That time I learned a positive life lesson from counselling
Memories are important to helping me understand what Gods Kingdom will be like.
So I think after five months, lockdown is beginning to break me a little bit.
In the beginning it wasn’t so bad. The stress of it all sucked, and not seeing my friends who mean the world to me was really hard, but lots of things were ok. I live with my parents so money wasn’t an issue, as they are far too generous to let me squat here for nothing. I got to take my dog on daily walks and started a daily readings group with my church. I was furloughed so for the first time in about two years I actually earned money (most of my big expenses we’re driving), so I had plenty of spare capital and time to spend on hobbies. I even had some phone counselling sessions (not related to the pandemic, and its a story for another time) which have really helped clarify some things. All in all, things were not looking too bad.
But in the past month or so, things have taken a bit of a downturn mood wise. Not critically, but enough for me to notice. I began watching a video essay by Patrick H Willems on timeloop movies (e.g. Groundhog Day) and how they reflect so much of the present moment. The feeling of endless repeating days that have no meaning, stuck in a perpetual loop with no end in sight. It’s a good essay, and really clarified some things in my head. https://youtu.be/2IrZD94CTxw
For me, it’s the monotony of it all. Wake up late, walk the dog, watch some Netflix, have lunch, think about doing something productive, get depressed reading Twitter, play some old Xbox games, have dinner, watch some more Netflix/ play Xbox/ stay on Twitter/Facebook/Hinge, stay up too late, sleep, repeat. Every day the same, no variation, except which app takes up most of my time that day. The hobbies no longer bring the joy they did because they aren’t there to be a break from everything anymore; the counselling finished; the reading group stopped being fulfilling; Hinge, started out of boredom, never went anywhere, and I’m convinced now I wasn’t in it for it to do that (although I have made a couple of friends from it which is positive). Even writing this blog, something which was a welcome cathartic release after work and other stressful things became its own work just to think of anything. It’s just like everything has become the sludge zone, just oozing, slimy nothing that sucks you in like quicksand and doesn’t let you go.
Gods work – Invisible String
So how is all of that relevant to the title?
I was chatting to my friend the other day about the new Taylor Swift album Folklore. We were talking about our favourite tracks, and she said one of hers was Invisible String, a song all about connections between two lovers that brought them together. My friend said it was her favourite because she had just got married, so she could look back and see all the invisible string that tied her and him together.
Christians often say and believe that God works in our lives. The degree to which He does and what He chooses to get involved in vary from person to person. I used to pray for Gods intervention in my exams, but now I’d hope something more important would get priority! I also do not think God intervenes in favour of any given side of a football match, unless he is a [INSERT WINNING TEAM AT YOUR SPORT OF CHOICE HERE] fan. But millions, perhaps billions of people believe that God is actively at work in their lives, guiding their footsteps in the right direction. This is not restricted to things that are positive, because that’s not what God is there for. God is not a genie designed to fulfil our deepest desires (I’m looking at you prosperity gospel people), so it makes sense that some things that happen to us that are bad are also from God right?
Thisnis the idea that God puts trials in our lives to test us; can we go through something bad and become better people? I can agree with this to an extent, because I can look back on moments in my life where I think God was working for me and putting me in the best position possible, even when the thing that caused it was painful. For example, because it’s news relevant in the U.K. at the moment, I didn’t get the required grades to go to my first choice of university, despite many hours of procrastination and hastily said prayers and promises to be good as I sat down in front of the exam! I was shocked at the time, but now looking back I see it was all for my good. I went to a Uni where in my second year, a student group was created for likeminded Christians. This group was one of the best things to ever happen to me, and many of the people who went are still my friends today. I do not know if I’d have had the same experience going to my first choice of uni.
That student group was really uplifting, and convinced me I needed something new from my church life. This meant I moved churches to my current church, where it’s safe to say all of the good things that have happened in my life since have come from. I do think God helped me to get to this place, to realise how much I need and thrive when I have a strong community behind me.
This I think relates to the invisible string conversation I had with my friend. We can look back on our lives and see how God created situations both good and bad that allowed us to grow. It’s lie driving a car and looking in the rear view mirror to see where we have been.
The Flaw in Looking Back
But I can’t find it that comforting, and I haven’t for about a year. The past year has not been brilliant, even without the lockdown. I lost a relationship and friendship in one go, and then had to write a dissertation I hated doing. The qualification I achieved has only served to make getting new jobs harder as it overqualifies me for some jobs, but I lack the experience for others, meaning I stayed trapped in a dead end job until the pandemic happened. I have sent out dozens of applications without success, getting close but “I’m sorry we’ve found another candidate with more direct experience”. Not only isn’t the string tying together, it’s seems to be completely frayed.
Trying to stitch things together yourself doesn’t always help either. I tried that with some things, trying to see what Gods pattern might be and putting together an apparent map for myself; getting a job in the city where my church is, moving out, getting my own place, starting a life. But that dream seems a little further away. I saw all of that happening after finishing my qualification, creating that life with my then partner, being part of a thriving church; but all of that stuff has either fallen away or seems to be in jeopardy. All of these feelings have been compounded in this global pandemic, the lack of direction and purpose it has created in me merely adding to the crushing weight of everything that came before.
And I think I understand the flaw in what I was doing. Looking back and seeing God’s invisible string tying things together is only possible when those things are good, or if they were bad, they have created something better. Its easy for me to see now that going to a different university because I didn’t get my grades was ultimately a good thing, because I have the good things that resulted from it. But at the time I couldn’t have foreseen all of that! It sucked! I felt like a complete failure! And that is where I am at now with all my current baggage. I cannot see the good in it yet because the good hasn’t happened, and I do not know if it ever will.
The book of Job is a strange book. It tells the story of a righteous man called Job who loses everything; his crops are burned, his house falls down, his kids are killed and he becomes diseased. His friends show up and they try to make sense of it. They decide he must have done something bad in order to be suffering this way. It reads almost like a debate, or a Shakespeare scene, four guys meditating on suffering because there must be a reason for it. But in the end, God speaks to them, and he doesn’t give them an answer, even though in Job chapter 1 it tells God has done it to test Job’s faith. God asks them where they were when he made everything, in a really poetic passage:
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)
Gods point is that his ways and means are so far beyond our comprehension we cannot understand. There sometimes is no discernible reason as to why bad things happen to us, they just do. There doesn’t have to be some life lesson for us to learn right away.
This is really frustrating because we as human beings like completed stories, a neat little ending wrapped up in a fancy bow. Imagine a murder mystery novel where the mystery is never solved! It would suck! But that is what life is sometimes. We don’t always get closure handed to us without pain, and sometimes we don’t get closure at all. We just have to keep muddling along, having to accept that things sometimes will not make sense.
Something I tried to do very quickly as all of this stuff was happening was try to make sense of it all. I tried to predict why God would be doing this to me, if indeed it was from him, and draw lessons early. I think that was a mistake. A healthy perspective on things requires some emotional distance from the events, so a lot of the supposed lessons I was trying to take from it weren’t actually helping me, only making me feel worse. I took on all the blame for them in an effort to force change, but was not in a position at that time to bring it about, which lead to further uneasiness. In a weird way, I was trying to use my God rear view mirror to drive forward, which wasn’t working.
So I am going to ease up a little on trying to make sense of things. I can still use my God rear view mirror to look back on past events and I can see how God was connecting things together. But I am going to stop using that mirror to try and make sense of things that I do not have enough distance on yet. The car has to keep going down the road, and only when these problems are dots in the rear view mirror can I begin to look for the lessons.
Forgiveness is one of those things we are taught from a very young age. When you play with friends or siblings and you accidentally hurt one another, you are told to forgive instead of hitting back. If you grew up Christian like me, then you will have heard about forgiveness much more often as God forgave our sins through the death of his son Jesus.
But when you’re an adult, this becomes a lot more complicated. As you get older, feelings become more complex and people’s wrongs have more ways to hurt you. The damage caused is not fleeting and can last for years if not decades if harmful enough. This post is about the complicated nature of forgiveness from both sides of the story. As someone who has been hurt and has hurt others I am developing a far more nuanced, if not necessarily more comfortable perspective.
Being wronged by someone else hurts a lot, and it can hurt in a lot of different ways; physically, financially, but for the sake of this blog we will focus on emotionally. Being hurt can trigger a wide variety of emotions such as sadness, anger, confusion, feelings of betrayal, fear, etc. You can feel like all of these emotions are being felt simultaneously, swirling around and cascading down on top of you. But one question you will need to answer for yourself is ‘can I forgive this person for what they have done?’
Forgive us as we forgive
The Lords prayer is a prayer delivered by Jesus, and is perhaps the most famous prayer ever uttered. For centuries Christians have used this prayer as a model for the perfect prayer. In a sense it is the distilled elements of any prayer that might be given, whether standing in front of a congregation, or alone on your knees at the foot of your bed. But for our purposes, we need only look at one part. In this line, Jesus does a very important thing; he ties our ability to forgive to God:
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt 6:12, NIV).
Lets be unambiguous here; you will not always be the victim. As a human being, it is pretty much guaranteed that you will be on the other side of this equation at some point, and depending on your beliefs or creed you may approach God for forgiveness. Jesus understood this, and therefore chose to make sure that we understood that our ability to be forgiven is based on whether we can forgive others. Later in Matthew Jesus tells us ““Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Matt 7:1). When we have the power to forgive and choose not to, we are making a moral judgement, that this persons crime is not worthy of forgiveness. Jesus reminds us that we also have to ask for forgiveness sometimes, and that if we are not a forgiving person, we cannot expect God to be for us.
The Cost of Forgiveness
I love the phrasing of the NIV version of the Lords prayer for the passage we used. Rather than other versions that might translate to sins, this translation uses the word debts to refer to our wrongs.
We live in a world that bases itself on economic value, personal worth, compensation and debt. I’m sure you will have seen adverts on the telly offering short-term loans, and then in the small print collect huge rates of interest. We grow up learning to pay others back for what we owe them, and thats not a bad thing. Its a good practice to get into and also saves you from being a drain on your friends.
Being wronged is like someone incurring a debt to you. You expect to be paid back, or in some ways to collect on that debt. Lets say someone hits you in the face – you want to punch them right back, right? Or when you were younger and one of your siblings broke one of your toys, you want to break one back to make things fair. When someone insults you or hurts you emotionally you want to lash back, calling them names and saying the things you know will hurt them most.
It all goes back to our concept of repayment and fairness. The fact this person wronged you was unfair, and that must be made right somehow. But that is not how the gospel works and its not how Jesus operated. When Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive his brother, Jesus told him seventy times seven times. This number is not to be taken literally, but as a symbolic gesture; numbers in the Bible often represent different things, and the number seven represents completion. So Jesus is telling Peter that forgiveness must be complete every time, and also an unlimited number of times.
To forgive is to wipe away the debt owed. The slate is wiped clean, no additional payment can be collected. And I’m not going to sugarcoat this; that’s really hard. Its painful. It costs you to do it because it means you have to let go of that righteous rage that you feel when you confront that person. And its so natural to find it difficult because its the opposite way to every instinct of every person who has ever lived. Except one.
So why is this spiritual debt relief important? It all comes down to power.
Every relationship you have involves a power exchange. Power is unevenly distributed between people based on any number of things; money, athletic ability, looks, popularity, expertise, age, gender, race, you name it. If its a thing, power can be exchanged. As we have discussed, forgiveness is a way of wiping away the power you have over your wrongdoer, but it also has a positive effect for you also.
Proverbs 29:11 reads Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end” (NIV). Acting on your impulses for revenge may feel good initially, but only bring more anger in the future. Sometimes it can explode out in unexpected directions, hurting others not involved in the original wrong. But letting go of the anger and the power you have also means that that person no longer has power over you. Holding a grudge means that that wrong is taking up valuable space in your head when it could be used for something far more beautiful than anger and hate.
You can free yourself from that by forgiving. Wiping away a debt owed involves you taking on an enormous cost on yourself initially, but eventually you will be better off for it, having achieved a spiritual peace.
So that’s the perspective from the position of being wronged. These thoughts are not new thoughts, as I have been ok with this for a long time. What follows however are thoughts from the other perspective, and they are thoughts that I am far less comfortable with, but I feel they are the right thing.
Welcome to the other side. If you haven’t already, you will probably end up on this side of the equation at some point in your life. You may also be seeking to repair the damage done, or at least considering it. Hopefully this letter will help you understand some stuff a bit better, but fair warning, it may not make you feel better about it.
You have to ask
Seeking forgiveness is the most important step you can take. You must show remorse for what you have done, be truly sorry for the hurt you have caused. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry Ron and Hermione discuss Voldemort’s horcruxes, enchanted objects that contain parts of Voldemorts soul that he created by ripping his soul apart in acts of extreme evil. Ron asks Hermione if someone with horcruxes could put themselves back together. Hermione says the only known way is remorse, truly feeling what you have done, but that its extremely painful and that the pain of it can destroy you.
