“Why Do I Keep Getting Angry?”

ANGER HAS BEEN MY go-to emotion for most of my life. At times my anger is focused inward, upset that I cannot let things go. Too often it’s focused outward. Although I have little patience for incidents of road rage, I seem to cave to it far too often when behind the wheel. Just today, I was driving my mother’s car when I came to an intersection where two other cars had stopped. When the person who had the right of way didn’t go, but just sat there, I began cursing at them. After they went, I tried going and the car to my right (who had just arrived) pulled out in front of me. They saw the anger on my face and flipped me off. I put the driver’s side window down and yelled an un-Christian expletive. Serius XM’s 63 The Message was playing on the stereo. As always happens, I immediately regretted what I said and asked for God’s forgiveness.

I always do. But I keep getting angry behind the wheel.

Many people, including me, believe it’s not spiritual or Christ-like to be angry, and they feel guilty when they are. Anger, however, is a normal human emotion. I recall a night at work last year when I was beginning to boil over the way my boss was treatment me. While still steaming, I took two annoying phone calls. After hanging up, I turned quickly and spilled soda onto the pages of a $321 college text book. That’s it! I picked up the book and threw it across the office floor. My pulse was racing and I felt out of control. Not a very comfortable feeling.

After calming down, I picked up my cell phone and called one of my buddies at church. When I finished telling him what happened, he paused, took a breath, and said, “Well, brother, I hate to tell you this, but you’re afflicted with a little thing I like to call being human.” None of my “yeah, but” comments won him over. He said there were no buts. It is a fact of living in the flesh. Today, when I got home, my mother played a voice mail message from me I did not know I left. I had somehow called my mother’s cell phone while snapping out at that intersection. When she got home, we talked about how things have been bothering me and that I keep getting angry. She played the message. I didn’t want to hear it, but it was necessary. My brother said the family has begun to see me as a Jekyll and Hyde. As you can imagine, that didn’t set to well with me.

When We Let Our Emotions Control Us

We are quite easily ruled by our emotions; especially when we don’t realize it is occurring. Naturally, we all have days when we feel more emotional than others, and there may be a good reason why. It’s hard to simply tell ourselves, “This too shall pass.” However, some of us have a long history of out-of-balance emotional behavior. Many are facing long-standing problems that might go back to childhood or adolescence. But without confrontation of painful issues from the past, it is impossible to move forward with a healthy soul.

forIt is critical that we don’t waste today or put our future in jeopardy because we keep living in the past. If we are constantly looking back with regret, sadness, and resentment, and forward with fear, we will fail to realize that each day is a new beginning. Holding on to our past cost us our future.

If we cling on to the past and keep on using it as an excuse for why our lives are crappy, we can’t move forward. Our future will be very similar to our past. This is known by the colloquial expression emotional baggage. Whenever we bring up past hurts, continually rehearsing our failures and agonizing over things we should have done but didn’t, we’re tying ourselves to our past. We’re risking the chance that our present and future will not be different. In reality, our past isn’t the past. William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” How can it die if we keep reliving it? I read sometime ago that our thoughts affect our emotions, our emotions affect our actions, our actions affect our habits, our habits affect our lifestyle, and our lifestyle becomes our destiny. Please take a minute and read that again.

I’ll wait.

So What About All These Emotions?

Our emotions tend to ebb and flow like the tide at the beach. Joyce Meyer wrote, “It would be so nice if they would just ask permission to come or go, but they don’t.” Obviously, wishing our emotions were different won’t change a thing, so we need to do more than daydream about “better times, better feelings.” I spent my childhood years in a bad relationship with my father. I could not seem to behave, and dad couldn’t seem to control me. He’d ask, “Why do you keep doing these things?” I’d simply respond with the truth: “I don’t know.” He tried everything: lectures from the pastor, loss of privileges, corporal punishment. He even tried to predict where I’d end up if I didn’t change. I’d end up in prison. He was right.

My first mode of escape was writing. I also listened to a lot of music. It seemed the song lyrics of many hits from the 70s were telling my story. One song that stands out is The Logical Song by Supertramp from the Breakfast Over America album. The words still haunt me.

“When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical; and all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily, oh joyfully, playfully watching me; but then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, and they showed me a world where I could be so dependable; oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical… there are times when all the world’s asleep, the questions run too deep for such a simple man; won’t you please, please tell me what I’ve learned, I know it sounds absurd, please tell me who I am.”

Another anthem of mine from that era was Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man) by Styx. The song title alone said it all. The older I got, the harder it was for me to grasp the root of my melancholy, moody, angry, bitter, life. I remember loving the beach, swimming at the public pool with friends, eating cherries fresh from the cherry tree in my back yard, rescuing lost and injured animals, going camping on weekends, hiking, photography, drinking from the garden hose. Sadly, by the time I hit high school, nothing made sense anymore.

