Over on the what you think matters blog I recently ran a series of posts on how we should respond when the way others treat us is somewhat less than we would desire it to be. I thought it might be helpful to have all these posts in one place (for me at least, if for no one else!), so here it is:
Part 1: Calling out pride
“That wasn’t handled very well…” Anyone who has been in church leadership for longer than a week will have had this said to them.
It can be disheartening when someone says this to you (assuming they you really do have peoples best interests at heart and are not just lazy or indifferent) but it goes with the territory I’m afraid. A large part of being a leader is disappointing people. I’m not sure anyone explained this to me before I entered church leadership, but I have found it to be consistently true. People get disappointed because you do not promote them, or because you promote someone else. People get disappointed because you do not share their enthusiasm for a particular pet project. People get disappointed because they feel you haven’t given them enough attention. The list goes on. Sometimes people get disappointed simply because you are disappointing; which is a disappointing reality!
And of course, often the boot is on the other foot – when those who have leadership over us don’t handle things very well, which also happens on a routine basis.
Another thing I have learned, however, is that it is usually not so much how things were handled that counts, as how we respond. There is not much I can do about how someone has handled an issue, but there is an awful lot I can do about how I respond to it.
Because of my pride (Adam’s root sin that has infected us all) my perception automatically tends to be that if someone does something with which I disagree then they have “handled it badly.” Conversely (and still because of my pride) when someone does something with which I agree I tend to think they have “handled it well.”
Actually, there are four possible scenarios in how this might play out:
1. A situation is handled well, and I agree with it
2. A situation is handled badly, and I disagree with it
3. A situation is handled well, and I disagree with it
4. A situation is handled badly, and I agree with it
So, perversely, my natural, prideful, response will be to be happy (and feel that something has been handled well) in both scenarios 1 and 4, and I will be unhappy (and feel that something has been handled badly) in scenarios 2 and 3. Which simply illustrates that it is my response that needs attention more than how the thing was handled.
Getting this right requires real maturity, but I have seen even very senior church leaders responding badly. And it requires constant vigilance – just this week I was on the end of a “handling” to which my first (prideful) response was, “that wasn’t handled well,” until I pulled myself back to reality and saw that it was actually my response that needed working on, rather than the way the thing had been handled.
Of course, this is not to say that we should be casual about how we handle things. As pastors our aim should be to handle people and their issues with grace and wisdom – but even the most gifted leader never gets it right all the time, and this should be acknowledged.
So whether you are the one who has disappointed someone else, or is feeling disappointed by someone else, the key thing is how you are handling it.
Repentance and forgiveness in Christ seem to me to be the only appropriate response!
Part 2: The battle for the heart
I have had the enormous privilege of spending the past few days with PJ Smyth and the Godfirst posse in Johannesburg. Being with PJ is always an experience of ‘data dump’ – watching how he leads, and chatting with him, and the actual tangible information download of a bunch of files passed over on a memory stick.
One of the initiatives that PJ has been running with since returning to action post-cancer is the excellent 3DL leadership course. While in Johannesburg I have been looking through some of this material and found particularly juicy the module on gospel-centric counseling. In this material PJ puts the emphasis upon how we respond to the stuff life throws at us – it is about winning the battle for our hearts:
Even in situations where external pressures (such as sickness, bereavement, abuse, abandonment etc.) come to bear on us, God holds us responsible for how our heart responds during the experience (e.g. anger towards God, harbouring fear etc.) and for how our heart responds after the experience (e.g. withdrawal, resentment, self-pity, greed etc.).
This battle for the heart is very practical. It means that we are not excused responsibility when something bad happens to us, but are held responsible for how we respond.
For example, a person may act angry or grumpy in response to lack of sleep. Even if the lack of sleep was external (e.g. side effect of a medication, a crying baby, inconsiderate neighbours etc.) God still holds us accountable for our heart response and any sin that occurs through that anger or grumpiness. While empathy is given and the plans made for the external pressures to be minimized, the responsibility rests firmly at our feet and the person must be counselled to take responsibility for their response to the external pressure.
Of course, this message is easier to take from someone who has demonstrated it with integrity in their own life – and this PJ has certainly done. PJ’s response to cancer (during and after) has been exemplary. He has come through it stronger and more grace-filled, and with a keener edge to his ministry. (If you have not heard it, PJ’s message about his experience of cancer at this year’s TOAM conference is a must listen).
If I am handled badly, or if something bad happens to me, what do I do? My natural response is to fight back, or get into self-pity. A godly response is to lean into Jesus and in him find the grace I need – to win the battle for the heart.
Sometimes this heart battle is huge – when someone you thought you could trust does something terribly betraying, or when cancer is suddenly diagnosed. But all of us face multiple smaller-issue scenarios every week. And every time, the question is the same – not so much “Why did this happen?” That question is often unanswerable, and usually un-fixable – but, “How am I going to respond?” Or, put another way, how are you going to handle your heart?
Part 3: Grumbling isn’t the answer!
At a recent Newfrontiers wider leaders gathering the brilliant Phil Moore spoke compellingly about lessons from the life of William Booth. A couple of biblical illustrations Phil used really caught my attention, chiming as they did with things I have been focussing on in terms of the way we handle difficult circumstances.
One example Phil used was what happened to Miriam when she complained to Aaron about their brother Moses (see Numbers 12). This is a familiar story, but the point Phil brought home with fresh clarity was the mundane nature of the incident – Aaron and Miriam were having a family moan, apparently in private, and yet God’s anger was kindled against them. How many of us have had behind-closed-doors moans about those God has set in leadership over us? Or, to drive the point home, are there any of us who haven’t? We might not think these conversations are particularly serious – “We’re just letting off steam” – but God takes them very seriously indeed.
The next example was about Peter getting out of the boat to walk to Jesus (Matthew 14). This is a great story of faith – and of failing faith after Peter took a few steps and then began to sink. The question Phil posed was this: If it hadn’t been stormy would Peter have got out of the boat in first place? Probably not. A tiny boat battered by the storm might not have seemed to offer as much security as walking to Jesus. Or, if it had been calm, perhaps Peter would have simply jumped out of the boat to swim to Jesus, as he did following Jesus’ intervention in a later fishing trip (John 21).
These examples got me thinking again about how I respond to things that happen to me. Maybe there are times when Jesus allows uncomfortable things in our lives in order to compel us to respond in faith and walk towards him. Maybe if everything was plain sailing we would never get out of the boat. And maybe God really does care about the gossipy, negative things we say (even in private, with close friends) about those he has set in spiritual authority over us.
Maybe the way we should respond – even when we feel we have been handled badly – is by trusting Jesus and honouring our leaders. Doing this can be difficult and costly; but on balance I think it is less difficult and costly than getting leprosy or drowning.
Part 4: When right is wrong
When it comes to interpersonal conflict we tend to be quick to apportion blame, say “that wasn’t handled well” and feel a measure of resentment towards the other person. As we have seen already, the key thing is how we respond to the inevitable experience of being badly handled. What happens to us is often of less significance than how we respond. Will we win the battle for the heart, or give into the idol of pride and fight back?
The reality is that in any conflict there is often blame on both sides. An instructive biblical example of this is the encounter between Jacob and Laban recorded in Genesis 31. Let’s work through it verse by verse and see how this plays out, in terms of who was “right” and who “wrong”:
Verses 1-2 Laban is in the wrong as he is resentful towards Jacob.
Verse 3 Jacob is in the right, because he hears God’s voice commanding him to return to Canaan.
Verses 4-16 Jacob is in the wrong because he badmouths Laban, and encourages Rachel and Leah to do the same.
Verses 17-21 Jacob is in the wrong because he lives up to his name and ‘tricks’ Laban, by running away from the situation, with Rachel stealing Laban’s household gods to boot. (Whether or not Jacob knew Rachel had done this is not made clear. And we needn’t get into the details here of all concerned being wrong in having household gods in the first place!)
Verses 22-30 Laban is in the right this time. He sets off in pursuit of Jacob, but then heeds God’s warning about how he should speak to Jacob.
Verses 31-32 Jacob is in the right when he admits his error and says he acted out of fear.
Verses 33-35 Rachel is in the wrong this time as she lies to her father about ‘having her period’ and hides his gods in the saddlebag on which she sits.
