Why so many problems begin with frustrated desire
Every day, headlines assault us with troubling news. These recent titles from a local news website are just a small sampling:
- Two Shotgunned to Death [source]
- Joyriding Gang Member Slain; Crash Injures Family [source]
- Local Soldier Dies in Afghanistan [source]
- School Gets Tough on Commencement Outbursts [source]
- Wife Gets $184 Million in Divorce Ruling [source]
From international to household warfare, roadway to classroom outrage, and mortal to financial loss, such stories reveal our fallen, human propensity to sin.
The cause of these impulsive, sinful outbursts is no secret: When we want what we cannot get, we lash out.
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight (James 4:1-3).
Although this passage does not seem especially applicable — after all, not many of us are covetous murderers — it echoes Jesus’ words from the Beatitudes: “You have heard that it was said … ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22, emphasis added). Indeed, both these exhortations address the church, not the headline-generating unbelievers that feel comfortably distant from us.
Frustration Is the Key
But the root problem is the same for us all, believers or not: frustration.
“The source of anger is often unmet expectations or personal rights,” writes Os Hillman in his devotional on anger. “We believe we are entitled to a particular outcome to a situation. When this doesn’t happen, it triggers something in us.” This thwarted desire triggers more than mere squabbles, says Martyn Lloyd-Jones; it can even lead to international war.
But just because frustration “triggers” anger — as a physician’s tap triggers a knee jerk — it does not provoke a hardwired, truly uncontrollable response. Rather, says Hillman, “We all choose to get angry. No one else is to blame for our anger. … Anger only reveals what is inside.”
Such anger does not always express itself in physical confrontations like war. Often it is subtler, masquerading as rationalization and self-righteous criticism. Pastors know well these guises of anger, for the one behind the pulpit is familiar with the disappointment and critique resulting from a congregation’s high expectations. In “Why I Expect Conflict,” Pastor Ben Patterson describes two church members who simultaneously abandoned the congregation for opposite, rational reasons: one wished the pastor were more conservative, the other more liberal.
Simple disagreement is natural in any ministry relationship. But when competing interests cannot be resolved, frustration festers and chaos results. As Patterson explains,
Differences, even clashes, between parties in a church do not in themselves constitute conflict of a destructive kind. They can be signs of vitality. … It is when they defy peaceful resolution and become protracted and entrenched in the life of a church that they become sinful and destructive.
The primary evidence of this sinful self-interest is a restless and inflammatory tongue. Just a few of the evils that the apostle James warns can emanate from an undisciplined tongue include blasphemy, profanity, boasting, flattery, complaining, murmuring, deceit, hypocrisy, and mockery. These myriad sins are comparable to the fiery exhalations of dragons, as Marshall Shelley aptly states in Well Intentioned Dragons:
Dragons are best known for what comes out of their mouths. At times their mouths are flame throwers; other times the heat and smoke are not apparent, but the noxious gas does the damage. Their tongues may be smooth, but they are usually forked.
Fortunately, the antidote to heated tongues — or frustrations — is fairly straightforward, though it may be difficult to swallow.
Rx: Stop Talking
The first prescription is to close our mouths. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry,” James suggests, “for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (1:19-20; see also 1:26 and 3:2). Describing our typical response to maltreatment, Mike Zigarelli offers a solution to undisciplined behavior: “Injustice visited us and we threw objectivity to the wind. We responded instinctively. Quickly. Verbally. Probably improperly. Such a response is a function of the way we’re made. … The first step in responding to unfair treatment is to tighten the reigns on our tongue and initially to retreat.”
Rx: Start Praying
The second mandate is to pray. But not just any kind of praying. It must focus on the necessary and helpful rather than on the hedonistic. “You do not have, because you do not ask God,” James explains. “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:1-3).
Choosing prayer “will be the turning point,” Zigarelli promises. We should specifically ask God to “reveal the source of that anger,” Os Hillman suggests. “Ask him to heal you of any fears that may be the root of your anger. Ask God to help you take responsibility for your response to difficult situations.”
Often, however, our immediate response to difficulties is not prayer at all. “In many areas of our lives, we simply do not consult God. … He is not opposed as much as merely ignored,” Terry Muck admits in his helpful book Liberating the Leader’s Prayer Life. Muck also echoes James’s counsel on slowness to speak, applying it to speaking to God as well:
At times, our prayer requests go unanswered because they are poorly formed or presumptuous. We do not take time to discover what the true, pure desires of our hearts should be, and thus offer up incomplete, half-hearted requests that God would be a fool to answer.
Rx: Start Submitting
The third medication is to submit. A dose of repentance and humility can aid us in deciding which desires to relinquish, and which to pursue.
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.
Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up (James 4:7-10).
As we submit to God, we also need to submit to others. “We must develop an accountability relationship with someone who can provide grace, understanding, and tough questions,” suggests Jim Burns. And to overcome submission to the devil, we must pull out our “I-mean-business” card, as Rich Miller calls it. For resisting the devil demands serious spiritual warfare.
Rx: Start Doing
These three spiritual prescriptions, however, are useless in theory only. We must also act, as James exhorts us. “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (1:22).
When we recognize that frustration is the root of anger, we can begin to understand the reason for the troubling headlines in our news. And we can ask God for help to control our desires, manage our tongues, and keep us out of the news!
(Your comments and thoughts are welcome!)
(Note: Most of the articles linked above require paid membership at CTLibrary.com to view, but if you’re the kind of person who enjoys reading Christianity Today, Leadership, Books & Culture, or Christian History & Biography, it may well be worth it. Also, though I was once employed by Christianity Today, I do not personally benefit from any transactions through these sites.)
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