“You see the world through your cynical eyes, you’re a troubled young man I can tell; you’ve got it all in the palm of your hand, but your hand’s wet with sweat and your head needs a rest… how can you be such an angry young man when your future looks quite bright to me; how can there be such a sinister plan that could hide such a lamb, such a caring young man…”

I had accepted Christ at age 13 and was baptized. Our family regularly attended every church service held at Sunbury Bible Church—Wednesday Bible study, Thursday prayer and worship, Sunday school and worship, and Sunday evening evangelism broadcasts live on a local radio station. None of that seemed to matter any more once my father decided we were quitting church cold-turkey. He said he was tired of the hypocrisy and being constantly asked to give more or serve more. I didn’t realize I could attend church by myself. Shortly after we stopped going to church, I fell out of relationship with Jesus Christ. Things grew exponentially worse after that.

An Epidemic of Violence in America?

Anger is a huge problem in our world. Especially over the past decade. Whether it’s a disgruntled employee or bullied high school student unleashing violence through mass murder, or domestic violence, road rage, terrorism, politics, abortion rights, the economy, or war, we are constantly reminded of the global anger that is a part of the society in which we are living. Violence continues to rise while everyone debates the Second Amendment, mental illness, drug abuse, and bullying. We seem obsessed with a quick fix. Confiscate all guns. It is not an easy topic.

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A police officer walks near the scene where at least twelve people were killed during a mass shooting at the Virginia Beach city public works building on May 31, 2019.

PsychCentral calls anger and resentment “relationship killers.” Anger hurts. Naturally. When we don’t handle anger, it can overwhelm us. If we’re in denial about our anger, we cannot hope to accept it or properly deal with it. Difficulty with anger is typically due to poor role models growing up. Learning to manage anger should be taught in childhood, but if our parents lacked skills to handle their own anger maturely, they were unable to pass them on.

Unattended anger can quickly turn into a resentment. It is, unfortunately, a formidable foe. Resentment is often defined as anger and indignation experienced as a result of unfair treatment. The problem with anger is that it’s one of the densest forms of communication. It contains tons of information (including emotion), which tends to spill out all at once. Arguments are more apples-to-oranges than apples-to-apples. Everything that’s been building up—even past hurts and offenses you thought you let go of weeks, months, or years ago. It seems likely that individuals who resort to mass murder have been extremely angry for decades. They feel marginalized. As if they don’t really matter. The past builds, rolls down a hill as the proverbial snowball, growing, growing, then…

“And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved” (Matthew 24:10-13, NKJV).”

Consider the Virginia Beach shooting. CNN has confirmed that DeWayne Craddock had resigned earlier in the day before killing 12 coworkers and injuring several others, including one police officer. Mr. Craddock had worked for the city for about 15 years, and had trained as an engineer. He spent time in the Virginia National Guard, and public records did not suggest that he had any history with the criminal justice system other than traffic violations. Initial reports were that he’d just been fired and was disgruntled enough to commit mass murder. A spokesperson for the city said Craddock’s resignation was not connected with any decision that had been made about Craddock’s future position in the government. Begs the question, where did all this anger come from? Unfortunately, we can’t ask Craddock. He was killed in a hail of bullets when he opened fire on police officers.

The Sin of Offense

Our natural reaction in conflict is to blame others and focus on what they did to us. There is a known moral imperative that fairness and justice means “you get what you deserve.” This is a difficult concept to grasp in the middle of being hurt or offended. In this manner, our “feelings” often get in the way of conflict resolution. We feel absolutely justified or indignant about our anger. After all, look what he or she did to me! Often when we are offended we see ourselves as victims and blame those who have hurt us. We justify our anger, resentment, bitterness, and unforgiveness. Sometimes we resent those who remind us of others who have hurt us. Just because we are offended or mistreated, we do not have the right to hold onto offense. 

“Then he said to the disciples, ‘It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come'” (Luke 17:1, NKJV).

The Greek word for “offend” in Luke 17:1 comes from the word skandalon. This word initially referred to the part of the trap to which the bait was attached. Accordingly, the word signifies laying a trap in someone’s way. John Bevere (2004) says no matter what the situation, offended people can be divided into two major categories: (1) those who have been treated unjustly, or (2) those who believe they have been treated unjustly. I have spent a great deal of time in the second category. My pride keeps me from admitting my part—my true condition—in the matter. Pride keeps us from dealing with truth. It distorts our vision. We cannot change when we think either everything is fine, or we’ve done nothing wrong to anger someone. Pride can actually harden our hearts despite God having given us a heart of flesh at conversion.

