Friday, October 31, 2014

Worry Over Whether People Like Us

It may appear as though worrying about what other people think, and concluding that, for the most part, they think ill of us, is a form of humble self-deprecation. However, I believe that a constant concerning ourselves with what people think of us is actually a form of self-absorption and self-centeredness.

We may also try to tell ourselves that we are only being “other-centered” in being concerned for what others think. But when we live in a daily concern (which is actually fear) that others don’t or won’t like us, it is very easy to fall into victimhood, with the other person becoming the bad guy. It is very easy to form the habit of deciding people we’re meeting for the first time won’t like us and thus walk away after the meeting believing that they actually don’t. It is very easy to maintain this stance in all future interactions.

This can be patently unfair to people who actually do enjoy our company and don’t harbor any ill will towards us whatsoever. It can sabotage and shortchange relationships. It leads us down the path of martyrdom where we stop interacting with people altogether, or make sure that we hurt people before they hurt us.

I know what it is like to go through life thinking people don’t “like” or respect me. Having grown up in a family where people appeared nice in person, but where gossip and talking about people behind their backs was the norm, I find it difficult to trust people.

So even if someone is friendly to me, I have to fight the tendency to wonder what they are saying behind my back, or thinking in their head. This is, in part, my problem. I need to stop thinking that everyone is a back-stabber or a gossip.

The only solution to this deeply ingrained pattern of thinking has been to weigh my conscience before God, understanding that all of us sin when we backstab and gossip. We all sin when we automatically think the worst of folks (including ourselves), or choose to focus on faults rather than positive attributes.

Which is why Philippians 4:8 is an over-arching verse, whether we are on the side of perceiving someone or being perceived (and it’s both every time we interact with one or more persons). The verse says, 

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

If we focus on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy, then we will not maintain a critical spirit toward someone (or ourselves). And isn’t it a critical spirit that has decided others don’t “like” us, even with all indications to the contrary? It’s a critical spirit towards them as well as towards ourselves.

However, If we are being as Christ-like as our current level of spiritual maturity allows us to be in our interactions with others, and we test our thoughts, words and actions with God and His Word, finding that we have a clear conscience, then if others do react negatively to us (either to our face or behind our back) we can have peace that it is the other person’s critical spirit that is the problem.

If, on the other hand, we have tested ourselves with God’s standards and found we did fall short, we can repent and make a commitment with God to not make the same relational mistake next time. It is a process that takes trial and error. The more time we spend with God and His Word, the more we’ll understand how to relate to others in a Christ-like manner. That is the only route to a clear conscience: through the work of Christ in us, perfecting us.

The other thing to remember when it comes to relationships is that not all people will relate on the same level or attain the same level of intimacy and closeness. This used to bother me. I would be jealous of other women’s friendships with each other, even though I had very dear and close friendships of my own. I actually felt threatened if everyone didn’t choose me as their best friend! Yet, at the same time, I could get quickly overwhelmed with too much social interaction and relational connections!

However, since becoming a Christian this has completely disappeared, although it took several years. The affirmation I craved from people comes from God now, and I relish the close friendships I have with other social introverts and the level of intimacy and interaction we feel comfortable with. 

So even though we won’t “get along” with or form fast friendships with everyone, we can think the best of each other.

Whether we are, ultimately, “liked” or not is not something we can control. Again, the Holy Spirit will guide us in our interactions and all we can do is our best at heeding it. If we are not “liked” by someone, it may be caused by a problem we have in how we have engaged with them, which God can reveal to us. But it may also be that the other person does not “like” us due to their own personal issues which they need to deal with. We best discern the answers when we sit quietly before the Lord, sincerely open to His estimation of us.

In the end, what I’ve found is that it is much fairer to others and freeing to myself if I aim to be Christ-like with everyone (including myself), and remember that we all live in a fallen world. That is why focusing on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy will cut the umbilical cord to a critical spirit within ourselves and others. We are then free to walk the path of pleasing one person only, the Triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and being completely content and at peace in His affirming love and security. 

God will not always approve of what we think, say or do, and thankfully, His Holy Spirit will let us know! But God does always love us. Which, in my book and His, is far better than being liked, as great as that is, in this world.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8

Friday, October 17, 2014

Reconciling Relationships

Philippians 4:8-9 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

How does this verse apply to relationships? Let’s say that when a person becomes a Christian, they have to set healthy boundaries with certain people, perhaps people they are very close to, or people in their biological family. And let’s say that after a period of healthy-boundary setting that may have required establishing great distance physically, emotionally and relationally between oneself and the other person(s), a time of reconciliation has come (God will give us peace about when this time has come).

Philippians would confirm that if the reconciliation is God-ordained, then the opportunity for and beginning of reconciliation is good. However, this verse is often seen in an entirely positive, warm-fuzzy light, excluding any “tough love” components. I see it differently because of the word “true.” Focus on whatever is good and lovely, but don’t forget that Truth is also part of it. That doesn’t mean hold a grudge simply because the past is true. No. Doing that would negate the focusing on what is good and lovely. We are to go forth focusing on what is good and lovely but also what is True.