You have to be willing to put yourself in a position to be hurt (we will come back to this later). This involves removing your own pride from the equation. The temptation may be to try to defend yourself at the same time as apologising, issuing a sort of non-apology that allows you to emerge with your ego in tact. Politicians and social media figures do this all the time, “Im sorry that your feelings were hurt” being a very popular way of subtly shifting the blame to the victim for supposedly allowing your words or actions to hurt them.
The Bible uses the word repent to talk about sin a lot. Its an old-fashioned word but is useful in this context because it means a complete change in direction, a full 180 degree turn. For you to be forgiven requires an acknowledgement that you need to change. You must work on the things that cause others pain, otherwise the same things will happen over and over again.
All of this takes a lot of work on your part and assumes you are committed to showing remorse and rebuilding what once was broken by you. But perhaps the most difficult part of all of this is that things may never be the same again.
Forgiveness is not Forgetting
I write this letter because I have been in the same boat as you. In the summer of 2018 I reacted badly to a situation which in hindsight was so stupid and small, but at the time really overtook me. And that was all it took. Although things carried on as normal for a fair while after that, eventually it was one of the things that sort of ended the friendship as it was before the incident. At the time we had discussed it and I foolishly thought it was behind us, but their opinion of me had been changed once they had experienced that side of me.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about it over the past months, and I have had to come to a conclusion about being forgiven. If you’ve read the last post on this blog, then you’ll know my opinions on needing to forgive people. I think its a very healthy thing for the wronged person to do and also removes any need for further hurt in the future. However, I must make it clear here that sometimes forgiveness is seen by Christians as a sort of get out of jail free card when we hurt each other. The Bible commands us to forgive, so we then force it upon others. But forgiveness cannot and should not be a forced thing, and to do so can lead to more damage and worse consequences.
Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to accuse Doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Nassar was the doctor for the USA Olympics Gymnastics team, and has been sentenced to between 40-175 years in prison after sexually abusing 140 women. However, Denhollander has more recently become critical of some attitudes held by churches (Denhollander is an Evangelical) that leads to them not doing due diligence to victims of sexual abuse, particularly within the churches themselves. Doing a twitter seach using the #churchtoo and the word ‘forgive’ brings up a number of stories where a victim of sexual abuse was told to forgive their perpetrator because thats what jesus would do, and the perpetrator faces no consequences.
Now this is quite an extreme example, but does get to the heart of what I want to say to you. Just because we are told to forgive, you cannot expect the person to forgive you for whatever youve done. If you said sorry and then they didn’t accept it then, you do not get to turn around and complain that they are not doing what Jesus commanded! People are complicated! Hurts can really damage us badly, sometimes destroying parts of ourselves like our ability to trust others. You are in the wrong, so you do not get to determine whether your’e worthy of their forgiveness.
But lets say that the person does forgive you or has forgiven you. What then? I think we all want things to return to how they were before we our partner/friend/colleague/stranger. we think we should act like the hurt never happened. And again, thats easy for you to say, but for the other person, that may not be possible. My actions caused my friend to look at me differently, and the damage could not be undone. It would be unfair of me to expect them to carry on as if nothing happened because that would mean I would have suffered no consequence. And thats also the thing, because the Bible does not guarantee freedom from consequence. Even where forgiveness is possible, you are not owed a continued normality afterwards. If a friendship had to end, or a relationship, then you have to accept that. It was your fault in the first place.
I’m sorry if that’s a really harsh reality. I know its tough. But sometimes the best thing you can do is to ask for forgiveness and give the other person space to heal. It may take hours, days, weeks, months, years or even never happen, but you need to let them process what you did in their own time.
So those are my thoughts on forgiveness. What do you think? Please leave a comment with your thoughts below!
The crowd watched as the three men were hoisted high above them, silhouetted against a dark sky. The men’s soft moans were barely audible over the sound of jeers and insults, punctuated by a few sobs from the back of the crowd. Further away, a group of men in robes stood watching, grim satisfaction on their faces, pleased with a job well done. That was at least, until a young man in Roman armour propped a ladder against the cross in the centre, climbed it and nailed a board above the head lacerated by a crown of thorns. The satisfaction on their faces slowly turned to rage as they read the white inscription daubed on in Hebrew, Greek and Latin: JESUS OF NAZARETH, KING OF THE JEWS. As the Roman official overseeing the execution walked past, his work done, the priests shouted at him “why have you done this?”, to which the man responded “on the orders of Governor Pilate”.
Why write this? what was so incendiary about this inscription? Well, it gave the man on the cross the title prophesied that he would hold, but that the priests denied was his. Jesus Christ, descendant of the royal line all the way back to King David himself, the Son of God, was that day proclaimed king.
But what a strange King he was, for there was never one like him before or since. Nothing about this man would ever have struck anybody as Kingly. Born literally in the straw, from a mother who would have been considered a bit of a wrong’un (pregnant and unmarried), growing up in a less than desirable part of the neighbourhood, who was a carpenter until the age of thirty, decided one day to quit that job and become a travelling preacher! People who knew him must have thought he’d lost his mind!
Once this campaign started, he starts preaching his manifesto for his Kingdom. But it’s not a manifesto like we’ve ever heard of; it’s one where the meek will inherit the earth, that tells you to love your enemies, give to the poor as help the sick. He surrounds himself with the most motley assortment of people, the weirdos, the outcasts, the money-lenders, scabs, hookers and diseased. His own closest followers are uneducated country bumpkins from the middle of nowhere, not the generals, priests and the wealthy diners one normally needs for a revolution! Even worse, he shuns those people in favour of the outcasts! And he touches them! Rather than remaining aloof, away from the unwashed rabble, he rolls up his sleeves and gets on in there, with no fear for his personal health! He touches the blind, the lame, the mentally ill, the lepers and even the dead! He gives out food, washes feet and hugs those who need them. He acts with compassion, not judgement, never turning anyone away who might accept his help! In this way, he became a revolutionary, a man at the vanguard of a new way of life, one that chose to value all people, not just those with power and influence. Anyone could join his movement, regardless of status.
But all revolutionaries run afoul of the authorities eventually, especially when his own people turn on him. They come for him in the night. They put on a show trial with a predetermined outcome. Even when the Roman governor can’t find fault, the frenzy of the crowd cowes him. He releases Barabbas instead, a violent militant on the removal of Roman power. And the self-proclaimed king? Is nailed to some wood and left to die on a hill, his friends, family and followers left to watch as he agonisingly dies.
The Act of Dying
I’ve spent a lot of time reading about death. In history it’s unavoidable. Everyone dies, including Kings and revolutionaries, and they range from the heroic to the cowardly, from the mundane to the ridiculous. But this death is the strangest, and I’ve only just realised why.
