Pastor Ted Cunningham talks about his personal experiences with anger and explains how he worked through his emotional struggles in order to protect his marriage. (Part 1 of 2)
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Jim Daly: Ted, what’s one thing that happens in your marriage that makes you angry?
Ted Cunningham: Well, my big one is control. When I feel like I’m bein’ told what to do and uh, being directed down a certain path with very uh, what I would call “closed questions,” I can just mmm! It’s like a little atomic bomb going off inside of me.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: Well, what are the atomic bombs in your relationship? We’re gonna be talking about marriage and anger and intimacy on our program today. This is Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and you just heard from Pastor Ted Cunningham. He’s with us today and he’s got some ideas about how you can cool down and find forgiveness and strengthen that bond with your relationship. And Jim, we were talkin’ beforehand. I - I told you I was gonna ask you this. I mean, you’ve had a moment to think about it.
John: What - how about you? I mean, you asked Ted the question. What about you and Jean?
Jim: Yeah, I think for me, Jean would say I probably - I think she would say, I have a pretty good handle on my anger - she says I do get grumpy when I’m hungry.
John: Still - still a teenage boy at heart.
Jim: What’s for dinner?
Ted: But see, that’s a key point though. Anger is a secondary emotion. So, your primary emotion is hunger.
Jim: Right, I like that.
Ted: And yeah, it leads to anger if you...
Jim: I’d say...
Ted: ...don’t deal with the hunger.
Jim: I’d say the other one, to be fair, I can get angry when Jean is directing her stuff toward the kids through me. You know, “Can you ask Trent and Troy...?”
“Da, da, da, da, da...” And I have to finally say, “Wait a minute. They’re standin’ right next to me. Why don’t you ask them?”
Jim: That one can set me off a little bit, too, ‘cause it seems so blatantly obvious that you can talk to them. So, that’s one.
John: Well, I uh, I think it’s gonna be helpful to have Ted here. He’s the founding pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church in Branson, Missouri. He’s an author, and in fact, we’ll be exploring a book he wrote with Gary Smalley called. And I’ll note that Ted and his wife, Amy, have two children, Corynn and Carson.
Jim: Ted, like most of us, you’ve experienced your share of anger and you’ve kind of talked a minute about that. But you had a specific moment in your life where you recognized how consuming it could be. It seemed to envelop you. Talk about that, ‘cause I think a lot of us can relate to that.
Ted: Yeah, it was about 13 years ago. Um, I was right out of seminary. Went to a church and about five months in, you know, basically was told, you’re not the guy for this job. And...
Jim: How did that feel? Did that make you angry?
Ted: The whole point of why Gary and I didis ‘cause I don’t think most people spend time thinking about how did that make me feel? We just know we’re angry. And so, it was through that whole process that I knew I was angry, but I didn’t know why I was angry. ‘Cause we - it’s - it’s not just an event or a circumstance that makes us angry. It’s an event or a circumstance that leads us to feeling something. And if we don’t tend to that feeling, it turns to anger, because anger is a secondary emotion.
Jim: So, in this case, I mean, this is a church of three to four hundred people.
Jim: This is your first appointment, so to speak. And the church turned on you, for whatever reason. Did it feel - was the primary driver betrayal?
Ted: Well, it was controlled, judged, feeling like a failure. These are the primary emotions that I deal with on a regular basis. When I feel judged by someone, when I feel like a failure, when I feel controlled - a lot of men can relate to this. And so, I just was goin’ down a path, not tending to those emotions, just staying angry, and didn’t have a clue on how to deal with it. I - I was clueless on...
Jim: Now here you are...
Ted: ...the process.
Jim: ...a pastor, the young pastor obviously. There was some stuff goin’ on. They didn’t like certain things you were doing, I would assume. And what was it the jokes or what was it?
Ted: I don’t know.
Jim: I could relate to the - what they’re saying, because ...
Ted: I don’t know if it was humor. And you know, it was - it was really philosophy of ministry and...
Ted: ...and you know, how I was trained and it was really evangelism versus discipleship and what should we make priority on Sunday morning? Those were all the questions. And again, I can sit here now at 40 and tell you, at 26, 27-years-old, I mean, those were the lessons we all need to learn. Those are the ones that grow us.
