this, I was clueless about my problem until Bill’s truth arrow pierced me through. In that moment I knew that something was terribly wrong. Lifestyle choices and communication techniques had made me toxic, and I needed to change.
I tossed in bed that night with Bill’s rebuke haunting my heart. “This is not how I want to do my life and relate to people,” I thought. “This has to change. Yes, Lord, please help me change. I must learn self-control.” Right there, right then, empowered by grace, I made that choice. And change happened.
I tell the story because plenty of you can relate—and because I want you to have hope. Change can happen. I am sixty now and am awed by the power that Bill’s words—anointed by the Spirit—released in me. His wounding words were my cure. I am amazed by it. God used Bill’s rebuke to alter the anger course of my life.
In the forty-five years since, I’ve rarely yelled at anyone or had any kind of volatile angry outburst. Not that I’ve never wrongly expressed anger or have never hurt others in sinfully creative ways. I have—and way too many times. But I’ve been mostly cured of the sin of explosiveness, of temper tantrums, of angry outbursts and eruptions. And I’m pretty sure that all the image-bearers in my life are the happier for it.
Simply put, thanks to Bill, I learned to chill.
GETTING A GRIP
Given [that we are all image-bearers of God] it is best not to holler and scream at future eternal splendors. Humans are worthy of better. Besides, because they are usually not fully aware of their own image-of-God status, they are likely to holler back.
The Proverbs of King Solomon tell us we need to chill. With relentless repetition, Solomon insists that we rein in our emotions and calm down before we speak. How do you turn away someone’s wrath? Give them a soft answer (Prov. 15:1). How do you quiet contention? Don’t be hot-tempered, and do be slow to anger (Prov. 15:18). How do you stop a quarrel-flood from breaking through a weakened dam? Have a cool spirit, and quit the argument before it even starts (Prov. 17:14, 27). Do you want to keep anger from igniting? Remove the kindling of your own quarrelsome spirit (Prov. 26:21).
What happens when you give full vent to your spirit? You only prove yourself a fool (Prov. 29:11). And what if you choose to be full of wrath and given to anger? All you will get out of it is a lot of strife and sin (Prov. 29:22).
These ancient sayings contrast the effects of a quiet response with those of a noisy one. A failure to chill fuels the flames of conflict, while a decision to chill douses the fire. In a conflict, anger tends to be parasitic; it finds a host organism—usually the other person’s anger—and sucks its virulent life from it. Anger begets anger, and intense heat causes intense quarrels. Somebody has to chill or it’s going to get ugly.
If coolness of spirit ends strife, then at times a good stiff conversation with self is in order. We must secure a tight two-fisted grab on our own collars, and with a full eyeball-to-eyeball gaze into our own inner being, say, “Self. Get a grip. Chill. Calm down. Compose thyself.”
We need to speak with authority and then listen up. If we don’t, what might have been a little tiff will likely turn into war.
BERT AND HARRIET
Back in the day, we had a volatile older couple doing life on the fringes of our church. To say that Bert and Harriet had anger issues is like saying that Pompeii might want to keep an eye on Vesuvius, with each alternating as Vesuvius on any given day. I tried often to help them, but it was slow going. Compounding the problem, they were in their seventies and I was still around forty. It’s always awkward to do intensive marriage counseling for people more than old enough to be your parents.
One evening, my post-dinner quiet was interrupted by a panicked call from Bert pleading for my help. It was a “clergy 911,” the kind every pastor dreads. While it’s a privilege to serve in life’s war zones, it’s no fun to be called into a family crisis that’s been brewing for decades and be expected somehow to fix it in minutes.
Over the phone, I could hear Harriet in the background, screaming hysterically. Her uncontrolled rage gushed with torrential force, requiring intervention. As I drove to their home, I prayed for help, and I made sure to have a phone handy to call the other 911. Given past psychological issues, I was pretty sure that Harriet would need to be restrained and hospitalized. That I found her crouching behind some large plants in her living room, still in raging hysterics, confirmed the worst of my fears.
As I observed Harriet’s ongoing and escalating rage, an idea born of desperation came to mind. It might work, given that I’d built up some relational equity with Harriet. I was semi-sure she trusted me. So, quietly and slowly, I walked up to Harriet, put my hands gently on both her shoulders, looked her squarely in the eyes, and said with a gentle but very firm voice, “Harriet. Be quiet.” It was the verbal equivalent of a lifeguard slapping a struggling swimmer whose panic has overcome her sense.
Harriet’s eyes changed instantly. Their wild rage and fear gave way to calm. Within seconds, the hysterics stopped, and her spirit quieted; she came out from behind the bushes and sat down beside me to begin a normal conversation. Two hours of relentless and unbridled rage had ended in mere moments. It was a matter of choice, as it almost always is.
A KEY FIRST STEP
James 4 will show us later that what controls the heart determines our emotions, words, and behavior. We will see that, just like Harriet, we all who seem out of control with no power over our emotions can gain sudden self-control when a new desire changes the equation, tipping the motivation scales in favor of self-restraint.
This is a key first step in communication. Self-control is a Holy-Spirit-given ability (Gal. 5:22–23) to restrain emotions, words, and actions and stay peacefully calm even when a storm hits. If you are a Christian, you have the power to say no to volatile, sinfully expressed anger. There isn’t any temptation we face that we can’t escape (1 Cor. 10:13). God’s promises are all we need for life and godliness (1 Peter 1:3–4). The grace that has saved us also teaches us to live self-controlled lives in which we renounce sinful ways, by speaking a firm, committed, decisive, and life-altering no to what is wrong (Titus 2:11–12).
God is at work in us to enable us both to “will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). God gives what it takes to chill.
This post was originally published on gcdiscipleship.com