How Anger Can Save A Marriage
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Scott SaulsScott Sauls is husband to Patti, dad to Abby and Ellie, and serves as senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to Nashville, Scott was a Lead and Preaching Pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City after planting two churches in Kansas City and Saint Louis. Scott has authored several books, including Jesus Outside the Lines and his most recent work, A Gentle...more
Pastor Scott Sauls coaches listeners with practical insights on using gentle answers in relationships. Learn the six most powerful words in a marriage, and how anger can actually help save a dying marriage.
How Anger Can Save A Marriage
Bob: Have you found yourself getting angry about things that are happening in your family or in our world today? Author and pastor, Scott Sauls, says it may be that you're on solid biblical ground with your anger.
Scott: “Be angry”—imperative; it's a command—“Be angry and do not sin.” What does that mean? Well, if you go to Romans, it describes what that means: “Hate what is evil and cling to what is good.” In order to cling to what is good, you have to hate what's evil. Attack the problem, not the people.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, September 11th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. There is a right way to be angry; and there certainly is a wrong way to be angry, especially in our current climate. We'll talk about the right way and the wrong way today with Pastor Scott Sauls. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Back last spring, I saw a tweet that said, “Critique gently; encourage fiercely.”
Ann: That's a good one.
Bob: I said, “That's a good one.” I retweeted that one and I said, “I wonder how Twitter® and the rest of the culture would be transformed if we all started doing that more.” And of course, the tweet came from Scott Sauls, who is with us in the studio.
Dave: He's sitting with us in the studio.
Bob: He is right here with us, again, on FamilyLife Today. Welcome again.
Scott: Hey; good to be with you again.
Bob: Scott is a pastor from Nashville, Tennessee/pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church. He's an author and a speaker and has written a new book called A Gentle Answer: Our “Secret Weapon” in an Age of Us Against Them.
We've been talking this week about what gentle answers look like and how we grow in our ability to give them. I've been thinking as we've been having this conversation: “There's a difference between a gentle answer and a passive/aggressive response.” I think there are some people, who would say, “Well, I did that; I gave a gentle answer.” And what they were really doing was being passive/aggressive; right? I mean, you've seen that happen.
Scott: It's not gentle unless your beneficiary or victim of your gentleness says it's gentle. [Laughter] That's the person who gets to evaluate whether you've been gentle.
Bob: We can give a soft answer, and it can still not be gentle; right?
Scott: That is correct.
Bob: I mean, I've known—
Ann: Do you have an example of that, Bob?
Bob: Well, I remember our mutual friend, Bryan Loritts talking about—in marriage, sometimes a husband or wife can be what he called the “secret assassin,” where a wife will say something; and a husband will go, “Uh-uh. Okay; alright.” And they don't say anything more. You might say, “Well, that felt like a gentle answer to me; I didn't say anything.”
But there's so much behind that, “Uh-uh. Okay; alright.” I mean, hidden behind that is: “I'm thinking menacing things about you. I'm plotting my revenge. I'm just not going to give away any of the clues about what's going on.” I think sometimes, in marriage/in a family, we can say, “Well, I didn't say anything harsh.” There's a difference between not saying something harshly and giving a gentle answer.
Ann: So you're saying even the non-verbals can be harsh—rolling your eyes—
Bob: That's part of what Scott's been saying—posture, tone—all of those things.
The Bible's telling us—and this is what we've been seeing all week—“There is relational power in the gentle answer.” When we are in the middle of escalating conflict, and we give a gentle answer, all of a sudden, a lot of the escalating power is drained out of that
conflict. We find ourselves in a whole different place, where maybe we can be shoulder to shoulder, rather than standing as opponents to one another.
Dave: Yes; I know one time, in the Detroit Lion's locker room, I was in there for a Bible study—getting ready to go—and there was some/I don't remember the issue—but something was breaking up between two position groups that locker beside each other, and it was getting heated. Again, I wasn't at the beginning of this conversation; I walked in and I saw this. My first thought is: “I don't like conflict; I'm going to go into the Bible study room and pray and wait for everybody.” And then I'm like, “No, no, no; maybe I need to step in as almost a negotiator.”
As I got closer to the corner of the locker room—and you know, an NFL locker room is a very big room, so it was 20 steps—one of the guys just went like this with his arms—he put them up and said, “Okay; okay. Stop!” People are yelling at this time; there are no coaches there. I'm walking over, thinking I'm going to help; and all of a sudden, the guy puts his arms up and says, “You're right; I'm wrong. I thought I was right, but I realize I'm wrong; and I'm really sorry. This is all on me. This is not your issue. I'm sorry; let's talk.”