Jim: What was a pivotal moment in that journey when you were kinda down, I would imagine, crying in your basement with your wife, not knowing what to do.
Ted: You read that in the book, didn’t you?
Jim: I - I - no, it’s just what I would’ve been doing.
Ted: Yeah, I was...
Jim: But I mean, how...
Ted: I was a wreck.
Ted: I was a total wreck, leading from a very unhealthy soul and that’s when I met Gary Smalley for the first time.
Jim: Let me ask this before we go to Gary’s words of wisdom that really helped you. But in that context and it sounds like psychobabble. You’re a pastor. I want more of a biblical context for this. But when we talk about these things that we learn as children, uh, the bruises that we get, um, and we begin to react out of those things, whether it’s feeling like a failure, feeling like you don’t measure up, uh, whatever it might be, give me a spiritual context for what’s going on there, not just a psychological...
Ted: Yeah, I think...
Ted: ...I think we’re all taught, you know, trials are good for us. We - we - our character grows, Romans 5. Our character grows if we hang in there and just stay strong through a difficult time. But I think most of us are learning in life you know, personally or corporately to let’s try to avoid trials at all cost. And that’s good. I don’t want to go looking for them. But have we spent enough time on how to process them? And so, when you read, you know, “Count it all joy when you face trials of many kinds,” how - how do you really look to trials as joy?
I was in the church. I grew up in the church, 26 years. I never looked at trials with joy. I never saw them as, “This is an opportunity for me to lean in, press in, grow and learn from what - what’s happening here.” What we all learn, I think is, uh, how to move away from this, how to get out of this as quickly as possible. How to end a relationship, if that’s what needs to happen in order to be healthy, instead of going immediately to the character questions like, what is this supposed to teach me about me right now?
And I was a 20 - at that point now, 27-year-old pastor and no one had helped me process that, like how to really truly biblically handle a trial. We’re talking Romans 5. We’re talkin’ James 1. We’re talking - I’m gonna talk about your character and joy, so we can be like the Apostle Paul, who said, “I’ve learned to be content.” We like to throw that verse around, but if we’re going through a bankruptcy or we’re going through a job loss can we find contentment in that? Or what’s the stress level there? And then, you can find this all over social media, the people venting towards the government, the people venting towards banks, the people - I mean, you see the anger. It’s all over the Internet right now.
But let’s peel it back a little bit, because you - you felt something before you go to that anger. And so, how do we catch it at the primary emotion level and begin to say, “Lord, I’m gonna learn from this. I’m gonna grow from this. I’m gonna find joy in this because I have wasted way too much time with anger in my life.” And again, sorry, I’m gonna quote Gary Smalley all morning, but unresolved anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick.
And some of us and this is me in so many wasted years of my life and again, His grace is sufficient. But some of us are drinking it by the gallons.
Jim: Ted, I need to ask you because you are expressing great emotion there. Where’s that comin’ from? What part of your heart is reacting to anger in that way? There’s tears in your eyes.
Ted: Yeah. You know, I think it’s - it’s you don’t want to go at the end of your life and again, I - I know - I don’t want to speak as though I’ve lived a full life. I’m 40, so I - I kinda feel, maybe I’m going through a mid-life crisis. I have - I have no idea. But at 40, I just don’t want to be that pastor who reacts to people, who can’t handle criticism from time to time or in most leaders’ case, daily.
I - I don’t want to be the one who - who leads from an unhealthy soul. And um, my friend, Lance Whit shared this with me last night. I thought this was beautiful. He - he describes it as like shock absorbers. He says, “When you’re leading from an empty soul,” he says, “everything is jarring and jolting and you can’t - you just can’t receive anything, ‘cause you don’t have any place for it.” He said, “It’s not only an uncomfortable ride for you. It’s an uncomfortable ride for everyone who’s in the car with you.” And so, I think that emotion comes from the husband and dad in me. It’s not an easy subject. It’s not an easy book.
Jim: Well, no and I can relate.
