Walking in the Valley of the Shadow, Part 5

This is an old post. But I have been recently helping some people who reminded me of it. Dealing with people who are hurting is part of the Christian life because it is life. We need to do this well. Unfortunately, too often we don’t. I leave the post as I wrote it better than three years ago.

In conclusion to this series of posts on what I have been learning about how to (and how not to) walk with people who are deep in the valley of suffering, I want to focus on this thought: when someone shares with you that they are in a great darkness of soul, I have been learning that there are some things you should just not say, no matter how true they may be. In a way, I guess this might well be an expansion on the need for discretion.

Often times, when we meet with people who are dealing with serious pain (i.e., divorce, abuse, a friend who committed suicide, a son who died from drug addiction, rape, addiction to alcohol, drugs, porn, etc…), we (especially we pastors and particularly us Reformed pastors) are tempted to respond by delivering loads of truth instead of loads of grace.

“But isn’t the truth good? Don’t they need to hear it?” Yes it is. And yes they do. But what truth do they need at that moment? It may well not be the truth you are thinking of sharing! I don’t know about you, but when someone comes up to me and says, “I need to tell you something in Christian love,” what follows is usually neither Christian nor loving! The truth is, we can do a lot of damage in the name of “truth.” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV),

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Often we Christians run right to verse 6, Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth, and assume the loving thing to do is always to highlight and expose sin, bad theology, and bad habits that may have led to or be adding to the pain the person is experiencing.

I submit that in light of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, if the “truth” you intend to share does not exhibit God’s patience and kindness, it isn’t loving to share it. If the “truth” you want to share comes from pride in your own spirituality, it isn’t loving to share it. If it dishonors them instead of encouraging and respecting them as God’s son or daughter, or at least as a man or woman made in His image, it isn’t loving to share it. If it is born out of the response of a quick anger, it isn’t loving to share it. If it reaches back into the past and rehashes past mistakes, sins, or poor choices all over again, it isn’t loving to share it. If it intends to hurt them (i.e., delights in evil), it isn’t loving to share it. If it is not from a motivation to protect them, to build trust, and to increase their hope in God, it isn’t loving to share it. And if it isn’t loving, you should not say it, no matter how true it is (or you think it is). Oswald Chambers was right when he said,

The average Christian is the most piercingly critical individual known. Criticism is one of the ordinary activities of people, but in the spiritual realm nothing is accomplished by it. The effect of criticism is the dividing up of the strengths of the one being criticized. The Holy Spirit is the only one in the proper position to criticize, and He alone is able to show what is wrong without hurting and wounding.

If we correctly understand the truth of Scripture, we will be living it out ourselves; and if we would be people who are living out the truth, we will be full of grace, because that is what the truth teaches. 1 Peter 4:8 (NIV) says, Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. God does not jump on us every time we sin or do something stupid. We should give the same grace to others. Let God deal with the convicting of sin; that’s His job, not ours. Be willing to work with people where they are at, instead of insisting that they come up to where you are at (or think you are at!). Focus on being a gracious presence to them. You will be surprised how quickly the things you are concerned about get addressed when you focus on caring for them instead of fixing them.

Controlling the Tongue

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18).

The Hebrew word that is translated “pierce” is the same word for running a person through with a sword. What a vivid image of the power of words! We sometimes use words like daggers or swords. You know what I am talking about. We have all been on the receiving end of a verbal assault that cut right through us. And, if we are honest, I suspect we have all let the arrows fly from our tongues as well. Words are, I have been learning, are the most underestimated of weapons.

Words can pierce like a sword but they can also bring healing. The Hebrew behind the words “brings healing” literally means “an effective medicine or cure.” Words can be the most precious of gifts. All of us have, I hope, experienced this as well: words from a family member or friend that were so well chosen and well-timed that they seemed to breathe new life and energy into your soul: “I forgive you,” “I believe in you,” “There’s nothing you could do or say that would make me stop loving you.”

Words are very powerful things. They can bring life, or they can bring death. How we speak has a definite and profound impact not only on ourselves but the people around us.

Our words need to be life-giving and not life-draining. This attribute of speaking well of others is clearly expected of God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments.

Proverbs 4:24: Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.

Ephesians 4:29: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

James 1:26: If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.

I don’t know about you, but when I read passages like those, I get two very distinct sensations: First, God makes it very clear that I am supposed to keep a tight reign on my words and make sure that when I speak I am bringing life into the person or persons I am speaking to. And second, I am very joyfully humbled at God’s forgiveness because I am guilty of wounding many people with my words.

  1. When this attribute of speaking well of others is absent, God withholds His blessings. Consider Jesus’ own words in Matthew 12:36-37:

But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

God has not forgotten even the least hurtful word you or I have spoken. You say, “Pastor Dan, I thought we were justified by faith, not by works. How can we be saved or condemned by how we speak?”

