Have you ever had times when you overhear a remark, a sermon, someone talking, or even just see a Facebook status, and wonder with raised eyebrows if it's pointed at you?
I have learnt since to take such things with a pinch of salt (to compensate for my personality, a handful) and not let it ruin my day, or a relationship.
Criticism hurts when we take it personally. My teenage years were during the rise of the reality show and specifically, talent show, spearheaded by American Idol. One of the biggest factors making that show entertaining was how the contestants responded to criticism. You've probably seen Worst American Idol Contestants videos or the like on Youtube. The least said about those the better--they make me wince. Cringeworthy is the word, I suppose. In contrast, being able not to take criticism personally was what enabled certain contestants to behave and respond and most importantly, grow, in a mature and effective way.
A confession: before I start sounding like I've mastered the art of taking criticism in a mature way, please be aware that it is unfortunately not the case, whether in daily life or even on this blog. I am still living in trepidation of the inevitable nasty comment. On a side note--I realize that publishing a post and dreading negative comments is probably what it feels like for a preacher every time he steps down from the pulpit. Who's going to take issue today? Who's going to infer that I was talking about someone or a specific event, and feel offended? Who's going to feel unconvinced and try to argue with what I've presented? Considering this gives a good balance to the perspective of being in the congregation and feeling personally attacked by the sermon topic, or the example used in the application. To expand on the saying 'if the hat fits--' there's a good chance they didn't even know your head size. After all, don't we listen to sermons to apply them to our lives? I'm remembering the Sunday School lesson I prepared on the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) It hurts sometimes, of course--but when did the gory process of sanctification not hurt, anyway? It's called dying to yourself for a reason.
But back to nasty comments. I wish I could 'haters gonna hate,' but I can't, so I might as well be honest about it. Haters gonna hate; I'm gonna hurt. But acknowledging that feeling hurt (which is immature, yes, but not wrong!) can be an alternative, and doesn't have to be the inevitable sole reaction, is the first step towards maturity (and liberation.)
So even when criticism causes me to struggle with feeling attacked or hurt, I am at least mentally aware that I don't have to feel this way. You do need to give emotions second thoughts sometimes. Taking a pinch of salt may sound like rubbing salt into the wound; admitting that you're over-sensitive definitely is--but it's surprisingly liberating not to have to take your emotions at face value. For example. I've come to realize that when I'm physically exhausted at the end of a long day, and something negative crops up, it's not quite the best idea to start assessing my life. I can end up convinced the apocalypse is my only hope and my whole existence a demonstration of the wretchedness of the human race, in minutes. A far better alternative is to recognize that the current sunless appearance of life is partially due to physical fatigue, and that a shower, comfortable PJs, and bed would change the colour of my world significantly by the next morning. Emotions are lovely things but they can be absolute tyrants if you don't see them for what they are.
This helped me to realize that every time you feel personally attacked or offended by criticism--whether it's specifically directed at you, or not--it's good to consider what it means to take criticism with maturity.
That would mean being able to discern when criticism is not legitimate--is based on purely personal issues rather than any real grounds. (think YouTube comment wars, that battleground soldiered by straw man arguments. Look at the comment section on Youtube and instantly be convinced of the depravity of man. The fact that someone would go out of their way to tear down something as obscure and insignificant as a video of, for example, young kids learning to play the violin is mind boggling to me. Did anyone force you to watch the video, or claim that it's more than what it is? Does posting hate comments somehow improve the quality of your life, since it definitely destroys the quality of other people's? There is no kindness here, but no logic either. People are messed up.)
That would also mean being able to discern constructive criticism without letting it affect your relationship, your emotional well-being, or your sense of self-identity. If someone questions the amount of time you spend on a hobby, for instance, it shouldn't automatically mean you have to sacrifice a friendship, be plunged into depression, hurt, or betrayal, or feel plagued by guilt or low self-esteem. In nine cases out of ten (hopefully not more than that!) the person doesn't want any of these things to happen. Neither do you, of course. In that case, why make yourself suffer unnecessarily? And in the event of the tenth case, why let malicious attempts to break you down succeed, if you can see they're just hollow excuses to fling some dirt?
Of course that's easier said than done. Having a fragile sense of self-esteem and being vulnerable to the opinions of others comes naturally to us. We care, if any thing, too much about what other people think about us. It's part of being human; no man is an island.
But we don't have to live that way.
We fear God rather than man. We have the Bible to tell us what standards to live by, and what standards to judge ourselves by; and that is enough.
