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Anger Management

3 questions to ask before you respond in wrath

The frosty night held only a hint of moonlight as I wound up the dark mountain road with my teenage sons, Tyler and Landon. We'd been visiting my mother who lived several hours away. As we crested the summit, I smelled something burning. I pulled over and Tyler jumped out to take a look.

"Uh, oh!" he groaned, peering under the car. "This doesn't look good."

I got out to kneel beside him and gasped. The undercarriage glowed fiery red! I hurriedly turned off the motor and headlights. Instantly, heavy darkness closed in around us. We were still an hour-and-a-half from home, and there were no towns within walking distance. My first thought was one of irritation toward my husband, Steve, who was off on a hunting trip. He's always hunting when things go wrong, I inwardly fumed. Outwardly I kept my voice light. "Well, boys," I said, "looks like God has an unexpected adventure for us. Shall we pray?"

Just as I said "amen," a car stopped to offer assistance. The driver happened to live in our town, and his sons knew mine. He kindly delivered us right to our house.

Grateful to be home, I wearily unlocked the door and flipped on the light switch. Nothing happened. I flipped it back and forth. Still nothing. Was there a power outage? I looked around the neighborhood and saw a few lights glowing.

A new chill seeped down my spine. Was someone in the house? Had he cut the power line? My heart hammered wildly as we took a few tentative steps into the living room. I felt around for the telephone, thinking to call the police.

I wasn't interested in resolution— I wanted revenge!

"Hey Mom! There's a note on the door." Tyler brought it over and held it up to the lighted dial of the cordless phone. "Due to—," he struggled to read the words in the faint glow, "lack of—payment—your power—"

"Wha-a-a-t?!" I shrieked. "You mean to tell me your father didn't pay the electric bill?" Immediate fury replaced my exhaustion. How dare Steve go off hunting and leave me to contend with undependable cars and discontinued electricity!

I stood there sputtering incoherently. Tyler and Landon had never seen me in such a state. "Mom! It's OK," they soothed. "It's no big deal."

I'd never before spoken ill of their father in their presence, but suddenly I'd lost all self-control. "Scum don't pay their bills!" I hissed.

They stared in shocked silence. "Let's just go to bed and deal with this in the morning," I said through clenched teeth. Quietly we felt our way down the hallway, using the faint illumination from the telephone dial to light our way.

The next morning, I woke up still very angry. I knew my sense of betrayal was disproportionate to the circumstances. Steve wasn't responsible for the car's breakdown and he hadn't intentionally ignored the power bill. However, I magnified every tiny fault, every mistake he'd ever made, into gargantuan proportions to justify my anger.

The humiliating prospect of finding a way to get to the power company only increased my anger. Just as Tyler offered me some moral support, Steve pulled into the driveway. He'd come home to replenish his camp supplies.

At the sight of Steve, I stomped off into another room, leaving Tyler to explain what had been going on. Steve quickly paid a sheepish visit to the power company and then, sensing it best not to hang around, hurried back to camp.

When I realized that if I'd known a hit man, I cheerfully would have hired him that day, I became aware of anger's potential to bring about consequences no one in her right mind ever would choose to pay.

Obviously some things in life warrant anger. But God cautions us not to let that anger give way to sin ("In your anger do not sin," Ephesians 4:26). In other words, it's not the emotion of anger that's sinful, but how we respond to our anger. We need to respond in a way that brings positive resolution. And we need to be more discriminating in what we allow to provoke our anger. Too often it springs from small matters—forgetful spouses, distracted drivers, inconsiderate co-workers, cranky children—none of which warrants the energy anger wastes or the control it assumes over us.

From the moment I discovered the reason behind our lack of electricity, I was completely under the control of anger. I behaved in a way that went utterly against my nature. Several days later, when I could look at the circumstances more reasonably, it scared me to realize just how out of control I'd been. I knew if it happened once, it easily could happen again.

To prevent this, I developed three questions to ask every time something made me angry. In the beginning, I read the questions daily and asked God to bring them to mind as needed, so my answers rather than my anger would determine my response. These questions now have become an effective tool for maintaining my self-control.