We construct walls when we are hurt to safeguard our hearts and prevent any future wounds. We become quite picky about who we will let in. No one knows how long, but eventually these walls of protection become an emotional prison. The angrier we get, the more likely we will continue to get angry. Whenever we expend energy defending ourselves, isolating, withholding love and good will, we forget about forgiveness, grace, and the love of God. Here’s a great point from Bevere: “If we don’t risk being hurt, we cannot give unconditional love. [Unfortunately], unconditional love gives others the right to hurt us.” For me, he means love does not seek its own. He is suggesting that if we wallow in our hurts and offenses, we become increasingly self-seeking and self-contained. When we filter everything through past hurts, rejections, and offenses, we find it impossible to believe God.

So Now What?

When we are hurt or offended and in unforgiveness—and when we refuse to repent of this sin—we have not arrived at the truth. We are deceived, and our hypocrisy confuses those we could otherwise lead to Christ. This is unfortunately true for me more times than I’d like to admit, but we’re only as sick as our secrets. My mantra was, “If it weren’t for my father, I would have had a normal life.” For too long I hung on to the idea that I can’t forgive others, and I am globally angry, because that’s what dad taught me. To the degree that this is even somewhat true, at some point it becomes irrelevant. It’s sort of like knowing what is causing us to suffer a physical ailment but not stopping the activity causing us to be sick.

If we stay free from offense, we are better able to stay in God’s will. When offended, we are taken hostage by Satan to fulfill his own purpose and will. Not God’s and not ours. First Corinthians 13 (often called the “Love Chapter”) defines unconditional (Greek, agape) love. One of my favorite interpretations of this critical biblical principle is described in Eugene Peterson’s (2006) The Message//Remix. He writes, “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what is doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end” [italics mine].

“This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men” (Acts 24:16).

Reaching this seemingly lofty and elusive goal cannot be accomplished on our power alone. We are simply incapable of unconditional love and acceptance. It takes spiritual growth and a reliance on the Holy Spirit to lead us down the paths we are to take as Christians who have been redeemed from the power and the wages of sin. We can, however, start by making an effort to stay free from offense. It’s a lot like working out at the gym. When we regularly exercise our forgiveness and work toward God’s ideal for love (1 Corinthians 13), we slowly get better at it. We drastically increase the odds that we will become less and less offended and instead begin to let go and forgive.

I will be praying that you are able to break the bondage of hurt, offense, anger, resentment, and unforgiveness. I would ask that you pray for me as well. Now, let’s go forth in grace and kindness. May we forgive ourselves and see ourselves as God sees us. This is critical if we are ever to curb our anger and express our love and acceptance of others and our situation.

References

Bevere, J. (2004). The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House.

Peterson, E. The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

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Offense Kills!

 

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As humans, we’re easily offended. We fail to understand, however, that offense can become resentment; this, in turn, can lead to anger. Ultimately, unresolved anger can morph into hatred. Hatred, if left unchecked, can destroy us.

Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.

John Bevere, in his book The Bait of Satan: Living Free from the Deadly Trap of Offense, tells us the issue of offense is often the most difficult obstacle an individual will face in his or her life. Jesus wisely told His disciples, “…if your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them” (Luke 17:3, NIV). Bevere writes, “Often when we are offended we see ourselves as victims and blame those who have hurt us. We justify our bitterness, unforgiveness, anger, envy, and resentment as they surface. Sometimes we even resent those who remind us of others who have hurt us” (p.10). Hatred actually walls us off—from God and from others. Proverbs 18:19 says, “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city; and their contentions are like the bars of a castle.”

THE WALLS WE BUILD

We build walls when we are hurt to safeguard our hearts and prevent any future wounds. We become selective, denying entry to all we fear might hurt us. This could not be more true when it comes to romantic relationships. We’ve all heard the phrase, “He comes with a lot of emotional baggage.” Perhaps you’re married and have spent the night on the couch after offending your spouse. Unfortunately, without our knowing, these walls we construct become a prison. We guard our rights and personal relationships carefully. But there is a huge trade-off here. If we don’t risk being hurt, we cannot give unconditional love. We avoid the hurt, yes, but we inadvertently cut off the good as well. I’m a huge Garth Brooks fan. One of my favorite songs by him is The Dance, which brilliantly and poignantly touches on this topic.