One of my favourite things about the Gospel is how it so perfectly reconciles starkly, even violently different truths. Justice and mercy. Humility and honour. Love and judgement. Similarly, Christ wonderfully embodies, at once, the best and the worst of us. Because of Him, we are perfect. And yet His having to come proves our unworthiness. That we are both at the same time--perfect in God's eyes; sinful, while we are on earth--is a miracle.
Psalm 86 verse 11 has a simple but intriguing phrase: Unite my heart to fear your name.
Everything in me resonated with that line when I read it--YES.
Our hearts are complex.
Despite all those cute Awkward Yeti Brain and Heart comics that paint those two organs of ours in a oversimplified, basically oppositional relationship, our hearts are pretty complex just on their own.
We know--or we should know--that our words and actions reflect what is already present in our heart, and that our hearts are the root of whatever behavioural problems or issues we're trying to solve. Our hearts should be what we're addressing in our struggle with sin. The renewal of our hearts is one aspect, and a very significant one, of our sanctification as Christians; in conjunction with the other, equally significant aspect: that of concrete, active decisions to resist sin, which we make every day.
This is basically the jist of that post written more than a year ago (phew.) Now, though, I want to look at another perspective on the relationship between our hearts and our mouths.
Take a look at Psalm 39. I remember being astounded the first time I read this psalm--it was so direct, so straightforward, so honestly personal, I felt that if I looked up I would see the Psalmist materializing in front of me. Heck, I could even hear myself saying these words (though I would probably have phrased everything just a bit less elegantly...)
The heart-mouth relationship is a two-way road. Just as our hearts affect what comes of our mouths, what comes out of our mouths can also affect our hearts. The Psalmist learnt not to encourage the anger and bitterness in his heart by letting his tongue run away expressing it. His response when his heart was 'hot within me' was to 'guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue.' Obviously, this didn't resolve his anger within--but it was valuable for something else: not exacerbating it. The result? The 'fire burned' still within, yes; but ultimately, it made him turn to God in frustration, where there was hope for a true resolution:
'Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days,
That I may know how frail I am...
...Certainly every man at his best state is but a vapor.
And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You;
Deliver me from all my transgressions...'
If I had had the insight to discern it, I could have learnt this from personal experience. After all, if you're struggling to forgive someone, obviously it won't help if you let all these emotions blast-- it tempts you to feel more aggrieved, to downplay your own wrong, and encourages you in your bitterness, pride, anger, unforgivingness.
If the person you're dumping all these grimy emotions on sympathizes with you, well, how nice for our fallen nature--we already were 100% sure we were in the right; now we're 200% sure. If they don't, you're very likely going to feel even more defensive and aggrieved because they downplay or disregard your feelings. Either way, it doesn't seem a very promising move towards forgiveness and restoration. It's running a nice bathtub for you to wallow in self-pity. And preparing a nice safe equipped with dehumidifiers and a nest of cotton wool for you to carefully cherish your grudge in.
Be careful. Our hearts, after all, are complex. Maybe we have sincere desires to forgive, to be humble, to resist bitterness. But those aren't going to be the only emotions in our messed up hearts.
Those complaining, selfish, arrogant, bitter (and the list goes on, unfortunately) words express what's in our hearts. And they also exacerbate the feelings they stem from.
Of course, we must qualify, as any statement nowadays--especially on the internet--must in order to avoid being grossly misinterpreted, misquoted, and misunderstood. (and sometimes it still happens anyway, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you did your best.) Talking, especially in times of emotional crisis, is important.
Of course. I would be the last person who dares to question that, for the unpleasant reason that I often talk too much too fast (they tend to come together.) It's the way we talk, how much we talk, maybe even who we talk to, depending on the context--all highly subjective details that I won't even attempt to address. At any rate, I am not about to bother arguing for something fairly obvious.
Talking about our emotions is important, yes. A not so popular aspect of that, however, is talking about our emotions to the person who evoked them. We're cowards at heart, all of us. If only our problems could be solved by us talking about them to third party sympathizers who are comfortably distanced from the person we're talking about, and we're insured against negative consequences. (yoohoo,Youtube comments.) Actually, a surprising amount of of people problems could be resolved if we were brave and humble enough to honestly confront the person who's causing us unhappiness--confess our own wrong--gently tell them of theirs--and work together for reconciliation. That is, after we've asked God to help us with our complex hearts. To genuinely love and care for the person. To keep our motivations from self-pity and arrogance and just basically being nasty and obnoxious. After all, if prayer reflects our relationships with people, being able to pray for the person who offended you is a good sign that you've made the first move away from prideful self-centeredness, towards forgiveness and humility.
