I’ve never been particularly interested in or good at science classes, though I could always pass them fairly easily. My college major of Home Economics Education required a few sciences, though: biology, chemistry, and zoology. I have never figured out the zoology requirement – all I remember from that class is a session about parasites in some countries that could get into a break in the skin if you’re wading and grow the length of your leg – inside your leg. (Yikes!)
The chemistry class was a very basic one that mostly Home Ec. and P. E. majors took. Some of my memories from it were the experiments where we had an unidentified solution and had to try to do different things to it to determine what it was. I enjoyed the puzzle-solving aspect of that. One other memory from that class comes from one of our first times doing lab work. Among the safety instructions was this: if you pick up a beaker or test tube that is excessively hot, don’t drop it. Whether it’s hot from a chemical reaction or from heating, dropping it would likely cause it to break, splash, or spill, causing more damage to one’s skin than a momentary burn. We were instructed to carefully and calmly put it down, and then see if our burned skin was anything more than minor discomfort. I’m sure there had to have been instructions on avoiding that problem in the first place (timed heating, tongs, gloves, etc.), but what stood out to me was the necessity of controlling a reaction in a situation where a natural but uncontrolled one would multiply any damage already done.
This came to mind recently when a reaction of mine could have been disastrous if the circumstances had been just a little different. I find I am in the most danger of an uncontrolled reaction when I’m angry, hungry, frustrated, over-tired, over-stimulated, wronged. But I don’t see any of those listed as excuses in Scripture for not being filled with the Spirit. Yes, there is grace and forgiveness. Yes, God remembers that we’re just dust, and we need to do the same. But He does want us to grow in grace and the knowledge of Him and to continually change us to act more and more like Him. Lashing back at hurtful words, yelling at a child who has done wrong, matching the speed of the car trying to cut us off, could all cause more damage than the original offense.
I’m not talking about stuffing or burying our feelings. Sometimes we need to clear the air, deal with an offense, make a change. But we do also need to be forbearing, loving, and kind, which does not characterize uncontrolled reactions.
Usually afterward I can put the situation in perspective, apply Scriptural truth, see what I should have done. But how to keep from those wrong reactions in the first place?
I read just recently that we have more self-control than we think we do, because there are certain people we wouldn’t react wrongly in front of (a boss, a pastor, etc.), and because we can shift gears if, for instance, we answer the phone or someone walks in. Perhaps pretending that someone I respect is with me or watching me would help – or, more likely, to remember that my Lord is with me and watching all the time.
Of course, the general means of Christian growth help as well: reading, remembering, and meditating on Scripture, prayer, etc. Perhaps specific study in problems areas or in yielding to God’s control would particularly help. The more we are in God’s Word, the more the Holy Spirit can bring it to our minds when needed. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).
Here are some other steps that I find helpful:
- Stop. Just stop whatever the natural reaction is and take a moment to take a deep breath and think.
- Pray – for help, for the right reactions, for wisdom.
- If possible, get a few moments alone. That helps emotions to cool down and gives time to gain perspective. When my children needed to be disciplined, we always told them to go sit on our bed, wait for us, and think. While we did want them to think about the situation, we also needed that time to make sure our own emotions were under control, to pray, and to discuss the best course of action.
- Take care of whatever needs to be taken care of at the moment. (Wipe up the spill, slow down, feed the hungry child, etc.)
- Listen to that voice in your head telling you not to react the way you feel like reacting.
- Remember the damage that could be caused if you react the way you feel like reacting.
- Let it go. Not like the Disney song, but, as someone once said, you don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to. So what if another driver cuts me off, if every line I get in at the store slows to a stop, if interruptions invade my day. It’s not the end of the world. Who says I have any right to expect everything to go exactly my way all the time? (I need to preach this to myself often!)
- Don’t feed the flame. This is related to the above, but don’t keep rehearsing over and over whatever got you upset in the first place. That’s only going to keep your emotions stirred up.
- Die to self. “See in this which seems to stir up all you most wish were not stirred up — see in it a chance to die to self in every form. Accept it as just that – a chance to die” (Amy Carmichael).
- Afterward, consider ways the problem could be avoided next time (leave early enough so that I am not stressed driving, don’t over-schedule, get enough rest, make sure to listen to what the other person is saying and ask questions to avoid misunderstanding, etc.)
- Don’t give way in little things and then expect to be longsuffering in major areas.
A word of explanation about that last one: I used to think that if I gave way to temper or frustration in little things when I was home alone, it wouldn’t be a problem: there was no one to see me and no one would be hurt by anything I said or did. But I was wrong, because it fosters the habit of giving way instead of reinforcing the exercise of self-control.
In our last couple of Sunday School classes, we’ve been talking about Moses, specifically the incident in Numbers 20 when the children of Israel needed water and got after Moses about it. Moses went to God, and God told him to speak to the rock, and water would come forth. But after chiding the people a bit, Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it. Now, I confess I would have lost it with the people long before Moses did. In verse 12 God says Moses’ action reflected unbelief. I don’t know whether he was going by the formula that worked before (in Exodus 17, God did tell Moses to strike a rock to get water), trusting in his action or his rod rather than in the word of God, or what exactly. His words, “Must we fetch you water out of this rock” (verse 10) indicates he was trusting in his action rather than God’s word. But for that God barred him from entering into the promised land that he had been leading Israel to for almost 40 years (verse 12), one of the costliest consequences of an uncontrolled reaction recorded in Scripture. On the other hand, David, when slighted and repulsed by Nabal, was going to come and decimate Nabal and his men until Abigail intervened and talked him down with her calmness, reason, and gifts (1 Samuel 25). To David’s credit, he listened and stopped what he planned to do, and God took care of Nabal. Abigail prevented major bloodshed and became David’s wife.
Of course, our prime example of godly, controlled reactions is our Lord Jesus. His turning out the money changers in the temple was not a temper tantrum: it was a cleansing of His Father’s house. He “did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (I Peter 2:22-24). The more we “with unveiled face, behold the glory of the Lord,” the more we”are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. James 1:19
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23