The whole room went, “Phew!” He was sort of yelling at that point, but his posture was gentle; you know what I'm saying? It was loud, because he needed to be heard; but when he realized the problem in this conflict is—not “you guys”—“it's me,” and he admitted that—the whole room/it's almost like the whole locker room went, “Okay; we're all good.” There's unity over there; they're going to sit down and talk through the details. But the posture was more important than the words said. It was like he was saying something strong, but it was gentle. I saw the whole/it's like the whole temperature of the room just went “Phew!” That's what you're talking about?—that kind of thing?
Scott: The six most powerful words in a marriage are, “I was wrong; I am sorry.” If you want to have a great marriage, make sure those words are a regular part of your vocabulary. If those words are absent from the vocabulary, or if just one of you is saying those words consistently, then it's a dysfunctional situation that needs help, and you need a counselor.
Bob: Scott, the second half of your book, A Gentle Answer, you walk us through things we need to cultivate in order to be gentle responders. The first thing you say is: “We've got to develop thicker skin.”
Ann: I thought these were really good, and I kind of graded myself on each of these. I think it gives us a good reminder of what it could look like.
Bob: So thicker skin means not easily offended?
Scott: Yes; that's certainly part of it. You know, we are fragile people. I remember a quote from Mariah Carey in an interview once, where she said, “I can hear a thousand praises and one criticism, and that one criticism will destroy the thousand praises in my heart.” I think we're all kind of built that way.
It makes sense that we're built that way; right? We're made in the image of God, and why does God exist first and foremost?—to be glorified and enjoyed. He exists to be glorified and enjoyed by His creation/by people. We're made in that image; and so there's a very natural right built into us—a godlike desire—to be appreciated, and loved, and all of those things.
But we've also got this problem—you know, called sin—and offensive behavior and things that we need to apologize for. We need to have a posture, Bob, that can be receptive to things that will help us grow. We say, as Christians—which I know is the majority of your audience and is the majority of my audience—we say that we want to grow into the likeness of Christ, but we want to bypass the process; right? We want to get to Easter without Good Friday. We want to get to glory without discipleship. We want to get to heaven without denying ourselves daily/taking up our cross and following Christ.
We have to reorient our understanding of a disagreement and to see that a disagreement can actually shape us, like the Bible does. What a disagreement does, like the Bible does, it points out blind spots that we have if we're willing to engage with it.
My mentor, Tim Keller—and he got this from John Newton, the guy who wrote Amazing Grace, the hymn—he says that, even when we're unfairly criticized—you know that the really grown-up Christian thing to do is to get a quiet moment with somebody we trust and ask them the question: “Are there any kernels of truth in this unfair criticism that I can learn from, and can be an occasion for humility, repentance, and receiving afresh the grace of Jesus Christ?”
I think if we can develop patterns—it's like exercising; right?—it's going to be really hard at the beginning, when you haven't ever done it before—like, “This is miserable.” And then, after a week, you're like, “This isn't so bad.” And then after a month, you're like, “Oh, this is starting to feel good.” Then after a year, you start to look like Dave; you know, you're just ripped. [Laughter]
Dave: Oh, yes; that’s really funny. [Laughter] You hear that, honey?
Ann: You are ripped. [Laughter]
Scott: But it's something that has to be cultivated; right? Like the character that can receive constructive feedback—or even negative feedback—the character that can receive that humbly, doesn't cook up in us like in a microwave. It's a crockpot; it takes a long, long series and season of practicing, you know, those steps of humility each time we're confronted with how we're not complete yet.
We say, “I'm a sinner; Christ died for me.” That's like the foundational thing of Christianity. You can't be a Christian if you're not a hypocrite—like you can't have a credible profession of faith unless you own the fact that you're a hypocrite; that you don't live consistently with what you say you believe.
And yet, when we get in disagreements, that is one Christian truth that we deny. We might even go to the grave, denying it—that we're a hypocrite. Like we'll say to God; we'll say it about ourselves, in general, in moments of non-conflict; but in a moment of conflict, we will not drill down/we dare not drill down to the specifics; but the specifics are where God actually does His work.
Dave: I know I read a book, years ago, about Pixar. John Lasseter, one of the CEOs of the company said, “Here's how these movies became blockbusters…” The writers would bring it in to what they called the “brain trust.” A brain trust is supposed to evaluate the script and say, “Go do it,” or “We've got to change some things.” He said, “I'm going to be honest; every single number-one blockbuster movie you've watched—when it came in, was horrible—and the brain trust said, ‘Here's what you need to change.’”
There was no attack on any individual—just: “This is not going to work, because of these reasons...Go fix it.” His point was that you need a brain trust in your life to help you see things you don't see; because they thought the movie was done until they presented it. Then they went away, and they fixed all those things, and it was a number-one blockbuster.
I remember putting that book down and going, “I'm a bad movie.” I need people in my life to go, “Dude, I don't think you know this about yourself…” If I reject that with my arrogance—like you just said, Scott—I'm not a hypocrite. But if I receive that, I could be a great movie; God could do something. I think part of God's purpose for marriage is he gives you a partner to say, “I'm going to allow her/him to sharpen you to become what? —like Christ.”