May our hearts be united in the right desires; in humility and a desire to please God.
'...And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You;
Deliver me from all my transgressions.'
Doing Search the Scriptures on the Lord's Prayer made me see prayer in a different perspective--as a mirror.
Really? you think silently at this point. I think she's running out of ideas for this blog.
It isn't as absurd as it may sound, I promise. After all, the type of relationship we have with someone, for example, determines how many times a week we call them--why we call them--what we talk about when we call them--how long our calls are--and even what sort of language we use when we call them. Understandably, then, examining how we pray can function as a mirror that reflects the state of our relationship; either with God, when we pray to Him, or with others, when we pray about them. Our relationship with God is many-faceted, like a--alright, I needn't complete the simile. We relate to Him as children, dependents/creatures, and sinners/debtors, to name the first few that come to my mind. Each facet of our relationship with Him is important, and how we pray should reflect that. In other words, you could say this is the theology behind the ACTS prayer mnemonic. (yes, it took me so many years to see this) Without the corresponding prayer for these different facets, our relationship with Him is in danger of being imbalanced. As children, our prayer should include love, sharing, confiding, asking. As His creatures and dependents, gratitude, praise, and acknowledgement of our need for Him. As sinners and His debtors, confession and repentance...and so on, as you can go into detail somewhere else.
Seeing prayer as a mirror of our relationship with others, however, is a bit more messy and unsettling. That's what happened when I applied this perspective to the different people I was praying for (and the different struggles I had in praying for them--umm please help her with whatever upcoming exams she's going to have...she's having exams right?...ohh I forgot to pray for him AGAIN...err...can I skip this one...I'll pray for that tomorrow...GOD MAKE THIS PERSON STOP BEING SO ANNOYING...)
It helped me to see that I should be praying for the opportunity to get to know this person better.
That the fact I wasn't praying for someone, or kept postponing to, reflected the unacknowledged strain in our relationship.
To realize that surprisingly, even for people I cared deeply about, it was easy to neglect praying for them, revealing in me an underlying carelessness about their spiritual conditions.
And that the first step in dealing with difficult or unlovable people is always to pray for them--instead of conveniently pushing them from my mind, or praying only that God would take away the challenge they presented in my life.
Take a moment to think about your last interaction with someone and see if how you prayed for them--or your failure to do so--affirms the assumed status of your relationship. Chances are they may not correspond as you'd expect. Seeing this disparity has helped me be more aware and critical of my relationships with the people I'm praying for, rocking me in my otherwise comfortable complacency; it's challenged me to pray more honestly, accurately, and humbly.
Your hand, at some point in life--hopefully--has been a guiding hand to someone.
Definitely if there are children in your life. Or young (perhaps I should say, younger) believers who look up to you as a mentor.
Reading Matthew 18:1-10 with Search the Scriptures made me see, for the first time, that our attitude and duty towards young children are similar to those towards young believers. In a sense, you could call them mentoring relationships--friendship based on a tacit understanding that one learns and is guided by the other. Friendships with a great capability for mostly one-sided influence.
How loving Christ's words are in this chapter, and how piercingly aware of the condescension, pride, and carelessness that can warp such mentoring relationships, making them more destructive than nurturing.
Studying Christ's words was a reminder to:
1. Be humble in accepting, appreciating, and learning from them (v 4-5, 10)
Humbly learn from them--the childlike spirit of trustfulness, which is so easily patronised as naivety, is really something incredibly rare, and a great honour to have, in contrast to the cynicism that being street-smart cultivates.
Don't abuse or despise it. No matter how silly it is, don't make them feel foolish for being confiding. No matter how trivial their secret is--or how great a joke it would make--don't betray their trust, or treat it lightly.
(I'm still learning this! I'm afraid my sense of humour is not always very helpful...)
For younger believers--don't feel supercilious over their eagerness, energy, and exuberance. Rejoice with them! And instead of seeing it as an instance of their immaturity, (as we generally do with eager-beavers in any other field) humbly recognize it as a reminder of how far you have fallen away from your first love.
And these are just two of the most obvious areas.
2. Give them respect. See them as individuals. (v10; note the repetition of 'one of' in v 5 and 10!)
As a mentor, respect may not be the first thing you think of giving to your--how shall I say this? mentoree?
And all the more so, we mustn't neglect it.
This could be something as simple as listening, a lesson that could take a whole lifetime to learn.
In William Deresiewicz's book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, he describes what he learnt from reading Mansfield Park--the importance of listening in a friendship:
"Austen...knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else's stories--entering into their feelings, validating their experiences--is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness."
This, in my experience of working with children, is entirely and wholly true. You'd be surprised; kids don't actually want you to entertain them so much as they want you just to listen to them. Not just with the engrossed grown-up's spasmodic 'Umm' and 'Really?' but with the same respect, interest, and engagement you would give to another adult.
Even if you're dying to laugh.
3. Be purposeful in loving, guiding, and caring for them. Take your mentorship and relationship with them seriously, just as you would take serving the Lord in more glamorous or 'grown-up' ways. (v 5) You may only have these three kids to teach every Sunday, or that one teenager who confides in you. You are no less significant (and probably more) to them, than if you had twenty.
And as Christ so clearly warns, be careful we do not cause them to stumble. (v 6) As teachers, mentors, and friends, we have been given a great trust.
I need to keep in mind how receptive children are to your approval and criticism, once you have won their love and friendship. A careless comment or impatient remark can make a much bigger impact than you would think on a child who loves and looks up to you.
Similarly, in your relationship to a younger Christian. Be especially careful of imposing your opinions! Having--sadly--done this before with children, I daren't think of the consequences this could have on a spiritual level.
Oh dear, how depressing this is! someone may be saying at this point. All these warnings, as if I needed any more to think and worry about, when I'm just struggling with the time and effort costs of friendship!
Yes, we fall short most of the time. We make mistakes.
But as Jerry and Mary White's book, To Be a Friend, (a helpful and insightful guide on friendship!) notes,
'We can only do this when our lives are being transformed by God.'
And as another comfort to us discouraged souls--God intends friendship to be a two-way blessing.
Even mentoring friendships.
'We gain and we give. We gain what we do not expect or deserve. We give what cannot be bought.'
(To Be a Friend, by Jerry and Mary White)
'Prudent' is a word usually associated with frugality.
Being prudent in your speech generally means few words, just as prudent spending generally means few receipts and fewer regrets.
Prudence, as it is commonly understood and used, is the aspect of wisdom regarding our resources--how we use them (which usually also means how we see them, by the way.)
It's a very relatable word for those of us struggling with the widespread problem of not having enough time/energy/insert overused word of choice.
How much time should I spend on people, how much energy to invest in relationships?
How many minutes must I give to my devotions, how many seconds to prayer?
How much do I have to restrain myself from doing what I feel like doing, or force myself to do what I don't feel like doing?
How much money should I tithe, how many dollars do I have to donate to feel safely good about myself?
How little am I allowed to spend on myself and my desires? How little do I sleep so I have time for something else?
How much is too much, how little is too little?
Oh, for prudence, we sigh. If only we knew...if only there was a nice handy measuring cup to dole out our resources, and a clear-cut recipe to follow for a perfectly balanced life...
'The wise in heart shall be called prudent...'
The book of Proverbs is our family meal-table tradition. Growing up, we went through Proverbs three times at the regular rhythm of one proverb per meal. Guess what. We're doing the rounds for the fourth time.
My mom was trying to think through what exactly Proverbs 16:21 meant, and she gave an explanation that I wasn't expecting, but which caught my attention.
The thought that prudence may not necessary mean simply sparing with your resources. That 'wise in heart' may be more than the superficial cautious, careful, reserved that we'd generally assume from the context of the sentence.
Perhaps, she suggested, wise in heart meant instead that you value the things God values; that your heart's emotions, desires, loves, are God-centered rather than self-centered.
Perhaps this is where prudence begins. Perhaps prudent managing of your resources isn't about how much--or how little--you give of your _____(again, insert word of choice); isn't only the external act of self-control/restraint that we tend to think is all it means.
Perhaps prudence starts in the heart. When we love, feel, want wisely, the actions and decisions we make regarding our resources will be influenced as well. When we value what is truly valuable, when we love what is truly worth loving, when we desire what is truly worth desiring, we will give it the priority it deserves in our life. And everything else will fall into place, because--to use that old analogy--once you fit the big pebbles into your bottle, the sand fills into the spaces snugly.
Prudence, in that case, is not a merely logical and methodical set of decisions made by the brain. It is the result of a heart that loves and feels wisely; a 'wise heart.'
'The wise in heart shall be called prudent...'
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are