Humans Anonymous

Hot Coals & Mental Murder

[This post is the fifth in a series called “Humans Anonymous” on the spirituality of twelve-step recovery and the insights it offers for anyone wanting to live a spiritually-centered life. The first installment can be found here; links to successive articles can be found at the end of each post.]

In the previous post in this series, I talked about the moral inventory that forms the 4th Step in 12-Step recovery programs and its potential to help a person identify the character defects that can hinder full communion with God and with other people. How, though, does one take a moral inventory of one’s self? What things go on the tally sheet?

The 4th Step inventory, coming as it (usually) does fairly early in recovery, is focused on identifying the causes and conditions that underlie some of our more crippling spiritual handicaps. It is important to mention that no person is all good or all bad, and that there will be a time in the process for identifying both assets and liabilities. Keeping this in mind often makes it easier to find and face some of the more challenging parts of our character.

I would argue that all human sin boils down to idolatry in the end. One way or another, it all comes down to putting someone or something else in the place where God belongs. As Luther writes in his explanation of the 1st Commandment in the Large Catechism,

“A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together, faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”

One of the most common idols in the world is the idol of self, namely, putting our own desires, wants, needs, preferences, and will ahead of God’s. Thus, a helpful way of approaching the moral inventory is to look at some of the more common manifestations of self, chief among them being anger and resentment.

Anger, of course, is a natural human emotion, one that seems to be hardwired into us. Certain things just naturally make us angry, and should. Would any of us want to live in a world where innocent suffering was met with resignation or apathy, rather than with an anger that leads to defense of the defenseless? A complete lack of anger can also be an indicator of serious psychological disorders. The problem comes when this natural and powerful human emotion runs riot. It can mask deeper underlying problems and seriously damage relationships. When anger is allowed to fester into resentment (what I sometimes refer to as “anger with a history”), it can negatively impact us long after the events which caused it.

Take, for instance, the employee with an autocratic and unreasonable boss. Feeling that it isn’t safe to express the anger the boss inspires in the boss’s presence, the employee grits his teeth, swallows his anger and plows ahead with the job at hand. The problem comes at  7 o’clock that evening, when the employee’s unresolved anger explodes out of him because his child spilled a glass of milk on the carpet at home, or at 3 o’clock the next morning when the employee is lying awake, staring at the ceiling, seething with unresolved anger. What is especially sad in this scenario is that the boss is “living rent free in the employee’s head,” that is, the boss is enjoying time with his family or sleeping soundly, the employee’s angst being the furthest thing from his mind. Who is really being harmed by this anger? Is it not really the employee, however justified his anger may be? And think of the divorcee, so filled with anger and resentment against her ex-husband that she finds it impossible to enjoy authentic relationships with anyone, particularly with other men.

This is where the danger of anger and resentment lie: in their capacity not only to cause damage to our relationships with the person who is the source of our anger, but also to poison our relationships with others in our lives. Perhaps this is why the sacred texts of so many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, along with so many philosophers from ancient Rome to the present day warn against the danger of anger and particularly of anger that is held onto and turned into resentment. The Buddha compared holding onto anger to a grasping a hot coal, intending to throw it at someone else; Jesus compared anger to murder (Matthew 5:21-22). For some historical perspectives on the danger of anger and resentment, go here.

The warnings are even more dire for people in recovery; in Alcoholics Anonymous, co-founder Bill W. writes, “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else,” and, a little later,

“It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worthwhile. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We found that it is fatal.”

So how do we let go of anger and resentment? This is where the moral inventory can help. We put our resentments down on paper, examining them closely to identify why they affect us the way they do and what things within ourselves keep our fingers locked around these red-hot coals. We make a list of who we are angry at or resentful of, and surface reason. Then we look at why that surface reason makes us angry. What is affected? Our sense of well-being, our security (emotional, financial, physical), our self-esteem, our relationships with others? Then, setting aside the other person’s wrongs, we search to find out part in the situation. What did we contribute to the breach? Finally, we try to identify what trait in ourselves led to this contribution or is leading us to hold onto the anger. The following worksheet is a helpful way of going about this:

Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4 Column 5
I am angry at: The cause of my anger: This affects my: What’s my part? Where was I:
My boss Yelled at me for being late Self-esteem;Job security I was late IrresponsibleSelfish



My ex-wife Screwed me on the divorce Self-esteem;Financial security I picked herI hate letting her “win” Rash (choice of mate)Fearful (of being alone)



  Doesn’t trust me Self-esteem I haven’t kept promises in the   past UnreliableVindictive
  Bad-mouths me to my kids Self-esteem;Relationships;

Emotional security

I give her ammunition;I keep fighting her with   bitterness VindictiveUnforgiving
Next-door neighbor Loud parties at all hours Peace of mind;Job security (late for work   because I overslept) I’ve never asked him to keep it   down Fearful (avoiding talking about   issue) 
City Parking Authority Towed my car Financial securityJob security (late for work)

Self-esteem (embarrassing)

Didn’t come back out to feed   the meter IrresponsibleFearful

Of course, these are only examples, but they illustrate the process.

It’s important to note a couple of things about the inventory of resentments. First, when we begin to set our resentments down on paper, we may get stuck at Column 4. Our anger may appear (or even be) quite justified. Justified or not, however, our anger and resentment still has the capacity to poison us. Many an alcoholic has relapsed over a “justified” resentment, and many a person has become closed off and bitter over justifiable anger at a person, situation or institution. In my own experience, when I am really honest with myself, I have played a part in every resentment I have ever held.

Second, it’s important to remember that we are all sinners, and none of us is perfect. Writing these things down, identifying our contributions to our resentments and sifting out the underlying character defects is not designed to be an exercise in self-loathing. There will come a time to list assets as well; in fact, that will be a key part of the daily inventory suggested by Step 10. The goal in this step is to get a clear picture of the things that hinder our spiritual growth, so that they can be addressed. A cancer patient wouldn’t be well-served by a doctor who ignored spots on a lung x-ray out of solicitude for the patient’s feelings. Thus, we need to be as thorough and honest as we can be, not by way of beating ourselves up, but by way of making an accurate diagnosis.

Finally, it is strongly suggested that the inventory be done in writing, on paper. I can’t fully explain why, but there is something powerful about the act of putting pen to paper in making this inventory. The very act of writing it out helps to begin the process of neutralizing some of these defects. It’s also important to have a written copy so that, when you’ve finished, you can look over Column 5 and discern patterns. If you’re having trouble coming up with words to describe the character defects in Column 5, a Google search for “character defects” will yield links to any number of lists that may be helpful to you.

I have found (and many of my friends in recovery have related similar experience) that the most difficult part of this inventory is taking the plunge and getting started. I put mine off for weeks, until I was so uncomfortable with my resentments that I either had to be rid of them or I had to drink to anesthetize them. Thankfully, I put pen to paper and started the work of getting rid of them. Once the pen actually hit the paper, the list flowed out of me almost faster than I could write it down; having put it off for weeks, once I started writing I was done within a few hours, and I could only sheepishly shake my head at denying myself the relief this step provided for so long.

Having inventoried our resentments, we’re likely to be rather unsettled; in fact, we may be boiling made about some of these things all over again. Some practical ways for getting free of that anger can be found in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Hot Coals & Mental Murder

  1. Pingback: Taking Inventory | Stir

  2. Pingback: You Gotta Be Kidding Me, Jesus! | Stir

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