One point is that Jesus’ death is kind of pathetic from a human point of view. If you were a King, you may want to die in battle, having cut down a dozen men in a heroic last stand that echoes down through the ages. If you are a revolutionary, perhaps you want the same, maybe after delivering a heroic braveheart-esque “FREEDOM” that ignites rebellion in the populace and that leads your face being plastered on t-shirts and the walls of teenage idealists. But Jesus dies without shouting, not ordering his followers or cursing his enemies. No heroic battle-cry, just suffocating slowly, hanging from a cross. Not exactly epic, is it?
Were the Bible pure propaganda, then you would expect something different. Perhaps a defiant Jesus, killing several people before being overpowered. A Jesus who at his trial delivered a speech so rousing that it rallies people to the cause, causing a revolt and the overthrow of the Roman autocracy. But the Bible doesn’t do these things. It chooses to tell us how the son of God died in public view, slowly suffocating as the pain in his hands and feet grew too unbearable to support his weight to breathe. It chooses to tell us of his cry out to God “My God, my God, hey have you forsaken me!”. It chooses to say he forgave rather than cursed. All this, because that’s what the revolution was about. Love, forgiveness and honesty.
But there is another, far more crucial thing at play here. You see, Kings are kings and revolutionaries are revolutionaries because they are the leaders. They are the names on the banners, the faces on the leaflets, the statues in the town squares. Their image and prestige are everything to their people. They are indispensable. But that means the people, their subjects, are in some way disposable.
Rarely does a King fight on the frontline. They send people to fight for them, choosing instead to sit on their horse overlooking and perhaps directing proceedings. The members of our armed forces swear allegiance to the King or Queen of the day. The President if the United States is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. And the same is true for all leaders throughout history; they all require grunts to do their bidding for them, and in many cases die for them. For millennia men have marched to war for the cause of their ruler, who does not put himself in harms way, except if he may achieve some glory. And when they are in danger, it doesn’t really matter how many of their people might die for them. When the wolves are at the door, the royals and people of power are often last to die, staying safe behind their walls as the ordinary ones are beaten and killed.
And that’s the distinction between them and the King Jesus. Because Kings don’t die for their people – their people die for them. Thousands, perhaps millions of men may lay down their lives in blood-soaked battlefields for their monarch or leader. But in this case this King, a King who could have wielded power beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, chose to die for his people, and not have his people die for him. His death didn’t come at the end of a long war, with thousands already perishing for his cause. He saw the danger, the threat of sin and death to his people, to all people, and chose to face it himself.
But also unlike other Kings or revolutionaries who die, Jesus is alive now. When these other Kings die, no matter how much wealth they may have had, will end up just like the rest of us plebs, rotting in the ground as worm food. But this man Jesus through his death conquered sin and the power of death itself, and by so doing broke the chains of the rest of us. This King chose to die for you. But his death means new life for us. No other leader would do that for you. So, maybe question your allegiances, because the King who died for you offers something far greater than anything in this world.
You’ve probably all been there: the tingling sensation down the back of your spine as all the hair stands on end; the way you catch your breath when they walk in the room; the way the smell of their perfume catches your nostrils and makes yous stomach flip; the feeling of rising heat as they look at you and perhaps even smile. Then, if you’re lucky, so many more experiences come after, like the first time you hold hands, the first date, the first kiss. The strange, dreamlike quality the world takes on when you’re with them, like you’re in a real-life Disney romance. The feeling like they are the only person in the world who could understand you, that you would do anything for them, and indeed that they are your everything.
You’ve also probably been there when you lie awake in bed, mind running top speed, unable to get the thought of them out of your head. The time at work or in the car or shop you suddenly felt like you were going to breakdown. The panic as you send that message, and the melancholy when no reply comes. The constant feeling of being on edge around them, like every movement of yours will be dissected for weaknesses and flaws. The elation and panic when they arrive and the crushing emptiness when they leave. The days sat in the corner of parties, numb to the fun you could be having with your friends, or the nights spent staring at nothing, waves of self-loathing crashing down on you.
If you’re here, you’re probably a love addict. Not like a sex addiction, but an addiction to romance, to needing someone to complete you. If this is true, then welcome friend, because if this is a war then I am a seasoned veteran. And I’m here to tell you whats wrong, and maybe how you can fix it.
Love in the modern world
If you’re like me, it’s likely that the importance of having a romantic partner has not escaped you. Love comes in all shapes and sizes, whether its friendships, family relationships or others, but so much of the emphasis now is on the supreme importance of having a partner. But not just having a partner, having the partner. The cultural idea of ‘the one’, that single person who you were destined to end up with has become a central part of romantic relationships. So much of the media we consume reinforces these ideas, that to be truly happy you have to be with someone. I love this stuff, from the music of Taylor Swift, to crying at a good rom-com (Sleepless in Seattle or the Holiday are personal faves). Its in-built almost, part of our cultural DNA to love these things.
I feel like growing up in a religious community adds an extra dimension to this, because of the importance placed upon marriage and its perceived value. From quite an early age, children brought up in religious circles are told about marriage; when you hit your teenage years, speakers feel the need to address certain feelings that young people have that can only be expressed once married. This in part contributes to a much lower average age for getting married in religious communities compared to outside those communities. But it goes beyond that sexual element. I can speak from first-hand experience just how excited people in church get when a new relationship begins and almost immediately gossip starts about marriage and children. Some of us engage in it jokingly, others not. And its not just cultural thing because some stuff does come from the bible. the idea that man and woman become one flesh once married implies that two people become whole once bonded together.
All of these things put love and finding it on a pedestal equivalent to God. This may not be the same for everyone, as others may choose to put money and success first, and not unfairly, people may see that as being kind of cold. Because love is fantastic! When you’re in love with someone you feel so amazing because you have somebody who loves you back, who you can share secrets with and who you bond yourself with closer than anyone else. However, I do think this poses a problem for some of us, including myself.
What Are Idols?
When Paul and the first Apostles began preaching the gospel, they were doing so in a world that believed in pantheons of gods. In Acts 17 Paul arrives in Athens, the cultural capital of the ancient world, he is greatly distressed at their worshipping of idols (17:16). The idols of the ancient world were personifications of concepts, an image put to an idea so that the people could pray to that god for help with a particular thing. If you were going on a sea voyage for example, you might pray to Poseidon to keep you safe. In the modern day, we do not worship at temples but we still ‘worship’ things. We are human, its instinctive to search for meaning, something to build our lives around, your focus so to speak. The one thing that if you got it, would make you complete and whole.
