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Biff is an angry man. He made that clear in his first counseling session. The main target of his anger was his wife, Mable. I asked him several questions, and we worked through a lot of Scriptures on sinful anger. He intellectually understood what I was telling him and even agreed that his responses to her were wrong.
We met a few more times and talked and talked and talked and talked some more. The bottom line was that Biff was angry with his wife, and he had no current plans to change how he thought about her. Our time together ended after a few sessions. We remained friends, but he determined to hold onto his angry unforgiveness toward Mable.
The primary goal of discipleship is not to change people. Discipleship is mainly about glorifying God through the sharing of His Word with another individual. Disciplers water and plant (1 Corinthians 3:6), and that is all they do.
Whether someone changes is not dependent on the discipler. It is up to the person who receives the good seed of God’s Word as to whether he wants to cooperate with that seed (Luke 8:11) and the Grower of it so he can change (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
Biff agreed with God’s Word, but he did not want to do what the Lord wanted him to do, at least not during our time together. You can only ask a person to “be nice” so many times. Either he will become a gentler person, or he will stop listening to you. In the case of Biff, he stopped listening. His anger toward Mable continued.
Last week I met with Biff again, which was the first time I saw him in a year. We met for reasons other than his marriage, but I did ask him about his marriage. He paused. Then he said, “I’m not angry with her anymore. I knew I could not stay angry with her and make any progress in my marriage.”
Isn’t that the way it always goes? How many people have you talked to like Biff, who honestly did not know what to do about their problems? They know they are angry (intellectual assent), but they do not have the “depth of field” or the peripheral vision to take in the full complexities of their problem.
Biff was like that. He knew he was angry, but his soul was like a barn on fire (war within) that filled the hayloft of his mind with smoke (emotions). He had no biblical clarity. James 4:1-2 asked what causes quarrels and conflict and answered the query by stating that passions, desires, and coveting are raging inside of us.
Marriage Problem: Unkind Words
Instructional Video on Anger, Its Causes and Solution
Biff’s warring passions drove him only to see how Mable was not meeting his expectations. I’m sure there were things Mable could have done better. There are always things a spouse needs to change, but whatever those things were, that was not the main problem with Biff. It’s not like he could stand before Christ and say,
Hey Jesus, I know I was sinning. I was wrong, no doubt, but the reason I was angry was because of what Mable was doing.
One Right Response:
I chose to sin. I am at fault. Nobody made me do it. It’s all on me. I have sinned against God and (possibly others). Period.
There were two problems in their marriage: one was about Biff, and the other was about Mable. There was only one problem Biff could control: his anger toward Mable. His best shot at restoring his marriage was to focus on what he could do to change rather than focusing on what she needed to do (Matthew 7:3-5).
It took one year, but Biff finally made a different kind of decision. It was a soul-transforming one. He began the process of repenting of his anger. He knew it would not vaporize in a moment, but he was earnest in putting this habituated thirty-year pattern in his life to death (Ephesians 4:22-23; Romans 8:13).
Biff’s humility and initial steps toward transformation did not change his marriage, though it was on a different rail, heading in a new direction. The main issue, according to God and Biff, was still about Biff. Thus, his first step in the repentance process was to ask God and Mable to forgive him. His second step was to get his “but language” out of his vocabulary. The self-justifying “but conjunction” kept the edge on his anger.
Coincidentally, as I was walking Biff through these things, I received an email from a lady who had been struggling similarly. Her response to her anger punctuated the truths that Biff was learning. Here is what she wrote to me:
I was the person who wouldn’t change. Through the work of the Spirit of God and the tenacious and loving confrontation of a Christian sister, the Lord granted me the repentance needed for the bitterness that I allowed into my heart, dating back many years. My anger spilled into other areas of my life too. My heart was stony, and I knew it. I was stuck in anger.
You will have to decide. It’s a unique and personal decision. If you’re stuck in anger, you will have to determine if you’re going to be honest with yourself and God, or keep justifying, rationalizing, and blaming your sinful anger on something else. The decision to change will determine if you’re going to make any progress in your relationship with God and others.