Ted: To ask people to get down to the deep levels and anger’s easy to talk about, ‘cause we’re men. Let’s get angry. Let’s just right it out on the field and work through it and shake hands at the end, hug, walk away and we’ll be friends.
But you get a bunch of guys sittin’ around, talkin’ about the primary emotions that lead to the anger, that takes us to a place where we start peelin’ back the layers, goin’, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to talk about that.”
Jim: Well, you’ve opened the door. I think we need to. What does that look like when you sit around? What are those primary emotions?
Ted: Phew! Yeah and this is Bob Paul and Greg Smalley and Gary Smalley, have for just years been pounding this into me as those core fears. Uh, we also call ‘em “buttons.” They’re just like little atomic bombs going off inside of you when - when something happens, when an event or a circumstance happens to you and - and for me, you know, Amy and I, we’re very different. And she has a completely - her core fears - opposite of mine. Hers are disconnection, when she feels disconnected from someone. You know, that emotion flares.
I’ll give you a great example. You know, if someone leaves our church mad, frustrated and we sit around at dinner and try to process that, I’ll process that out of my primary emotions and Amy’s processing that our of her primary emotions. I’m processing it out of being controlled, feeling like a failure, feeling judged, goin’, “Well, you know what? All they did was trying to tell us what to do anyway and all they did...” And I’m goin into - I’m seein’ that through my lens.
Amy’s sitting across the table saying, “Yeah, but he came to faith in Jesus at our church. You renewed their vows. We baptized their children.” So, she’s coming at it from a disconnection, saying what...
Jim: Well, highly relational.
Ted: Highly relational.
Ted: And that’s why the primary emotions are so important to talk about. It’s like what am I feeling? When - when - now whenever I start to feel angry or even irritable, we talk about just being irritated in the book, you know. And you joked earlier about, you know, I get mad when I’m hungry. Well, really there’s something going on before you lead to that next step, that - that’s a perfect word picture for dealing with primary emotions.
What am I feeling? Let me tend to that. Let me care for that. Let me work through that. Let me have someone to talk - and this is what Amy and I have found and it’s why the book’s called. Now when we go through a trial individually or together, the beauty is, we know one another’s primary emotions. And all we want to do is sit there and talk about those. We are not going to the anger side.
And think about that - when you and your spouse can sit down and talk at deep levels about what you’re feeling and again, a guy listening right now is going, “Oh, he’s wantin’ me to wear my heart on my sleeve and cry to my wife all night.”
John: This sounds painful.
Ted: That’s not it at all. Not at all. Not at all. It’s to come home yeah, to - you’re mad about somethin’. “What happened today?” “Well, this guy, you know, I’ve been workin’ with for two years and he’s been on, you know, contract with us. I feel like he cheated...” Okay, cheated is a great feeling word. Let’s talk about why you feel cheated.
And so, I - I think guys need to process this and understand - just speak in emotional words. I’m not talkin’ about you have to cry and you have to get all emotional. But use emotional words, process what’s going on and you will find great levels of intimacy. And again, the context of all of this is safety, as well. It’s knowing, “I feel safe to share this with Amy, what I’m feeling right now.”
Jim: Well, also it - it sounds like you’re also saying, yeah, feel. The Lord wants guys to feel. And we have buttoned ourselves down pretty well. Everything’s politically correct. We put it in a compartment. We don’t express it in certain ways, because we know it’s a little unseemly or whatever it...
Jim: ...might be. You’re saying, let it go. Really talk it through, especially with your spouse.
Ted: Yeah, let it go and I think guys, too, they get into this box, where it’s like, well, we’re talking right and wrong, true or false. And it’s like, we’re - no, we’re talking emotions. We’re talking emotions. And it’s different when I’m speaking of, this is what happened today. This is what I felt. And so, I mean, for years, one - you want to talk about the world’s worst apology? This is it right here: “I’m sorry that you feel that way.” How many times have I given that to Amy?
Jim: It doesn’t feel very good to hear that.
Ted: No. What I’m saying is, “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
Ted: Stop feeling that way. I want you to start feeling this way. When what should we really be apologizing for? Words and actions. I said this; would you forgive me? I did this; please forgive me. I shouldn’t have - I didn’t think that through.
