The story of Cain and Abel does not surprise me. As I sat down to write this post, I heard my 5-year-old son scream/crying in his bedroom. His 7-year-old big brother ran out into the living room with skip and a smile. Tearing around the corner behind him came his younger brother, face contorted in a grimace of sorrow and rage. I’ve nicknamed the the younger, “The Vengeance.”
“What is going on!?!” I exclaimed in a voice loud enough to cut through the laughter and the screaming. “Both of you, get in the push up position!” The two boys limply obey, and the younger brother sobbingly tries to explain that his brother had shoved him into a window sill while they were wrestling. I tell my oldest to apologize. “I did.” He shouts at me. “Do it again.” “I’M SORRY!” “Both of you, go to your beds!” They go to the room they share, one to the top bunk and the other to the lower. Ten minutes later, they ask for permission to come back out and return to the living room as if nothing happened.
Wrestling with Anger.
Like most boys, my sons like to roughhouse. Wrestle. Chase each other around with sticks. The problem comes when one of them (usually the oldest) gets too rough and the other (typically his little brother) gets hurt. Then the little one gets mad, and when he gets mad it’s like the world is ending. He gets a certain look in his eye that tells me that he’s not going to stop until he hears his older brother screaming in pain.
My goal is to teach them to exert more of their energy wrestling with their emotions than with each other. As Proverbs says, “Better the man who can conquer himself than the one who can conquer cities.” (Proverbs 16:32) They really have two different enemies they have to learn to fight.
The first is the flesh. Anger strongly affects us physically and mentally. Our heart beat speeds up and our breathing increases. Adrenaline jets into the blood stream, adding a short burst of rocket fuel in case we need to fight a bear. Our ability to think rationally diminishes as our mental energies focus on identifying and eliminating threats. This physiological anger response is neither good nor bad. It was very useful when one was fighting bears. It can become a problem when it’s directed at a loved one and not properly restrained.
One of the strategies I use to deal with this physical excitement is the pushup position. A friend of mine who is former military and has older sons suggested it. When the boys are fired up, the pushup position acts like a heat sink. The energy required to maintain a plank slowly drains them of their fury. I’ll leave them in the pushup position for as long needed while they explain to me what is going on. By the end of two minutes planking, the anger is totally gone and replaced with sorrow. Not necessarily contrition. Their arms just hurt.
Mastering the demon.
The second foe is the demon of anger. In the story of Cain and Abel, God warns Cain that sin is sitting on his doorstep, but that he can be its master. From what I’ve read, the word used for sin in the original text refers to an evil spirit. The story tells us that Cain did NOT master the demon, and his anger bore fruit in murder.
One way to recognize that a demon is active is when the anger persists past a reasonable point. I can see being angry if your brother just broke your Lego castle. If an hour has passed and you have rebuilt your Lego castle, but you’re still angry? That might be a sign that an evil spirit is at work. That’s exactly what happened to Cain. His anger flared because Abel’s offering was received more favorably than his own. But it didn’t just go away. He nursed it… the demon kept that fire going until it became hatred and ultimately murder.
If I notice that my kids are particularly quarrelsome, I’ll stop them and pray. “Shoo devil, in the name of Jesus,” is a prayer that any child can learn and say with faith. I also love to use sacramentals. Holy water and holy salt do amazing things to clear the air when evil spirits are stirring up trouble between the children. I let the kids get in on the fun, and send them through the house with a bottle of holy water praying, “I bless this room in the name of Jesus.” Demons can’t stand it.
Wounds that leave a mark.
When my children injure one another, whether physically when roughhousing or emotionally through teasing, it’s important that I deal with the fact that they are sinning against one another. It’s useful to think of the fact that an injury creates a debt to the other person that must be repaid. Sometimes that debt is repaid through punishment. That’s justice. Sometimes the debt is released through forgiveness. That’s mercy.
The best way to teach my children to forgive one another is to teach them to ask for forgiveness when they have hurt each other. Sometimes the sincerity of the apology is… borderline. But the fact that one brother has acknowledged his wrong in front of me and the other brother is really important. I might have to step in and return the stolen toy, but I think this is less important.
My kids are young. My hope and observation is that they have not experienced a lot of truly grievous hurts. But I have little doubt that they will one day experience hurts that are not easy to forgive. When (not if) that happens, I want them to understand that forgiveness is an act of the will, not an emotional state. When I choose to forgive, it might take months or even years for my emotions to catch up. That’s ok. The act of forgiving is like putting antibiotics in an infected wound. It goes to work immediately, but the inflammation takes some time to calm down.
Following in daddy’s footsteps.
If my children paid attention to me during the day, they might notice me muttering, “Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner.” They might see that I say that when I walk into a bedroom that looks like it has been hit by a Class 4 hurricane. Or when they are screaming at each other. Or when the tool that I know I put in its proper place is missing. The demon of anger comes after me relentlessly because it’s an area of personal weakness. In the days before Jesus, I punched holes in walls and doors. Prayer in general and that prayer in particular opens my heart to the grace that I need to exercise self-control.
When dealing with bigger hurts, I need bigger guns. A very wise priest once told me a powerful practice for dealing with my deep hurts. When the image of the person comes to mind, stirring up anger and hurt, I imagine the person standing next to Jesus. I make the sign of the cross over the mental image, praying, “I forgive them and give them to Jesus.” I might have to do this a hundred times. Or a thousand. But eventually, the sharpness of the pain in my soul dwindles away to nothing.
I want my children to follow the pattern of Jesus, not the pattern of Cain and Abel. The number one way I can do this is by modeling the right way to deal with anger. Anger happens. What do I do after the fact? I apologize to my children. It’s humbling to ask your children for forgiveness. Often this opens the floor for a deeper conversation with them about love, anger, and forgiveness. Sometimes there is a lot there to discuss. Or not. But it always ends with a hug and an, “I love you.’
And love covers a multitude of sins.
To read my story of how Jesus Christ snatched me from the snares of the devil, get my new book Demoniac on Amazon.com.