Typically, the problems people struggle with are not so much about ignorance (though that can be part of what’s going on with them) as it is about stubborn self-will. Being honest, vulnerable, and transparent are three challenging bridges to cross for Adamic people.
Biff and my “email friend” knew what they needed to do. Were they going to start walking out repentance? The good news was their decision to cooperate with the Lord rather than choosing to stay in an ongoing conflict with their spouses. God gave them the empowering grace to appropriate the humility needed for their hearts. They began to change.
Personal Story: I remember sitting in jail as a 15-year old angry teen. It was there when I decided I was not going to continue to live the life I had been living. I determined while sitting in my 10 x 10 concrete-walled room that I was not going to “walk the path of death” any longer (Romans 6:23). I began the process of change at fifteen.
The effective change came ten years later after the Lord imposed Himself on me in a regenerative way (John 3:7). I was born again at twenty-five. The road to change started in jail, but I did not realize the full fruit of that change for another ten years. If sin has incarcerated you, the best thing you can do right now is to change your mind about how you think about and respond to your problems.
Motive Warning: A better marriage should not be the primary reason you want to change. The main motive for change is to glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31). You will be able to assess your real motivation by how you respond after you start changing. If you fall back into your angry patterns because you’re not getting what you want, you will know that your decision to change was not adequate.
A person who wants to change will change without conditions. A person who wants to make excuses about change is not going to change, at least not for long. The change that does not last comes from a heart that has a “what’s in it for me” worldview. That’s not how effectual, transformative change happens.
Initially, Biff came to me because he was in a bad marriage, and his wife was not meeting all his expectations. Part of his complaint was valid. There were things that Mable was doing that needed to change. Biff was right and wrong. His problem was placing the accent mark on what she was doing wrong, which is one of the most natural temptations to yield to when in conflict.
I used that argument when I was a teen. I had a long list of reasons why I was the way I was. Though I knew I needed to change, I was quick to make a strong case about the injustices in my life. This smoke and mirrors routine softened my sin while firmly trapping me in my victim-centered prison.
There was enough truth about my victimization to blind me to what I needed to do. And there were enough friends to affirm my justifications by their sympathy. The result is I stayed in my sin while not feeling so bad about it. This numbing conscience move was deadly (Hebrews 3:7-8).
It took a 10 x 10 jail cell to drive a different kind of truth through my thick head. I’m not sure what the Lord used to drive a new reality into Biff’s head, but he was right when he said, “I knew I could not stay angry and progress in my marriage.”
You are a victim. Sin came to all of us through one man (Romans 5:12). You’re also culpable. For all have sinned (Romans 3:23). Your best play is to focus more on your culpability than your victim-ness. Nobody has ever done anything to you that is more severe or more damning than what you have done to Christ. The sinless Son of Man died on a cruel tree to rescue you from your sins (John 19:30). It is unwise and unhelpful to focus on your victim-hood in light of Calvary’s truth.
As you begin to change, keep reminding yourself about your motives for change. This reminder will be vital. My motivation for improving as a fifteen-year-old was because I was tired of being me. Regardless of what my abusive dad did, I wanted to be free from my anger prison. The journey began with that decision. True freedom came ten years later (Galatians 5:1).
If you need to change, start changing. Don’t over-complicate it or over-think it. Just start. Decide to stop whatever it is you’re doing or thinking. Don’t put conditions on it. Don’t say, “I will change after you (fill in the blank).” Even as an unregenerate kid, I knew better than that.
Though I had no clue as to where this new way was going to take me or what the results would be, it didn’t matter—I had to change. After I made that decision, nothing in my external relational life changed. My brothers were still mean, my dad was a drunkard, and my school teachers continued to judge me because of my well-deserved reputation. Nobody reached out to help.
Having people helping would have been great, but their lack of responses did not hinder me from changing. I changed because I was tired of being the way I was. I could not control what others were doing, but I could purpose in my heart to break my habits of excuses and sins.
Do you want to change? If so, this is what you need to do: