When It Hurts To Go To Church (Part 1)

“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.

However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God. And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” {1 Peter 4:12-19}

 

Jef Aérosol, Paris Street art

On mornings like this I wish I were a food blogger.

Nice, comfortable, food. Or a lifestyle and decorator blogger, because I love the aesthetics of a well-appointed room. But when people ask me what I blog about, my rambling answer, after some hemming and hawing usually rests on this: I blog about what God is teaching me through his word and in this life.

And I’ve found that when I can give voice, give words, to the things that God is teaching me, and when I am faithful in the small things of letters and punctuation, words and syntax (and pressing “publish”) he leads me along and gives me messages and themes and story. You, my friends and readers, might find something in the “spacious place of grace” I have here. Maybe you’ll find affirmation, or encouragement, or get a new idea about an old feeling; maybe it resonates or inspires you to give words to your experiences or to reach for your own Bible.

This post right here is meant to give you permission.

But this post is not about permissiveness, or candy-coated glossy platitudes of how much Jesus loves you so you’re okay, or how great it is to be a child of God.

Because, honestly, sometimes being a Christian sucks rocks. Becoming (being and living as a follower of Jesus, not just a church-goer) a Christian is counter-cultural and so counterintuitive to being a human.

And, lest you think I’m making it up, go read 1 Peter 4 right now. Pick your favorite Bible version and read it through from verses one through nineteen. Heck, go ahead and read the entire letter, and maybe twice through for good measure.

Peter’s letter here is all about “Living for God” in the “Living Hope” and as “Living Stones and Chosen People and Royal Priesthood”. Life, life and living!

But it’s also a whole lot of death and suffering, too.

After you’ve read Peter’s first letter through a few times you’ll begin to see that he speaks of suffering in terms of persecution from an unbelieving world, somewhat. But mostly it’s about how hard it is to live this full-of-life gig as a believer in these ridiculously sinful minds and bodies.

The real mortification, the suffering unto death, is that of our sin. Yours and mine. Those persistent desires that motivate us from dawn until blessed night. Yes, Peter addresses controversial topics like wifely submission (chapter 3) and the role of a loving husband, and how masters and slaves should interact (chapter 2), but if you read the letter and keep in mind the context, you’ll begin to see the flower open and realize that he wrote to a group of people (Jewish Christians in the first century) who found new life in Jesus Christ but had to remain in the world in which they lived and be both citizens of heaven and members of the human race. Ain’t that the rub?

We all know being human sucks rocks, too. We fail one another, we hurt one another, we try and we succeed sometimes at making the world a better place, but we are punching clocks, paying bills, marrying, divorcing, learning and teaching and honestly, just trying to make it through the day sometimes.

Jesus lived in the tension of divine citizenship and human sucky-ness more than we can fathom.

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25).

Jesus mortified the sinful nature (he was without sin), in his own life and suffered for us to have the same success, by dying on the cross.

He bought our transcontinental ticket from the land of death and destruction and separation from God to life full and abundant, by God’s grace. Our journey, however, is not necessarily a pleasure trip.

Peter wrote his letter to address the suffering sucky-ness that it is to put to death the things that drive us as humans: domination in marriage, abuse in the workplace, confusion of our relational roles and this pleasant list from 1 Peter 4: debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, detestable idolatry.

Peter points out clearly that our enemy isn’t found amongst our own ranks, or even within our own selves. Our enemy is like a lion prowling around the edges, looking to pick off the weak ones, and he is called the devil (1Peter 5:8). And we are told to fight him: Resist him, standing firm in the faith (verse 9).

Let’s pin the truth that Jesus is our savior (from verse 2:24-25) next to the truth that our enemy is the devil (from verse 5:8), so we can go ahead and get to the points of this post.

1. There are rich, rich blessings of being a child of God. Consider this in 1Peter 1:3-5:

“In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealing in the last time.” But we will have trials “so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him, and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are fill with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1:7-9).

