Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of a fascinating book entitled The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-By-Day Guide to Ethical Living. In it he offers a particularly useful piece of advice that will help you keep the peace or restore it once it’s been lost:
“Restrict the expression of your anger to the incident that provoked it. Be as critical or annoyed as you like.”1
But make sure your words remain focused on the incident that made you angry in the first place. If you do that, you will probably not say anything permanently damaging to yourself or others.
Telushkin is not telling us to ignore our anger or to stuff it in a box but rather to put a leash on it. Similarly, Paul tells the Ephesians “Be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26, rsv). Paul assumes we will get angry. The point is what we do with our anger. Do we control it, or does it control us? Paul also sets limits to our anger by saying we should never let the sun go down on it. In other words, don’t go to bed angry.
For some of us, anger has always been a problem. Getting it under control is a huge challenge. It’s like trying to leash train a dog that’s always been allowed to run wild. At first the dog will strain at the leash, pulling you down the street and barking at every other dog in sight. But if you’re patient and persistent and know even a little bit about dogs, you will eventually be able to train it to walk beside you. You can do something similar with your anger.
If you have a hard time putting your anger on a leash, consider getting help, perhaps taking a course in anger management. And don’t forget that another name for the Holy Spirit is the Helper. Ask God to guide you through the power of the Spirit, helping you to learn how to control your anger so it no longer controls you.
1. Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-By-Day Guide to Ethical Living (New York: Bell Tower, 2000), 34.
Kathy Cronkite, daughter of the famed newscaster Walter Cronkite, has written about her struggles with depression, describing what it felt like:
I walk outside, it’s the first day of spring, sun shining, breeze wafting, birds singing—so what? My baby gives me one of those dazzling you’re-the-only-one-in-the-world smiles—so what? My best friend calls with good news, my boss gives me a raise, my husband cooks my favorite meal—so what? None of it touches me, nothing makes me smile. I’m one beat off, one step removed from all around me. . . . Although I am no longer suicidal, as I write this the weight is still on my shoulders, the stone sits in my stomach, my face wears a tight mask. I don’t give in to it. I keep myself moving, the battle invisible even to those closest to me. But now, at least, I know what’s dogging me. I know this will not last. I am not going to die. I am not going to feel this way forever. The world is not crumbling. I am not crazy, or bad, or lacking in faith or in discipline. I have a disease. It’s called depression.1
Those of us who have never suffered from clinical depression have little idea of how dark the darkness must be for those who do. If you suffer from this disorder, you may wonder how you will ever experience God’s peace. Though I have no easy answers to offer, I can say with confidence that God has not left you and he will not fail you—ever.
Today I pray that he will find a way to encourage you and give you hope. I pray that he will hold you, strengthen you, and put you on the path toward peace. I pray, too, that you will discover medical and practical help to ease your suffering. I pray that the Lord, who knows the inner workings of the mind better than any psychologist or psychiatrist, will bring his healing power to all who suffer from depression and other mental disorders.
Steve Jobs gave the 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University. He told the audience that his decision to drop out of college years earlier was the best one he’d ever made. Why? In part because dropping out of required courses that bored him made it possible for him to drop in on any courses that interested him. One of these was a course on calligraphy, a class that seemed entirely impractical, focusing as it did on all the minute details that make for great typography.
“None of this,” he told the Stanford students, “had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward ten years later.”
Jobs drove the point home again, saying, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”1
As Christians, we trust in something far better than our “gut” or “karma.” In these uncertain times, it’s worth remembering the advice of one of the world’s most successful men. No matter how hard we try to peer into the future, we can never connect the dots looking forward. Only God can do that. Even now, God is at work connecting the dots of our personal stories, working out his plan for all those who love him.
- Steve Jobs (commencement address, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, June 12, 2005), "‘You’ve Got to Find What You Love,’ Jobs Says,” prepared transcript, Stanford University News, accessed January 5, 2017, http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html.
Last year someone gave me a journal on which these words are printed:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
Though I use the journal regularly, I confess that I’ve secretly disliked the prayer printed on the front cover. Why? For one thing, the pages of my journal are filled with the names of those I am praying for, people who desperately need something to change in their lives. They need healing, peace, provision, salvation, wisdom, rescue, hope. They are people who are out of work, who have lost a loved one, who are in jail, who are depressed or dying. It seems an assault on faith to embrace a prayer that implies that some circumstances will not likely change. For another, this prayer challenges deeply embedded beliefs about my own ability to change things. After all, I am a fighter, not someone who gives up. I am active, not passive. Or at least that is how I like to see myself.
At first I was tempted to give the journal away or consign it to the trash bin. Instead, I forced myself to use it. I kept it because I suspected that God was trying to get my attention. After all, this prayer has hit a chord with millions of people who have struggled with various kinds of addiction. Surely there was something I needed to learn from it.
As I began to unpack the prayer, I considered the obvious—that it expresses the starting point of faith, which is my own inability to provide for anyone’s deepest needs, including my own. To reach this place is to face reality, to let go of illusions. To stop kidding myself about what I can and cannot do. Though illusions can be comforting, they keep me leaning into my own limited powers rather than God’s all-sufficient power. Contrary to first impressions, the serenity prayer is not about giving up but about letting go so God can do what only he can, and that is to bring healing, peace, salvation, wisdom, rescue, and hope to those who need it. There are of course some things in life that we can change. That’s why the whole prayer goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.