The Hunt for the White Whale of Anger

“A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel.” (Proverbs 15:18 NIV)

אִ֣ישׁ חֵ֭מָה יְגָרֶ֣ה מָד֑וֹן וְאֶ֥רֶך אַ֝פַּ֗יִם יַשְׁקִ֥יט רִֽיב׃

Recently I completed reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The novel tells a story of revenge and obsession. Captain Ahab, a whaler, loses a leg to a white sperm whale. A smoldering anger begins to grow in the one-legged captain.

Captain Ahab’s anger grows into a fixation on revenge against the sea monster. As his hatred grows, so does his lack of wisdom. On his final whale-hunting trip, the driving force in his soul begins to override good judgment, putting the man, the crew, and his ship into hazardous situations.

As the captain hurls Copyright: <a href=''>miro3d / 123RF Stock Photo</a>his ship, the Pequod, into the perilous seas of hate, his opportunity to take vengeance finally arrives. The white whale is within Ahab’s grasp.  His desire for revenge grows deeper, ignoring every danger. In the end, the ship is lost; the crew, is lost; and Ahab loses both his quest and his life. The white whale has won

In Proverbs 15:18 King Solomon once again acknowledges the power of unharnessed anger. In Proverbs 15:1 Solomon previously addressed the power of anger and response of the person on the receiving end,  “A gentle answer turns away wrath . . . ” (15:1).  However, in verse 18 his advice for removing the harpoon out of the hands of an angry person takes a different turn.

In response to my article on Proverbs 15:1, one reader commented the advice of Solomon is unworkable. A fair question. Face it, we all have tried to cool down a heated argument with a calm response,  but the flames rose higher regardless.  

Is there something we can do to convince an angry individual to drop his sharpened missile?

A hot-tempered person holds the recipe for relationship breakdown

During the Republican presidential debates GOP candidate senator Marco Rubio changed his tactics by responding to candidate Donald Trump using similar jabs. In some of his “below the belt” verbiage, Rubio went farther than Mr. Trump and made some statements that brought the GOP debates to an historic low.

Afterwards, the senator from Florida, voiced his regrets about speaking in such a manner. He explained, “That’s not me. I disappointed my family, my faith and my supporters.”

Like Captain Ahab our desire for revenge takes the best of us.  In the end, our friends and reputation are lost. Solomon shoves his craft off shore by addressing the nature of a hot tempered man.

Anger takes time to build up . Solomon describes the angry person (אִ֣ישׁ חֵ֭מָה) as a “man of rage.”  

The term “anger” (חֵ֭מָה) is related to the word for curdled milk, cheese or butter (חֶמְאָה). Regarding these milk products, they need time for fermentation to attain the desired result. Anger is no different.

•the more we dwell on someone’s mistreatment of us, the more heated our anger becomes. I am the kind of person willing to bring up uncomfortable issues when I see another individual making bad choices. Sure enough, the other person gets mad at me for bringing the matter up.  Before long, I  angrily dwell on how I was treated and become focused on correcting their misperception of me.  

•the more we dwell on someone’s mistreatment of us, the more we become the one who needs help.  Solomon points to the hot tempered person as the one with the problem. However, he makes it clear it’s not the angry person who is going to solve the confrontation.

Like aged cheese we allow anger to ferment within our souls.  We walk through life with a harpoon in our hand looking for white whales. Unless a person sees himself as the crusty old captain, how will he ever seek help?

Anger locks a person into a contest.  Solomon describes anger as a force that “stirs up conflict” (יְגָרֶ֣ה מָד֑וֹן).  “Stirs up” comes from גר, “to grind, to strike, to irritate”. Like churning butter, the person who holds on to his anger is frothing with resentment and revenge.

In Proverbs 6:19, Solomon describes “a false witness who sows discord among brothers.” The  phrase “sows discord” is similar to what we have in Proverbs 15:18. To stir up strife portrays one who makes his exchanges with others a potential for a contest.  Someone has to win and someone must lose.

In the rest of this passage Solomon switches from the angry person and focuses on how the person on the receiving end should respond.

A patient person can pour water on an emotional fire

Former Boston Red Sox Hall-of-Fame third baseman Wade Boggs used to hate going to Yankee Stadium. Not because of the Yankees, —but because of a fan.