Bevere believes when we are offended and in unforgiveness and refuse to repent of this sin, we fail to walk in the knowledge of the truth. We are deceived, and we confuse other Christians and non-believers with our hypocritical lifestyle. We become a spring that spews forth bitter waters. You see, those who are planted in the love of Christ and the will of God will flourish. But those who harbor resentment, anger, and hatred will isolate. They will begin to avoid those with whom they are angry. Social connections will begin to die off. Wither on the vine. They become miserable and their prayer life begins to suffer. The unavoidable result is a faltering relationship with Jesus. This can only lead to a diminished capacity to forgive and to love. This is nothing less than a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Worse yet, offended people begin to believe everyone is out to get them. With this attitude it is difficult for them to see areas in their own lives that need to be changed. God simply did not create us to live alone on an island. We are to love and care for one another. We are social beings. We are flesh and blood, but we are also spiritual. If we stop confronting our own character flaws, we fail to grow. Spiritual perfection is not about being perfect—never making a mistake. If you’re attending a church where that message is taught, it’s time to find a biblical church. Spiritual maturity is about growth. It’s about maturity. When we blame everyone else, we stymie our growth. We fail to see the plank in our own eye. In this regard, we are literally hiding from reality.

THE THREE MOST HARMFUL EMOTIONS

In her book Living Beyond Your Feelings, Joyce Meyer addresses the topic of anger. She says the three most harmful negative emotions are anger, guilt, and fear. She believes anger is number one. When a crime is described as being one of passion, that means it was incited by anger. Anger is such a dangerous emotion that people end up in prison because of what it causes them to do. This begs the question, “Is hate instinctive?” What I do know is unconditional love—true, God-like agape love—comes only from God (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). In the flesh, we have no capacity for this kind of love.

Nothing justifies an attitude of hatred. I must admit I’ve hated in the past. I did not get along with my father. I allowed my anger to boil over into hatred. It poisoned my relationship with him. It created a dark film over my eyes; I saw everything he did through that distorted view. It robbed me of the opportunity to learn from him. It caused me to fear and avoid him. Hatred will change your worldview. We see the world not so much as it is but as we are—as we are conditioned to see it. You see yourself and the world in a particular way, mostly based on environmental factors. This is both paralyzing and empowering. It is not uncommon to find yourself wondering How did I get here, to this place, at this point in my life?

Anger shows up in many ways: it criticizes, withdraws, ridicules, humiliates, teases, puts down, strikes out physically (against people and property); it causes poor concentration, bad decisions, a miserable life, depression (when turned inward), drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, passive-aggressive behavior, disrespect. It causes a spike in adrenaline and cortisol, which creates anxiety and the sensation of fight-or-flight. It can lead to headaches, digestive problems, insomnia, high blood pressure, skin problems, heart attack, or stroke.

WHAT ABOUT RECONCILIATION?

Jesus told His disciples, “What you are in your heart is how you really are!” That is quite an accusation. Humility and meekness were paramount to His ministry. So was gentleness and kindness; forgiveness and compassion. He illustrated the importance of letting go of anger and bitter offense. He indicated that not dealing with anger can lead to hatred. Reconciliation was far more important than being right. Obviously, there are limitless scenarios for offense. Maybe the person who offended us was truly wrong. Perhaps we’re convinced of the reasonableness of our anger. We feel justified. However, Jesus exhorts us to reconcile even if the offense is not our fault. It takes maturity to walk in humility in order to bring reconciliation. This is what is meant by being a peacemaker. Romans 14:19 says, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (NIV).

Reconciliation involves a change in a relationship, either between you and God or between you and another person. It assumes a breakdown in the relationship and a need for restoration. Of course, reconciliation is the objective work between God and man through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:19). Reconciliation is also the subjective work between a man and his wife; between a brother and his sibling; between a supervisor and his or her subordinate; between two best friends. We are to pursue that which makes for peace between us. We need to remember that pride is anathema to this process. Pride defends. Pride blames others. Humility agrees, and says, “You’re right. I should not have acted that way. Please forgive me.” This takes Godly wisdom. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:1 that we are to imitate God.

THE WAR WITHIN

We often feel like a war is going on within us. Our renewed inner man wants to do what we know is right. The apostle Paul fought this battle. He wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the Law is good… for I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15, 16, 19, NIV). The key is learning to understand the difference between flesh and spirit. We need to practice crucifying the flesh daily, walking instead in the Spirit. In newness of life. Scripture tells us that when we receive Christ as our Savior and Lord, He gives us a new nature (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). He imparts to us His nature. He grants us access to a spirit of temperance. He gives us not a spirit of fear but of sound mind (see 2 Timothy 1:7).

This battle also applies to forgiving those who have offended us. Many people—believers and non-believers alike—decide forgiving others is just too hard. They choose avoidance instead. They wallow in unforgiveness. They stew. They allow resentment to build. They become callous. They build walls. Stop making friends. After all, they’ll only get hurt again. People suck, right? But deciding not to forgive can be spiritually crippling. The Bible clearly says that if we don’t forgive others, God will not forgive us (see Matthew 6:14-15). If we allow this to happen, we’re permitting sin to stand between us and God. We will find it difficult to hear His will for us. We won’t be able to sense His presence. I know firsthand that harboring resentment robs us of peace, restful sleep, happiness, relationships, contentment, joy. It affects our physical and mental health. It robs us of our spiritual well being.