You aren’t on a mission to earn your position as a Christian. The situation you’re facing is not some some of divinely prescribed penance earning you heavenly credits. Your salvation is a gift, your suffering is a gift. It’s all gift, Brennan Manning writes in The Ragamuffin Gospel.

2. Whatever your trial is right now is refining your golden faith and giving your measurable proof of your salvation. You have permission to hurt through this.

→ It hurts to put to death your own inner desires. It hurts to detox. It hurts to stop drinking too much, it hurts to give up the habitual thoughts that have been like our very food. It hurts to leave a toxic church or an abusive relationship. It hurts to keep your spouse accountable or point out sin in your pastor’s life. It hurts to parent bravely. It hurts to stop being afraid. It hurts to let go.

“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering and though something strange were happening to you (4:12).”

→ Extricating yourself from the stranglehold of sin is bewildering, exhausting work, and only made worth it by the “inexpressible and glorious joy” of knowing our salvation is a love-pact made between Jesus and you. He will not fail you. He cannot fail you.

Can I hold your shoulders and look you square in the eye and speak this into your deepest hurt?

This trial, right here, the one that squeezes your stomach into knots, that makes the sky gray and frightening, that makes you want to hide?

It is refining you. You. Not your spouse or your kid or your pastor.

God is faithfully paying attention you your soul, strengthening you, humbling you, raising you because YOU have “been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, and for obedience the Jesus Christ (1:2).

God’s doing that with your spouse, pastor, kid, boss, sister, father—anyone else who will let him, too. But bask in the truth that he loves you that much! Enough to refine you, to draw you into his pure life and his “wonderful light” (2:9).

→ So you have permission to recognize that whatever is hard, sharp-edged and doing surgery on your soul is causing you real pain. Cry, weep, wail. Write about it, pray face down on the floor.

Let it do its work so that you can stand restored and strengthened by God himself (see 5:10).

It hurts.  Indeed, we fight against things that can kill our bodies, suffocate our souls. But friend, don’t let the suffering kill your spirit. Don’t become the walking dead:

the joyless churchgoer;

the suffering submitter;

the pastor motivated by greed, or worse, compulsion;

the well-intended, bible-verse-throwing among the sanctified;

the parent who can’t see the real enemy any longer;

the victim;

the abuser;

the deflector;

the defector.

Come into the wonderful light in which you were called and live brave, big, quiet, joyous, different than you ever thought possible. Hold tight onto Jesus’ wounded hand, remembering this:

“If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name (4:16).”

///

Friends,

I’ve resisted writing publicly about the church hurt in my past. It’s a little like writing a memoir and exposing the ugliness that you’d rather not revisit. The hurtful experiences, yes, even the manipulation and mental abuse, that my husband and I suffered is long in our past. But God’s been poking me and reminding me to speak the truth he’s taught us. I know there are good books on the subject, and now even counseling is available.  I’ll put together a good list of books and resources. But, you know, my blog here is more of a conversation, a sharing of souls. So, I begin this series of conversations on When It Hurts To Go To Church, with the passage of Scripture (1 Peter) that shined brightly through my circumstances and gave me solid truth upon which to place my hope.

I seriously wanted to walk away from church and never come back. This truth here, this is what keeps me connecting with God’s people. Oh, how we continue to fail as a church. In Seattle alone, thousands of displaced members of Mars Hill are collective proof of failure. But God isn’t finished. He is working out the salvation, refining the individuals’ faith into gold, and making me write about God’s faithfulness even when it hurt to go to church.

Blessings,

Alyssa

 

 

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Does God Pre-Approve Our Pain?

 “I don’t know how to go back, Mom,” she says.

I tell her that in one sense, going back might be impossible anyway.

We can’t undo what has happened in us. We are changed.”