1. Is my anger out of proportion to the circumstance?

While there was a legitimate basis for my anger that night (it wasn't the first time I'd dealt with Steve's lackadaisical attention to basic details), my anger far outweighed the offense, to the point that I wasn't interested in resolution—I wanted revenge! Because my response was so disproportionate, it made Steve defensive. This only pushed resolution further out of reach.

Disproportionate anger makes resolution difficult, if not impossible. I was once on a civic committee with several other people, and one of the members was habitually late to our meetings—a huge irritant to the chairman. The chairman wasn't wrong to expect everyone to be on time, but her poorly handled anger regarding this became the greater problem. Eventually she was replaced as chairman.

For anger to have healthy results, it needs to be reasonable and thus, controllable. It needs to allow you to approach the target of your anger in a way that will let him hear what you're saying and make him more likely to consider making adjustments.

2. Is the momentary release I'll get from expressing my anger worth the long-term havoc it will wreak?

The very nature of anger promotes exaggerated emotions. We say and do things we never would otherwise. Those words and actions never can be undone.

My friend's teenager went through a devastating rebellion that left both Paul and his wife reeling. In one awful moment, Paul's wife yelled at her husband repeatedly, "This is all your fault!" Although she later apologized, and their son long since has turned his life around, Paul admits that whenever he feels discouraged, his wife's accusatory words still come back to haunt him.

As Christians, we can't be too careful in monitoring our anger. Jill, another friend, found herself in a business dispute with a woman she'd met at church. At one point during negotiations, Jill's anger boiled over. "I'll see to it everybody knows about your dishonest policies!" she shouted, instantly slamming the door on possible resolution. As a result, the woman, a brand-new Christian, left the church and today still associates her negative experience with Jill with her opinion of Christians.

I shudder to think that even when I've moved beyond my anger, whatever hasty words I spoke in the heat of it never will lose their power to wound.

3. Is my anger worth dragging other uninvolved people into it?

My sons were innocent bystanders in the drama that unfolded that night we were without power. My anger put them in the awkward position of peacemaker as they attempted to be a buffer between Steve and me.

Anger invariably affects the people around you. It's human nature to take sides even when you're not involved. But to allow outside parties to be drawn into your anger is a cheap way to feed your ego and justify poor behavior.

I once watched as two sisters-in-law let an argument over their small children turn into an ongoing dispute that separated a close family. Years later there's still division because the two women drew their now-grown children into the dispute.

Anger is usually a self-centered emotion. Your attention is turned inward on the wrong you've suffered, the wound you've had inflicted. In contrast, the principle of selflessness is woven consistently throughout the entire Bible: viewing others as more important than yourself (Philippians 2:3); dying to your desires and your wounds (Matthew 16:24). Such an attitude isn't accomplished through destructive expressions of anger.

To his credit, Steve never again has neglected to pay the electric bill. He sincerely apologized once I became approachable, and time reduced the incident to what it should have been all along: a good-for-a-laugh story.

Of course there have beenother instances to spark my anger since that episode. Recently, I returned from a speaking engagement to find I couldn't park the car in the garage. I'd been gone only three days, but Steve had taken advantage of the empty space to sort through his hunting paraphernalia.

The garage always has been a bone of contention in our marriage, and my anger flared as I viewed his junk piled where my car should go. My first instinct was to drive into the garage right over his junk. My second was to stomp into the house and give him a piece of my mind. As I vacillated between the two options, I reluctantly forced myself to review my three questions:

Is my anger disproportionate to the circumstance? Well, probably.

Is the momentary release I'll get from expressing my anger worth the long-term havoc it might wreak? Actually, at that moment, I was willing to risk long-term havoc in favor of momentary release!

Is my anger worth dragging other uninvolved people into it? Definitely not! It would upset Tyler and Landon if I behaved like that.

I sighed in resignation. Two out of three meant it wasn't worth trading self-control for anger. I left the car parked in the driveway and entered the house, taking deep, calming breaths.

"So, dear," I said, greeting Steve with a begrudging kiss, "want me to help you sort your hunting gear?"

He smiled sheepishly. "Sorry, I thought I'd be done before you got home."

His obvious remorse soothed my irritation. I gave him another less begrudging kiss. After all, at least we'd have electricity as we worked in the garage!

Mayo Mathers is a freelance author who lives with her family in Oregon.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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