Jim: Well, and it’s also personally accountable...
Jim: ...not - not projecting it to the other person. We talked about the guy’s response here. Let’s talk about a - a woman’s response, Amy’s response in this case in your examples. But how do they typically - there’s no generalization, I get that - but how does a woman, a wife typically process things differently from a man?
Ted: Yeah, obviously, I think Amy’s far more equipped to just open up and discuss quickly. I mean, and it can be anywhere at any time. And what we’ve learned in our marriage is we may need to plan when we’re gonna have this conversation tonight, ‘cause - because I may not be at a spot right now to discuss it. And that’s okay. I think we need to give one another the freedom to do that. So, for the wife, who’s like listening, going, “Oh, I want that emotional conversation with my husband tonight, but he is so shut down. He is so disconnected from me. Uh, and he’ll never have this type of conversation.”
Well, you begin by just sharing your heart, again using words like uh, the primary feelings words, “Hey, you know, when this happens, I feel this way.” Again, stay far away from accusations. Stay far away from “you”, you know, “You did this; you said this.” And focus on what you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing.
And I would just tell guys our greatest skill is listening. And again, I love the term, to me “intimacy” means leaning in. It’s like, okay, you’re gonna start sharing something right now. Am I feeling like withdrawing? Am I moving to the other room? Am I disconnecting from you? Or am I leaning in? And do you feel through my body language and through my eye contact, I’m leaning into this conversation? And again, guys, we don’t have to fix it. We don’t have to change her. I think that’s the key. A guy hears an emotion come out of his wife and he’s like, “Boy, I wish she didn’t feel that way.” Because we’re not feeling that as she’s feeling that.
Ted: But I don’t have to change that in her. But when I lean in, I’ve learned intimacy in our home is primarily through eye contact and primarily through, “I just heard you. I heard what you just said. And I think I get it.
Jim: Ted, let me ask you this question, going back a minute ago to your family, when you look at it, and I - boy, this’d be a tough question for me to answer, so get ready - but how has your family paid the price for your anger?
Ted: Yeah, I think - can I quote Gary one more time? When I sat down with him 12, 13 years ago for the first time, two greatest things he taught me - I know I think this is simple, but I don’t think most of us grow up learning this and knowing this. But unresolved anger, drinking poison, expecting the other person to get sick. And Gary looked at me and said, “You’re a dude right now, drinkin’ it by the gallons. You’re a mess. You want to take these leaders out. You want to...” I mean, I just - that’s - it was just all in me. Now at that time, I was leaning into Amy. I really was. I was leaning into her, because trials have always brought unity in our marriage. We’re like, okay, well, if we’re the only team left, we’re here. We’re lockin’ arms and we’re movin’ forward.
But here’s what Gary said, the second thing, and this is the one that knocked me out. He said, “Ted, the other thing is, you never bury anger dead. You always bury it alive. And it will resurface.” And I didn’t know this, but he said, “In 6, 12, 18, 24 months,” - those are the exact times he gave me - he said, “this church may be removed from your life, okay? And when that happens, if you still keep the anger, you’re gonna need a new outlet. And you won’t have those people.”
See, pastors need to understand this, because John Maxwell said this for years, there is no magic transformation in the U-Haul between churches. Right? Because when you get from one church to another, guess what’s at that other church? People.
Jim: Same thing.
Ted: Same things. You are the issue. Wherever you go, there you are. “So, it’s in your heart, Ted. You have to resolve this,” he said. “But my fear is it’s not coming out in another church,” he said, “Ted, my fear is it’s coming out on Amy.”
Same thing with uh, husbands and wives. You know, you think, “I need a divorce. I got all this anger inside and it’s her fault. I have all this anger inside and it’s his fault. I’m gonna divorce this person, get married.” It’s the exact same thing, no different in a marriage than it is in a church with the pastor. You packed your anger up. You take it into the next relationship or marriage. You leave it unpacked for 6, 12, 18, 24 months. You never bury anger dead. You always bury it alive. It will resurface if you do not resolve it. You have to resolve it. How has my family paid the price? I would say my anger has been the greatest distraction in my life.