– Jennifer Lee, The Love Idol

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Jennifer Lee debuted her book  Love Idol earlier this spring. I got to be part of the launch team, but more than that, I got see first hand, how Jennifer bravely shared her life with the world as she recounted the ways that God helped her see how distracted she’d become with perfectionism and accomplishment. Her courage tipped off a movement of folks willing to let God step into his proper place in their hearts and lives. Jennifer realized that she was Preapproved, that her frenetic activity toward the goal of measuring up left her unfulfilled, empty and far from his grace. Today, I have the opportunity to share my #preapproved story at Jennifer’s place. So many before me have shared their stories, too, and I feel super-blessed to be in this good company. Here’s my story of Preapproved Pain.

Angelo and I sat in the slanted, golden September sunshine facing the riotous remains of the summer garden. It was overgrown. The shaggy heads of the crimson bee-balm leaned precariously to the left, the old, pink rose was heavy with a month’s worth of blossoms, the lavender recalled a faded, dusty shade of it’s former intense purple.

We watched bees hum and dart, looking for the last of the nectar, distilled and sweet by the August heat.

It was a miracle, these moments of soaking in sunshine. It hadn’t been but a month of Sundays since the accident on the highway under the light of the full moon, the wreck that changed everything. Yet, here we sat— wholly altered and unable to return to who we were a month prior—in our backyard, chatting about our kids, back-to-school, the upcoming cross-country race.

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I shifted in my seat, seeking respite from the throbbing pain and closed my eyes.

“Do you need to rest?”

A harrumph and a sigh, “I suppose.”

Angelo stood on his good leg and hopped over to my chair, careful not to hit his cast on the table leg.

“How should we do this?”

We began the cautious choreography to get me back inside the house. My husband protected my leg as I used my arms to push myself backward onto the floor of the house through the sliding door. He assisted me onto a footstool where I sat to catch my breath before the long journey with my walker down the hall and to our bed.

Several minutes later, Angelo appeared at the bedroom door with ice packs and a bottle of water. We arranged the pillows behind my back, under my left leg (that was broken in over a dozen places) and sweet relief, the ice chilled the pain and the medication began its work in my body.

Tears escaped my eyes and I whispered: How long can this last? Will I ever be normal again?

…Please click over to Jennifer’s to read the rest of my story there!

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For other pre approved stories, click here.

Other posts I’ve written in response to Love Idol:

In Which I Cannot Mend Broken Things

You Don’t Have a Sin Problem

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For More Information about Jennifer’s Book, the trailer, and your own pre approved cut-outs to remind you of your true status, click here!

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also linked here:

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The Other One–Why Does The Holy Spirit Intercede On Our Behalf?

Prayer Board

photo credit: nimble photography

“Since I don’t have school tomorrow, I’m going to stay up and see the lunar eclipse,” announced Annalia. “It says it’s a full eclipse on October the 8th, at 3:27 a.m.”

“Okay,” I responded sleepily, glancing up from my book, “Go for it. You can wake me if it’s awesome.”

We’d looked online for details of the eclipse but I decided I needed more than two-hours sleep to get me through the day.

Annalia did indeed wake me just before 4 a.m., but not because the shadowy blood-moon looked awesome.

“Mom!” she patted my arm, “Come look! It’s absolutely no different! They were wrong.”

I shuffled to the back deck and there high in the sky was a perfectly round, glowing moon, a disc tacked to black velvet.

“Hmm,” I mumbled and yawned an “oh-well” and found my bed again.

When morning came I mentioned our middle-of-the-night folly to my husband.

“You guys had the wrong night!” Angelo laughed. “She thought it was the eighth, but in actuality, she went out the morning of October ninth! She was full night off. Twenty-four hours late.”

Annalia had committed to her plan, her actions were sincere and her goal was to witness the lunar eclipse, but she misinterpreted the information. One small detail turned out to make a big difference in the success or failure of her observatory mission. She has no photos, no story to tell except one of a missed opportunity. Luckily, she had the morning off school to catch up on her sleep!

//

Annalia’s mistake (and I know, I wasn’t much help!) got me thinking about this book I’m reading, Father, Son and the Other One, by Jeff Kennedy, and about one of the aspects of the doctrine of the trinity that I have come to love and appreciate dearly.

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” Romans 8:26-27, emphasis mine.

Charles Spurgeon explained these verses thusly:

“Yet our heavenly Father, who looks immediately upon the heart, reads what the Spirit of God has [written] there, and does not need even our groans to explain the meaning. He reads the heart itself: “he knoweth,’ says the text, “what is the mind of the Spirit.” The Spirit is one with the Father, and the Father knows what the Spirit means. The desires which the Spirit prompts may be too spiritual for such babes in grace as we are actually to describe or to express, and yet the Spirit writes the desire on the renewed mind, and the Father sees it.” Charles Spurgeon, sermon no. 1532.

You see, there is such cohesive connection, such inherent communication between that Father who searches our hearts (looking to meet us in our prayer) and the Spirit of Christ who dwells there that a breakdown in communication is virtually impossible! Jesus had this relationship with the Father that he, in turn, gives us, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).

We often get stuck on the beautiful yet partial truth that the very Spirit of Christ lives in us and groans to God on our behalf when the act of verbalizing our prayers is excessively difficult in times of great need.

Some claim that Romans 8:26-27 points to the necessity of a divinely inspired prayer language, that those with the gift of “praying in tongues” can tap directly into the listening ear of God because the Spirit is groaning out the right information in the best language. But there is So Much More to golden truth!

First, is the concept that God is searching the hearts of the saints.

He is, as he did long ago in the Garden of Eden, walking about looking to meet us (see Genesis 3:8-9), to be alongside us, his created and redeemed children (1 Peter 1:3-9). Yes, we can invite him, as King David did when he penned Psalm 139, “Search me, O Lord…”, but the gift of Jesus to all who believe, is the very presence of his Spirit (John 14, Acts 2) who keeps the door to our soul-searching Heavenly Father open at all times.

Second, is the reality that while we may be “weak” and unable to communicate effectively, God the Father and the Spirit are always of the same mind. There is never a chance of miscommunication.

This means he is “interceding for us with groans that words cannot express” all the time, not merely when we’re at our lowest, most vulnerable or sick, but because our native limited status as humans has separated us from the mind of God, and he has given us his seal, his spirit, to mend that tear. “You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Third, God the Father and the Spirit cannot miscommunicate nor be divided in will. The Holy Spirit is interceding “in accordance with God’s will”.

What relief! We never have to be afraid that we’re praying the wrong thing or even in the wrong language! There is no way that our prayers can be misconstrued when we belong to God through our salvation in Jesus Christ. His Spirit writes the right thing and the Father reads it; the Word is writ upon our souls!

I need not groan, I need not mutter, I need not be eloquent in my phrasing—I need only to recognize with gratitude that my Father is searching, the Sprit is communing and I have been miraculously drawn into this perfect relationship because of the work of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are reminded in Ephesians 1:13, that all we do is this: believe. The rest is God’s divine movement.

How often have I gazed heavenward, like Annalia waiting for the eclipse, hoping to be amazed, yet relying on my own faulty interpretation of the facts? Too many times, I admit. And as I’ve leaned into understanding the characteristics of the Holy Spirit, I’ve come to accept that we all too often box God by our definitions of his usefulness, as Jeff discusses in his book, Father, Son and the Other One. He begins this chapter with this quote from R. C. Sproul,

“The Holy Spirit may be distinguished from the Word, but to separate the Word and the Spirit is fatal. The Holy Spirit teaches, leads and speaks to us through the Word and with the Word, not apart from or against the Word”.

Kennedy says, “The Spirit wants to teach us Christ’s Word in the context of life. God has always been about the business of contextualizing His Word and truth in the lives of people. By contextualization we mean to speak the language of God in the language and context of the receiving culture. God always wants to translate His message into the languages and speech forms of the indigenous population. He embeds His Spirit-inspired truth in the heart of a believer and stamps that believer’s life with the power of eternity. Then he sends that Christian into his culture as a messenger.” (Father, Son and The Other One, page 95)

God’s methods of communication are practical and foolproof, guaranteed by his perpetual interaction with each and every believer. I need not ask for this searching and interceding, I only have to trust it.

