I have a rotten temper. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. I’ve spent my whole life battling to control it, and most of the time I succeed–but not always. For instance, when I was in middle school, my temper really flared up. I knew that flying off the handle wasn’t a “godly” way to live, so I went to my father for help. Dad told me that I needed to pray every night for Jesus to help me control my temper–so I did. I also asked my mother’s advice, and she told me to memorize Bible verses about anger–so I did. Soon, James 1:19-20 became my motto: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” For the next several years, instead of counting to ten, I would quote James’s words underneath my breath.
Eventually, for the most part, I brought my temper under control. At least it WAS under control until I experienced carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty furnace. Two of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are anger and lack of restraint. Not a good combination for someone with a dormant temper just waiting to explode. I struggled against my temper for a long time, but then I finally gave into it—in private. I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to create a fuss. Behaving politely in public has been drummed into me from a young age. So when I felt boiling mad, I would simply bottle it up until I got to my bedroom. Then I would pummel my pillow. I know it probably looked ridiculous. A furious person silently punching a pillow—but for the most part, it was effective. It was silent. It didn’t create a stir. I had Colossians 3:8 memorized, and I knew that as a Christian, I was supposed to put off anger, wrath, and malice. But since my temper wasn’t hurting anyone, I didn’t really think it mattered. After all, the pillow wasn’t objecting.
One day, I ran into a certain man who always made my blood boil. Years earlier he had said some hurtful things, and deep down inside–underneath my shiny Christian veneer–I hadn’t forgiven him. Whenever I saw him, my stomach churned. On that day, when he talked to me, he seemed extra annoying. Immediately, every grievance I had against him rose to the surface. I hated his smug face. I hated his “nice” words. I hated HIM. I wanted to cuss him out—really let some choice words fly. But swearing would be an even worse crime than losing my temper in public. Keeping the smile firmly on my face, I cut the conversation short and left. With my anger squeezing my heart and flaring up inside my mind, I went home. All I wanted to do was get to my pillow and punch away my angry feelings, but I was so mad that I didn’t make it that far. When I reached my staircase, my knees wobbled and I sat down with a furious plop.
As I sat there, hands knotted into fists, tears stinging my eyes, I felt the gentle tug of the Holy Spirit. I knew God wanted me to finally forgive that man, but I didn’t want to do it. My fury turned into a cold, dark rage. The more I felt God tugging on my heart, the angrier I became. After all, in my way of thinking, why should I forgive that jerk? He’d hurt me! He should be begging for my forgiveness. He deserved to crawl. The Lord’s gentle Spirit kept tugging—urging me toward forgiveness. Finally, I looked up at the ceiling and shouted just as loudly as I could, “I’ll be DAMNED to hell before I forgive him!!!!”
The world fell silent.
Deep in my spirit, God spoke. His words weren’t audible, but they were powerful. He simply said, “If that’s how you want it.”
I felt shocked. The full impact God’s words rolled over me. Was God really telling me that if I didn’t forgive that jerk, I was going to hell?? Surely not! After all, I was a Christian. I was–for the most part–a good person. Just being a little angry and holding onto a grudge wasn’t that big of a deal. Was it?
I listened, but God didn’t say anything else.
Squirming in my skin, I went to my bedroom. I looked at my pillow, but the desire to pummel it had fled. I felt like a deflated balloon. Reaching for my Bible, I thumbed through it until I came to Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:21-23, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, [a term of contempt] shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”
My jaw tightened. My stomach churned. I turned the page as quickly as I could. My eyes landed on Matthew 6:14-15, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses.”
I slammed my Bible shut and shoved it underneath my bed. Sitting with my chin in my hands, I squirmed. The scripture was clear—brutally clear. I didn’t know how it worked for everyone else on the planet, but I knew that I had pushed the boundary of God’s grace just as far as I could. God had given me a direct command–and a direct warning–if I didn’t heed it…well, I didn’t want to think about what might happen if I didn’t heed it. I groaned. I knew I needed to forgive that arrogant jerk. I just didn’t know how I was going to manage it. After all, I didn’t feel in a forgiving mood.
Suddenly, I heard a whisper deep down in my spirit, “Forgiveness isn’t an emotion. It’s a choice.”
I rolled the sentence around my brain, and I could tell that it was true. I also knew that it was going to be incredibly hard for me to do. Praying for God’s help, I said in a wobbly voice, “I forgive him.”
I’d like to say that’s where things ended. I’d like to say that the clouds parted and the blue birds suddenly started to sing. I’d like to say that my angry feelings magically disappeared. But that’s not what happened. After my prayer, I ended up entering into one of the hardest battles of my life.
2 Corinthians 10:5 instructs us to take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ, and that’s what I had to do about a thousand times a day. When angry thoughts would batter my brain, I would have to stop thinking the angry thoughts on purpose. When hurtful memories would surface, I would have to stop thinking about the memories on purpose. Since my brain could only hold so many thoughts at once, I would force myself to mentally sing a hymn when I felt myself starting to get mad. It was a tremendous battle, and it took over a year to win. But eventually, the sting went out of my memories. Eventually, I could see the person who’d hurt me without my stomach clinching. Eventually, the old bitterness just wasn’t there anymore.
Looking back, I realize that I learned some important lessons that day. I learned that anger—even when it is expressed privately–is wrong. I learned to watch my words when I am praying and NEVER swear at God (shocker!). I learned that forgiveness isn’t just a nice, fluffy, happy idea—it’s a command that can’t be ignored. And I learned that forgiveness isn’t an emotion—it’s a choice.
At times, I still struggle with anger but the battle isn’t as hard as it was before. And if there ever comes a time when the battle within me rages strongly again, I have an arsenal of hymns at my disposal. After all, I’ve learned that it’s awfully hard to mentally cuss someone out while you’re also mentally singing “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”–especially if you’re singing it at the top of your brain’s imaginary lungs. Forgiveness isn’t easy, but when you’ve finally won through, living with yourself is much easier than when you’re bitter. Forgiveness makes your mind feel so much better. The battle is horribly hard, but it’s a battle that can be won. And I’ve learned that the freedom gained is worth the effort.
“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Colossians 3:13