When you have the Spirit of God living inside you, He reveals Himself through what you say and do. Speaking well of others does not earn you forgiveness. Earned grace is a contradiction in terms. But speaking well of others is a sign that you do have God’s Spirit living inside you. Speaking well of others does not earn forgiveness but God’s forgiveness always works to produce the habit of speaking well of others.

When we do not work with God’s Spirit by learning this habit, we are inviting certain things to happen:

First, by not making the effort to speak well of each other we are breaking the cardinal rule of human relations: people thrive under praise and deteriorate under criticism. When we are not in control of our tongues, we are literally inviting stress into our lives and the lives of those around us. We limit our effectiveness in our relationships and influence with others. We stunt our ability to lead and to work together. We are inviting God’s discipline because we are basically saying that we don’t believe God when He says:

Proverbs 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger.

Proverbs 16:27 A troublemaker plants seeds of strife; gossip separates the best of friends.

Matthew 5:8 God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.

I have said before that when someone comes up to me and says, “Brother, I need to share something with you in Christian love,” what follows is usually neither Christian nor loving! This is because sometimes we get so caught up in “truth” that we forget about “grace.” We sometimes adopt this “the end justifies the means” mentality when we talk to each other. We are so driven by the conviction that “they need to hear the truth,” that we don’t stop and think about the cost our words come with.

It doesn’t matter how right you think you are, or how wrong you think someone else is, if you speak to them without a double dose of grace and mercy, you will almost certainly make things worse instead of better.

Speaking well of others means…

  1. Thinking before speaking. Proverbs 10:19, When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. We all give lip service to this truth but we often give ourselves a pass from following it ourselves. I remember a few years back when I was in the middle of publishing my first book, Finding Freedom in Forgiveness,  I received an endorsement for my book from a nationally known author and speaker. As soon as I got it I sent it to my managing editor at Harvest House and asked them to let me know if I could use it. I did not hear back from her right away, as I usually did. I started to get annoyed. After a week I was beginning to feel ignored. As I was thinking about writing something to find out what was going on, I thought about how I was not the only project she had and I should be patient. I decided not to write anything and wait a while longer. About three weeks after my original email I got a response. She apologized for not getting back to me. She had not been in much in the last three weeks because her oldest sister died three weeks ago and her mother died last week. Boy, was I glad I held my tongue. She did not need to hear from a high-strung, want-to-be-author, she needed love and support. Think, really think, before you speak.
  2. Choosing words to build others up rather than words to break them down. 1 Thessalonians 5:11, encourage one another and build each other up. Easy to say, hard to do. Yes. But God is concerned about what is best for the people we are in relationship with, not what is easiest for us. The Holy Spirit’s job is to correct and convict. When we do that, we are putting ourselves in His place. Our job is to encourage and build each other up. That saying in AA is very good Scriptural advice, “Let go and let God.”
  3. Focusing on what is good and positive. Philippians 4:8, 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. Look for the good in others and praise them for it. We are masters as catching people in the wrong. We need to be twice as proficient at catching people doing right. Everyone is a sinner. No one is perfect. But everyone has good qualities that we can highlight. Everyone has talents and gifts that we should admire and thank God for. I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying to yourself, “Yeah, well you don’t know so-and-so, and the sooner God takes them out of my life or out of my church, or out of my business the better.” Bah! That is foolishness! They are made in the image of God, that alone is praiseworthy. Every person you meet God placed in your life for a reason. And chances are, one of those reasons is so that you can be learning to love and appreciate them.

(Edited and expanded from a post back in  December 8, 2013).

Living by the Cross and by Faith

It’s Fénelon Friday!

LETTER 12: Living by the Cross and by Faith

We have crosses to bear everyday. But I have learned to enjoy the bitterest of them. And it is sweet to know that the heaviest cross can be borne in peace. However, there may be times when it seems that you do not have the strength even to bear it or to drag it. All you can do is fall down beneath it, overwhelmed and exhausted. I pray that God may spare you as much as possible in proportioning your suffering, not that God delights in seeing us suffer, but He knows that we need this as much as we need our daily bread. And only God knows how much we need to accomplish His purposes in our lives. So what we must do is live by faith and live by the cross. For we are confident that God, with His true compassion, passion, proportions our trials to the amount of strength that He has committed to us within. Even though we cannot actually see this happening, yet we believe it is true. Trial and strength are portioned out in equal measures. Living by this kind of faith demands the deepest kind of death to self.

Francis Fénelon, Let Go (New Kensington: Whitaker House, 1973).

Knowledge Puffs Up; Charity Edifies

It’s Fénelon Friday!

LETTER 8: Knowledge Puffeth Up; Charity Edifyeth

I was happy to receive your letter, and to find you sharing with me so simply and openly everything that has been taking place within your spirit. Never hesitate to write me whatever you think God wants you to write.

