For 15 years I was a baseball umpire (spanning all levels from t-ball to NCAA Division III). My dad got me into it when I was 13 years old. And one of the most important lessons he taught me was to be the calm one on the field.
My dad told me that I was never going to make everyone happy and that I would get yelled at … a lot. And he was right. However, his words about staying calm were extremely helpful. By not rising to the level of anger of others and not speaking harshly when attacked, I could stay focused on the job at hand – simply enforcing the rules of the game – and I could often de-escalate the situation.
Now, one might argue that being 6’2” and 200+ pounds didn’t hurt either. And I did have a coach who tried to belly bump me once but, when I didn’t budge, he changed his tune quickly. Even so, I’m still going to stick with staying calm as being the primary driver of de-escalation.
James, the brother of Jesus, emplores the Christian community to consider the same calm approach. He says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (v. 1:19). But how often do we do the opposite: (slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to get angry)? [Side note, in case you are wondering: No, umpires don’t care who wins. And, no, makeup calls are not a thing. We just want to get every call as right as possible. Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.]
Conflict often arises because there is a problem to be solved. Yet, there is a point at which the problem itself can be forgotten because we feel attacked or belittled and we want to respond in kind. However, that is like trying to fight fire with more fire.
What if instead of responding to others when they 1) say something we disagree with, 2) speak negatively to or about us, or 3) post something negative online, we choose to listen for understanding? What if we ask follow-up questions for clarity? What if we choose to see the other person as something other than an enemy? What if we take James’ words to heart: “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (v. 1:20)?
As Christians, we can choose a couple different paths when it comes to conflict. We can choose to be umpires or angry coaches (also angry players or fans). As umpires, we focus on what matters most and stay calm for the sake of something bigger. As angry coaches, we think we have to win in every argument or stance we take. While there is a time and place to take a stand, we do better to remain calm and fully assess the situation by choosing to listen first. When everyone else is yelling, the umpire stays calm and in the moment. James is calling the Christians to be like umpires.
Whether it’s online, at home, at work, in school, in our neighborhood, at church, or in another public space, as Christians we’re called to be an umpire, not an angry coach. Ranting and hurling insults is much easier than being the calm one. But being a Christian is not about doing what is easy, it is about sharing the everlasting love of Jesus Christ with the world around us. And that calls for being calm, patient, and a good listener. In other words, be an umpire for the sake of Christ.
Opportunity for action:
- Who is the person in your life that seems to bring out your anger the most? This week take an opportunity to start with listening and asking questions. Choose listening to understand rather than to respond. And while listening, pray for God to guide your words when you do speak. Take note of any differences in the interactions with that person resulting from this approach.