Do you have someone in your life that has wronged you? Have you been harboring anger, resentment, unforgiveness? Speak to God about it. Ask Him to forgive you of your unforgiveness. Seek His guidance on how to best approach that individual. Then, when you feel led by the Holy Spirit, go to him or her. And whatever you do, give that person the freedom to be themselves in the same manner you expect to be given the freedom to be you. We’re all children of God. Love and forgive others in the same manner that He loves and forgives you.

References

Bevere, J. (2004). The Bait of Satan: Living Free from the Deadly Trap of Offense. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House Publishing.

Meyer, J. (2011). Living Beyond Your Feelings. New York, NY: Faith Words

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the King James Version.

Healing Emotional Wounds From Your Past

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28, NASB)

Dan and Cindy were a fine, young Christian couple preparing for ministry on the mission field. Then tragedy struck. Cindy was attacked and raped by a stranger in the parking lot one night after work. The police were unable to find her attacker, and Cindy had a hard time bringing any closure to the nightmare. The trauma was so severe that Dan and Cindy moved out of the city. As hard as she tried to get back to normal life, Cindy couldn’t shake the horrible memories and feelings from her experience. She was trapped by her trauma.

One of the most vital things we can learn regarding our Christian life is how to handle the trials that will inevitably come our way. Many Christians naively expect a life of joy once they have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. When hit with adversity, they begin to doubt the love of God. Why me? I love the Lord. I go to church. New believers, especially those who have emerged from a life of failure, are looking for success in their new life, not suffering.

Romans 8:28 is one of the most familiar verses on this subject. The NASB translation states, “God causes all things to work together for good.” Let’s not come away thinking this verse says God causes the very thing itself in order to bring about good in the life of the believer. It is saying, rather, that things don’t just happen to work out for good on their own. God providentially works all things together for good for His people according to His purpose. But while Romans 8:28 is a source of great comfort when it is properly understood, it is often misunderstood and misapplied.

BAD THINGS DO HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

Your story may not be as severe as Cindy’s, but all of us have hurtful, traumatic experiences in our past that have scarred us emotionally. You may have grown up with a physically, emotionally or sexually abusive parent. You may have been severely frightened as a child. Maybe you have suffered through a painful relationship in the past: a broken friendship, the untimely death of a loved one, a divorce. Any number of traumatic events in your past can leave you holding a lot of emotional baggage. Those experiences are buried in our memories and available for instant recall when we least expect it.

The cycle of emotions goes like this: (1) previous life history determines the intensity of primary emotions you experience when (2) a present event triggers the memory of your past trauma, then (3) you perform a mental evaluation in order to manage your present emotional response, attempting to apply reason, resulting (4) in a secondary emotional response, typically far less intense than your primary emotional reaction. Of course, many of these primary emotions lie dormant within you and have little effect on your life until something triggers them. Perhaps you’ve seen this happen when a seemingly innocuous conversation you are having with someone sends him or her storming out of the room. What set him off? you wonder. You unwittingly touched a nerve.

The problem is, you cannot isolate yourself completely from everything that may set off an emotional response. You are bound to see something on TV, or hear something in a conversation, that will bring to mind your unpleasant experience. Something in your past is unresolved, and therefore it still has a hold on you. I once heard it said that when we fail to deal with past events that have caused emotional baggage, we tend to bring the emotions of that past trauma into our current relationships. When this happens, our decisions are not so much undertaken by us as they are driven by the emotions of the prior event.

LEARNING TO RESOLVE PRIMARY EMOTIONS

You have no control over a primary emotion when it is triggered in the present, because it is rooted in the past. Therefore, it doesn’t do any good to feel guilty about something you can’t control. You can, however, stabilize the primary emotion by evaluating it in light of present circumstances. For example, suppose you meet a man named Bill. He looks hauntingly like the Bill who used to beat you up as a child. Although he is not the same person, your primary emotion will be triggered. So you quickly tell yourself, “This is not the same Bill; give him the benefit of the doubt.” This mental evaluation produces a secondary emotion that is a combination of the past and the present.

You have done this thousands of times, and you have also helped others do the same. When people fly off the handle, you try to help them cool down by talking to them. You are helping them gain control of themselves by making them think; by putting the present situation into perspective. Notice how this works the next time you are watching a football game and tempers explode on the field. On player grabs an enraged teammate and says, “Listen, meathead, you’re going to cost us a 15-yard penalty and maybe the game if you don’t simmer down!”