Now some of these are easier to spot. Money, wealth and status are the obvious ones in a world of gold leaf on food, million dollar hyper-cars and social media influencers. But the idols of others are always much easier to identify than your own, and as Jesus once said “…first, take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brothers eye” (Matt 7:5). So this post is about mine, which is love.
Idolatry is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it takes things that are good or fine for us in small amounts and puts them at the centre of our lives, giving these things an unhealthy prominence. Its a toxic relationship because whatever it is become so all-consuming you end up believing that its the only thing that will make you happy and you will therefore do anything to achieve it. You lose all perspective on the thing you worship.
In the wilderness, the Israelites often complained to Moses that God wasn’t giving them enough of what they wanted. In one particular passage, the people are complaining that they only have manna (Heavenly bread sent overnight by God) to eat. So God tells them that he will send quail to the camp, but that You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, 20 but for a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have despised the Lord who is among you, and have wept before Him, saying, “Why did we ever come up out of Egypt?” ’ (Numbers 11:19-20).
Eat until it comes out of your nostrils. how descriptive of idolatry is that? Wanting something so much, that you take so much of it to the point its actually bursting out of you and that you end up hating it. This can be us with a lot of things; some people become addicted to alcohol, tobacco, drugs or gambling, and they can get treatment for those. But you who worship at loves altar are also addicts of a sort, with love being the heroin that fills your veins.
How best to describe love worship? Perhaps the best example I can think of is when you have a really intense crush on someone. From personal experience, its usually on people who I do not know that well. That element of mystery is exciting, but it also allows you to fill in the gaps, building them into the perfect person for you, or our cultures idea of a soulmate. However, a crush is only based on your perception of that person, and not the actual person themselves; they are just as complicated and messy as you are, but you have made them into something they’re not.
In relationships, whether with family, friends or romantic partners, we have to be careful we don’t turn our into idols. We put so much expectation on them, make them so much of our daily focus, our reason for being that we lose sight of them and their needs. If you do this, it is inevitable they will collapse under the weight of your expectation. They become like the titan Atlas in Greek mythology, cursed to hold up the world upon his shoulders for eternity. No one could stand up to that burden. But we can place people under that weight if we don’t force ourselves to keep them in perspective. This leads to breakdowns in relationships as you destroy those around you, not out of malice, but out of a desire to make them the centre of your world. It may also lead people to stay in toxic or even abusive relationships when they should really leave, because they have been lead to believe that they have no value outside of the relationship they are trapped in and would not be wanted by anyone else.
And when relationships end? Those who have a healthy perspective on their relationships will be sad, and be hurting, but will ultimately be able to move on. But if the person you loved was at the centre, your reason for being alive? their absence can rip a hole in your life so vast you’re unsure whether it can be filled again. You could become so depressed you can’t leave your house, or so angry you end up seeking to hurt the other person, just to give them an idea of how much they’ve hurt you. Either way, these are not healthy ways to live.
So whats to be done? How do we move on from this? Well, I can speak from personal experience.
For the longest time, I really wanted to find love. I used to think about it all the time, hoping that one day I would find someone, the one person I’d want to spend my life with. Throughout my teen years and early twenties, I had many different crushes, but never acted on them really. I found it too intimidating! I thought that whichever girl it was was so great and I was so unworthy that they’d never talk to me. I was so worried about their approval, rejection would have been too soul-destroying. Looking back now, I realise that I always went for the wrong type of person as well. If a relationship had begun, it would have ended because we would have been too incompatible for it to have worked.
I’ve come to realise that I was just not capable of relationships in that time. My priorities would have been all skewed and I would not have been able to have a functional relationship with an actual person, just the god I made them into. To some extent, I think that still may be true. But I am working to change myself with help, to try and make this less central to my life. I need to be happy with just me first.
But, with all of these idols, there are put at the centre in place of something else. We all seek a meaning and focus, but we have chosen to replace God with something else, and that definitely includes people like me who put love at the centre. God can take the weight of that burden of love from us, that weight of expectation, where our loved ones would be crushed by it. We are told in Luke 12 to 33 Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Whilst this refers to money and gold, it could easily be applied to love. All relationships end, either through breakups or death, and the love in them could have withered away long before then. But God’s love is so vast and everlasting, you will never lose it once you have it. All you need to do is accept it.
37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. – Matthew 22:36-38
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The teacher looked out over the city from the balcony of his palace, taking in the skyline that stretched out before him, the sun a brilliant burnt orange as it started to set. He could see the temple he had built, the city’s magnificent walls, the beautiful marketplaces teeming with life. The teacher’s mind wondered away from the scene to his own household; he thought of the vast underground treasure store full of riches from all over the world; he thought of the harem full of his wives and concubines who would keep him company should he so desire; and he thought of the library full of knowledge and books, many written by the teacher himself. He had everything he needed to be happy. So why wasn’t he?
The teacher turned away from the window moving stiffly towards his desk. Age was not being kind to him. His hair had turned a pearly white almost a decade earlier, and he found his knees and hips were giving him more trouble with every day. He turned around and looked back at the setting sun – his life was like that sun, close to dipping below the horizon, disappearing from the Earth. But, thought the preacher, the sun would be back tomorrow, heralding a new day. Would he be so lucky? Would he rise to see the dawn or would his servants find his cold body in his bed, his spirit having left him in the night? And what then? One of his sons would replace him, and eventually one of his grandsons would replace his son. And so time would roll on, mercilessly taking each generation and replacing it with another. Suddenly it felt as if a weight had been placed upon his shoulders. He sat down at the desk, and pulling a quill and parchment towards him, wrote “everything is meaningless”.
A Life of Doing
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Its a question I’m sure we’ve all heard at some point in our lives, usually from grown ups such as parents, family, teachers etc. but also from other children. From an early age, we are asked to consider what we want to do with ourselves when we hit adulthood and have to start earning a living. My ambition when I was seven was to be a combination of footballer (anyone who has seen me play knows what a stretch that would be), astronaut, rock star and history teacher. I am doing none of those things, probably because I got distracted by playing with my Pokemon cards or Beyblades. But the question of what we want to do begins to take a more pronounced importance once we hit our teens. We are expected to select GCSEs, A-levels or college courses, and maybe even University Degrees, all in the pursuit of this goal. But why?
Human existence is based around one thing – achieving. All of us will have a series of goals, dreams and dearest ambitions which we wish to accomplish in our time on on Earth, some of them realistic (getting a job we are passionate about, making money, finding love and starting a family), some fantastical (being the first man on Mars), but all probably near and dear to our hearts. Our lives revolve around reaching these goals, seeking the elation that satisfaction brings to us, that sense of achievement.
