“[The children of Israel] made [Moses’] spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips” (Psalm 106:33). Isn’t that a great verse? The best part is the connection between the two phrases. First, somebody did something that made Moses mad. As a result, he lost his temper. You might call it an angry outburst. Sound familiar?
Getting angry at others and saying something you regret has been happening for a long, long time — and it still happens today. For example, when your spouse “pushes one of your buttons,” you feel the anger rise. You make a sarcastic response and immediately regret it.
When anger appears, logic almost always goes out the window. That’s why we often look back with regret. We feel guilt, shame, embarrassment — partially because we weren’t in control, but mostly because we hurt someone we care about.
Plenty of books, articles and sermons have debated whether anger is good or bad. But you’ve already exploded — now what?
Three steps can help us redeem and grow from the experience:
Examine the angry outburst
Most people are just happy to get past the ugly encounter and want to put it behind them. They figure it’ll blow over once some time has passed, so they ignore it and hope it’ll get better. They simply avoid talking about it. That makes the situation worse — not at the moment but over time. It plants seeds of resentment that might be small now but grow over time.
After an angry outburst, ask yourself these simple questions: What just happened? What was the trigger that set me off?
Sometimes the trigger comes from your past, when a parent criticized your best efforts. Other times it’s tied to something unrelated that’s going on — like being extra-sensitive to your spouse’s comments when earlier in the day you received disapproval from your boss about an important project. It might even come from a sense of guilt or shame when a spouse’s innocent question feels like an attack.
I’ve experienced that last one multiple times. My wife once asked me to make sure the barbecue was ready when we had family over for dinner. I cleaned the grill and got the tools ready — but forgot to check the level of propane. When we ran out of fuel halfway through cooking, she asked, “Did you check the propane?” I took it as criticism. She was asking an innocent question, but I felt guilty because I had overlooked it. My anger came from my own issue, not hers.
It doesn’t take long to stop and evaluate honestly so you can decide what to do next.
Repair the damage
Take responsibility for the angry outburst and deal with it quickly. There’s a practical reason the Bible says, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). The longer you wait, the more the negative feelings can grow.
You don’t have to resolve the issue immediately, but make sure that it happens soon. Since strong emotion usually eliminates clear thinking, it’s often best to wait until those emotions have settled down before talking through what happened. But set an expectation that the conversation will occur: “I know we’re both too upset to talk through this right now, but we do need to talk. I want to make this right, and I need a little time to process what just happened. Can we talk about this after dinner tonight?” That’s a way of taking responsibility, and it gives hope for resolution. Your spouse knows you’ll be talking about it because it’s scheduled.
Recognize that you have the ability to choose how you respond in any situation. You’re not a victim of your emotions. Take responsibility for the inappropriate, hurtful or inconsiderate thing you did — whether it was in content, timing or attitude. The other person might be in the wrong as well, but that’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to take 100% ownership in your side of the situation.
Some people think, I know we need to talk about it, but I’ll wait until my spouse brings it up. That puts the responsibility for healing on the other person and postpones healing indefinitely.
Reset for the future
Apologies are appropriate when you’ve hurt the other person, shown him or her disrespect or damaged the relationship. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change your position on the issue, because that may not be honest. If you apologize sincerely for how you handled the conflict, you set the stage to continue the conversation safely in the future.
If angry outbursts are a pattern, a simple apology might be honest — but may not be enough. Your spouse doesn’t feel safe in the relationship if trust has been broken repeatedly. Past experience tells your spouse not to believe you, because he or she knows it will happen again.
Patterns are hard to break. If anger has become part of your DNA, it’s time to look into professional help with a therapist. (Recommendations are available from Focus on the Family.) The way to rebuild trust is to take steps to deal with the pattern, not just to make promises about the future.
Should you ask for forgiveness along with your apology? It may ring hollow if this has been a pattern for you. It’s much stronger to apologize sincerely and then take action to deal with the anger. When your husband or wife can see you’re making changes and moving in a positive direction, asking for forgiveness becomes a powerful statement about the value of your relationship. You’ve shown your sincerity about changing.
Be angry, but sin not
If you light a match to gasoline, it explodes. Is that good or bad?
If it explodes in your living room, it’s bad and produces devastating consequences. If it explodes in the cylinder block of your car engine, it’s good — and produces powerful results.
Anger can be a healthy emotion — the fuel that allows us to make a change in our own lives and the world around us. It just needs to be labeled “Handle with caution.” After you’ve had an explosion, study it and clean up the mess.