Angry Email: A Cautionary Tale

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Several years ago my web store, the homespun operation which was to become the Rabbit Room, was run in my luxurious garage. Right next to the garbage can, over by the hot water heater, next to the rakes and the bikes and the folding chairs, I had a little workbench set up with a postage machine, a bunch of yellow, padded envelopes, and stacks of CDs. Almost every morning I’d head out there to fill orders in either my pajamas or, in the winter, a coat and scarf.

Sometimes when I was on the road a lot, Jamie and the boys would fill orders for me—and “fill orders” doesn’t just mean stuffing envelopes. It means emailing people whose packages were lost in the mail, it means calling to order more CDs and/or books, it means refilling the postage machine and driving to the post office and ordering more packing materials. When I had a new CD release we’d sometimes have 1,000 CDs to mail, so Jamie, Aedan, Asher (Skye was just a baby), and I would make a game of it. The kids dove in with gusto and rammed CDs into envelopes, stamped the envelopes with either MEDIA MAIL or FIRST CLASS while Jamie and I threw packages into bins. What I’m trying to tell you is that it’s a lot of work.

When it got to be too much we hired my friend Hitoshi “George” Yamaguchi, then Paul Jones, then Stephen Lamb to help out, and finally Eric Peters managed the store for a while. All those guys will attest to the headache it can be. I should also point out that there’s a lot to enjoy about it, too. It’s fun to recognize repeat customers (who are basically helping us keep the lights on) fun to have the occasional exchange with someone who likes your music, fun to be so closely connected with the process of literally sending the songs into the world for ears to hear.

Years ago, when I was on the road a lot more than I am now, Jamie called me from home to tell me she’d just been reprimanded by someone. Her voice trembled. In between diaper changes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches she had trudged out to the garage in the freezing cold to fill orders in my absence. Someone wanted to expedite shipping and Jamie sent a sweet email back saying that she didn’t know how to do that. Well, the customer replied with some pretty harsh words and told her how lame it was that our website didn’t offer shipping options, and how they were used to professional websites and thought ours was a giant hassle. She cried.

I got home, read the email exchange, and was ready to crawl through the modem, emerge into this person’s living room as an Obi Wan hologram, and challenge him to a duel. I couldn’t imagine why someone who liked my music enough to order it from my website would then proceed to chew out my wife for not being web-savvy enough. (I’m still surprised by it, to be honest.) So I cracked my knuckles, rolled my head around a time or two, slammed back a shot of sweet tea, and typed a scathing email. I told the person I didn’t appreciate their tone with my sweet wife, I didn’t appreciate their insensitivity to how hard we were working to amend the situation, I told them I was shocked at their insolence, at their brazen belittling of my wife, and—and—well, you get the point.

My mouse hovered over the “Send” button, just long enough for the Holy Spirit to tweak my heart a little. I shrugged it off and sent the email anyway. I stomped back into the house feeling a little guilty and a lot justified, informed my wife that I had just sent the guy an e-whooping, and refilled my sweet tea. I felt good. Except for the part of me that felt kind of dark. I sauntered back to the garage to finish filling orders and checked my email. The person had emailed me back immediately. I opened the email, ready for a fight, and it was immediately clear that the person hadn’t read my e-whooping. The person had sent an unsolicited and sincere apology. They were repentant and kind, and expressed gratitude for Jamie’s hard work. The person had been having a very stressful day, and goofed up. I felt terrible. I was horrified by the knowledge that any second that person would read my angry words. The Spirit tweaked me again with what must have been a holy “I told you so.”

Then an error message popped up. “Message not sent,” it read. “Server error.” (Server error, indeed.) It seemed as though God had reached into the internet, grabbed my boneheaded email, and flung it back into my computer, sparing the other person quite a bit of pain. Ever since that day, which we’ll call Huge Sigh of Relief Day, I’ve tried to wait days, even weeks, before replying to an email that provokes me. I also try to let someone else read it too and offer feedback. Many times after a few days I realize a reply isn’t necessary at all. The world spins on and the rebuttal that once seemed so vital to the maintenance of my honor turns out to be rather dishonorable instead.

A person’s wisdom yields patience;
it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.

