I grew up in a household that frequently experienced conflict. Oddly, there wasn’t much conflict with my parents directly, but between every other combination of family members, there was bad blood a lot of the time.
My go-to response in conflict is to fight back — I once punched my mom in the face during a conflict (yes, really!), and I am not proud of how anger drove most of the disagreements I encountered throughout my 20’s. I’d like to say my perpetually pissy demeanor wore off as I grew older, but at thirty-five, anger is still my first response in the face of conflict; just ask my sister in law who showed up unannounced to resolve a conflict between us last summer, after I’d asked her to stay away and give me some processing time. Pretty sure literal smoke came out my ears, and the words I shouted at her in anger are some of my most regrettable.
My secondary response to conflict is to cry. Hard. Big, embarrassing tears that might seem dramatic to people not feeling what I’m feeling. But that’s the plight of an empath — I am feeling everything, all the time! Especially in conflict! And a lot of what conflict boils down to makes me so sad.
Disagreement over differences. Intention being prioritized over impact. Indifference to injustice. Perceived slights. The ingredients for conflict are many, as are the emotions that come along with it. But too often I live in my anger response, without letting myself feel the sadness of conflict.
That is why I love the image of Jesus we get from the Bible, as an emotional God. “A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”
Jesus wept over the loss of his friend Lazarus, cried out to God in anguish on the cross before his death, and was angry at the temple salespeople peddling goods and merchandise who told people they could buy their way to heaven by purchasing the right stuff.
We see examples all over scripture of the various emotions of Jesus, because more than anyone in history he understands us and the depths of our human feelings.
He was at once God, and one of us.
Yet, Jesus doesn’t tell us to live in any of our emotions; instead He shows us what moving through them looks like.
In the sermon on the mount Jesus speaks to the crowd, telling those of us reading thousands of years later, “You’re blessed when you can teach people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight; that’s how you’ll know you have a place in God’s kingdom.” (Matthew 5:9, The Message translation).
This means that Jesus was not only acquainted with emotions, but he was also invested in conflict resolution.
Could it be that the two are tied together synonymously? That, in order to truly be in harmony, we sometimes have to get pissed about conflict first, and then allow ourselves to mourn the divide so we can sit with the pain on both sides?
Could it be the pathway to loving others well sometimes involves experiencing anger first, and then some tears?
I’m not great at making that leap to move through my anger into grief, but I can tell you it’s the quickest bridge to empathy. Empathy illuminates what we cannot see when we are blinded by rage; It’s is like a flashlight into the soul of not just you, but the person you’re in conflict with, too.
We can’t love others well if we live in the emotion of anger. I spent years flexing my fisted conflict response of anger, never wanting to be vulnerable enough to grieve, which would pave the way for empathy and compassion.
Now I know that anger is grief’s bodyguard.
And when I tell my anger to stand down and let me grieve the conflict, I am able to own my part in it — another key ingredient in the recipe for reconciliation. But too often, our anger blinds us from seeing where we’ve gone wrong.
Last month, a conflict between women who are leaders in my community all but upended me.
I love the women on both sides of the conflict; and to be sure, everyone I know took sides.
((Cue Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood, which is such a fun and emotionally charged music video and also captures the fury of betrayal and the blaze of righteous anger!))
I spent most of a day enraptured in what I dubbed my “righteous anger” about the conflict. What it meant: I got mouthy, went online and called out the leaders who perpetuated the harm, rallying my defense around the community who’d been harmed.
I liked my anger about this conflict, held it close, let it light me up. And like a glint of glory shining directly into my eyes, it tainting everything I typed. WWJD? GET PISSED, I told myself as I typed social media responses furiously.
And no doubt, Jesus did get angry at injustice and at false worship — that’s what him flipping the tables on the merchants in the temple was all about — and because this particular conflict was over a popular crowd of people throwing a fashion show that demeaned the existence of marginalized humans, this situation certainly called for a little bit of holy fury. Just a little bit.
I was all too happy to participate.
I fired off witty revelations clothed in condemning speech and refreshed my feed for responses maniacally, even checking on the status of my social media call-outs while driving. This is where anger emboldens stupid choices, at least in my life: I lose myself in a fit of self-righteousness, unable to see my part (or my own stupidity).
And then I watched something else happen. The person who had been hurt was hurling her anger across the internet like fireballs in a game of Mario, intent to destroy. Her words were justified, and even her anger, but the message was totally lost in the delivery; people stopped listening to what she had to say, and started criticizing her furious approach to making change.
I get it. Anger feels good and powerful in the moment, even productive.
But I was adding fuel to the bonfire by participating.
I needed to take a step back, set down my anger for a moment, and choose a new response.
I needed to grieve, for both sides.
I needed to cry.
Crying feels weak and too vulnerable for some, like all the cards are on the table at once. But I’m here to say, lashing out shows way more of your hand.
So I cried. Hard. Big embarrassing tears that released what I was really feeling behind the anger: sadness over the division and a seemingly impossible reconciliation. Tears acknowledging the misguided intentions of the perpetrators and mourning the terrible impact they had, and for my friend leading the team who executed this awful idea that hurt so many people. Tears for the persecuted community already facing so much adversity, and for my friend angrily marching at the front of that fight.
Seeing the conflict from a new perspective – as truly sad for everyone involved – helped me reach a place where I could pray.
By God’s help I was able to reach out directly to the people perpetuating the hurt and share the truth in love, something that’s hard to do when I’m angry and nearly impossible to do in a bitchy social media post.
Because it’s expecting a lot to expect anyone to hear the truth when it’s not delivered in love. Do you like being screamed at? Of course not! Nobody does!
The flip side of anger is, it’s not only hard to hear but hard to listen when smoke is coming out of your ears.
Back to the conflict with my sister in law. Pretty sure she didn’t hear a single word I said the day she showed up to talk and I blew up, and I definitely also heard nothing out of her mouth because I was so pissed she’d even showed up at all. It’s taken us over a year to get back on casual speaking terms, because in my anger I said some of the most horrible things you could say to a person. Her misguided intentions had a terrible impact on me; I was hurt, but instead of crying I lashed out.
I don’t have to live that way anymore. And neither do you, beloved child of God:
((Ephesians 4:20-27 is like a guidebook for this kind of situation))
20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”[a]: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold.
I wish I hadn’t answered the door that day to anger, like I wish I hadn’t entered into the arena of public anger over injustice via social media. But by God’s help, next time I feel blinded by rage I will peeve quietly, moving through the angry emotions until they make way for tears.
And this is something anyone can try! We all have our own trigger points that cause our anger to boil over, but we can choose a new response at any time; it might feel too vulnerable at first, but it’s how we can see past our own anger and find the peace of God for ourselves.
Feelings move us closer to God if we’ll allow them, and that’s the most important thing.
Near to God is the best place for our broken hearts to be – because, if anyone’s familiar with grief it’s God, who made the whole of humanity and who hears and feels the suffering of all, giving his only son as ransom to rescue us from our worst selves. What tragedy, what redemption! God gets it.
So let’s tell the guards of anger to stand down in order to allow ourselves to grieve conflict when it arises; it is only then that we can become broken-hearted enough to carry the candle of hope for conflict resolution.
I know we’ll be lighter people for it, less burdened with regrets, more free to give and experience the love of Jesus: man of sorrows, suffering savior, our prince of peace.
To you who are called and accepted by God who is Love, thank you for reading my words! I would love to hear what your anger responses might be, if anyone feels inclined to kick off the conversation in the comments ❤