But think about the people consumed with anger, sitting at home and wanting to lean in to their spouse or to their child. And yet, this anger, this poison that’s in their soul just sits there, while they’re trying to lean in and trying to be a good dad, trying to be a good mom.
And this is why I think one of the greatest things we can do as husbands, wives, moms, dads is to find ways to resolve that anger and resolve it so we can find deeper levels of intimacy.
Jim: Let me ask you about uh, a scriptural application for this, ‘cause you look at the - the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the religious leaders when Jesus walked this earth. He really went after them and so often, I sense that they had that attitude. They kinda had this attitude. They looked down on others. They looked down on sinners. Obviously, Caiaphas the high priest took it out on Jesus. He was angry about this man who was disrupting their power base. We’ve gotta be careful about that, don’t’ we? Uh, to repeat those same sins, uh, to get angry at a world that doesn’t know God, doesn’t live by His principles and to uh, express anger toward them. ‘Cause you’re saying there’s some other primary motivation there. Talk about that bigger application in the culture.
Ted: Well, we as a church, our desire is to be that safe place for people to come and to open up their hearts and to understand. I had a guy last week at church tell me, he - probably in his 50’s - but he said, “I feel like I have wasted my entire life. And I come and I hear about Jesus. I hear the Gospel.” And I - I always love with that person, sharing with them, because I think there’s so many people right now that - that are listening, that have dealt with anger their whole lives. And I think that for me, that guarding that and allowing people to have their opinions and allowing people to - to share, again I - I’ve - I’ve gotten to that place I think, where I - I don’t believe I have to be the one that changes everyone.
I think that’s what we struggle with, in the church. I - I think we feel it’s my job to present. It’s my job to share, this is who Jesus is. This is the gospel. And there’s so many people that - that still hold to that behavior modification is where it’s at. We just - we need to change what people are doin’ on the outside, when Jesus couldn’t have been more clear on, it’s about the inside. It’s not what goes into a man that makes him unclean; it’s what comes out of a man that makes him unclean. Proverbs 4:23; “Above all else, guard your heart. It is the wellspring of life.” And I always loved that, because I always view my heart is this love jug. And I share this with my kids all the time. And I say, “I want to make sure I’m as full of God’s love as possible.
And this is why I - I have to make sure I’m - I’m not turning on the news first thing in the morning. I mean, Amy and I have a new policy in our home. Reach for the Bible before our phone. You know, ‘cause how easy it is for us to just pick up the phone in the morning and find out everything goin’ on. I said, we’ve gotta start our day right.
Jim: Well, that’s good.
Ted: To make sure we’re not feeding in. And if you’re one that watches the same 30-minute news cycle all day long, where is your soul?
Ted: Where is your soul? And it depends on which news cycle you’re watching, you know, to the attitude you’re gonna have towards people, uh, of a different opinion.
Jim: There’s kind of an adrenaline rush to that whole environment, as well. And you gotta be careful about that. You gotta know what’s happening. I can recall uh, I was on a - a cable news program and this person - I won’t name him, everybody probably would know him - and uh, he was goin’ after this person who had a different political view right on the set. I mean, it’s what’s on camera.
And we go to commercial break and he turns and says, “What time do you want me to pick you up for dinner?” to the person he was just chewin’ out. And I thought, “Wow. Mr. and Mrs. America are not seein’ this right now, the relational side of it.” It was almost a game.
Jim: And they - they’re feeding off of that anger they’re creating. The lights came back on. Wham! He went right back at her: “You idiot! How could you support this candidate?”
Jim: And blah, blah, blah. And then we went to commercial break and he said, “Do you like Italian food?” I mean, I was standing there just goin’, wow! That’s a - and we gotta be careful about that kind of uh, forced um, it’s almost like a theater scene. It’s not necessarily real, but they’re ginning up the emotion in people at home watching that. And we shouldn’t take the bait. We gotta know first and foremost who we are as Christians, before that anger gets - takes root in us.
Ted: Yeah, I tell our parents at our church all the time, stop giving the kids a time out and give yourself one. Because I really do believe the - don’t go to Facebook to vent. Don’t’ go to social media. Take those primary emotions to the Lord. Deal with ‘em. What am I feeling right now? Allow Him to wake you up at 3 in the morning to deal with these primary emotions and to process them.