God’s infallible faithfulness is not only seen in his provision for our salvation through Jesus, but in our constant safe-keeping by the continuously open lines of communication through the Father, the Son and the Other One. We can trust that the Word makes it clear that God has divinely wired us into this connection and that nothing can sever us from the conversation.

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The Other One {What’s Up With the Holy Ghost?}

hot holy spirit

 

“Are you allowing the Holy Spirit to control your life, Alyssa Mae?”

My mom’s lips pressed into a thin line as she waited for an answer, sort of. This question was, around my house, rhetoric.

I had no good answer, just a stew of conflicting thoughts, but I wanted to be good, so I’d try and let the Holy Spirit control me, sort of. The fact is, I didn’t (don’t) really know how that was (is) supposed to happen. What does being “controlled by the Holy Spirit” look like? And, if I let him control me, does that mean I have to drink the kool-aid and be a Jesus Freak?

I knew about tongues of fire (Acts2:1-13) and I knew about the babbling charismatics. I knew about selfless servants who turned the other cheek so often they’d morphed into doormats. I knew about missionaries. I knew about those rare few people I’d met who were truly happy, joyful Christians. That last group of people seemed to have their souls dialed in with the Holy Spirit best. But how? How could I emulate them? Was it safe to do so?

Well, first of all, I’d have to stop being so rebellious, so inquisitive. I’d have to stop wanting my own way and questioning everything. Then I’d have to become willfully willing to extricate my will and thoughts and passions from my being in order to make room for the powerful Holy Spirit. Then, I’d have to open myself up to the risk of what he’d make me do: be a missionary? a submissive wife? an utterly fashion-bereft Sunday School teacher?

Nope. Not for me. I decided I didn’t care much for the Holy Spirit. God, the creator and father of all and final word on justice, on the other hand, well, I couldn’t deny his position. I accepted God the Father.

Jesus? He loved me. He was my savior and friend. He freed women from so much oppression, healed the lame and sick and befriended the marginalized. He died on the cross and rose again! I dug Jesus. So, I decided that if the Word of God, my Bible, was inspired (2 Timothy 3:16) by God (which the Holy-Spirit-fire-breather had something to do with) that I would look to the Bible to round out the trinity. 

Because the Holy Spirit wanted to fill me, control me, direct my destiny, I avoided him.

And furthermore, just the idea of the Holy Spirit made me feel badly about myself. Scarlet-cheeked shame, a knot in my stomach, the whole shebang. I eventually cast off the idea of being a “good Christian” deciding it was impossible. I would be myself. After all, God the Father made me. Jesus saved me. The Bible told me that I couldn’t be separated from God’s love. So there.

Part of my problem with the Holy Spirit is that he hadn’t made a very good first impression. I couldn’t figure him out. Yes, I knew that Jesus poured out his spirit on the first century church, and that the presence of the Holy Spirit in Christians throughout the centuries and over the full-range of the earth meant that Jesus wasn’t a crazy cult-leader from the middle-east (I studied my Bible!). I knew that the Holy Spirit made this Christianity thing legit. Christianity stood the test of time and persecution, centuries of illiteracy, communism and humanism and all the other “isms” because of the Holy Spirit. The reality and power of the Holy Spirit lends street cred to Christianity. 

But my own impression of the mysterious “Holy Ghost” –as my King James Bible so cryptically named him—resembled a disturbing piece of modern art.

I know now that I perceived the Holy Spirit through the lenses of others.