It is not at all surprising that you have a strong ambition to move ahead in spiritual things, and to be closely acquainted with well-known Christians. It is very flattering to self when it can gain some esteem by being very religious, and it eagerly seeks such esteem. Oh, how careful we need to be about our motives! The progress we are making in the Christian life and the celebrated Christian friends we are making may be all wrongly motivated if we are simply gratifying self. Our aim should be to die to the flattering delights of self-love. Our aim should be, not greatness, but humility. We must learn to love personal obscurity and contempt, so that our only concern is to glorify God.

We can listen to endless sermons about Christian growth, and become perfectly familiar with the language, and yet be as far from its attainment as ever. Our great aim should be to be deaf to self, to listen quietly to God, to renounce every bit of pride and to devote ourselves to living. Let’s learn to talk less and do more without caring whether anyone sees us or not.

God can teach more than even the most experienced Christians know. He can teach you better than all the books that the world has ever seen. But be careful about your motives in this eager chase after knowledge. You are aware, aren’t you, that all we need is to be poor in spirit, and to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. Although being a know-it-all makes us feel important, what is really needed to strengthen Christian character is love. So don’t be satisfied with anything thing less than love. You certainly don’t think it possible that the love of God and the dethroning of self can only be reached through the acquisition of knowledge. You already have more knowledge than you can use. You would do better to put into practice what you already know. Oh how we deceive ourselves when we suppose that we are growing in grace because our vain curiosity is being gratified by the enlightenment of our intellect! We need to be humble, and understand that we cannot receive God’s gifts from man. The love of God comes to us only from Jesus.

Francis Fénelon, Let Go (New Kensington: Whitaker House, 1973).

The True Source of Peace Is in the Surrender of the Will

It’s Fénelon Friday!

LETTER 6: The True Source of Peace Is in the Surrender of the Will

Live in continued peace. But understand that peace does not depend upon the fervor of your devotion. The only thing you need to be concerned about is the direction of your will.

Give that up to God without reservation. The important question is not how religious you are, or how devoted, but rather is your will in harmony with God’s? Humbly confess your faults. Learn to be detached from the world and completely abandoned to God. Love Him more than yourself and His glory more than your life. The least you can do is to desire and ask for such a love. God will then pour out upon you that special love which only His children know, and He will give you His peace.

Francis Fénelon, Let Go (New Kensington: Whitaker House, 1973).

Poverty and Deprivation Are Jesus’ Way

It’s Fénelon Friday!

LETTER 32: Poverty and Deprivation Are Jesus’ Way

Every temptation that comes your way proves what you really are. But God, who loves you, will not permit your temptations to exceed your strength. Instead, He will make use of temptation for your spiritual development.

But let me warn you about the desire to always be looking within to see what progress you are making or how strong you are becoming. The hand of God is invisible, and you cannot always see what He is doing, but be assured that He is very efficient in what He does. Almost anything He does, though, is done in secrecy, and this is a good thing. I don’t think we would ever die to self if He were always showing us what He is doing within. If we really understood His sanctifying work and the spiritual graces He is bestowing upon us, we might become very proud. But this is not God’s way. Instead of letting us know what He is doing, He works in darkness, and through privation, nakedness and death.

What did Jesus say? Did He say, “if anyone will come after me, let him enjoy himself, let him be well dressed, let him be drunk with happiness (as was Peter on the Mount), let him be glad about his spiritual maturity, let him see how perfect he is in me, let him see himself and be confident that he is perfect?” No, He never said any such thing. On the contrary, His words are, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

So be open to the ministry of Jesus, and allow Him to strip self-love of every adornment, until it stands barren and exposed. Then you may renounce self and receive the robe whitened by the blood of the Lamb, which is the purity of Jesus. And happy is the soul that no longer possesses anything of its own, not even anything borrowed, and that abandons itself to Jesus, desiring no glory but His. A soul, purified in this manner, is like a bride about to be married. How beautiful she is when she lays everything aside, and comes to the marriage alter bringing nothing but herself. And, oh, Holy Bride, how beautiful are you when you come to Jesus with nothing of your own. The Bridegroom will be more than pleased with you when he sees you clothed in His beauty. There will be no limit to His love for you, because you are clothed in His holiness.

I want you to pay close attention to what I have said, and believe it in faith. Perhaps this truth is bitter, and it might even cause you spiritual indigestion! But your spirit will be fed if you accept the truth about death to self, which is the only true life there is. So believe this, and pay no attention to self. The old self is full of tricks and is more subtle than the serpent who deceived Eve. Happy is the soul who refuses to listen to self, and refuses to pamper it, but listens to God instead.

Francis Fénelon, Let Go (New Kensington, PA: Whittaker House, 1973).