But as Fleetwood Mac once said, ‘Time made you bolder, even children get older and I’m getting older to’.
Things Fall Apart
The goals we have all require a sense of a better future. We have to be able to think that if we achieve these goals our lives will keep going and get better. To have goals requires us to have hope. So what happens when the future stops?
At some point, our future will run out, or at the very least our sense of the future can run out. One of two things will happen; we could fail at some of our goals, and suffer an immediate sense of disappointment and despondency, the future immediately becoming darker as we realise we cannot get what we want; or we achieve everything we set out to do, but then realise that it hasn’t actually made us any happier at all. Think of an athlete, seeking to excel at their sport, to be the champion. What happens if they have a career ending injury, or never become the best because there is someone better? Or maybe they do achieve all those things, but are forced to retire in their thirties. What do they do next? Studies of athletes post-retirement have found that many of them become depressed, their lives having lost the meaning that competition and training brought.
I have my own personal experience with this sense of futurelessness. About a year ago, my relationship ended, leaving me almost unable to contemplate a happy future. Although life went on, and I achieved a great mark in my Masters Dissertation, I couldn’t help but think of the meaninglessness of it all. The grade didn’t make me happy because it didn’t replace the absence felt in the loss of the relationship. It hasn’t even translated into a career which was the entire reason I subjected myself to studying. And it was in the middle of this hopelessness that I read Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is a twelve chapter meditation on the human condition found almost at the centre of the Bible, part of five books with Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Song of Solomon that put us at the centre, viewing God from the ground up, the ants eye view. Ecclesiastes is reported to have been written by King Solomon, son of the great King David. For those of you unfamiliar, Solomon was blessed with wisdom at his request by God, who then also blessed him with everything he could have asked for; he was richer than any man living (1 Kings 10), had great palaces and had over 1,000 wives and concubines (1 Kings 11). Solomons wisdom was renowned throughout the ancient world, and we are told he wrote many Proverbs and Psalms, and also contributed to early scientific explorations into nature. If we could look at any man and said ‘He was contented’ it would be Solomon.
Ecclesiastes puts pay to that notion. The first words written by Solomon are ‘meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless”, a cry of despair about the state of the world. Solomon’s collapse of the future was imminent and in the most natural way possible; old age and death. In his twilight years, Solomon realised that all his great accomplish were for nothing in the grand scheme of things:
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards… I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure... yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2: 4, 10, 11)
Solomon is realising just how fleeting his achievements are. Later on in chapter 2, he realises that he wont get to enjoy all he has built, because he will die and it will be given to someone else. Solomon’s life, all his glory, riches and splendour is just something that will pass, time ceaselessly moving on, the sun rising and setting, rising and setting until he, everyone he loved or ever remembered him is gone, and still time will roll on long after that.
The same thing will happen to us eventually. We spend our entire lives running after our goals, only to find ourselves old and maybe rich, maybe having even achieved something, but for what? Some people may remember us after we are long gone, but who cares? You’ll be dead. I’ll be dead. All of us dust in the earth.
12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:12-13
Well this has been a bit of a downer right? “So much for the joy and hope of the Bible and of Christians” you might say to yourself after learning about Ecclesiastes. But the book is in a weird way slightly hopeful, and this is why its one of my all time favourite Bible books.
See, if we realise everything in this world is ultimately meaningless, that means we can stop worrying about it. Who cares if you leave a great legacy behind you, or amass a large fortune? Its all for nothing in the end. God doesn’t value such things! He has given us a life in large part to do what brings us joy, not great renown, hedonistic pleasure or untold riches. Its a life to be enjoyed a celebrated!
Once, when on holiday down in Devon, I stood watching the fishing boats come in and out of the small harbour of a small seaside village. It was a small moment of tranquil bliss, with the smell of the sea, the sound of gulls, and I could imagine myself on a tiny trawler fishing for crabs and being perfectly contented with the world. That’s what God wants for me and for you, to enjoy the little things in life. There’s a beauty in the pointless, and joy in the meaningless
So if you’ve been to a number of weddings in your life, chances are that if a Bible quote is used, you will have heard someone use 1 Corinthians 13. I don’t know if Paul realised that his words would become synonymous with fancy suits and dresses, speeches full of corny jokes or drunk-dancing to ‘Come On Eileen’, but thems the brakes. And why not? They’re good words that tell us a lot about what love should be like in an ideal relationship (I am using relationships in a general sense, not specifically romantic ones). I may end up writing a little bit about each one for the blog, I may not; but today I’ll focus on one specific section in verse 5: ‘it is never self-seeking’.
Too Hot to Handle
As much as we all pretend to be high cultured, i’m sure all of us enjoy a bit of trash tv. I am not immune; one of my favourite YouTube binges is Kitchen Nightmares. I love trash TV as a social experience too; shows like Love Island and Naked Attraction are hilarious car crashes of TV that make you wonder how this ever got made and why people would agree to go on them!
Lockdown is leading some of us down strange roads, and it lead me to Netflix’ new show Too Hot to Handle. The premise of the show is a typical dating show set up; put a bunch of single people in a tropical resort and see what happens. The twist to this show is that in order to win $100,000, they must all collectively abstain from sex, sexual touching and even kissing! If any of these rules are broken, the group as a collective is fined (a single kiss costs $3,000). This sets up the shows objective – to teach these people how to have more meaningful relationships by removing the physical aspects.
The show is equally frustrating and hilarious as all of these shows tend to be. One of the frustrating things is how some of the group treat the prize money as something to be spent rather than kept. The phrase ‘its only money’ is repeated over and over again by these people, which is fine when thinking about dropping £5 by accident, but not when talking about $100,000! What kiss is worth three grand?! That’s a life-changing amount of money! If I’d have been there it would have rapidly devolved into a hostage situation with me holding the contestants at gunpoint to run out the clock! However, it does lead to the hilarity that ensues as all of these people are just useless at keeping it in their pants! Six grand is spent within the first twenty-four hours, and half of that was out of spite! This is even more hilarious as Lana, a sort of Alexa pod that communicates to the group, will often read out the rules broken in excruciating detail!
Now you might be wondering “David, what is the point of all this?!”. Well young grasshopper, lets discuss!
The show’s objective, aside from forcing people to blue-ball themselves for our enjoyment, is one of personal growth. The people who are selected are people who have a lot of casual sex, but never get any further with relationships. Its intimacy at its most superficial; one based on money, appearance and the number of Instagram followers you have. The goal of the show is to help these people grow by allowing them to develop more intimate relationships based upon emotional connection, rather than banging. All of the young singles are stunted in some way, whether due to emotional trauma or just because they cannot do one thing; compromise!
