Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Redeeming a past pain

In the quietness of my empty nest, sometimes I get to remembering, especially when something cues a memory in me.

In the ripeness of my present age, I am feeling more brave about tackling things I'd shelved for many years.  There is a time for everything, the Bible says.  By the grace of God, I did not bring up certain issues earlier, when I was clearly unable to handle them in a balanced way.

Now might be the time.

I've written about giving and receiving criticism before.  Rereading what I wrote, I still stand by it.

Recently, a friend brought up the topic of speaking the truth in love.  Many people responded to him with abhorrence for the idea.  This makes me sad, because the truth is beautiful and praiseworthy, and the truth should be spoken and received.  Yet, more often than not, it seems that truth is spoken ineptly, and received badly.

Incidentally, I am quite convinced that this is the work of Satan, the great deceiver, whose primary purpose and main strategy is to keep people from the truth.  How better to do that than to make them hate both truth and truth bearers?  I've written about that, too.

But back to the topic of speaking the truth.

I can understand why people recoil.  I myself have had some traumatic experiences on the receiving end of "truth speaking."  I will tell you about one.

We were attending a church, actively involved.  My own duties included teaching Sunday school, working in VBS, volunteering with the youth group, leading ladies' Bible studies and singing in choir.  Shawn had his own long list.  We were in our thirties, with four busy, school-aged children.  In the midst of it all, Shawn was invited to be a deacon.  This particular church ordained deacons, and Shawn's deacon ordination was scheduled during a Sunday evening service.

The Sunday morning before Shawn was ordained, a woman from the church pulled me aside at the end of the worship service and steered me into an empty Sunday school room.  "I need to talk to you," she said.  She sat me down in a chair and began. "I've never been able to like you.  You really offend me, and I am struggling with the thought that your husband is going to be a deacon." She proceeded to list an onslaught of complaints about things I had said and done that she found offensive, and malicious attitudes she attributed to me.  She went on and on for a long time.  I was stunned and silent, trying to listen and make sense of what I was hearing.  She told me that I was selfish, ungenerous and inhospitable, and that with all the resources I had, it was shameful that I didn't share my home with those less fortunate than myself.  Astonishingly, she finished by telling me that she had gone over this with another woman in the church, and that the other woman hadn't seen things the way she did, "So," she finished, "since I trust her judgement, you must not be quite as bad of a person as I think you are, and I need to give you another chance.  I am sure that once your husband is a deacon, you will rise to the occasion and become more friendly and hospitable, and have people over to your home for meals."

When things like this happen to me, my initial reaction is, mercifully, numbness and shock.  I told her I was sorry for having offended her, and floated home in a daze.  It was only after I had replayed the conversation in my mind a number of times, that I began to cry.  In trying to process it, I talked to my husband, and one trusted friend.  I sobbed.  I wept.  I was deeply hurt.

Now, interestingly, the part of her criticism that I remember most clearly was the part that was at least partially true: I was not very open with my home.  This was a shortcoming that I regretted and wished I could overcome.  Lots of excuses existed--mostly things related to being busy, overwhelmed and naturally shy.  But it was true that we very rarely had anyone over (and sadly, people very rarely invited us over to their homes in return).  She reprimanded me for a host of other things, too, but most of them were either based on misunderstanding or misinterpretation.  Although I had some desire to set the record straight and defend myself, my husband assured me that it was best to let bad enough alone and resist engaging again.

So I limped on.  Lonely and forlorn, I wished more than ever that I had friends, a loving group of people who would congregate in my home for good food and warm conversation.  However, after that confrontation, I felt less confident, less secure, less able than ever to make the first move towards being friendly and hospitable.  I was traumatized.  I was crushed.  If I had been so offensive to her without realizing it, how many others had I unwittingly offended?  How many others harbored a hidden annoyance at seeing my face walk into church?

I do not write about this in order to condemn that woman.  No doubt she was absolutely convinced that she was acting in love, speaking the truth in love.  No doubt she thought she was doing me a kind favor by pointing out the error of my ways so that I could get busy and make the appropriate corrections.  No doubt she believed that not only I, but the entire church would benefit from the effects of her words to me that day.  I truly don't believe she had any idea that she could have hurt me the way she did.

I write about this because I think it is important to examine how we respond to the things that happen to us, sometimes really hurtful things that are done in the name of Jesus.

1.  We need to go to Jesus with our hurts and ask Him to help us.

2.  We need Jesus to help us sift what has been said, and separate the true from the false.  We need to ask Him to help us forget the false, and not get hung up on it.

3.  We need to ask Jesus to help us forgive the person who hurt us.  It is okay to be patient with ourselves in the forgiveness process.  The forgiveness comes as the pain fades, and the pain fades as the memory fades, and when the memory comes back, we may need to choose to forgive yet again, and again.  Jesus will be faithful to help us every step of the way.

4.  We need to remember that Jesus allows every single thing that happens to us in our lives.  He not only allows things to happen, He has good plans for how He is going to use each thing to teach us and shape us for His glory and for our best benefit.  We need to trust Him.

5.  When there is painful truth that needs to be applied, we need to apply it, as best we can.  Whatever we do, we need to work with the Holy Spirit to be formed by grace and to learn whatever He has to teach us.

In my situation, I cannot honestly say that I became more hospitable as a result of the truth that was spoken to me that day, although I desired to, and even tried to.  I recognized that this was a true and fair criticism of me, and I wished like crazy that I could overcome it.  I even prayed for help with it.  But, honestly, if anything, I had even fewer people over to my home after that.  It was as though I'd been crippled, paralyzed.

I believe that God allowed this paralysis to happen for a reason, too.  I think perhaps He was working to teach me more about speaking the truth in love than about being a hospitable deacon's wife.  If undergoing this experience spared me from similarly going out and causing great pain to someone, then I am deeply grateful for it.  I am sure that it made me more aware of how much damage critical words can cause.  Although I realize that I have often failed to use my own words as kindly as I ought, I hope that this experience has made me kinder than I would have been without it.

Beyond that, being paralyzed by criticism demonstrated to me that verbally assaulting people rarely helps them grow in a better direction.  Even when people can see and agree that a critic is right about something, if they are crushed and smarting under a violent barrage of rebukes, they may find themselves disabled from making the recommended corrections.  This woman told me that I was selfish, unsharing and inhospitable with my home.  What if instead she had said, "You have such a pretty house and a nice, big dining room table.  I'll bet people would just love to be invited over for a meal with you.  You could host some really great fellowships in your home.  Have you ever thought about doing something like that?"

This is what I need to take away.  When I want to help people discover and use their spiritual gifts, I need to be an encourager, free with honest compliments and positive predictions.  "I am sure that once your husband is a deacon, you will rise to the occasion and become more friendly and hospitable, and have people over to your home for meals," is not a positive prediction.  "I am excited to see how the Lord will grow you as a deacon's wife!  You have such lovely resources that you can use in ministry to many people," is a positive prediction.

We need to learn from criticism, and we also need to learn from the experience of being criticized --how we can most effectively help people grow when we speak the truth in love.

I'm still learning, but I'm trying!  May Jesus bless and help us all.


Priscilla said...

I hope I can be an encouragement to others.

I can see that what that woman said to you would have been hurtful. I remember my mother used to say something to me as a child. When someone was unkind, she would say, "They are showing us how not to be."

Ruthie said...

Yes. That's probably the only thing a mother can or should say about such a thing. Perhaps adding, "I'm sure they would not act that way if they understood how they are making others feel."