Just a few wayward sparks.
That’s all it takes for a fire to burn through an entire city, as it did in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, one of the largest disasters in American history.
In popular accounts from the time, Catherine O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in a humble barn on DeKoven Street. What started as a small fire quickly grew into an inferno that destroyed miles of homes and razed Chicago’s business district.
Although some consider the O’Leary cow story folklore, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is still a powerful illustration of the destructive nature of anger.
Anger starts small, but if we don’t handle our emotions properly, it can erupt into something much bigger and destroy our marriage or our relationships with our children.
One of the chief reasons so many of us don’t handle anger well is because we don’t understand it. Some confuse their feelings of anger toward someone as hatred, and some Christians believe feeling any degree of anger is a sin.
The fact is the Bible says we will all experience anger. Anger is rooted in the character of God. God is “love” and “holiness,” but the Bible says He is “angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11). When we violate His principles, we sin, and sin hurts us and everybody around us. God’s anger is always righteous and based in His love for us.
Since God feels anger, the emotion cannot itself be sinful. It’s how we handle our anger that determines whether it will be productive or quickly grow into an inferno that destroys everything in its path.
Like the Lord, we can feel righteous anger based on what’s right and just. When someone does something we know is wrong, whether it’s toward us or toward someone else, it’s appropriate to feel anger.
But we can also feel what Dr. Gary Chapman calls “distorted anger,” which means our anger is rooted more in our own selfish nature or a misunderstanding than in someone sinning against us.
Ephesians 4:26 tells us to “be angry and do not sin.” In either case, whether our anger is righteous or distorted, we can still behave kindly toward others in the midst of our anger and bring about positive results.
That starts with learning how to process our anger in healthy ways. Dr. Chapman says, “Anger is meant to be a visitor, not a resident.” That means we can hold our anger inside temporarily while we manage a particular situation, but sooner rather than later we have to get our anger out. If we bury our anger it will turn into bitterness, resentment, or depression, or it may eventually burst out of us as rage.
So how do we process our anger in a healthy way? Well, that’s what we’ll talk about with Dr. Chapman, our guest for the next couple of programs. As an example, here are four practical steps for handling anger within marriage that came out of our conversation:
- Acknowledge that we are angry. That can be difficult if we feel it’s a sin to be angry or if we confuse anger with some other negative emotion like hatred. The ability to say, “I feel angry” is a must, and that admission can actually help to diffuse the intensity of the emotion.
- Be mindful of what you say to each other and the tone you use. Agree ahead of time before you’re angry and while you’re calm to talk through your emotions when they come up. “I’m feeling angry. Could we talk?” will work much more effectively than a spouse asking what’s wrong and the other answering with a sulking, “Nothing.” And if it’s not a good time to talk, set a time.
- Agree that yelling and screaming at each other is never appropriate. Maybe our parents did it. But as adults, we have to make a decision to turn the corner. And when someone does lash out, acknowledge it and apologize for it.
- Focus on listening. Put on elephant ears and say, “I’m listening. You have the floor,” then stay quiet and let them say what’s on their heart and mind. Only ask questions to clarify. If you do that and put yourself in their shoes and look at the world through their eyes and personality, you’ll probably see exactly where they’re coming from.
There’s much more to be said, and we’ll talk through it all with Dr. Chapman on our programs, “Controlling Anger So It Doesn’t Control You.” In addition to anger in marriage, we’ll talk about how it affects our parenting and our relationship with God. We’ll also get practical and offer helpful tips for handling anger in ways that protect your relationships instead of damaging them.
Dr. Gary Chapman is a speaker, counselor, and author, perhaps best-known for his book The Five Love Languages, which has sold over 10 million copies.