Imagine your curiosity if you knew you were to meet someone incredibly influential and powerful at a dinner party. Many of your friends knew him, but the information you got before the party was conflicting. Their descriptions left you wondering: is this a powerful guy or a sham, a con-artist? And why does everyone get so worked up about him? The Holy Spirit, poor third-member-of-the-Trinity, had a bad reputation before I ever really met him. I had issues with the Holy Ghost.

First, I was a Christian since roughly the time I could tie my shoes.

I never “experienced” the before and after sensation that converts to Christianity describe. I never knew darkness of soul, a deep loneliness or hopelessness before coming to Jesus as my savior. I believed because I was taught to believe. Later, when I chose to accept these beliefs as my own because I understood and made the decision with fuller maturity, I didn’t know what to do with this member of the godhead that so many others “experienced”. Plus, his determination to control me was repelling. Further, how could I experience the Holy Spirit without manufacturing that experience myself and if I did have a supernatural encounter with this member of the godhead would I have to lose all sense and logic and be an emotional charismatic?

Second, I was raised in a “cessationist” pedagogy in line with my Anabaptist roots (Grace Bretheren).

In seeming diametric opposition, cessation theology and experiential theology are camping on different sides of the Holy Spirit river.

Cessation theology in its basic terms insists that the more colorful manifestations of the power of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, physical healing, and prophetic speech (or the uttering of new revelation or future events), through Christians filled with the spirit ceased after the apostolic age (after all the apostles, Paul, Peter, James, John, etc. died). The experiential approach to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit focuses more on the phenomenon of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of the believers, beginning at that crazy Pentecost where the wind whipped and the tongues of fire rested over their heads and everyone spoke different languages. This theology insists that phenomenological interaction between believer and the Holy Spirit continues on in ways that allows the Holy Spirit to do way more than merely control a person: he fills, and slays and empowers and leads that person into all manner of worship and ministry, as well as behavior.

This leads me to where I am today: an unconvinced cessationist, fully grounded in fundamental theology who attends a Four-Square denomination church that resides on the middle ground between the snake-handling Pentecostals and the “frozen chosen” fundamentalists. (Is there a Frozen joke here? Let it go?)

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When a local pastor, Jeff Kennedy, told me about his upcoming book, Father, Son and the Other One, I was intrigued.

I’d like to make peace with the Holy Spirit. And while Jeff doesn’t claim to be writing the final, decisive word on the personality and work of the Holy Spirit, I appreciate his whole-God approach to exploring the question: “Who is the Holy Spirit and why should I care?”

This excerpt from the introduction shed light on the fact that I may not be alone in my search for understanding the Holy Spirit, that perhaps divisive stances on the theology surrounding his person are all a bit reductionist in attempting, with human understanding, to box in the ultimate power that cannot be contained: the Power of God.

“We must embrace the Spirit by faith. And this is sometimes risky business that will shred the safe nests we’ve feathered within the church. A comfort zone, by definition, is an anxiety-neutral space where we are never challenged and where we avoid anything that may be “unsafe”. But God never intended the Christian life to be anxiety-neutral. We need all of the resources of heaven to meet the challenges of “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4).

After all, that’s were we spend most of our time.

That’s where we live.”

 I know that I am steered by fear, that I seek anxiety-neutral situations nearly all the time. I don’t much care for drama. But I also know that to risk is to better understand what it means to live. To hover near the edge of death taught me that really experiencing life is more than merely drawing breath. So, as I read along in Jeff’s book, I hope you’ll join me as I blog (and digest) about this person of God who scares me, who is totally unsafe yet predictably perfect in nature, the mysterious Holy Spirit.

A little more about Jeff Kennedy and where you can get your own copy of Father, Son and the Other One.

 Jeff Kennedy is the executive pastor of adult ministries and discipleship at Eastpoint, a large and thriving church in the Pacific Northwest. He also serves as an adjunct professor of religion at Liberty University Online. He holds a BA in biblical literature, a master of religion, master of religious education, and is finishing a doctoral degree in discipleship (he did!). When he is not teaching, writing, training leaders, or grading papers, he is spending time with his wife and four happy children. 