Ann: I think you're really good at this, honey.
Ann: You are; no, but I've seen you do it with our kids. One of our sons went to the Passion Conference; he was in college. He comes back home, and he is fired up for Jesus. He goes to our church service; we go out to lunch after, and it's just the three of us—the son, and Dave, and I. He looks at Dave and he said, “Dad; you're dead.” [Laughter] I was like, “Oh boy; here we go!”
Dave: This is after one of the best sermons I'd ever given.
Ann: Dave goes, “What are you talking about?” And he says, “I just feel like, spiritually, there's not a lot going on right now.” [Laughter] I am like, “Oh man; what is going to happen during this lunch?!” I watched Dave put down his fork, lean across the table,
and said, “Tell me more; what do you mean by that?”
I feel like my respect for you, honey—I was amazed at your response. And I think the thing that I love most about the conversation is he went back to God and asked God, “Is there truth in what my son said to me?” What I saw happen was a personal revival take place in Dave's life. He wasn't just being defensive; but he asked God, “Is there truth in what my son spoke to me?”
Bob: I'm thinking of 1 Peter, Chapter 2, where one of the things Peter says about Jesus is: “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return.” So cultivating in us a patience, a humility, a not easily provoked—so cultivating a heart that is not quickly and easily wounded is a part of how we grow in being able to give a gentle response.
One of the things you say in the book, Scott, is we also have to learn how to do anger right as opposed to doing it sinfully. Coach us on that: “What do we do when our face starts to become flush, and we can feel our blood pressure going up, and we know what's coming next is not healthy or godly? How do we deal with that?”
Scott: I think your listeners might actually, or anybody who opens up the Table of Contents, might look at this book and say, “Oh, this looks like a bait and switch”; because when you read the chapter titles, you know, it starts with a section about the gentleness of Christ toward us, but then the second section is the application part. It's five chapters that don't sound like what our image of what gentleness means—you know: “We Grow Thicker Skin,” “We Do Anger Well,” “We Receive Criticism Graciously,” “We Forgive All the Way,” and “We Bless Even Our Own Betrayers.” That sounds more gutsy and traumatic even, than our image—
Bob: It doesn't sound like Mr. Rogers.
Scott: Right? It doesn't, but here's something about Mr. Rogers. You know what made him the way he was?—anger and pain. He's known as one of the most gentle public figures that has ever graced the American screen. He was bullied as a child. He was overweight; his peers called him “Fat Fred,” and that really hurt him. He vowed to grow up and be the kind of man, who would reverse that shame narrative for children; because he grew up with it.
His pain drove his gentleness and his anger. He looked around at American society in particular and felt like children do not get taken nearly as seriously as they ought to. Their voices are shut down—you know, “You should be seen, but not heard,”—you know all of that. And he said that children have some of the greatest things to teach us, and he was mad about that [they weren’t taken seriously].
Anger is a destructive energy. But the question isn't: “Should we ever be angry, because it's a destructive energy?” The real question is: “What are we trying to destroy?” If we're trying to destroy people, then our anger is rage; it's transitioned into toxic, unhealthy anger, where we're trying to destroy somebody: we're assassinating their character; we're discrediting them; we're gossiping about them; we're slandering about them; we're buying into far right-/far left-leaning cable news narratives—we're buying into that. We start committing “assume-icide”; right? We assume caricatures about people, reducing them to the very worst things we can think about them as people. That's rage. We have a society that thrives on rage; rage is monetized. You know, the first line in A Gentle Answer, the book, is a quote from John Perkins, who says that this generation is the first generation that's learned to turn hate into an asset.
If we are attacking problems, not people—if we are angry at problems—that is a very godly thing. Part of why God sent Jesus was because God got angry at a problem that's destroying us. He didn't get angry at us; He got angry at the problem that's enslaved us—sin—right? And so he sent Jesus out of anger [toward sin]. You know, the Psalms—you know, as well as Ephesians—actually say, “Be angry.” You know, you guys have dabbled somewhere along the way, I'm sure, in Hebrew and Greek, the original languages for the Old and New Testament.
Unfortunately, I don't know why this happens in English translation sometimes—In John, Chapter 11 [verse 33], Jesus gets infuriated at death; but they tone the language down for some reason—it says: “He was deeply moved in Spirit.” What it really says is: “He was as mad as a hornet,”/“He was as angry as a raging bull,”—is the language. I don't know; maybe we're a little scared to present Him as He actually is. And also, our English translations will say, “In your anger, do not sin,”—when, in fact, it says—“Be angry”—imperative; it's a command—“Be angry and do not sin.”