Proverbs 19:11

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


34 Comments

  1. Drew

    I think the number of “unsent” messages I’ve written is at least triple those I’ve sent. I’m not proud of that fact.

  2. Jaclyn

    As a customer service rep, I can totally relate to both your wife’s and your reaction. Thanks for the reminder that those people we serve who lash out at us have those same bad days that tempt me to lash out at others. I’m ashamed of the times I’ve given in, but so thankful for Jesus’ grace that lets me try at love again.

  3. Jim Rohde

    NOW you write this, AP. Boy, I could’ve used that in the past (alas, more than once).

    What’s the phrase?
    “Lord, make my words tender and sweet,
    in case tomorrow, they I have to eat.”

    (or something sorta like that)

    I think somebody could make a few nickels if they developed an add-on for email programs – that does the usual computer thing of : “Are you sure you want to send this?” (and after we click ‘OK’), followed by “Are you really, REALLY sure you want to send this?” Of course, if we all were more attuned to the Holy Spirit’s leadings, we also could avoid most causes for regret, eh?

  4. Becca

    Arrgh. Such a good post, AP. The biggest mistakes of my whole life have been this sort.

    Every time I was afraid God didn’t care about the injustice. Afraid He wouldn’t defend. Afraid He didn’t love me enough to bother.

    ‘Found this quote reading Mirsolov Volf over the weekend (who is brilliant when he isn’t teaching heresy):

    ‎”If darkness has descended upon you and your world, you need not try to persuade yourself that things are not as bad as they seem or to try to search desperately for reasons to be optimistic. Remind yourself instead of a very simple fact: the light of the One who was in the beginning with God shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

    Not being overcome rests in strength beyond my two arms. It’s taken me too long to learn it, if I have even yet.

  5. Patrick

    Great message! One I had figured out on my own, but appreciate reminders like this, and hope more people will understand before they hit their own “send” buttons. I wish I would have figured this out sooner in my life. I’ve come to realize that if I am angry I should not respond to the email, phone message, messed up shipment, incorrect bill, or whatever injustice I’ve perceived until I am calm. Sometimes writing the words I will never deliver helps to bring the calm perspective, but if not I try to consider the person I’m responding too: were my expectations off? am I showing grace? I’ve found a few situations where I struggled hard to find appropriate civilized words- then I will either let a calm friend handle it for me if possible, or I will consult with my dear friend who is skilled in making anything sound good while conveying the message that needs to get across. If you know someone like that keep them on speed-dial.

  6. Paula

    I remember when we were in seminary at SBTS in Louisville and I took a class from Mary Mohler, Dr. Mohler’s wife. She talked about the importance of waiting before sending, um, heated emails in response to someone’s attack on our husbands. She told that she had written quite a few such emails, but had never sent any of them. Good advice then, good advice now. Also, never post anything political on Facebook. Just a heads up.

  7. Bruce

    As the editor of a newsletter for a non-profit ministry I received a email from a member of that non-profit ministry’s community informing me of how lame me and my newsletter were, and how it was always late. I took the time to send a to the point, scathing email back to the person informing them of oh so how wrong they were and how dare they. Defending my art, defending my pride. I sent it. Later I was informed the person was dealing with a personal tragedy in their family. I hoped I had not added to it.

    This goes under the category of being so right, we can be so, so wrong.

  8. Sir Jonathan C. Andrews

    You really described the feeling of “feeling a little guilty and a lot justified” so well. For me the conviction grows and grows until I have to surrender my will to His and apologize. Of course I have the discussion in my head first. I come up with apologies that also insert what they did wrong so I can still get my moral lesson jabbed in there. Then The conviction intervenes again and I realize that to glorify Him most I must not just apologize to the person but confess to them how I have wronged them. God’s lessons are swift painful and at the same time freeing.

  9. Alyssa

    Oh, how I wish I had no idea what you were talking about. As much as I regret my failures in this area, I don’t think this lesson would have lodged so deeply within me if I hadn’t directly experienced both sides of the ugliness. So I’m grateful for the wretched exchanges, I suppose. But I don’t need any more, thank you very much.

  10. Jen

    Best e-mail advice I ever heard: Write it out, and re-read it later. If you can replace the person’s name with “Hey, Stupid,” it’s probably not a good idea to send it. 🙂

    Thanks for the cautionary tale… for once, a “server error” is a good thing!

