My dad was a volcano. He had a very explosive temper and often lost his temper while driving our family car. I’ll never forget how scared I was being in the car with my dad when he went ballistic. One Sunday, we were on our way to church when my folks got into a nasty argument. The madder my dad got the faster and more erratic he drove!
I was sitting in the front seat between my mom and dad. This was back in the 60s, and older cars didn’t have seatbelts, but even if they did, people rarely used them. Every time my dad would make an unsafe sharp turn or stop abruptly in his anger, my mom would use the “mommy seatbelt” (she would throw her arm across my chest) and yell, “George, you’re gonna kill us!”
They were yelling at each other, my mother was pummeling me, and I was starting to feel a little woozy. I get carsick very easily, especially in a big-boat-of-a-car driven like a formula one racecar. The next thing I remember is hanging my head out the car window as I was depositing my breakfast along the side of the car and road. This, of course, made my dad even more upset because he thought it was just in my head.
The typical twenty-minute trip to church only took about ten minutes that Sunday. Of course, as we walked into the church building, we put on our happy Sunday faces and pretended like all was well.
I’m sure none of you have ever fought on the way to church or used your car as a weapon of terror with your family. But some of you live or work with a volcano, and it’s scary!
What can you do with the person who is quick-tempered, explodes in anger, is unpredictable at times, and seems to have a chronic pattern of rage? How can you survive and help an angry person? Before we take a practical look at a few suggestions, let’s consider some common characteristics of a volcano.
The six most common characteristics of a volcano:
- They are emotionally unstable, and you are never quite sure how they are going to behave in any given situation.
- They can be rude, nasty, insulting and offensive. Their tone, body language, and certainly their words can bite you like a pit-bull.
- They are typically self-centered, and their world is pretty much all about them. A volcano rarely is concerned about the feelings of other people.
- They are often cynical, sarcastic and skeptical. Generally, they believe the worst about people and their motives.
- Much of what they do is guilt-driven, and they live in the land of “should-ofs.” They tell themselves that things should be different or they should be better. When life doesn’t go the way they expect, they get frustrated and infuriated. Volcanoes often hate themselves for their behavior, but this self-hatred leads to more guilt that eventually provokes the next eruption.
- They are frequently overly sensitive to criticism of their competence or performance. Their own insecurities and guilt make them hypersensitive to any disapproval. Their fits of rage are a defensive mechanism they use to deal with perceived threats, fear or frustration.
It took my dad years to figure why he was so angry. In large part, he was the way he was because of the horrible relationship he had with his father (my grandfather). He never felt loved or accepted by his dad, and he lived with this overwhelming fear of rejection most of his life. This does not justify his actions, but it explains why when my mom or his boss or anyone would offer even a little constructive criticism, he read it as rejection and would defensively react with rage. The intent of his rage was intimidation. It was his way of saying, “Don’t go there!”
How to have victory with a volcano:
1. Recognize what makes a volcano erupt.
See their hearts and not just what they do, but why they do what they do. What sets them off?
- Is it fear?
- Are they feeling unappreciated or taken advantage of?
- Do they feel unimportant, insignificant or unheard?
- Are they frustrated with something or someone, and what can you do to help?
I know it’s not easy to get past the hurt they cause you, but until you do, there’s little hope for healing in your relationship. Without understanding, you’ll just get locked into a cycle of emotional outbursts. They’ll hurt you and then you’ll hurt them in return . . . and on and on it goes.
The godly solution is to try and recognize what’s really going on. Once you understand, you can begin the work of relational healing.
2. Respond rather than react.
Stopping to understand is the first part of responding rather than reacting, but then you can’t blow up or walk away in disgust. It never helps to react to their reaction! Reacting with your anger is like pouring gas on a raging fire. The best thing you can do is reduce your volume and intensity.
I love this wisdom found in Proverbs 15:1 (NIV), “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
3. Declare a time-out.
Often, time will help the volcano regain control of their emotions. It will also help you compose yourself.
Again, here is the counsel of Solomon from Proverbs 29:11 (NIV), “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.”
A huge part of keeping oneself under control is knowing when to stop what’s going on and then redirecting your conversation to a better time and place. There’s no point in trying to be reasonable with a volcano when the adrenaline is still pumping! Let them know you care about them and their concerns and that you will listen when they have calmed down. Interrupt the explosion with a calm but clear statement, “I can see this is important to you and I want to discuss it, but not this way.”
Remember, they use their rage as a control mechanism, and they may want to shut you down or intimidate you into compliance. In a kind way, let them know that neither of those two things are going to happen.
4. Take them to God in prayer.
Jesus knew what people can be like, and He had to deal with volcanoes in His life. And here’s what he told us to do:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:43-45 (NIV)
The volcano in your life may not be “an enemy” in the truest sense of the word, but all too often they act like it and cause you as much grief and harm as any enemy could. Jesus said pray for those who persecute you. It’s my belief that praying for them is the best way to develop God’s heart and His love for that person who desperately needs unconditional love.
Living with or working with a volcano is really difficult. Everything in us wants to either fight back or flee from them as quickly as possible. God, however, has a radically different way for us to live. No matter what, we are called to function as children of our Father in heaven, and He is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love” (Psalms 145:8, NIV).
May I pray for you?
“Father, give us Your strength to love the unlovely. Give us Your grace to be kind to people who don’t deserve it and patient with those who hurt us. Give us Your heart, so that we might see the brokenness of others as you see them. And help us to be slow to anger and rich in love . . . just like You.”