I was driving to pick up Jimmy from school, and I was crying. I mean, I know I tend to cry about pretty much everything (I had the perfect cup of coffee the other day that tasted somewhere between heaven and rainy-day sweatpants, and I just about joyfully sobbed my way out of the kitchen) but this was no ordinary cry fest. This was a deep-chested, “I have officially made a mess of absolutely everything”, “Pour your heart out before Him, for He is a refuge” kind of cry (Psalm 62:8).
Several people in only a few days had pointed out that I communicated heaps and mounds of judgment and criticism towards them, mostly with my tone and body language. In each of these instances, I had been speaking Truth to them, though, looking back on it now, I can certainly see how I could have spoken it better.
Regardless, I was stuck in the destitution and distress of feeling like I had misrepresented God while trying to represent Him and be uncompromising where His Word and His will are concerned. And yet it had come back to me as my being judgmental and critical of those around me.
“How can You use me,” I cried. “If my very facial expressions and the way that I move are the things that communicate the exact opposite of what I’m trying and wanting to communicate about Your love for the world, Your purpose for the lives of Your kids, and the truth of Your Word? What am I supposed to do?”
I drove around a corner too fast and became blinded by my tears, so I slowed down some and wiped my eyes. I recalled the conversation I’d had with Gracie earlier that morning, when I’d realized that any arguments we’ve had (she and I, me with others, others in general) were never about wedding details, but were always about deeper matters. I felt that same relief. At least I’m not crying about the fact that the flowers will be mums instead of roses.
I had imagined that the wedding planning process would involve emotion and fear and pain, but not this kind. When I continuously prayed for God to “search me, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” I didn’t picture Him taking me through all of this (Psalm 139:23-24).
FINDING THE BALANCE
To move into technicality, if you will, I’m learning a heavy lesson here. Not just about humility, or about counting others as more significant than myself (Philippians 2:3-4) though that is a consistent tick that the Spirit and God’s Word continue to pull and punch and sift out of my heart; I’m learning a heavy “method-lesson” about discipling out of preference, or discipling out of principle.
If I’m defining terms, I would define “preference” as being what I personally think following God looks like or how I personally apply Scripture to my life, and “principle” as the big ideas pulled from God’s Word concerning how He wants to be followed.
So, I’m meditating a lot on verses like Philippians 2:3-4 and Galatians 2:20. Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” A principle taken from this is that I live my life that is in the flesh by faith in the Son of God. So, my behavior should change because of the Truth of the Gospel, and because “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” One application of this for me is that I should not become so easily aggravated when my mom reacts to my driving. If I have truly been “crucified with Christ,” then the disrespectful and irritable behavior that so often comes out of me when this happens doesn’t make any sense: that behavior is of my old nature, before Jesus, and does not fit with the Jesus living in me now.
A preference of mine, however, would be in the realm of tattoos and body art. I personally would not get a tattoo, because I imagine it sagging with my skin as I get older, or giving me a poor reputation in my social circle and therefore harm my testimony, or the meaning behind it would change as I change..but this is not a principle pulled from Scripture. Nowhere (that I know of) does it say in God’s Word to not have tattoos. It does support taking care of your body in every way and using it to glorify God, and not placing worth in personal appearance (Proverbs 31:30, 2 Corinthians 6:19-20, Romans 6:13, 1 Peter 3:3), but there is nothing in there (that I have read) that says that having tattoos is sinful or inconsistent with following Christ. In fact, there are plenty of instances in which tattoos, particularly ones with godly meaning, can be used to start conversations with unbelievers, kind of like wearing a cross necklace, or a hat that says “I love Jesus.”
As I’m reaching out to encourage, challenge, learn from, minister to, and disciple people around me, I’m constantly learning where my preferences and God’s principles get intertwined and sometimes unfavorably confused. And this can be, I think, one way in which I unintentionally communicate criticism and condescension to people.
MESSAGE AND METHOD
“O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:7-9)
There is one more heavy lesson coming out of all of this, and it’s much simpler I think: there are occasions when people do not accept your message, they will question your method. In other words, there are times when what you are saying to people is solid and true, and is the gospel in its purest form, but because they do not want to receive it, or do not want to change, they will point out your flaws in presenting it.
I remember one time about a year ago that I posted a song on Facebook that pointed to looking within myself to find God and to find peace and hope. While this seems like a normal truth, it’s actually a half truth. The song itself was not encouraging me to look to the Cross for peace and hope, but to look inside of myself. I didn’t notice or recognize that when I posted the song.
My hometown pastor brought it to my attention almost immediately, and I responded to it with no small amount of defensiveness and pride. Knowing my pastor’s intentions to be good, loving, and shepherd-like, I refused to see it as an attack, but as a message that I needed to hear. The way he presented it, however, made me almost feel justified in saying that everything he was communicating was wrong, judgmental, or overly-critical. But what was important in what he was saying was not how he was presenting it. That didn’t matter. What mattered was the truth he was looking to speak into my life, founded on the Word of God that I claim to follow: we cannot find peace within ourselves, and we cannot obtain hope through self-focus. Our hope and peace come from Christ’s complete work on the cross, from the Holy Spirit working to change and transform us, and from God’s sovereign hand over all of the circumstances and changes that come about in our lives.
So, the application for me here is that there will be and have been times when I am speaking truth into the lives of others and, whether my presentation is “up to par” or not, there is a message of truth that they are blatantly ignoring, and they will target and criticize me as the messenger to avoid focusing on that message.
The other aspect of this, however, is that when people do criticize me, I should not immediately jump to the thought of “Oh, they just don’t like me because I’m representing Christ and they’re convicted.” Because sometimes it really is because there’s something off in my heart or wrong in my method.
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)
The gospel itself is offensive enough. No one wants to hear that they’re wrong and need a change, or that their words don’t match their actions, or that they need Someone to save them. With that in mind, so far as it depends on me, whether it be my methods of presenting the gospel, of discipleship, even of prayer for others, I should seek to not be unnecessarily offensive. So then, when it is only the gospel that is offending someone, I can step back and let God have reign over their hearts, and trust that He will work in them to an extent and an end that I will never be able to reach, no matter how well I speak or act.
And so, despite my latent distress and the temptation for hopelessness in the flawed elements of my communication, there is hope in this. There is hope in the fact that God is changing me through the working of His Spirit and the conviction and power of His Word, and that He has given me all the things that I need in order to grow and shift and become more and more like Him. And I wonder very often how I could live life, if I were living it without Him.
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (Romans 12:9-12)