Verses 36-42 Jacob is in the wrong – because Laban does not find what he has accused Jacob of stealing, Jacob sees the opportunity to get things off his chest and lets Laban have it with both barrels. There is truth in his argument, but his approach is wrong!
Verses 43-54 Laban is in the right as he recognizes he has to let Jacob go, and initiates a covenant between them. Jacob also then gets things right as he responds to Laban’s initiative, and breaks bread with him.
Verse 55 Laban is in the right as he blesses his children and grandchildren and takes his leave.
Neither Jacob nor Laban come out of this encounter particularly well. To a degree, they are both right, but the overall picture is of them both being wrong. Neither of them handle things very well, and it is only by the grace of God that the story concludes with them having dinner together rather than rolling in the dust punching each others lights out. (Which makes it all the more poignant that in the next chapter we find Jacob wrestling with God.)
I think the big lesson from this episode is to be alert to the fact that we might not be as right as we think we are. I’m sure that both Jacob and Laban felt themselves completely justified in their thoughts and actions (Jacob: “Twenty years I’ve worked for you, and got nothing but grief.” Laban: “You’re loaded man – and it’s all my stuff that you’re loaded with!”).
The thing is, they were both right, and both wrong, and fighting about it wasn’t going to achieve anything. Both of them could have handled the situation – and responded to it – a whole lot better. And in that, there must be a lesson for us all.
Part 5: Don’t handle it like a fool
I recently heard Malcolm Kayes speak from 1 Samuel 25 about David, Nabal and Abigail as models of how we respond to events, and found it so helpful I want to recap it here:
“I don’t suffer fools gladly…”
Rather sadly, Nabal’s parents had named him ‘fool’, for that is what Nabal means. Even more sadly, Nabal lived up to his name. He clearly had ability, as he had managed to accumulate considerable wealth, but he was not a popular or pleasant man. David and his men had kept guard over Nabal’s shepherds when they were out in the wilds with their flocks, but Nabal had no interest in showing reciprocal respect towards David. Nabal was the kind of man who says, “I’m not going to help him – I’ve worked for what I’ve got. Why should I help that waster? Let him go and get a proper job.”
When David’s request for help came, Nabal told him to get lost.
“I don’t deserve to be treated like that…”
David was not the kind of man to take an insult lying down. He tells his men to strap on their swords, and marches off to slit Nabal’s throat. David felt complete justification about this – Nabal had it coming.
It is interesting that this story comes immediately after the account of David sparing Saul’s life. When David had Saul at his mercy he did not lay a finger on him, and was even consumed with guilt at cutting off a corner of Saul’s robe. But an insult from Nabal and David is ready to start a slaughter.
Sometimes it is easier to respond righteously in the face of the big test than it is to a smaller test. We might behave with nobility when something huge happens to us, but then fly off the handle at the smaller stuff. This is like the man who handles redundancy with dignity, but then gets into a fury when another driver cuts him up. What it reveals is that there is some heart work that still needs to be done.
“I’ll respond with grace…”
In contrast to the foolish Nabal and the hot-heated David, Abigail is a model of gracious action. She compensates for her husbands arrogant folly by making arrangements for David to receive a generous gift; she prevents David from taking the law into his own hands and becoming guilty of shedding blood by flattering and charming him.
Not only does Abigail respond to a very difficult situation with incredible wisdom, but she acts selflessly. It is easy to imagine that the prospect of David chopping off Nabal’s head might be attractive to Abigail. It could be her way out of what was probably a pretty ugly marriage. But she doesn’t do this. Even when she gets back home from placating David, Abigail finds things worse rather than better with Nabal drunk and disorderly. But rather than look for a way out of a difficult situation Abigail remains faithful.
How do you handle it?
Each of us has the potential to act like Nabal – to be selfish and thoughtless and foolish. In our different ways we can find ourselves looking down on other people and making wrong judgements about them.
Each of us also has the potential to act like David – taking hot-headed exception to the sleights (real or imagined) that others throw our way.
Abigail is a better model of godly response here. Rather than fighting her own corner or running away in fear, she faces a difficult situation head on and makes wise choices that result in a good outcome. Abigail is a wonderful example of how to handle a handling. May we go and do likewise.