Do I go to God first when I’m angry?

RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#29 in a series)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button.

How can I be more patient and loving? Do I go to the Lord first instead of reacting with hate and anger?

Let me recast the question to make a point. It’s a lovely idea to “go to the Lord first” — but the question itself presupposes that something someone has said or done has already triggered a negative reaction. So when we feel the claws of anger digging in, what do we do next, if we’re wanting to learn to be patient and loving? What would it look like to go the Lord with our anger?

One thing I try to teach couples is to pay attention to the signals their bodies give them when they’re starting to stress out, when they’re beginning to feel overwhelmed with negative emotion. Maybe you feel your heart starting to race or pound in your chest. Your blood pressure goes up and you see red. Your palms get sweaty. Your neck and shoulders get tense and knotted. You clench your jaw, making that little muscle on the side of your face bulge. You start to get a headache. You can’t think straight and start stammering.

Need I go on?

Be familiar with the signs, so you can pay attention to them. Most people I ask already know what theirs are. But if you don’t, ask someone who knows you well; they’ll probably be able to tell you. Practice noticing these signs throughout the day. Notice the kinds of things that set you off; you can even keep a journal, if you find it helpful. This will help you learn when you need to step back from an interaction and calm yourself down.

When a conversation begins to set you off, don’t ignore the signals. Don’t tell yourself, “I should be able to do this, and there’s something wrong with me if I can’t.” That just makes it more likely that you’ll doggedly try to push on past the point of no return, getting angrier and angrier. If you need to take a break to calm down, take one.

How? I recommend that couples have a plan in place, a standing agreement on how to handle such situations. This is not a way to escape an argument in the hopes that it will all blow away without having to deal with it; it’s a way of helping us maintain the calm we need to actually get somewhere. Here are some typical elements:

  1. Ask for a break in a way that takes responsibility for yourself, without blaming the other person. For example: “I’m starting to feel stressed out, and need to take a break. I don’t want to do or say something I might regret.”
  2. Make the break at least 20 minutes. Depending on your cardiovascular fitness, it may take significantly longer than that to calm down. Marital therapist John Gottman’s recommendation is that you should wait until your pulse is no more than 10% higher than your usual resting pulse rate.
  3. During the break, do things that you know will help you calm down. Don’t do things that will get you more hyped up, like rehearsing your resentment (“How dare s/he say that to me!”), playing violent video games, etc. Practice humility and compassion instead: acknowledge your role in the conflict, own your vulnerabilities, give the other person the benefit of the doubt, etc. Above all, pray. If you’re wanting to be the person God wants you to be, ask for his help and insight.
  4. Return to the conversation at an agreed-upon time and place (e.g., after the kids are in bed, with a cup of tea, on the living room couch). It may be that by the time you return to the conversation, one or both of you no longer feels the need. What seemed important at the time may not feel important once you’ve had a chance to calm down. But have the conversation anyway, even if it’s a short one, just to be sure. Again, you don’t want to get in the habit of using the break as a mere escape hatch; that would just defeat the purpose.
  5. If you start getting stressed out again, repeat the process. It may feel silly, and you may feel like a failure for not being able to control your emotions. But think of it like athletic training. You have to start somewhere, and you’ll eventually see improvement. Keep your eyes on the prize (e.g., 1 Cor 9:24-25); it’s worth it.

These are practical suggestions for what you can do when you’re trying to cope with your anger and frustration in real time. But don’t forget: what I’ve suggested in # 3 above can be done anytime. The more you make that kind of prayer and meditation a regular habit, the easier it will be to regain your emotional footing when you need to.

If that’s what it means to “go to God first,” I’m all for it.

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