The people on Too Hot to Handle are to a person bad at this fundamental concept. Its a shame we don’t find out more about their backstories because they might clue us in to their thinking in this way. But they are almost always unable to control their urges for the sake of the group, with some of the rule-breakers becoming outright hostile towards the rest of the group for being upset. A few individuals are incapable of seeing their actions as being hurtful, not just to the money, but to the cohesion and trust within the group and amongst couples. Or they don’t care that their actions may hurt others, because who cares as long as I get what I want right?
We’ve all seen or heard people like this. Someone who is unable to compromise on the littlest things and cant understand why people have a problem with that, because why should they delay their gratification for someone else? Its a fundamentally selfish thing to be, and that’s why Paul says that love isn’t self-seeking. You choose not your own gratification, but to put others needs before your own. I think this has been brought home to a large extent by people’s reactions to the lockdown around the world. We have all seen the videos of backyard BBQs, sunbathers in the park or even larger protests in cities across the United States; all people who think that their ‘freedoms’ should not be compromised because of a deadly pandemic. Its the ultimate f*** you to everyone else; why should your safety matter more than my ability to get a haircut?
Its Not a Dirty Word
All of us have things we want out of life. These are the things that if accomplished will make you feel fulfilled, such as dreams, goals, wants and needs. Ill refer to them collectively as your stuff. Your stuff will encompass a wide variety of different things, such as your dream job, place to live, the kind of partner you want, kids, you name it. Its part of our DNA to want things, so there’s nothing wrong with having goals in life.
And were you to go through life alone, then you would be free to pursue your goals to your hearts content (legality and ethics permitting). But no man is an island and you will have to travel along with a collection of people, such as your family, friends and romantic partner(s). All of them will also have stuff, some of which may coincide with yours, some of which might put them at odds with you. The question is, what are you going to do about it?
I think in a lot of ways our cultural time and place is setting us up to fail at this. we live in a highly individualistic society, where you have to pursue your own happiness to be happy and fulfilled in life. You can probably imagine the crappy Instagram life advice posts that say things like “follow your dreams” or “live for you”; I hate these things not only because they are normally posted by people who have a lot of advantages to pursue their dreams to start with, but they also promote the self over other people. My happiness is the supreme importance over everyone else, and anyone who disagrees is a hater!
Now, this is not to say that I think we should give up on all of our stuff. Being in relationships with people is all about the negotiation of our various needs. Sometimes, you should definitely not compromise on your goals! There are definitely situations where you need to have hard boundaries, and if people cross them, you mat need to cut them off! There are relationships not worth maintaining if this keeps happening! But a lot of the time, we have to discern which of our stuff we need to keep, and which we can discard.
All the people in Too Hot To Handle are trying to learn this valuable skill. The show’s goal is to help them find love, not just sex. For many of them, this means sacrificing some things they wish they’d rather keep, things like independence, or the ability to sleep with whoever you want. And some of them do develop some self-awareness, becoming better individuals through it. They stop holding others at emotional distance by sacrificing the things they want that they think make them happy.
In all our relationships we will need to compromise on some things. If you like scary movies, but your friend doesn’t, maybe you decide mot to watch scary movies with them. Or maybe instead of going out you stop to chat to someone who needs an arm around their shoulder. Or maybe you choose to change jobs so you can help support your partner while they study. Obviously this should work both ways, but you need to be willing to do it in order for things to work.
God made us because He wants a relationship with us. He gave us free will so that we wouldn’t be blind robots, but would freely choose to love Him. But we have abused that free will through our sin. we think we know better, or should chase our own desires first, not caring about how we abuse God or abuse each other.
So what did God do? He sent us His Son. Jesus’ whole ministry shows a love that is not self-seeking; he got down into the dirt with the lowest of the low, the people none of us would care to so much as look at, and chose to help them first. he preached sermons about not seeking glory, power or riches, but seeking honesty, compassion and patience. His parable of the prodigal son shows what God will be like for us, welcoming us back with open arms with feasting and joy despite the hurt we have caused him. And most importantly, Jesus died on the cross, Gods ultimate compromise, allowing His Son to take our place, defeating death.
As a Christian, I have chosen to compromise some of my goals for a life with Jesus. This hasn’t been anything major, but has made me reconsider what is actually important to me, and has allowed me to adjust my goals so that I have new ones. Currently, my number one goal is my church family, but I have to prepare myself for a day when God might choose for me to be somewhere different. I hope that doesn’t happen, but someday it might.
We all need to learn to compromise. Without this skill, we will eventually be left alone as no one will want to know us. Compromising on some of your goals allows you to build something greater; deeper and more meaningful relationships of all types with the wonderful people in your life.
This is something I am trying to be better at. I am trying to make sure that I don’t always just follow what suits me best, but to listen to my friends and loved ones, in order to build better friendships with them. And more importantly, build a better relationship with God.
A couple of weeks ago, I began listening to a podcast called It Could Happen Here, a podcast all about the prospect of a Second American Civil War. The host of the show, journalist Robert Evans, takes the listener through a list of possible scenarios that may occur if a Second American Civil War broke out. Evans, who has travelled to and covered the Ukrainian protests in the Maidan Square in Kiev, the Syrian Civil War and Iraq in the battle against ISIS, uses this experience to paint a picture of a civil war not unlike the one in Syria, with besieged cities held by left-wing separatists, to gangs of right wing militias roaming the countryside, and a state unable to handle the violence. A handful of the episodes begin with Evans narrating your life as someone trapped in a city at war, trying to maintain a life in a place where nothing is certain. The city you live in experiences violent clashes between militias, protesters and soldiers, the attempts to rebuild a normality which is then wiped out in bombings, and the subsequent flight from home as a refugee. Why do I bring this up? Apart from being an amazing podcast, Evans talks about the necessity to be prepared in case of events that change our lives.
Imagine for a moment that your life was turned upside down. Its probably a lot easier now than it would have been three months ago, perhaps even three weeks ago. As we have seen, Covid-19 has caused huge upheaval in all of our lives, whether its through uncertainty around employment, exams, or family, all of us have been affected in some way. For me, its made me realise just what a precarious position I am in in terms of employment and income; up until recently it was uncertain as to whether I would get sick pay as a zero hour contract employee. I am also worried about being a carrier of the virus whilst not exhibiting major symptoms; many of my closest friends and people I know are at risk of being severely affected by the virus.
But that’s not really what I mean when I say imagine life got turned upside down. Instead, lets think about what’s been happening in our supermarkets right now. I went to my local Tesco on Monday night for a Mothers Day card, and walked through the rest of the store to see if what I had seen on the news was true. And it was. There was barely any food on the shelves at all; no pasta, no potatoes, no rice, no paper products of any kind. It reminded me a little of a zombie movie, except the store was still lit and no one was chasing me for my brains.