Some Christians assert that the past doesn’t have any effect on them because they are new creations in Christ. I would have to disagree, and here’s why. Either they are extremely fortunate to have a conflict-free past, or they are living in denial. Those who have had major past traumas and have learned how to resolve them in Christ know how devastating past experiences can be. Many Christians have brought their major traumatic experiences to counseling sessions. Some have been abused to such an extent that they have no conscious memory of their experiences. Others constantly avoid anything that will stimulate those painful memories. Most don’t know how to resolve those past experiences, so they have developed myriad defense mechanisms to cope. Some live in denial. Others rationalize their problems, or try to suppress the pain by an excess of food, sex, drugs and alcohol, or other vices.

A major role of psychotherapy is to determine the root of primary emotions. Sometimes psychotherapists resort to hypnosis or pharmacotherapy to get at the sources of their clients’ problems. I worked for eighteen months in a dissociative disorders unit at a psychiatric hospital outside of Philadelphia, PA. Dissociative disorders involve disruptions or breakdowns of memory, awareness, identity or perception. People with dissociative disorders use dissociation, a defense mechanism, pathologically and involuntarily. Dissociative disorders are thought to be primarily caused by previous severe psychological trauma. Patients suffering from possible multiple personality disorder are sometimes treated with sodium amytal interviews in order to assess and manage catatonia, hysterical stupor, and unexplained muteness, as well as in distinguishing between depressive, schizophrenic, and organic stuporous states. My clinical experience at that psychiatric facility involved treating women allegedly suffering from multiple personality disorder, which was thought to be caused by severe, long-term physical or psychological trauma during childhood and early adolescence.

SEE YOUR PAST IN LIGHT OF WHO YOU ARE IN CHRIST

I have come to believe that the answer for repressed memories is found in Psalm 139:23-24, which states, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (NIV)

How does God intend you to resolve your past experiences? In two ways. First, understand that you are no longer a product of your past. You are a new creation in Christ: a product of Christ’s work on the cross. You have the privilege of evaluating your past experience in light of who you are today, as opposed to who you were then. The intensity of the primary emotion was initially established by how you perceived the event at the time it happened. People are not in bondage to past traumas so much as they are in bondage to the lies they believed about themselves, God, and how to live as a result of the trauma. That is why truth sets you free.

As a Christian, you are literally a new creature in Christ Jesus. Old things, including the traumas of your past, passed away. (2 Corinthians 5:17) The old you in Adam is gone; the new you in Christ is here to stay. We have all been victimized, lo, even traumatized, but whether we remain victims is up to us. An old-timer I knew in Alcoholics Anonymous used to share, “Victims drink!” Those primary emotions are rooted in the lies we believed in the past. Now we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds. (See Romans 12:2) The flesh patterns are still imbedded in our minds when we become new creations in Christ, but we can crucify the flesh and choose to walk by the Spirit. (See Galatians 5:22-25)

Now that you are in Christ, you can look at past events from the perspective of who you are today. You may be struggling with the question, “Where was God when all this was happening to me?” The omnipresent God was there, and He sent His own Son to redeem you from your past. The truth is, He is in your life right now desiring to release you from your past. That is the Gospel: the “Good News” that Christ Jesus came to set the captives free. Perceiving past traumatic events from the vantage point of your new identity in Christ is what starts the process of healing those damaged or toxic emotions.

FORGIVE THOSE WHO HAVE HURT YOU

The next step in resolving past conflicts is to forgive those who have offended you.  You have to break free from the typical mindset of, “Why should I forgive him? You don’t seem to understand how bad he hurt me!” The first reason is that forgiveness is required by God. As soon as Jesus spoke the “amen” to his model prayer – which included a petition for God’s forgiveness – He commented, “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (See Matthew 18:14-15) We must base our relationship with others on the same criteria on which God bases His relationship with us: love, acceptance, and forgiveness. (See Matthew 18:21-35)

The second reason is because forgiveness is necessary to avoid entrapment by Satan. Unforgiveness is the number one snare Satan uses to gain entrance to our lives. I read a terrific book on this subject by John Bevere (2004) called The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense. In his preface, Bevere says, “The issue of offense – the very core of The Bait of Satan – is often the most difficult obstacle an individual must face and overcome.” Bevere tells us the Greek word for “offend” used by Jesus in Luke 17:1 is skandalon, which originally referred to the part of an animal trap to which the bait was attached for luring the animal. In similar fashion regarding the sin of offense, the word signifies laying a trap in someone’s way! Paul encourages us to forgive “in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes.” (See 2 Corinthians 2:11)

The third reason is simple: forgiveness is required of all believers who desire to be like Christ. Paul wrote, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32, NIV)

WHAT IS FORGIVENESS?

Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgetting may be a beneficial long-term byproduct of forgiving, but it is never a means to forgiveness. When God says He will remember our sins no more (See Hebrews 10:17), He is not saying, “I will forget them.” God is omniscient; He cannot forget. Rather, He is saying He will never use our past against us. He will remove it from us as far as the east is from the west. (See Psalm 103:12) Moreover, forgiveness does not involve tolerance for sin. It is proper to forgive someone’s past sins, but we must take a stand against future sin.

Forgiveness does not seek revenge or demand repayment for offenses suffered. A friend of mine is notorious for saying, “I’m all about paybacks!” I told him he must not seek retribution no matter what the offense. He said, “You mean I’m just supposed to let them off the hook?” I might have gotten through to him the last time we spoke. I said, “Yes, you let them off your hook realizing that God does not let them off His hook.” We may feel like exacting justice, but we are not an impartial judge. God is the just judge who will make everything right in the end. “‘Vengeance is Mine. I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (See Romans 12:19)

Forgiveness means resolving to live with the consequences of another person’s offense. In reality, we have to live with the consequences whether we forgive the offending person or not. Actually, we are all living with the consequences of Adam’s sin. I can’t count the number of people – believers and non-believers alike – who don’t think that this is fair. Some have even gone as far as to insist they would have obeyed God and not eaten from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Obviously, we’ll never know, will we? So our only real choice is simple: either live with the consequences of the Fall in the bondage of bitterness and offense, or in the freedom of forgiveness.

 

Objective of Forgiveness: Reconciliation

IT IS MORE IMPORTANT TO HELP A STUMBLING
BROTHER THAN TO
PROVE YOURSELF CORRECT

“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill. This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” (Matthew 5:21-24, MSG)

This quote comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus started by saying, “You have heard that it was said to those of old.” Then He added, “But I say to you…” Jesus continues this comparison throughout this portion of His message. First He quotes the law that regulates our outward actions. Then He shows its fulfillment by bringing it into the heart. So in God’s eyes a murderer is not limited to the one who commits murder; he is also the one who hates his brother. What you are in your heart is how you really are.

Jesus clearly delineates the consequences of offense in this portion of His sermon. He illustrates the severity of holding anger or bitter offense. If one is angry with his brother without cause, he is in danger of judgment. He is in danger of the council if that anger bears fruit and he calls his brother raca. This is a biblical term meaning “worthless” or “empty.” It implies that the person is a fool. In the days of the Early Church, calling a person a fool was to imply that they were Godless. Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool says in his heart ‘there is no God.'” So if anger reaches the point where you call your brother worthless or a fool, you are in danger of hell.

Jesus was showing them that not dealing with anger can lead to hatred. Hatred not properly dealt with would put them in danger of hell. Then He said that if they remembered their brother was offended with them, they were to make it top priority to find him and seek to be reconciled. But why the urgency to seek reconciliation? It it for our sake or our brother’s sake. We should go for his sake that we might be a catalyst to help him out of the offense. Even if we are not offended with him, the love of God does not let him remain angry without attempting to reach out and restore. We may have done nothing wrong. Right or wrong doesn’t matter. It is more important for us to help this stumbling brother than to prove ourselves correct.

There are limitless scenarios for offense.

Maybe the person we have offended believes we were unjust in our treatment of him, when in reality we did him no harm. He may have inaccurate information that has yielded an inaccurate conclusion. On the other hand, he may have accurate information from which he had drawn an inaccurate conclusion. What we said may have been grossly distorted once it was processed through the various channels of communication. Though our intent was not to harm, our words and actions gave a different appearance. Often we judge ourselves by our intentions and everyone else by their actions. It is possible to intend one thing while communicating something totally different. Sometimes our true motives are cleverly hidden even from us. We want to believe they are pure. But as we filter them through the Word of God we see them differently.

Finally, maybe we did sin against the person. We were angry or under pressure, and he got the brunt of it. Or maybe this person has constantly and deliberately lashed out at us, and we were responding in kind. No matter what caused it, this offended person’s understanding is darkened, and he has based his judgments on assumptions, hearsay, and appearances, deceiving himself even though he believes he has discerned our true motives. How can we have an accurate judgment without accurate information? It’s important to be sensitive to the fact that he believes with his whole heart he has been wronged. For whatever reason he feels this way, we must be willing to humble ourselves and apologize.

Jesus is exhorting us to reconcile even if the offense is not our fault. It takes maturity to walk in humility in order to bring reconciliation. But taking the first step is often harder on the one who is hurting. That’s why Jesus told the person who caused the offense to “go to him.”

