History has demonstrated it only takes a few wayward sparks to burn down an entire city – something that happened in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871
History has demonstrated it only takes a few wayward sparks to burn down an entire city – something that happened in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 when Catherine O’Leary’s cow was said to have kicked over a lantern in a barn on DeKoven Street.
I’ve been thinking about that story as violent protests and lawless destruction continue to rage across America.
Conventional wisdom suggests that anger is at the heart of the mayhem – anger sparked from racial injustice – but such an assessment would only be partly correct.
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Anger is not the problem – it’s the misapplication of it.
Lyman Abbott was a 19th-century theologian who encouraged parents to teach their children how to channel anger – not get rid of it.
“The child should be taught to restrain his anger; but he cannot restrain it if he has not got it. Anger is like fire – a good servant and a terrible master. Without capacity for anger, Luther could not have fought the battle of the Reformation; nor our fathers the war of the Revolution; nor our reformers the war of Emancipation.”
Abbott is referring to “righteous anger” – emotion that flows from some form of gross, unfair wrongdoing. Managed responsibly, it can change the world. Handled recklessly, it can burn it down.
As Abbott rightly alluded, righteous anger has liberated countries and released men and women from the bonds of slavery. But most of our anger is destructive – it comes because we lose control of our emotions. The English writer C.S. Lewis once referred to it as the “anesthetic of the mind” – a crutch used to process and dull our dissatisfaction. I think he was right.
I once worked with someone who, though a well-meaning person, seemed to be angry about something all the time. They were perpetually aggrieved, regularly calling offense to matters large and small. It gave them energy and a sense of purpose – but exhausted everyone else around them.
Social media is a popular forum for this type of aggrievement. In fact, the medium thrives on controversy – but to what end? Things can quickly deteriorate in a virtual setting. Studies show that people are far more inclined to be rude online than face-to-face. Personally, I think it’s a wise person who avoids online arguments.
In my role, I regularly encounter people who disagree strongly with many of the biblical positions I hold. Early in my tenure as president of Focus on the Family, the organization I lead, I’d read their criticisms and sometimes bristle at them. But then it struck me – why not actually try and sit down with them, face-to-face, and talk about it?
Some in my circles warned against it, concerned I’d be seen as either naïve or someone who was caving on principle. In reality, I was neither.
Over the years, I’ve met with strong ideological opponents. Some meetings went better than others – but I discovered, on average, people are a lot friendlier in person. Did I change their minds? In some cases, our visits helped change their perception of conservative evangelical Christians – and allowed me to see the personal side of them.
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We’re heading into what promises to be perhaps the most divisive, contentious – and angry – presidential election in our nation’s history. If you think the first half of 2020 has been rough, I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it.
What can we do about it?
If we want to change the contentious climate we’re living in, the first – and maybe ultimately the only – thing we can really do is change ourselves. But that’s no small thing. At the root of destructive and unrighteous anger is failure to acknowledge the primary problem facing the world today – the sin in our own heart.
You’ve likely heard about the “butterfly effect” – a term derived from a scientific theory that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can eventually set off a tornado in Texas. Put more practically, it’s an idea that small variances in one area can result in major changes in another.
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We must still engage in the public square and work together for the good of the country. But I’m the only person I can control. The great news is that my actions – and your actions – eventually impact everyone else’s.
Granted, it won’t make headlines or earn public accolades. But if we will each address our biggest challenge – ourselves – first, we will change the world.
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