What does that mean? Well, if you go to Romans, it describes what that means: “Hate what is evil and cling to what is good.” In order to cling to what is good, you have to hate what's evil. Attack the problem, not the people. You know, even C.S. Lewis—he said that “Christianity is a fighting religion.” In Mere Christianity, one of the most famous Christian books every written: “Christianity is a fighting religion. It looks at the world and sees everything that is wrong, and it goes on the attack.” The reason why hospitals exist is because of Christians who got angry at sickness; Christians invented the hospital. The reason why Ivy League universities exist is because Christians got angry about the lack of education in undeveloped minds. You know, the reason why the orphan care movements and the foster care movements got started was because Christians got angry at isolated, unloved kids and orphaned kids.
You could go on and on and on and on—civil rights movement—somebody got angry at the injustices toward black people. That movement was led by a Christian, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the likes of John Perkins, who is spoken about in the book. I could keep going; but anger has fueled so many beautiful movements in the name of Christ over the years, that have attacked problems while seeking to rescue people from those problems.
Bob: I think about that, in our marriages and our families, and say: “If we can recognize”—as we've said, for years, at the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway—“your mate is not your enemy; your mate's your ally. There is an enemy who wants to destroy your marriage, and we should be angry at him. There are problems that may exist in your marriage, and you should attack those problems without attacking one another. And when we can figure out how to do anger right,”—one of the things you talk about in the book—“then we can be on the way to a productive, healthy relationship that can bring honor and glory to God.”
Dave: And I'm actually hoping there's a husband/there's a wife, that's angry right now, in a righteous way, at where their marriage may be. You know, it's like: “I've let it drift; I've allowed mediocrity to be the norm of our home.” Listening to you, Scott, and this broadcast right now, they're like, “What am I doing? This is the day. I'm mad enough to do something.”
Of course, the only way you're going to move into your marriage and make it better is gently. You can't storm in there and say, “You've got to love me like you're supposed to, woman.” You're going to have to walk in gently and tenderly. But anger should be/it's okay to be the foundation; because, as you just illustrated, it has led to all kinds of great stuff. It can literally change your marriage and your legacy if you gently move in and say: “No more; this is not going to happen any more. I'm stepping into this marriage like I should, and I'm going to do the right thing.”
Scott: Yes; there are two challenges there: one is being/raging at our spouse; the other is raging at [yourself] through self-loathing—you know: “I'm such a failure,” etc. It's been so many years of this tense undercurrent of anger, maybe toward one another, that they may feel stuck. They may even read the chapter in the book and think, “You know, this all sounds great; but so much water under the bridge—we feel so stuck.” This is where a really good marriage and family counselor can be just a gift; I highly recommend it. I mean, I think I'm probably in that category of people that have a strong healthy marriage, and we go to a counselor regularly to help us with where we are still not arrived.
And the thing is—we'll never arrive—so we've always got things to work on. Especially, if you're in crisis, you may not have the resources, just the two of you, to undo or reverse eight, ten, twenty, fifty years of [ill-health]. But that doesn't mean there isn't hope; because there are people, who can really help with that stuff. It's worth the money; it's worth the time; it's worth it.
Bob: Scott, I'm sitting here thinking: “How marriages would be different in the next four months if we started practicing what you're talking about in this book. If we were angry at the right stuff, if we developed thicker skin, if we started responding gently to one another with humility, how would our family culture be different? How would our marriages be different? How would our country be different?—if we found the way to go through an election season with humility, and gentleness, and wanting to listen to the other side, rather than just to score points.”
I hope people will get a copy of your book, and read it and underline it, and share it with one another, and talk about: “How can we be this kind of person?”
Thank you for coming over and spending this time with us and helping us think about these things.
Scott: My pleasure; thanks.
Bob: We want to make your book available this week to any FamilyLife Today listener who can help underwrite the cost of producing and syndicating this program, so that others can hear practical biblical help and hope for their marriage and their families. Day in and day out, you help us reach more people, more often, when you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today. If you're able to help with a donation today, we'd love to send you Scott's book as a way of saying, “Thank you.” The book, again, is called A Gentle Answer: Our “Secret Weapon” in an Age of Us against Them.
You can donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY; make your donation over the phone. You're really investing in the lives, and the marriages, and the families of hundreds of thousands of people every day, who are turning to FamilyLife Today on radio, on their mobile device, listening as a podcast, or listening on their Alexa® device. They're coming to us for encouragement and to be mentored, and you make that possible when you donate. Again, you can donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Thanks, in advance, for your support; and we hope you enjoy Scott's book, A Gentle Answer. We're happy to send it out to you.
We hope you have a great weekend. I hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend. And I hope you can join us back on Monday,
when we're going to talk about what we do when we experience betrayal in marriage, from a family member, or from someone outside our family. How do we respond when we've been betrayed? Phil Waldrep joins us to talk with us about that. I hope you can join us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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