The truth is that we can now, as mature Christians with the Holy Spirit as our Guide, be reconciled within the healthy boundaries we have set. The fence does not come down. So, for instance, it is good for reconciliation to happen if and when it is God-ordained, but it is also true that we will not return to the old dysfunction of the relationship; we will not pick up where we left off. Hebrews talks about being at peace with others IN HOLINESS. 

So if, while in a relationship in the past, we engaged in gossip, drinking or constant freudenschade, that must not happen in the reconciled relationship. God has cleansed us of past sin through His conviction and forgiveness and our agreement with God that that behavior is sin. We have repented of our past participation in that behavior and have committed to not sinning in that way again. So the reconciliation, though a good thing when ordained by God, is only a true reconciliation when we conduct reconciliation within the boundaries we’ve worked long and hard to set up.

Scripture says, “be careful that you too do not sin” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Never underestimate the power of Satan to want “in” on this act of reconciliation, because this is the sort of thing Satan despises (read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters). If we give an inch to sin in the premise that “I’m trying to be reconciled to so and so” we’ll soon find ourselves giving a mile, and we’ll be right back in the dysfunction of the relationship. That is why I emphasize that reconciliation must be ordained by God: to ensure that we are strong enough in the Lord to not return to our sinful ways with others.

Our standing firm will make the reconciliation process very interesting: the person will either not like the “new” us and our uncompromising ability to “not go there” with them. Or, they will find it refreshing and want to emulate us. For instance, if they see we will not gossip with them, they might feel relief from not having to participate in something they have often despised in themselves. 

In the years since my husband and I quit drinking, we find there are a select few drinkers who enjoy our company because they get a reprieve from drinking, or don’t feel pressure to drink as much as they do when they are with other drinkers. We have become a safe place for drinkers to go when they are trying not to drink, or trying not to drink to excess. 

The same can happen when we refuse to gossip, indulge in fraudenshaude with others, eat junk food, spend money, gamble, be critical, engage in endless political discussion, etc.

Most of the drinkers we know, however, have stopped coming around altogether. We’ve never said they can’t drink around us, but they don’t enjoy our company if we aren’t going to join them in holding a drink in our hand. And I don’t go out of my way to hang out with people who over-indulge in alcohol. That is simply a boundary. This is how truth works in the Philippians verse.

A reconciled relationship, whether folks respond positively or negatively to the “new” us, will not be the reconciled relationship movies or society portray. Society and sometimes extended family especially will tell you to kiss and make-up, forgive and forget and get on as you were. Or they will define a reconciled relationship as “I’m glad you people are ‘getting along’ and can now do everything together and talk on the phone incessantly.”

A reconciled relationship, however, when driven and guided by the Holy Spirit, is set within the parameters for relationships as set out in God’s Word, and most likely will look nothing like what the world expects.

A reconciled relationship may still be physically, emotionally and relationally distant. Though reconciled, we may still feel what I like to call “danger” around the person(s), and they may never feel safe to be around. Our comfort level within this reconciled state of affairs may never be what it once was with this person (which is a good thing, as Philippians tells us to focus on). We must remember that we have changed, drastically most likely. And most likely, the other person has not. The Holy Spirit is our counselor and our barometer of warning. If the other person(s) is still engaging in and wanting to draw us in to their engagement with sin, we will never feel at ease with this person(s). But we can stand strong in the reconciliation through grace (and not sin).

What this comes down to is a proper definition of reconciliation. The Bible is clear: do not harbor ill will, but forgive. Do not character assassinate, bear false witness against or hate (we must do all this even while setting boundaries and before reconciliation is even on the map).

We are to have peaceful relations with people. But peaceful does not mean capitulate. I’ve capitulated as a parent, only to see it blow up in my face in later dissension. “Peace” goes both ways. Our peace with God must not be broken by sinning with another person in order to have “peace” (a false peace) with that person. True peace is a clear conscience before God that I have treated a person--in thought, word and deed--according to my Christian convictions, which arise out of a deep relationship with Jesus Christ, His Word and His Holy Spirit within me. When I focus on the “whatever is true” of Philippians, I am focusing on the truth that I am accountable to one Person only: God. And when I please Him, I will not lead others astray, sin in my heart or actions towards them, or betray my relationship with God.

Others may not like our Biblical paradigm of reconciliation. But that isn’t our concern. Our concern is to obey the reconciliation God is bringing, and be at peace with that. God will never lead us into sin and that is why we can only trust Him to rebuild anything, including relationships, in the image He ordains. Another person may try to force us to reconcile on their timing and terms. But wait on God for His timing and His terms. That is the only True reconciliation that is Good.

copyright Barb Harwood

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:9-11 (underlining mine)

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Hebrews 12:1-3

“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Hebrews 12:14-15 (underline mine)