“…throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life…Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes…get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words…Instead, be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”
–Ephesians 4:22-23, 31-32
These used to be words I read over easily and nodded my head, “yes, yes, don’t let anger control you, be kind and forgiving, got it.” But in this season of my life, stripped down and rubbed raw by all the moving and transition and stress and adjustment, I have been poring over scripture, desperately searching for help with my anger.
My two sweetest relationships: with the Lord and with Cody, have been riddled with conflict and punctuated with my outbursts. And so this week, I sat long with this passage. It describes the purge of what is harsh and the renewal of tender-heartedness that I so long for.
My response: “Yes, but how?”
The answer provided in the passage is: Instead, let the Spirit.
As I have processed this last year and some of the difficulties I’ve walked through, I’ve come to realize how easy it is to place myself in a stand-off with God, to grow frustrated with Him and accuse Him, and then end up feeling hopeless because I don’t like how He’s doing things, but where else can I turn?
Two verses from Romans helped me to understand this pattern of what I tend to do and what it means to instead, let the Spirit:
1. “For the sinful nature is always hostile to God.”Romans 8:7
The stand-offs, the arguments, the frustration, the hostility, these are not some new dynamic in my relationship with the Lord that I have to figure out how to navigate. No. The sinful nature IS ALWAYS hostile to God. These attitudes are only the sinful nature’s expected response to trouble. This is how it always acts. It’s that annoying character in the story who takes every opportunity to pick a fight. Hostile thoughts are not cause for alarm, they only signal that I need to adjust who I’m listening to.
2. “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?”Romans 8:35
This is the new nature’s response to trouble: yes, God has allowed something hard, but that does not mean I am separated from his love. It doesn’t mean that I have lost his favor, or that I’m doing something wrong, or that he’s no longer on my side. Trouble does not equal abandonment. The Spirit speaks truth and the new nature clings to it.
One response is filled with suspicion. The other chooses to operate on trust. I can lean into my frustration and my demand for answers, or I can instead, let the Spirit answer my troubled heart with the reassurance that it is not unloved.
And so, I am slowly learning not to put myself at odds with God when I don’t understand my circumstances. It is in hard situations that I most need to let the Spirit speak truth rather than allowing my fear and hurt and confusion to push down his words. I need to recognize that when hostile thoughts crop up, it is a sign I have been listening to the sin nature’s poisonous words and started to distrust the One who is only ever true.
In the same way, I think the how of exchanging harsh for tender-hearted in my marriage lies in recognizing hostility.
Just as hostility toward God is how the sinful nature always responds to trouble, I think that hostility toward each other is how the sinful nature always responds to conflict. Hostility is NOT an inevitable symptom of how serious the disagreement or misunderstanding is.
I have been operating in frustrated, angry helplessness as we face our conflicts, knowing that I’m doing this wrong but not sure how to do it differently. I’m all fired up, but determined to press on because I’m sure we can’t get to a better place until we solve the problem at hand, so it’s bound to be messy until it’s settled.
But I have been wrong.
We can get to a better place before we solve the problem at hand. If I only recognize that the reason I’m angry and harsh and exploding is not because of the conflict, it’s because of the sin nature. If we let the Spirit in, we can then work at the problem while still offering kindness, tender-heartedness, and forgiveness to each other. We can be in the midst of a conflict and at the same time not hostile with each other. We can problem-solve while we walk in the Spirit.
And so, as I walk forward, I must have a radar always operating that checks for hostility with every sweep. Conflict does not equal hostility, and a blip on the radar lets me know it’s time to step back, check who I am listening to, and alter course.
I know there’s a learning curve here, and I desperately want to get it. Please be my teacher. Please show me how to recognize when I am operating out of anger and bitterness. Let my own harsh words catch my attention. Let me not over-complicate what’s going on, but recognize that I have a sin nature, eager to jump into a fight and an enemy, eager to destroy us, who only waits for the foothold anger gives him to force his way in and stir up all sorts of trouble.
Teach us, Lord, to be a team who knows how desperately we need you and who always, always lets you in to our troubles, trusting you to renew our thoughts and attitudes, to give us a fresh beginning at what feels so impossible and new understanding of what feel so hurtful. Remind us that we are working together at this. We are not enemies.
Supply kindness, tender-heartedness, and forgiveness to the point of overflowing so we have plenty to buffer us through the rough spots.
The rapids can be bumpy when you are white water rafting, but if there’s enough water in the river you don’t snag on the stones. Let it be so with the kindness and grace you pour into our relationship, for we have been snagging.
Lord, we need your help and your Spirit living within us to guide us through our conflicts so that we are not waiting until we reach the other side of the rapids for things to be okay in the raft.
Help me to grow toward maturity and learn, in the heat of the moment, to let the Spirit in. May I start to see what a difference you are able to make in the midst of my helplessness and what beauty you are able to craft from my struggles if I only invite you into them.