Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Broken Up People

Why do we hurt those who are already hurting?

[The following was a pastoral note I wrote to the congregation of my church a number of weeks ago, as I was dealing with a few situations that reminded me of a few other situations, and there you go. We have a very healthy body, but as with any family, we have people of varying maturities and understandings, and we're all quite fallible--so this note was prompted. This was an attempt by a fallible pastor to address a problem that can occur enough (and once feels like too much) to warrant warning and/or correction. It's not unusual (although it is rare) for me to do this, so for those of you reading this who are not a part of our family, let this preface set some context.]

The body of Christ is called to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). What is the law of Christ? One clear answer is the "new commandment" He gives in John 13:34--"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." This is who we are supposed to be. And many times, we are. There have been occasions beyond my numbering when I (and many of you) have been encouraged by the love and support of members of the body here at Grace. And as a church, we have sometimes had to do the hard work of loving confrontation, and even discipline. Thankfully, most times never go far, and bring reconciliation. This kind of loving involvement and encouragement is very special indeed. It is a proof that we are Christ's followers (see v. 35). It is a measure of the reality of having known the love of Christ ourselves. It is beautiful.

But it isn't universal. In recent days I have talked with or been made aware of multiple situations in our fellowship where families who are hurting have a big fear: the harsh words and judgments (potential or already experienced) of their fellow Christians in the midst of these painful circumstances. The circumstances are widely divergent, but the fear is the same, and the sad reality is that there is some basis for expecting the worst. In fact, a few already have, either in the past, or sadly, even here more recently.

Let me ask you this: have there ever been circumstances in your life where you had to take actions, or deal with the consequences of others' actions, and in doing so you knew that there would be people who would misjudge your situation, cast blame because they didn't know the whole story, or rush to tell others of what they perceived as your failure to do what was best? If that has ever happened to you, then you know what it feels like. But unfortunately, a few of us seem all too ready to believe the worst about one another, and then share it with those who may not be in the loop.

What makes this especially troublesome is that I have found some of the people who do the talking about others have experienced, in their own lives, large hurts and pains that they do an excellent job of concealing or denying--situations where they would be mortified if anyone knew about them.

I only write what I write because I have been made aware, not just of these situations, but of some of the harsh words that Christian brothers and sisters have used--sometimes directly to the sufferer, and sometimes to others about the sufferer, that have been ill-advised, judgmental, loveless, and even cruel. I can't know the motives of such questioners, but I do know the effects of their questions.

I don't want to violate the privacy of those who are hurting, so let me give some general examples of what we ought not to be saying:

1. The mother whose toddler is throwing a tantrum does not need to be told, in love, in that moment, "She just needs a firm hand!"

2. The parent whose teen is rebelling does not need to be reminded that had they "trained up" their child in the way he should go, they wouldn't be having these problems. And adding how you instilled Christian virtues in your children through rigorous scripture memorization isn't helpful at the moment, either.

3. The newly divorced person isn't looking for your relationship advice on how to get their partner back, or your sage observations on what went wrong, or your conclusions on whether they would ever have the right to remarry.

4. The man who just lost his job can do without your stories about how your work ethic made it impossible for anyone to let you go.

5. The couple that suffers a miscarriage doesn't need to be told right then that the baby is fine in heaven and after all, he may have been a terrible person so God is probably sparing you heartache later.

6. The friend of the person going through a painful circumstance isn't wanting all sorts of well meaning, probing questions about the problem in the midst of the crisis, such as, "why do you think this happened" or "how is your friend, really?"  When you have never asked how this person's friend is before, but now seem to want a play by play description of what is going on, you are not helping the person or the friend.

And none of the imagined sufferers above are relying on you to pass on your judgments or concerns to others so that they too can join in seeing how mistaken they were!

I've actually heard variations of the above comments in these kinds of situations. These are NOT what I've heard recently. Sadly, some of the things I've heard are worse.

Have people who are in hard circumstances never done wrong, contributed to their problem, or never need counsel? Of course that is not the case. In some of these situations, there would be a place and a need for counsel and instruction, and perhaps even repentance if sin has been committed. But such counsel should come from those who have earned the right through demonstrated spiritual maturity, love and support over time to enter a situation, and who demonstrate the ability to sympathize. Even Job's lousy counselors knew that sitting quietly with him for a week was the right first step, even if their advice and judgments were as bad as what I've just suggested.

Let's commit to a better way of doing things--Christ's preferred way of love. Let's do all we can always to assume the best (love believes all things and hopes all things). When we hear about a problem, let's ask, "how could I be a blessing" to the people who are hurting. Let's not think that we always know the whole story of a circumstance where there is an obvious problem. Let's not make it our aim to assign blame in troubled situations, but to bring the comfort of Jesus to our brother or sister. Let's keep confidences, and not be what the Bible calls a "tale-bearer" (who "reveals secrets"). Let's assume the elders may already be at work in the situation, and if you are sure they are not, a discreet mention to one of us that a situation might need our help could be all that's needed. If someone is obviously floundering and desperate, consider coming along side, praying for God's peace and help, and then perhaps offering to go with them to one of the elders for prayer or counsel or help.

I know that this is not what you want to read. It's not what I wanted to share. And I don't believe that it reflects the actions or hearts of the vast majority of our family here at Grace. But when even only a handful of people act in ways that are hurtful, the ripples can spread the pain to many others. Instead, let's set up what the old youth chorus sang about--"waves of mercy, waves of grace."

And to the vast number of you to whom this does not apply, can I encourage you to pray with me that even the slightest hint of this kind of insensitivity can be overcome with the love and encouragement that can flow from God to the hurting through the rest of us?