Last Fall, I was asked to speak at a denominational meeting on the topic of conflict in the home. As I was preparing for the presentation I reflected back on some of the couples I’ve counseled over the years.
Couples in Conflict
I immediately thought of Robert & Alicia, a Christian couple in their late thirties when they came to see me. They were a challenging couple to work with. I still remember a frantic phone call I received from Alicia during a major disagreement they were having. I don’t remember the spark for this particular fight, but its seriousness was evident when I was told that Alicia had threatened Robert with a butcher knife (although she said she’d never really use it).
And then there was Marion, a woman in her late sixties, who was referred to me by one of my counseling students. Marion was having trouble relating to her unsaved husband. He did not object to her going to church on Sundays, but otherwise he clearly did not think very highly of her new-found faith in Jesus. The woman who referred Marion to me thought Marion needed help with bitterness toward her husband. But Marion was not sure why her friend thought this. Nor was I … until I heard Marion say in exasperation, “Sometimes I wish he’d just curl up and die!”
Tools for Peacemaking
Two couples in very different stages of life. And yet both of them had one thing in common: Their homes were being ripped apart by conflict. My challenge, as their counselor, was to figure out ways to help each of them restore peace in their homes. Here are a couple of tools I’ve used to help couples like them.
Tool #1: “A Sanctifying Time-Out”
This strategy can be used as a stop-gap measure until the habitually angry person can more consistently exercise self-control. Here are the guidelines for using this tool:
(1) When you first feel your frustration level rising, without yelling, state your intention to take a break so that you can think about how to proceed with this conversation and not use “unwholesome speech” (Eph. 4:29). Then suggest a future meeting time so that your spouse knows you are not simply ignoring this matter.
In line with Eph. 4:26, this future meeting time should be as soon as possible. But do not make the mistake that Robert and Alicia did: Once they started a disagreement around bedtime, and Alicia insisted that Robert talk to her about this issue right away. They were up so late that Robert only got 2-3 hours of sleep before work, which guaranteed that he would be primed with a “short fuse” throughout the next day. They had another argument the next evening. When I asked why they did not wait until the next day to discuss the original issue, Alicia insisted they had to do it immediately because the Bible says, “don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” I pointed out to Alicia: The argument started at 10:00 pm; the sun was already down! Alicia failed to appreciate the point behind Paul’s image: Make reconciliation a priority; do it as quickly as possible.
(2) While alone, you might take a walk (or engage in other physical activity). Physical activity can help to use up the energy that your body generates when you are frustrated. Doing so can “take the edge off” when you return to discuss the issue later. However, during this time away, also be sure to:
(a) Pray. Pray for wisdom and grace to handle this conversation well. Recall Rom. 12:10: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”
(b) Consider if you need to “take the log out of your own eye” (Mt. 7:5). Be willing to initiate the upcoming conversation with confession, repentance, and asking for forgiveness.
(c) Consider how to raise the topic for discussion in the most edifying manner. Think about how you will say what you want to say in a way that would not likely be taken as inflammatory.
(3) Return at the pre-arranged time for the conversation. “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas. 1:19-20).
Tool #2: Analyze Your Anger Chart
We need to be sure couples understand their anger biblically, both in terms of its arousal (what triggers it) and its expression (what is said or done). We need to be sure God is honored in both of these aspects of anger.
The couple should understand that it is not the goal to eliminate all anger from the Christian life, just unrighteous anger. In fact, it’s not really possible to eliminate all anger from the Christian life, because God’s program of progressive sanctification is moving us in the direction of being more like him—and he will never be complacent in the presence of sin!
So, then, with God as our model, what can we say about the attributes of righteous anger and unrighteous anger? I would give the couple this chart:
We would discuss how we should fill in the rest of the chart, using passages that describe the sinful anger of human beings (e.g., Prov. 12:18; 15:18; Jas. 4:1-12; Eph. 4:31) and the righteous anger of God (e.g., Ex. 15:1-7; Dt. 7:1-5; Ps. 30:1-5; 103:6-9; Is. 10:20-27; Jn. 2:13-17). The completed chart might look like this:
Once the chart is complete, I would give it to the couple with these instructions:
(1) Each time you feel yourself getting irritated, frustrated, or angry, jot down what is going on: what was done or said, what you wanted in the situation, and the outcome of the situation.
(Note: There is a reason I use multiple terms for “anger” in this instruction. One way they might have sustained their problem is by narrowly defining “anger” so that they essentially exclude themselves from the problem!)
(2) Compare what you wanted (the trigger for anger) and what you said and did (the expressions of anger) with what is on this chart. What do you conclude about your anger in this situation?
We would then discuss these scenarios in subsequent counseling sessions. I’ve found doing this repeatedly helps people become more critically aware of how they’ve grown accustomed to react when they do not get what they want. It’s the first step in “putting off the old and putting on the new” (Eph. 4:22-24).
Join the Conversation
What tools have you used to coach people on dealing with their anger?