ASKING FORGIVENESS OF ONE WHO IS OFFENDED

The Apostle Paul said, “Therefore, let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.” (Romans 14:19) This shows us how to approach a person we have offended. If we go with an attitude of frustration, we will not promote peace. We will only make it difficult for the one who is hurt. We are to maintain an attitude of pursuing peace through humility at the expense of our pride. It is the only way to see true reconciliation. On certain occasions, as part of making amends in the 9th Step, I have approached people I have hurt or who were angry with me, and they have lashed out at me. In fact, I am currently estranged from my brother and one of my sons due to wrongful behavior during active addiction. I have been called selfish, inconsiderate, hopeless, and a continual failure by people whom I love, but whom I stole from or belittled.

My natural response has been to get defensive. No I’m not! You just don’t understand what I’m going through. You don’t understand addiction. Whenever we defend ourselves in this manner, it only fuels the fire of their offense. This is not the proper way to make amends or to pursue peace. Standing up for ourselves and “our rights,” especially when we were wrong in the first place, will never bring true peace. Instead, we need to learn to listen and keep our mouth shut until they have said what they need to say. Whether we agree or not, the key is to respect their feelings. Let them know we love them despite how we treated them. Then tell them we’re sorry and ask for their forgiveness.

Pride defends. Humility agrees and says, “You are right and I was wrong.”

James 3:17 says, “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.” Godly wisdom is willing to yield. It is not stiff-necked or stubborn when it comes to personal conflicts. A person submitted to godly wisdom is not afraid to yield or defer to the other person’s viewpoint as long as it does not violate truth.

APPROACHING SOMEONE WHO HAS OFFENDED YOU

Now that we have discussed what to do when we offend our brother, let’s consider what to do if our brother offends us.  Jesus said, “Moreover, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” (Matthew 18:15) Many people apply this Scripture verse in a different attitude from the one Jesus was intending. If they have been hurt, they will go and confront the offender in a spirit of revenge and anger. They use this verse as justification to condemn the one who has hurt them.

But they are missing the whole reason Jesus instructed us to go to one another. It is not for condemnation, but for reconciliation. He does not want us to tell our brother how rotten he has been to us. We are to go to remove the breach preventing the restoration of our relationship. This parallels how God restores us to Himself. We have sinned against God, but, as Paul wrote, Jesus demonstrates His own love toward and for us, in that while we were still sinners, He died for us. (Romans 5:8) Are we willing to lay down our self-protection and die to pride in order to be restored to the one who has offended us? God reached out to us before we asked for forgiveness. Jesus decided to forgive us before we even acknowledged our offense.

“Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:18-20) The word of reconciliation begins on the common ground that we all have sinned against God. We do not desire reconciliation or salvation unless we know there is a separation.

Although we have sinned against God, He chooses not to condemn us but to reconcile us to Himself. John 3:17 says, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” God’s goodness leads us to repent. His love does not leave us condemned to hell. He proved His love by sending Jesus, His only Son, to the cross to die for us. God reaches out to us first, even though we have offended Him. He reaches out not to condemn, but to restore. Since we are to imitate God, we are to extend reconciliation to a brother who sins against us. Jesus established this pattern: Go to him and show him his sin, not to condemn him or make him wrong, but to remove anything that lies between the two of you and thus be reconciled and restored.

The goodness of God within us will draw our brother to repentance and restoration of the relationship. We keep this bond of peace by maintaining an attitude of humility, gentleness, and long-suffering, and by undergirding each other’s weakness in love. We should not go to a brother who has offended us until we have decided to forgive him from our heart – no matter how he responds to us. We need to get rid of any feelings of animosity toward him before approaching him. If we don’t, we will probably react out of these negative feelings and hurt him, not heal him.

A word about telling everyone what someone has done to us rather than approaching the offending party. I believe we do this because we are looking for people who will take our side. It strengthens our cause and comforts us when others agree with how badly we have been treated. There is only selfishness in this type of behavior. If we keep the love of God as our motivation, we will not fail. Love never fails. When we love others the way Jesus loves us, we will be free even if the other person chooses not to be reconciled to us. Romans 12:18 says, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” He says, “If it is possible,” because there are times when others will refuse to be at peace with us. We are to do everything we can to be reconciled with the other person, as long as we remain loyal to truth. We often give up on relationships too soon.

The love of God is the key to freedom from the baited trap of offense. This must be an abounding love, a love that continually grows and is strengthened in our hearts. So many in our society today are deceived by a superficial love, a love that talks but does not act. The love that will keep us from stumbling lays down its life selflessly – even for the good of an enemy. When we walk in this kind of love, we cannot be seduced into taking the bait and living in offense. Instead, we are capable of complete, unconditional forgiveness. We are able, if even for a moment, to be like Christ.

Forgiveness: letting go of grudges and bitterness. When someone you care about hurts you, you can hold on to anger, resentment, and thoughts of revenge, or embrace forgiveness and move forward. If not, the wounds can leave you with lasting feelings of animosity, hostility, and malevolence.