  11. Dan R.

    My favorite part of this might be how you now wait before responding to this kind of provocation – good stuff there. I’ve been there too, and while I can attest to the wisdom of waiting before responding in painful situations, I’ve also found myself craving the wisdom to know when this waiting has turned into an excuse to stay silent and bury the conversation when I should be responding in the love and strength of God, despite my perceived inadequacy or unwillingness to do so. Oh the pitfalls of disconnected communications!

  12. Fellow Traveler

    Recently I sent an e-mail to somebody who replied unexpectedly with some incredibly harsh and hurtful words. Since I had only ever spoken with gentleness to this person, it was utterly shocking and very upsetting. I responded only to say that I was very hurt and confused. When the person said, “Good,” that’s when I began feeling “the nudge” to disconnect and not dwell on it, which was soon confirmed by someone very close to me from whom I sought counsel. Unfortunately, I have yet to see an apology from this person, but I was able to forgive him. It was around Easter I recall. All of a sudden it hit me one night that if Jesus Christ could die on a cross and forgive every sin I had ever committed against him, then it was sheer arrogance for me to withhold that forgiveness from one of my fellow men.

  13. luaphacim

    Thanks for the reminder, AP. Somehow, when other people are separated from me by a labyrinth of electronic tubes, it is all too easy to forget that they, like me, are stamped with the Maker’s image. I’ve sent about three really angry e-mails that I can remember, and that was definitely three too many.

  14. Richard Okimoto

    So true! I find more and more that if I don’t write/send a reply to someone right away, after even just a few minutes I find it insignificant enough that I don’t even need to say anything. A big difference from myself even five years ago (and let’s not even think about ten years ago).
    In fact, I wonder sometimes now if I haven’t gone too far into the not replying side of things. Maybe by not sharing my thoughts and opinions when I don’t have a strong desire to, I’m not serving a way I ought to. Maybe I could have been helpful. Now I’m just blabbing away and I’ll just stop myself and click submit, despite my mental hesitations.

  15. Nathaniel Miller

    “I realize that falling down ain’t graceful. But I thank the Lord that falling’s full of grace.” I heard that somewhere once.

    If you face these kinds of days in the future, know that there are so many of us that appreciate all the work you do that goes unseen to give us great stories in song, book, and even website. This is coming from someone who had to wait over a week for that latest book of yours. I was starving! Thanks again for your wonderful works.

  16. Karisa

    That’s the perfect Proverb to wrap up this cautionary tale. Praise God for a Book which transcends time and technological advances, and applies even in our age of e-communication.

    On another note, I can identify with Dan R. When does postponing or foregoing a reply become “burying” the situation (also an unhealthy response)? God grant us wisdom. I have found it helpful to keep personal written protocols on hand, for the situations that I find hard to deal with. “If a person does A, I will do X; I will not do Y; and I will consciously think Z.” That way, instead of scrambling to make a heat-of-the-moment retort, I have a level-headed, biblical procedure to follow, tailored to my own psyche.

  17. Julie

    I love it. Our God is such a God of lavish grace. Recently, I made the mistake of carelessly clicking on a spam email. I was in a hurry, trying to clear out my inbox, and on to whatever great big important thing that was next (like laundry). My email account was hacked, and the next morning I discovered that someone had been generous with an irritating virus… Which quickly spread to my entire address book… I was quick to draw the spiritual parallels – small, seemingly insignificant sin (entitlement, impatience) has the potential for great big wide-spread impact on my community. I think I got it.

    And then the Lord graciously intervenes. But not with an “I told you so.”. Quite the contrary. I began receiving kind emails from long-forgotten friends who had received spam from me as a result of the virus. Folks just wanted to make sure that I knew I had a cyber-problem. And an amazing thing happened. In addition to notifying me of the problem, a former neighbor asked for prayer because her husband just lost his job. And an old friend was struggling with life and I would have never known, nor thought to call.

    …and it’s just like the Lord to meet our mess with not only forgiveness, but with lavish grace and redemption.