But all you’re gonna do when you take this out to the worldwide Web, is build anger in other people and I think that’s the hard part for me with social media and stuff today, is it’s a - it’s just feeding this anger in our culture that it’s like, “Okay, I’m gonna put this anger out there and then I’m gonna see how many people support it and like it and they’re angry with the same thing I’m angry with and they’re gonna comment on it.” And I’m just like, I just - I’ve told Amy this so much in the last few weeks. I just - that is just not healthy for my soul.
Jim: Well, and you think about it. That’s exactly what Jesus showed up to demonstrate for us and to illustrate for us. He was in a - a very difficult spot. He had people very angry with Him, the way He went about His ministry. And we need to take our cue and learn our lessons from that. He remained calm, confident, peaceful. He certainly spoke the truth, but always in love.
Uh, Ted, we’ve talked about anger as that secondary emotion in this program and really zeroing in and trying to find the root emotion so you can work on that for both men and women in marriage particularly. How do you open up intimately to talk about those things? But we need to talk about a couple of other things. Can you stick with us? We’ve run out of time. Let’s come back next time and talk about how God works in our heart to get us to a better place. Can we do that?
Ted: I would love to.
John: What a powerful conversation with Ted Cunningham today, on Focus on the Family. And I’m sure that there are a lot of folks listening right now thinking, “This applies to me.” And really, Jim, that’s our goal.
Jim: It absolutely is. It’s the heart of our goal and that’s why we do what we do here at Focus on the Family. The permanence of marriage is one of our pillars here at Focus, but most importantly it’s close to God’s heart. He intends for the institution of marriage to be a lifelong commitment to love each other and to go through the seasons of life together.
And you know what? We’re here to help you as a couple and as a family. We can provide you with advice, support, and the tools you need to be a better spouse, like Ted’s book,. That’s also why we have caring, Christian counselors available to talk with you. And our Hope Restored marriage intensive program for couples who are at their end with their spouse and thinking about separation or maybe even divorce. We want you to think about it before you take that next final step. We’re here to help you.
Every day here at Focus, we receive letters, emails, phone calls from people who are in need of that kind of help. And how wonderful it is when we hear about a husband and a wife who have been able to turn things around, to make it work, to stick it out. And you know what? The research shows when couples fight through their difficulties and work on their issues, five years later, they are happier. And most importantly, happier than those couples who divorced.
In fact, we heard from a woman named Christy, who’s grateful for the programs we produce here at Focus on the Family. And here’s what she said: “Thank you, thank you, thank you! This broadcast has helped restore my marriage. I began listening several years ago when my marriage was broken to the point of divorce. By listening and applying these suggestions, our marriage is now thriving. Thank you so much for obeying God and being His vessel.”
Wow! Let me extend that to you, our listener and supporter. Thank you for obeying God and financially supporting and praying for the ministry of Focus so we could be there in that moment for this couple and literally, hundreds of thousands of other couples too. That really captures it, the way she expressed it.
The only way we can continue to offer this kind of help is through your generous support. Join us in the ministry on behalf of the Lord, to touch these couples and help them to get through their difficulties, so that they will stay committed in their marriages and be a witness to the world.
And right now is a wonderful time to step up and make a contribution because generous friends of Focus will match your donation, dollar-for-dollar. So your gift will help twice as many couples. And let me say in advance, thank you for standing with these couples and supplying the very help they need.
John: Donate generously and when you do today, we’ll send a complimentary copy of Ted’s book,as our way of saying thank you for helping these couples literally around the world. You can donate at focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459.
Well next time, you’ll hear more of this conversation with Ted Cunningham. And on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team here, thanks for listening to Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller inviting you back when we once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.
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Ted CunninghamView Bio
Ted Cunningham is the founding pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church in Branson, Mo., a comedian on the Date Night Comedy Tour and a popular conference speaker at churches and events across the nation. He has authored several books including Fun Loving You and Trophy Child. He has also co-authored four books with Dr. Gary Smalley and one with his wife, Amy. Ted and Amy have two children, Corynn and Carson.