Mary had been married for six years when she and her husband Bill first came to see me for counseling. Bill seemed like a nice enough fellow, but he was getting fed up with the angry outbursts Mary unleashed on him. Their marriage was unraveling.
As a counselor, I knew the "presenting problem" that folks come to me with is usually not the real problem. For Mary, it didn't take long to discover that her issue wasn't her marriage. God was just using that to stir things up in her life. The real issue was that Mary had used stones of hurt, resentment, and bitterness to build an altar to her anger.
Setting Up the Stones
In the Old Testament, stones were often used as symbols. God told the Israelites to erect altars of remembrance to acknowledge his mighty and miraculous acts and to remind future generations of his faithfulness (such as in Joshua 4). Building memorials is a great idea—as long as we're building them to remember the right things. The problem is that when we've been hurt, it's easy to collect stones and erect monuments to the wrong thing: our anger. That's what Mary was doing. In fact, Mary had been carrying around her stones of disappointment, hurt, and rejection long before she met her husband.
Abandoned by her alcoholic father when she was only 16, Mary began to believe that she wasn't good enough, she couldn't trust others to be there for her, and she would eventually be abandoned because of her flaws. These beliefs served as the brick and mortar that set her stones firmly in place, creating an altar to her anger that was like a landmine of explosives, just waiting for something to trigger it.
When Mary met Bill, she saw him as her ticket out of her unhappy family. She married him, but she brought her rocks along with her. Things were fine for a while, but when Mary had a miscarriage, the bottom dropped out. Mary felt uncontrollable rage alongside her profound sadness.
Bill didn't know how to handle his own grief after the loss of their baby so he withdrew. Expecting to be abandoned or rejected, Mary assumed his actions meant he wouldn't be there for her—just like her dad. Reaching back into the past to the pain she'd experienced from her dad's abandonment, Mary's anger drove a deeper wedge in between her and Bill. Mary's rage came from a bulwark of tightly packed stones of hurt and bitterness, erected to protect her from the pain of rejection. Unforgiveness had become the cornerstone for her altar, and her marriage was being sacrificed to it.
Dismantling the Altar
It took her a while, but Mary was finally able to admit her anger and own it as her responsibility. She worked hard to identify the transgressions she held against her parents and see how those injustices had formed a belief system filled with damaging lies. And when her marriage reached a crisis point, Mary decided to let Christ begin the healing work of forgiveness in her. As I continued to work with her, helping her see the altar she was building to the wrong thing, she made the decision to finally release those stones. The more she learned about forgiveness and put those lessons into practice, the more she realized the freedom forgiveness offers.
Marriage isn't the only place we can collect stones of hurt, rejection, and bitterness to build altars to our anger. Relationships with friends, family, coworkers, and even our own children can trigger hurt and cause us to unconsciously begin collecting rocks, labeling them with the painful emotions we experience. Anger is a secondary emotion that's a reaction to those deeper primary feelings of hurt, fear, rejection, and injustice we may experience. If we aren't careful to deal with the deeper issues of our hearts, those stones will erect altars to our anger and trap us.
Counting the Cost
Mary's story is pretty common. Though the specific cause may be different for each of us, it's normal to become angry when we face the pain of loss, rejection, betrayal, or abandonment. But if left unaddressed, those feelings can add additional stones of inadequacy, insecurity, worthlessness, and shame to the altars we've built.
Your wounds may have come from your past, like Mary's, or they may be the result of current life circumstances and pain. What matters is what your response will be to the real and perceived injustices you experience. Will you allow them to immobilize you, binding you to altars of stone that weigh you down? Or will you use even the most painful experiences to enlarge your life and the lives of others through the power of forgiveness?
To help my clients count the cost of their anger, I challenge them to identify and literally "take up" their own stones by choosing a large rock and physically carrying it everywhere they go for a few days. The stone reminds them of the emotional weight they have chosen to carry. They almost always discover that by the end of the day their rock feels like a boulder weighing them down and affecting every area of their lives.
Canceling the Debt and Rebuilding the Altar
Ephesians 4:32 says: "[B]e kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you." God's solution to anger is to forgive others, demonstrating the same grace that Christ used to forgive us.
The sack of stones we carry to build our altars won't break on its own. Cutting the bottom out of the bag requires a decision—one that doesn't seem easy, but one that brings real freedom. The choice to forgive cuts like a knife through the sack, releasing all the rocks we've accumulated from all the years of hurt and loss.
That's easy enough to say, but how do we actually begin to forgive? As we consider how to truly forgive others, again we turn to the example of God's forgiveness as our starting point: "When you were dead in your transgressions … he made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross" (Colossians 2:13-14, NASB, emphasis added). God's definition of forgiveness is a total, complete cancellation of the debt.
Once my clients have identified the offenses they're carrying as stones in their lives, I encourage them to use the idea from Colossians 2:13-14 to create a "Certificate of Debt." Here's how:
- Take a piece of paper and write the name of the person who hurt you at the top. Make three columns under the name.
- In column one, begin charging the debt by describing the offense that caused your anger.
- In column two, write down how that offense felt emotionally. Most important, think about what you came to believe about yourself as a result of this transgression and list that belief.
- The last column on your paper is going to represent what you had hoped or expected from the person who wounded you. This represents your loss.
In Mary's case, she listed her father's abandonment as her first offense. In column two, she began to put words to her pain. She wrote that she felt devastated, rejected, unloved, and betrayed. She believed she was unlovable, not good enough, and a disappointment. In column three she recorded the loss of trust she felt by her father's abandonment. She felt she should have been able to trust her father to protect her and not leave her. She started to see how the loss of trust became the catalyst that drove her anger.
Mary listed every offense the Lord brought to mind for each person she held a debt against. Then she released the debts by figuratively addressing each person, saying:
- I choose to release you from the debt you owe me.
- You never have to make it up to me or pay me back.
- I release you of the responsibility for making me feel loved and accepted.
- I choose to trust Christ to meet my needs.
- I release my demand that behave a certain way in order to meet my needs.
- I choose to stand by my decision to forgive.
While Mary's circumstances didn't change, her heart did. She'd finally torn down the altar to the anger that was keeping her stuck and crushing her marriage. Through the power of forgiveness she was set free to build a new altar—one that would testify to the miraculous power of God.
The Israelites used stones to mark their journey through great trials and testing. Similarly, Mary came to realize that when she let them go, her stones could serve as markers of her journey through brokenness. They tell the story of her hurt and pain. They also remind her of God's faithfulness and of her decision to forgive. As Mary learned to surrender her anger and instead build an altar of forgiveness, her relationship with Bill improved. By choosing to cultivate an attitude of gratefulness and to refute the lie that Bill was unsafe, Mary became free to receive love from her husband. She no longer needed to judge him by the stones she held onto from her father's abandonment. She also realized she didn't need to completely erase all the difficult places in her past, but instead could use them as opportunities to trust Christ.
We may never feel like forgiving, but our feelings are nothing compared to the truth of our identity in Christ. Jesus forgave us! If he lives in us, that makes us forgivers. So what stones are you holding onto? Can you let them go? An altar of anger will never make a suitable final marker of remembrance, nor will it honor God. Create your own Certificates of Debt and cut loose the stones that are weighing you down.
Rita A. Schulte is a licensed counselor, podcast host, and author of Shattered: Finding Hope and Healing through the Losses of Life. She lives with her husband in Virginia. www.ritaschulte.com