Involuntary Self-Denial and Relationship Breakdown

Involuntary Self-Denial and Relationship Breakdown

Why so many problems begin with frustrated desire

FrustrationEvery 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.

Dragon Droppings

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!)

Originally published at CTLibrary on June 13, 2007
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today International.
Used with permission.

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[tags]accountability, anger, article, Beatitudes, behavior, behaviour, Ben-Patterson, bible, blasphemy, blogrodent, boasting, Christ, christianity, christianity-today, Christianity-Today-Library, church, church-split, complaining, covet, criticism, ctlibrary, deceit, desires, evil, expectations, faith, family, fight, fighting, flattery, frustrated-desire, grace, hatred, hedonism, hypocrisy, James-1, James-4, jealousy, Jim-Burns, kill, leadership, listening, loss, Marshall-Shelley, Martyn-Lloyd-Jones, Matthew-5, Mike-Zigarelli, mockery, murder, murmuring, original-sin, Os-Hillman, outrage, pain, pastors, patience, personal-rights, prayer, profanity, published battle, quarrelling, relationships, religion, repentance, self-abnegation, self-centeredness, self-denial, self-interests, selfishness, sin, Source-of-Anger, spiritual-warfare, submission, temptation, Terry-Muck, the-tongue, theology, war, warfare, Well-Intentioned-Dragons[/tags]

4 thoughts on “Involuntary Self-Denial and Relationship Breakdown

  1. jim

    While we can always attempt to do better, I’m of the opinion that I spent a lot of years pre-Christ unsuccessfully trying to change myself, surely the only difference in me post-Christ IS Christ and if I don’t bring Him into the solution, little is accomplished. The wife and I battled with each other (and I mean “battled”) for seven years before coming to an altar in ’72. She is quick to anger and it’s over person. I, on the other hand, am quite easy-going, holding it all in and then suddenly explode over nothing. For nearly two years after we were saved, while much did change, religion was just another weapon in the arsenal. I came home from work one day, tired, tight, (nho excuse) and we got into an argument at the supper table over my mother. Boom! I was ready to burst, but what to do? Christians don’t go to war with their wife. Down to the basement I stomped, fuming like a volcano ready to erupt, and began to pick up anything I could get my hands on to throw whichever way it would go. Ranting (but not cursing) like a madman, I was suddenly stopped in my tracks by the sound of my middle daughter’s (age 5?) voice. “Daddy!” she yelled; and I just stood there thinking: “What’s wrong with you? You could kill somebody like this!” Something washed over me; and, while I wouldn’t tell you the wife and I haven’t still had a disagreement or three in years since, that part of “the old man” died that day………..

  2. Rich Post author

    Your daughter, at least, got you to stop talking!

    I agree with you, Jim, it’s Christ’s enabling power that makes it possible. As Paul says in Philippians when he challenges us to live in unity, to “be of one mind, to have the mind of Christ, he says that, ultimately it is God who works in us and through us to do his will.

    But spiritual transformation and character change don’t just happen to us, as you well know. As Paul says elsewhere, in Romans 12, when he talks about being renewed, he describes the process as being like a living sacrifice.

    The problem with sacrifices that are still alive is it’s hard to keep ‘em from crawling off the altar. I know I find it hard. It’s uncomfortable, mighty uncomortable, staking the old man to the altar to die. That old man is me, and I don’t like it there, under God’s knife. I keep wanting to crawl off the spot. But like Paul who beats his body daily into submission, you and I both have to make constant decisions about this thing called character.

    We’re not called disciples for nothing. It does, indeed, take discipline.

    Thanks for contributing!



  3. Common Swift


    ”The problem with sacrifices that are still alive is it’s hard to keep ‘em from crawling off the altar. I know I find it hard. It’s uncomfortable, mighty uncomortable, staking the old man to the altar to die. That old man is me, and I don’t like it there, under God’s knife. I keep wanting to crawl off the spot. But like Paul who beats his body daily into submission, you and I both have to make constant decisions about this thing called character.

    “We’re not called disciples for nothing. It does, indeed, take discipline.”

    THAT is the reason I voted you best blogger, Rich.

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