(That’s from the back of the book – and wow! Jeff is a smart dude! But, I absolutely love his approachable, slightly irreverent even, writing style. He uses myriad illustrations and life-stories to illuminate the text. I think this is a smart, relevant read.)

 

 

 

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When Someone Says You Suck {Part2} – Handling Criticism

Tompkins Sq. Pk. courtesy George Eastman House

Ouch! That hurt! Criticism can sting, but our reaction can cause deeper wounds and cause us to become heartsick.

It can prompt us to withdraw and fall into confusion. “Isn’t there a grain of truth in every critical statement?” we ask, and give way to the power of negative criticism. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can respond to criticism in such a way that harmful words are transformed into empowering statements that will grow our confidence, faith and make us more humble, empathetic people.

In my previous post, we identified what negative criticism is and how to identify it. In this issue, we will break down the list and learn how to turn the negative criticism into positive growth.

Negative criticism immediately puts us into a position of defensiveness, backs us into a corner. What exactly is negative criticism? The following is how I’ve come to identify negative criticism (as opposed to constructive negative feedback):

* Can come from a stranger or an intimate friend (or even yourself).

* Is rarely purely motivated by good intention.

* Comes out of a negative spirit, not a heartfelt endeavor to unify or uplift another.

* Is never entirely true.

* Is intended to hurt, defy, shut-up or otherwise crush the spirit or sap the strength of another.

* Is not “Christ-like” nor does it build up the members of his church.

* Is not fair or kind.

Negative criticism can come from a stranger or an intimate friend.

No one is immune to making unkind, harsh or rash statements. James 3: 8 says, “no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Proverbs 27:6, says that even the faithful words of a friend can wound. This means that when critical statements come from someone close, the cut is felt more profoundly, often in direct correlation to the intimacy level. If my husband said with certain feeling that I was a lazy, cry baby and always had to have my own way, this would hurt much, much more than if someone commented similar sentiments online in my twitter feed. It’s up to me to weigh the value of a statement like this. I can be mature enough to weigh the value and search for the truth cloaked in the harsh statement.

A caveat here: if you question whether or not your close relationships are safe, providing a healthy bastion of security, and you find you cannot trust the words of those closest to you, then you will find yourself drowning in confusion and insecurity. We all deserve to be valued in our close relationships. If you are not, or criticism is flagrant and constant, talk to a counselor or pastor to find clarity. Criticism can be abuse and verbal abuse is no less of a sin than battering. And remember the playground chant? Words do harm us. (For further reading on developing healthy, safe relationships, Safe People and Boundaries by Drs. Cloud and Townsend are excellent resources).

Negative criticism never comes from a motivation of good intention.

Constructive criticism is well-motivated, although it too can sting. Negative criticism can motivate you to greater good, but it’s all about your response.

Rather than simmer in a bitter stew finding all the reasons why your critic might have it out for you, take pen and paper and write down what you suspect your critic might have been thinking or feeling. Don’t write a scathing letter or a public response, but just list the possible motives, understanding you are assuming the mental and emotional process of another. The reason for considering the critic’s motives and words is to prove that you don’t really know why they said what they did, but you can allow the criticism to motivate you positively.

Once I was presented with a long list of behavior, character and parenting flaws from an acquaintance. I was deeply hurt and then indignant, full of what I believed to be righteous anger.

Then, a small voice of reason pushed though the flood of my thoughts and asked: are you willing to look beyond the motive and the words to find what God has to say about these things? I spent several weeks placing each item on the list before God in prayer, subjected them to scripture and rather than looking for a kernel of truth in the criticism, I held them up to the light of the truth of scripture. This grew me in myriad ways and built up my trust in the truth of God’s word, instead of the critic’s. Plus, I received the added bonus of being able to forgive. Win win!

Negative criticism never comes from a heartfelt endeavor to unify or uplift another.