The guy had a box seat close to the field, and when the Red Sox were in town he would torment Boggs by shouting obscenities and insults. One day before the game, as Boggs was warming up, the fan began his typical routine.

Boggs decided he’d had enough. He walked directly over to the man sitting in the stands, and said, “Hey fella, are you the guy who’s always yelling at me?” The man said, “Yeah. What are you going to do about it?”

Wade took a new baseball out of his pocket, autographed it, tossed it to the man and went back to the field. The man never yelled at Boggs again; in fact, he became one of Wade’s biggest fans at Yankee Stadium.

What is it that Boggs did?  He introduced a game changer.  Boggs practiced what Solomon advises in the second half of Proverbs 15:18.

The patient person is one who is slow to anger. The Hebrew for “patient”  (וְאֶ֥רֶך אַ֝פַּ֗יִם) speaks of one who does not permit himself to be pulled into the raging fire of another’s anger. He stays far enough away emotionally from the heat  so he can be a  source for calm.  However, just being patient with an angry person doesn’t stop the raging bull from his verbal charging.

The key for calming a quarrel is  found in the term “slow to anger.”  Solomon does not say this person does not get angry or feel anger welling up inside him. Yet since you want peace to prevail, you take conscious steps not to respond in kind.  Where do we start?

•A choice.  Of course, Solomon’s advice doesn’t work unless one makes a choice to alter a person’s expected response to anger.  Do I want to go that route?   If you are resolute in lobbing that harpoon, then the option to be “slow to anger” is not in your repertoire.  You have chosen to hunt the white whale that will eventually devour you.

•A commitment.  To be “slow” (וְאֶ֥רֶך) to anger speaks of one who lengthens or draws out his response. Be slow in your response.  Draw out as much time as possible before you react.

Will the wise person respond with angry words that adds to the conflict or will he respond in a way that will diffuse any conflict? The choice is up to the wise person to find a way to deflate the expanding balloon of rage being directed at him.  However, it requires a commitment to want to defuse the anger.  

Most of us do not want to make that commitment. We are like Ahab, “That white whale removed my leg.  He must pay.” And when you start defending yourself and going after the one hurting you, you launch the whaling boats to hunt down that elusive victory of silencing your critic.  

•A capacity.  Again, the person on the receiving end can justify retaliation based solely on how they are made to “feel” by the other person. Most Christians are so used to expressing themselves through their emotions that the thought of using godly wisdom is unthinkable. Having worshiped feelings for so long, followers of Jesus are used to calling “emotions” wisdom.  If a feeling comes up, it must be from God.

Along comes Solomon with a big STOP sign and tells us not to react emotionally. In fact, it’s an opportunity to show true rational wisdom.  This is a Wade Boggs moments. Take out the Major League baseball, sign it and give it to the angry fan.

Oh, but that goes against our nature. Yes!

Biblical wisdom is against our nature. That is why my friend says it doesn’t work. Look at Proverbs 16:1, “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.”  One who has chosen to demonstrate an attitude of slowness of anger turns to God for a response. I can ruminate all I want how to respond, but the capacity to diffuse an altercation comes from God.

The patient person is the one who calms a quarrel.  Solomon zeroes in on the individual who seeks to be wise in this kind of situation. After all, acquiring wisdom is the stated purpose of the book of Proverbs.  

•we are told to calm a quarrel (יַשְׁקִ֥יט רִֽיב).  Shakat is very similar to a word I heard a lot in Hebrew school. “Sheket! Young man!”  The teacher was telling me to keep my mouth shut.

Obviously, we are not told to be passive towards an angry person or tolerate abuse. Instead, we are admonished to be wise and find a way to bring calm in a flurry of hurtful words. It’s a good option to acknowledge what the angry person is saying, but request you both find another time to discuss the issue when tempers have cooled.

•we are told to avoid a controversy (רִֽיב). In light of the recent 2016 presidential election, our conversations online have become heated controversies. The social media world has become a Roman colosseum where verbal gladiators are armed to the teeth with their online links and verbal thrusts.

This is when I must make that choice to want to change my response, locked into commitment to follow the path of wisdom and seek the Lord for the capacity to bring a tranquility that deflates emotionally charged words.

Wisdom provides the answer to quiet down an angry battle. However, when we choose to hunt down that elusive whale of revenge, wisdom sinks to the bottom on the sea.


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