By Tommy Preson Phillips, pastor at Watermark Church in Tampa FL and Northern Seminary Student
Every so often I receive an email written out of anger, hurt, or any one of the various emotions that cause people to lash out at others. Sometimes these emails are specifically written to inflict pain and shut down communication, while other times they are written to elicit a specific response from me. I’ve only ever been a pastor, so I’m not sure what other people endure, but I’m reasonably certain that this can’t possibly be the only profession that invites these kinds of letters. I imagine that many of you receive them from time to time.
Today I want to address this seemingly new phenomenon of human beings launching virtual cannonballs from the comfort of their couch and pajamas. I imagine that the rise in this type of behavior is due in part to the easy access that we have to the people we are upset with. It used to be that when you had a grievance, you would either set up a meeting and prepare your thoughts to be delivered face to face. You were forced to look into the eyes of the other person. Where your body language spoke far more than your words ever could. Where there is a sense of respect and decorum. That type of scenario is exactly what many people fear, and, until recent history, this is what has kept them and their emotional outbursts in check.
But in this day and age, we can inject ourselves, our anger, our unhealth, and our spiritual darkness directly into the souls of the person who has become the object of our ire during their family dinner, their prayer time, or the busiest parts of their day, through email. And for the bitter minded, this is far too big of a temptation to pass up.
So what do we do? How do we respond? How do we interact with ungraciousness? Well, I can only tell you what I have learned over the years (through both my failures and successes) about how to respond to this type of behavior. So here are some simple rules that I follow. Rules that have helped me turn many of these interactions into helpful dialogue instead of heated and destructive breakdowns in relationship. So here we go.
Rule #1: Wait 48 hours before responding.
I make a general habit of trying to treat the majority of digital correspondence as if it were not digital at all, but tangible. Like a handwritten note that I received via old-fashioned snail mail. Putting some chronological distance between the initial emotions, and the response.
This does two things:
1) It gives them time to think about the repercussions of their actions.
It takes time for information to be processed. They probably haven’t taken that time. They acted out of anger, combined with unfettered access to you. A couple of days of letting their thoughts settle will do them (and you) some good. Often I will receive a follow-up email a day later that will try and soften their previous letter, and sometimes even a request to meet in person… which is the best possible scenario. Regret and shame weigh heavy on people. It can drive them to the realization that they are in a dark place and need to draw near to people, not push them away. Time to think and to let the spirit of God do his work can soften the heart.
2) It gives you time to think about your response.
Your first instinct is to defend and fire back. You, no doubt, know about some easy jabs that you could throw at them: pointing out their struggles with some sin that you know about, stupid things that they have done, all of the misinformation that they have gathered. This is not only unhelpful; it throws more heat on the fire.
Remember, they weren’t thinking clearly when they wrote the letter and, at this moment, neither are you. Let things settle, abandon the scene of the accident and return when the adrenaline has worn off. You will find that you can easily look at things differently, and only then will you be able to respond with your integrity intact.
Rule #2: Do not defend yourself.
Let me quote a passage from my favorite book, “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster:
The tongue is our most potent weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. If I have done some wrong thing (or even some right thing that I think you may misunderstand) and discover that you know about it, I will be very tempted to help you understand my action! Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification.
Silence is a spiritual discipline, and spiritual disciplines are there to bear fruit in our lives. One of the ways that we can practice silence is to remain silent when our reputation and motives are under attack. The fruit of silence is freedom. Freedom to let God justify us.If there are personal attacks, things specifically written to demean your character or bring pain and insult to your soul, say nothing of those. If they are true, then you have some internal spiritual work to do that has nothing to do with them. If they are untrue, then be at peace. Be silent. Rest. Your integrity is intact, and now you can enjoy watching God be your defender.
Rule #3: No negativity!
Diamonds and emails are forever. I have said things that have come back a decade later and sucker-punched me right in the kisser. Those negative and emotional words will live forever in someone else’s inbox. They will never be deleted. I know this because I have kept every awful email that I have ever received. I use them as a reminder to either set up boundaries in the future, or for when I find out later that there was sin that the sender was hiding that has come to light, and now I can read it through the lens of their pain and guilt. It is a reminder that most of the time they don’t hate you, they hate that you have reminded them of themselves… and they can’t stand themselves. That email, sent out of a sinful place, now becomes a warning sign for your future interactions with them. If you see them going down that same path again, you now know what to look for and how to help them confess, repent, and cope.
Sending negativity through email is akin to sending your kryptonite out into enemy territory. It will be forwarded to others, and your problems will only increase as more and more people see a side of you that you wish would disappear.
If you must respond through email, do so with positivity and encouragement. Express your desire for reconciliation and grace. Be hopeful with them that you can find common ground. Apologize if necessary. Tell them the spirit with which you are writing, and ask them to read it in that tone.
Rule #4: Look for substance.
Print that nasty email out, and get a sharpie. Black out (redact!) all of the personal attacks and insults. Things that are unfounded and assumptions that are not grounded in actual reality. What are you left with? Is there a legitimate concern? Address it. Address it with dignity and grace and a desire to find a remedy. The entire email probably could have been boiled down to that one point, so pretend that it was and focus all of your efforts towards meeting that need.
Those are the four rules that I have for myself, and perhaps they can help guide you when someone is firing arrows in a fit of emotion.
Above all, remember. There is no reward in winning the argument. There is no joy in destroying another person. There are no spoils of war that will make you happy. Our God does not delight in the destruction of relationships. He is not proud of you for winning the argument, having a great comeback, or laying waste to those who attack you. He loves them as much as he loves you.
They might not ever fully enter into relationship with you again, and if the relationship was abusive, then it is best to set up boundaries to protect yourself and the ones you love. I’ve had to let many relational seasons come to an end, and its okay. Seasons come and go, and sometimes unhealthy influences need to be removed from your life. But God is not willing that any should perish, and our desires should mirror His. Our desire should be exactly what God desires: “that all should come to repentance.” This is not only about eternal relationship with God, but it is also about our relationships with each other here and now.
When the dust settles, you will be left either standing side-by-side with them again or standing alone. But you will only have to answer to God for your own responses, your own motives, and the current state of your soul. Will you still be at peace then?
I leave you with the words of Paul, who had far more attacks leveled at him than you or I ever will, and still had the purity of heart to write this in Romans 12:17-19:
“Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.”
 Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth. Harper Collins, 2009.
 The New International Version. (2011). (Ro 12:17–19). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.