Philippians 2 encourages us to be unified in the same attitude and spirit of our Lord and as Jesus did, look to the needs of others, doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. When criticism is wielded as a divisive or destructive weapon, your response can in turn bring unity, uplift others or show grace. That is an incredible benefit of emulating Jesus’ attitude as described in Philippians 2, the redemption of all suffering!

If someone tells me this, “You’re a control freak and you need to back off,” I can learn how to give that statement the value it deserves (based on the proximity of the relationship) and keep it reasonably proportionate to reality. I can then hold it up to the light of Scripture: what does God’s word say about trusting Him, about yielding control to the Holy Spirit, about fear and confidence? What does God want to teach me positively out of this negative remark? Then I can ask God for ways to turn the degrading and divisive statement into a tool to produce unity or build up another.

You can memorize scripture regarding the unification of the church, like Ephesians 4:4-6 “For there is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” You can turn being the recipient of negative criticism into an opportunity to lift up another who has been defeated through criticism.  Your motives do not have to match the motives of your critic. You can learn the difference and like Jesus, speak truth with the motive of building up others–even hard, hard truth can be borne on the spirit of love.

Negative criticism is never entirely true…

but it isn’t a complete lie.

In reference to the control-freak statement above, if I’m honest, stressed, out of sync in my walk with God, insecure, pregnant (not using this as an excuse, but the hormones! Yikes!), battling illness or a difficult phase in my child’s life, etc., I may have some unattractive control issues. Just because someone flung the remark at me in anger or careless or from a bad place in their own heart does not mean I have to disregard or discard it entirely. Again, if I go through the paces of my response plan above, I will be able to objectively see the truth God has for me in the critical remarks made by others.

Negative criticism is intended to hurt, defy,

shut-up or otherwise crush the spirit or sap the strength of another.

Truly unnecessary, unfitting speech is up to no good. Again in James 3:9-10 tells us “the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” and that “with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.”

That God would entrust us with such a weapon! Oh, I have misused its power.

In true humility we can, and should regularly, confess our inability to tame our tongues and ask for the wisdom that comes from heaven (James 3:17) to help us be pure, peace-loving, submissive, merciful, fruitful, unbiased and sincere members of our communities. We can be peacemakers who sow seeds of peace (v18).

Negative criticism is not Jesus’ way nor does it edify the members of his church.

It is most destructive when careless and hurtful remarks are flung about amongst church family. We should be angered by the negative criticism that squelches the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of our family. Yet, it comes around more often than the communion cup.

A pastor’s wife once leaned toward me and uttered these words, “You have to watch out for Breanna. She seems like she means well, but I don’t trust her motives. Be on your guard around her. Don’t be taken in by her charm.” Breanna was the youth pastor’s wife and the senior pastor’s wife was warning me about being friends with her!

1 Thessalonians 4:11 says, “Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before”. There are proper channels for working out disagreements but slander or criticism is never edifying. Be quiet. Don’t speak against another out of turn or until you’ve checked your own motives. We do have the right to our words, to our opinions, but we have enough biblical instruction to guide us. And, the Holy Spirit will teach you when you are willing to ask and learn from him the wisdom that you need to turn criticism into edification (see James 3:13-18, and James 1:5). God is generous when we ask for help.

Negative criticism is not fair or kind.

It’s always unfair. Often the critic needs to gain an advantage, pump an ego, overpower another and uses harsh words to achieve his goal. Negative criticism is a tool wielded by those who don’t know how to fight fair. There will be conflicts, differing opinions, issues coming to a head that need to be addressed, but the negative critic is hasty, lazy, immature or misinformed and doesn’t realize that fighting fair is the better option. We have the obligation as a children of God to reflect his character and act kindly. Galations 5:22-23 reminds us, “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!”

We have the transformative power given to us by God and his word to respond in a healthy, positive and empathetic way when we receive negative criticism. When we practice a plan like this, and yield our emotions and thinking to God, then we can become fair-fighters and praising, edifying peacemakers in a world (home, workplace, church) that desperately needs our influence.

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