  18. Loren

    Whew–wonderful reminder! I love the image of the finger poised over the “send” button as the Holy Spirit nudges. There are so many times in my life (not just email) when I feel that presence and know I have a choice of what direction to take. It’s so easy to ignore Him and charge ahead with my emotional gut, and when I do I always regret it…. Thank the Lord for His grace and love!

  19. Bill

    I needed to read this. Thank you for sharing this story with warm humor and thundering truth.

  20. Goodgame

    This is great AP. I’ve definitely been on both sides of this as well. Thanks for the reminder towards prudence, and even more towards careful listening to the Holy Spirit. That reminder never grows old.

  21. Dieta

    My favorite part of this post wasn’t so much about the emails sent and unsent, but the sweet way that you took offense on behalf of your beautiful wife. I think there are alot of women who would love an ObiWan to run to their rescue. Jamie probably didn’t need you to rescue her, but I bet it made her feel safe to know that you wanted to protect her. The music business is cruel sometimes, no?

  22. Fellow Traveler

    I think I do see Dieta’s point. I’m far more easily angered on behalf of others than I am on my own behalf. If somebody I love/care about has been hurt in some way, I’m ready for a fight. Despite the fact that you learned a lesson, it is still a good thing for a man to be the lover and protector of his wife!

  23. Carrie Luke

    What a breathtaking gift. Seeking our own justice, tempting though it is at times, just cannot compare to a sweet moment of divine deliverance.

    oh, and e-whooping….hilarious.

  24. Josh Kemper

    It reminds me of when I had to wait months for my order from a little tube amp company and I just felt like justice demanded that the other potential customers on ebay needed to know that their promise of 3 weeks was meaningless. As hard as I tried I couldn’t exact my justice on them and now I regret trying.

  25. Becca

    When we were doing our adoption home study a while back, the social worker mentioned something really interesting. She said that different families have different temperatures.

    She said some families were super passionate, going from heated arguments to lavish expressions of love. (Ever watch _Cake Boss?_) And she said that others kept a more emotionally-steady, cerebral exchange of thoughts. She said that kids could learn either family language, and that they could thrive in either environment. However, the positive expressions needed to at least equal out (and preferably quite exceed) the negative.

    I’ve thought about this a lot since. My birth family was Scotch-Irish, and we tended toward passionate communication. We fought hard and loved hard. Much was out in the open. But I have friends of German decent who never even saw their parents embrace. Much of what was felt was never verbalized aloud, and words were meted out carefully. (Not that this defines all families of those origins. ‘Just a limited example.)

    Part of my error with expressiveness in the past has been not realizing that a heated comment that would feel quite “normal” to me might actually wound someone with a reserved background very deeply. I know this principle doesn’t apply to a random CD order with a stranger. But in regard to emails with other relationships, it has helped me be slower to hit “send”…

  26. Dan R.

    “Like” on that last comment, Becca. I’ve also been in situations where I have been checking email and the people present with me, even though they might not be involved, have greatly impacted how I responded to the person on the other end.

    Note to others: if you’re in a room full of heavily sarcastic people and are tempted to send a sarcastic response to a serious email, make sure you know how forgiving the person receiving the email can be, and then decide to wait until later to respond anyway. Yet again, so much hurt can be avoided by just waiting a little before responding!

  27. Josh Kemper

    It’s a changing world. Our responses can be instant and forever (in that the recipients can look them up and re-read them whenever they want because they don’t get thrown away or lost in the junk drawer). And yet somehow that seems normal already.

  28. Heather Carrillo

    This is awesome! I loved the “message not sent” part. SO great!
    I usually type all my anger out and then delete it and then type it out again and then delete it again. And by that time it’s sort of spent and I can still write something without sounding like too horrible a person. 🙂

  29. Cynthia Guy

    Thank you for this post. I too loved the part about how the message wasn’t sent. The delete key is one that is hit many times in my writing back to people who get under my skin…which, thankfully, isn’t often.

  30. Peter Br

    Richard: by the grace of God, I’m right there with you (right down to the five and ten years ago).

    Becca: Italian heritage here. Back at ya. I get some weird reactions sometimes here in Dallas.

    Andrew: More and more, our gracious Lord is nudging me toward wisdom — through His words and the words of his images. As always, thank you.

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