But it made me really think about just how vulnerable we are to disaster. Covid-19 has caused many people to panic buy, taking as much food and other things as they can carry without a thought for anyone else. And this is thankfully for a crisis in which we can stay safely tucked up in our homes! Imagine if we had to leave en masse for a natural disaster such as a flood or hurricane, or were left without power and access to other services. Imagine if that happened tomorrow:
- would you have enough food, or would you know where you could get more food if you needed it?
- Would you have access to clean water or a method of making your own?
- would you have suitable clothing in case you needed to travel long distances, potentially on foot?
- would you have enough medicine, or even know someone who could treat any injuries?
There is a necessity to being prepared for unexpected events. Life as we know has changed, and i don’t think we can now go back to whatever “normal” was after this. So much of our world and its systems have been shown to be flawed, whether its the medical preparation for pandemics, the number of people who are unable to save money, the fact so much wealth is concentrated into the hands of a few. The world is a house of cards that could topple at any time. Our modern wisdom of individualism and capitalism have come up short against this crisis and will come up short, and will do again. But perhaps there is some older wisdom that may help us.
Be Prepared for the Unkown
“The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down.”
Proverbs 21:20 NIVUK
Now we are so detached from the food making process, that it probably didn’t occur to many people in the West that starvation is a real potential threat within the next few decades. We are so used to having full supermarket shelves, it’s the first time I remember in my life that people in this country may not know where their next few meals will come from if they can’t access food.
We must remember however, for us, this is a new phenomeon. When the Bible was written, people were far more vulnerable to sudden changes, particularly in food supply. If your local harvest failed one year, you may not have enough to eat, or even have enough money to buy food! You could be one bad season away from starvation. So people had to be careful with food and resources because you never knew when scarcity would strike.
So preparedness is already part of the Bible. Before the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites had packed everything and were told to eat unleavened bread (bread without yeast) so they could leave at a moments notice. They were only in Egypt in the first place because centuries before, Joseph had stored grain to prevent starvation during a famine, which lead his family to come to Egypt.
Jesus once told a parable about ten virgins, half of whom were wise and the other half foolish. They were waiting for the bridegroom of a wedding to arrive for the wedding party, but the bridegroom had not appeared by nightfall. The wise virgins being savvy had packed oil so they could light their lamps, but the foolish ones hadn’t prepared at all. They had to rush off to find oil, and while they were gone, the foolish virgins were locked out of the party, all because they weren’t ready. No this story is often told in the context of the Kingdom, but its just as relevant to peoples lives today. If you’re not prepared for unexpected events you will be caught unawares.
So I hope this post has made you think about being prepared. We are fools if we don’t prepare. Events like this do not always come with warnings, but we are getting some. The growing danger of manmade climate change will likely increase the frequency of pandemics, famines and natural disasters, threatening our way of life. So what are we going to do about it? We know the world is getting worse, that our very existence could be under threat within decades. So what will you do to prepare for it?
But in some ways, the more important question is who are you preparing for? Just yourself? Or do you have others in mind?
As I have discussed in previous posts, being able to love often requires us to be able to remove the masks and clothing that keep people out. This can be very difficult to do, especially when we worry that others may not like us for who we truly are. It ultimately boils down to one thing, that revealing your secrets, especially the ones that paint us in a negative light, is to expose yourself to potential injury.
We are all familiar with the expression “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. It’s taught to us as children in order to tell us that we shouldn’t worry what others say about us because the words cannot cause you pain.
What a load of crap!
We should all be aware of the damage words can do! Just look at the damage social media can do to someone, especially the young, when they cannot escape their tormentors. Words have a power sticks and stones do not have because they can cut right to the core of you as a person. Someone can zero in on an aspect of your personality or appearance and slowly destroy you.
This is where the armour comes in. Wearing armour protects you from these attacks, allowing you to continue functioning. It protects the core of your being from being damaged. This is something I learned to do at school because I am quite sensitive, so jibes at my person often hurt me quite badly. Or at least I had the appearance of not being able to care, because armour still has weaknesses.
Armour doesn’t just protect us from strangers though. Far more dangerous is the power the people we love have to hurt us. When we let people in, and they can see all of you, your foibles, flaws and damage, you are giving them access to ammunition that can hurt you really badly. When someone you love insults you, they have access to a far wider range of points to attack you for. It also hurts so much more because a level of trust has been broken in the attack; you let them in, and then they did this?! So putting on the armour prevents this kind of damage being inflicted because people never get close enough to access that kind of ammunition.
Rebuke and Weapons
“Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favour rather than one who has a flattering tongue.”
Proverbs 28:23 NIVUK
We often like to focus on all the nice things Jesus said and did. It’s easier that way. A cuddly Jesus with a warm, benevolent smile, perhaps a small child on his knee telling nice stories to an adoring crowd. And that part of Jesus is definitely real, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the whole story.
In Matthew 23, Jesus takes the Pharisees to task. The Pharisees were the religious elite, the establishment power. They were venerated because of their apparent holiness.
But Jesus saw through all of it. In Matthew 23, he describes them as “whitewashed tombs”! What an insult! It cuts right to the core of their hypocrisy! On the outside, they look completely clean, but on the inside is still a dead, decaying corpse.
This seems really harsh, and it is. But crucially, Jesus wasn’t saying these things to be mean or to try and hurt feelings. Jesus was rebuking out of love, wanting the Pharisees to change their ways and realise their faults.
The chink in the armour
Armour is useful but is also flawed. The more armour you put on, the more you can protect yourself, yes, but it also renders you unable to distinguish between personal attacks and genuine criticism. Imagine a medieval knights helmet, one that covers your whole face. I’ve no idea how they could fight anyone, you can barely see out of them! And that’s a problem because your perspective becomes blinkered. You cannot recognise when someone is criticising you from a place of love.
I was and still am really bad at this. As I said earlier, I am quite a sensitive person, so any attack causes my walls to go up and for me to go on the defensive. But this also means that I fail to tell the difference when someone is telling me something that I do actually need to work on. I get too locked in to a mindset of defence I cannot improve.
I have slowly been trying to work on this. The past year has taught me that this reflexive defensiveness is a serious flaw, one that prevents me from growing. A lot of the time, my friends aren’t saying things to hurt my feelings; they are merely being honest with me about things I need to work on. It’s hard to change an instinctual response, but I hope I can keep doing it.
Having friends willing to rebuke you to make you become a better person is a gift. Don’t squander it.