By Carole Duff
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1 (NIV)
I huddled on my side of bed in the middle of the night, wakeful and worried and feeling guilty. I’d broken a cardinal rule of marriage: don’t go to bed angry. Since I knew my upset indicated a lack of courage to confront the issue, I prayed. My “beggie prayers,” as Anne Lamott calls them, often seem like one-way conversations. And yet, asking for help calms the choppy waters of my wrath and turns away bitterness, even though no words come back to me.
But this time I heard a gentle voice: “You are loved.”
Okay, those three words were unexpected—and welcome.
And then this: “You are greatly loved.”
I knew in my heart, it was the voice of Jesus.
When Keith and I embarked on marriage in our fifties, adjustments sometimes grew hot, and we sought counseling. At the first meeting, our counselor handed me a copy of psychologist Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships. I admit to being put off by the title because I wasn’t angry. Or was I?
Lerner identifies two kinds of women: Nice Ladies and Not Nice Women—she uses a different term for the latter, but you get the idea. Nice Ladies keep anger to themselves and avoid clear statements of thoughts and feelings in order to protect and preserve harmony. They are not good at admitting to or expressing anger but are great at feeling guilty about not giving enough or not doing enough—and at feeling guilty about anger felt even when not expressed. Feeling angry about not getting enough is considered “selfish.” Society rewards Nice Ladies, Lerner writes, but personal costs are very high. Nice Ladies are sleep walkers, their energy—creative, intellectual, sexual—trapped by their need to repress anger and remain unaware of the sources.
Not Nice Women have no problem expressing anger. But their nagging and complaining is ineffective, especially since it’s usually directed toward people who see no need to change. Both Nice Ladies and Not Nice Women often take responsibility for other people’s feelings, thoughts, and behavior while handing over to others responsibility for their own. They do so by alternately pursuing, distancing, under functioning, over functioning, and blaming. In my experience, these behaviors are part of maintaining one’s identity—the sinner’s, not the saint’s.
I usually fit the Nice Lady profile, though there are times when I am a Not Nice Nag. Regardless of Nice or Not Nice, I’ve been known to pursue others mercilessly with my “not angry” angry complaints. When I’m on a roll, and self-righteous shaming doesn’t work, I revert to sulking in self-pity while under-functioning. Or I over criticize myself and over function—my favorite behavior at this point. But my go-to in the heat of battle is blame. As Anne Lamott wrote in Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, “I am very strong on blame and wish this were one of God’s values, but trust, surrender? Letting go, forgiveness?”
So. Trust, surrender, forgiveness—not my strong suits. How to put God’s values into words?
A Gentle Answer, by Pastor Scott Sauls, is a timely book, given the current state of our country and world. In Part I, Sauls addresses the gentleness Jesus has for us: Jesus befriends the sinner in us, reforms the Pharisee in us, and disarms the cynic in us. Then in Part II, Sauls explores how His gentleness changes us: we grow thicker skin, do anger well, receive criticism graciously, forgive, and bless our betrayers.
Sauls writes: “Because Jesus Christ has loved us at our worst, we can love others at their worst. Because Jesus Christ has forgiven us for all of our wrongs, we can forgive others who have wronged us. Because Jesus Christ offered a gentle answer instead of pouring out punishment and rejection for our offensive and sinful ways, we can offer gentle answers to those who behave offensively and sinfully toward us. But make no mistake. Jesus’s gentle answer will be costly as well. We must die to ourselves, to our self-righteousness, to our indignation, and to our outrage.” To live in the Kingdom of God, we must die to the parts of our identity we’ve come to embrace in the kingdom of man.
A gentle answer is not a weak answer, Sauls asserts. “In fact, it requires the deepest, most courageous, and most heroic kind of faith—the kind that is possible only through the gentle and gentling power of Christ himself.” His grace and mercy.
As soon as I heard Christ’s voice speaking to me, my middle-of-the-night upset ceased. I rolled over and reached for Keith on the other side of the bed, and prayed for us. Only love can drive out worry, anger, and guilt because love is the most powerful answer. So, I’m holding God’s love close to my heart—a two-way conversation—with Keith, too. Or, as Lerner recommended, taking responsibility for my feelings and communicating—clearly, calmly, and lovingly.
And so today I share the gentle, courageous, healing message of Christ with those ready to hear and pass along these words to others:
“You are loved. You are greatly loved.”
Note: A version of this post and my review of Scott Saul’s book A Gentle Answer, first appeared here: https://caroleduff.com/2020/06/15/you-are-greatly-loved/
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is working on a book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir about Building a House and Finding Grace in the Third Stage of Life. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and three overly-friendly dogs. You can find her at: https://caroleduff.com. Her Twitter feed can be found here.