Humans are emotional creatures + Humans are egocentric creatures = Humans often get their feelings hurt. It’s a pretty simple formula.
The fact that we are emotional shouldn’t bother us. Sometimes we tend to think so since they can occasional cloud good judgment, but emotions are not bad. God created emotive creatures so that we have an added dimension to our love, compassion, understanding, empathy, etc. Relationally, this makes us inherently superior to any of his other creatures.
The fact that we are egocentric doesn’t have to be as bad as it sounds, because it too is somewhat natural. It isn’t wrong to care for yourself. Taking care of your body, taking care of your mental health, taking care of your own spiritual life are all part of God’s intention for us to be good managers of the most individually specific blessings he’s entrusted to us.
However, when emotions run out of check (to the expense of logic) and when self concern runs out of check (to the extent of thoughtlessness regarding others), we ALWAYS end up unhappy. There’s no chance of sadness not happening at that point. Our feelings will get hurt.
Typically speaking, we don’t get hurt by others because of physical violence. For example, I’m sure it would hurt if people were regularly punching me in the face, but it doesn’t happen often, so it’s not a regular source of pain. It’s a little more common to be hurt by someone’s actions in general. For instance, not getting invited to someone’s birthday party or not being asked to be in a friend’s wedding might cause you to value yourself less. But even this pales in comparison to the greatest source of hurt that comes from others in our lives: WORDS.
In chapter 3 of his New Testament letter, James writes, “the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-6). Now this article is not about correcting the words that come out of our mouths. I’ve thought many times about such an article on what Christian tactfulness means, but this is not it. Rather, I include this passage simply as an indicator of the damage that words can bring in general. A simple spark can lead to a great fire. One simple word against us can bring a world of hurt and negative self-image for a lifetime.
I’ve had the opportunity to be in several positions in my life where the position itself lent itself towards unkind words. The most prevalent situation for this was working part-time as an over-the-phone bill collector while finishing my seminary studies. The intensity of the bill collections we were in was a little escalated because we weren’t just calling people to tell them they were behind on a car or appliance bill. Rather, it was collections for direct sales. In many cases the salesperson had completely neglected to tell the customer of any interest on the purchase, assuming (or not caring) that all customers would read the fine print on the contract. So when I called customers to let them know they were late on the payments for their $3000 vacuum cleaner and then had to explain that their interest was 20% (so high that the payments they had been making were barely covering the interest) I literally received several threats on my life. One gentleman from Alabama launched into a 20 minute verbal tirade that contained several expletives I’d never even heard of before, perhaps even inventing some on the spot, told me that he was going to drive up to Milwaukee to show me how angry he was. I politely responded that if we just took the several hundred dollars in gas it’d take to get here and applied it to the last three months of past due payments on his pots & pans, we wouldn’t have to have this conversation any more. He hung up.
My wife, who works for Verizon Wireless, gets to deal with disgruntled customers all the time. She’s learned what I learned in bill collections – to disassociate people’s rude words and ridiculous attitudes from any personal connection to me. These are people with unrealistic expectations who are pulling out their hair over frustrations with the latest phone that they never bothered to research. They often unfairly try to take their frustration out on her. She didn’t design the phone. She didn’t assemble this particular phone. She is not a cell phone tower standing out in a field somewhere consciously dropping people’s calls. She did not force this person to buy this phone or sign a contract for this plan. Nonetheless, the ugly truth is that as destructive as we humans are, when we’re frustrated, we often take it out on animate objects because when we’re in pain, we want to see others suffer.
It’s true that words are perhaps the world’s greatest cause for hurt. It’s true that I simply can’t control what comes out of everyone else’s mouth or how they treat me. So how do I eliminate the hurt? Here’s the secret: There are 2 ends to every line of communication. I can’t control what comes in. But I can control how that message is received. I can choose to not let it affect me. The way someone else treats me does not have to make me feel any way that I don’t want to feel.
A number of years ago I read a book on the wisdom of the Toltecs. The Toltecs were a people believed to be the intellectual and cultural predecessors of the Aztecs. According to the book, the wise sages of the Toltecs advocated 4 principles to happiness in life. One of those principles in particular has helped me enormously: “Don’t Take Things So Personally”. Whenever someone says something unloving or unkind to you, it could be for a million different reasons, most of which have nothing to do with you. They might have lost their job that day. They might have gained a couple of pounds recently. Their kids might be in a lot of trouble at school. The general rule is that when someone says something hurtful, it’s because they themselves are hurting. The most critical people in the world are typically those who don’t always like themselves very much. Feel sorry for them that they’re hurting so much, but don’t be affected by them. They don’t have that power over you.
Someone might say at this point, Toltec wisdom coming from a Christian pastor? Is this kosher? (not to add to the religious confusion) Interestingly, there’s often truth found in other religions that directly points back to the final authoritative wisdom literature, the Bible. I remember reading that chapter of the Toltec book and thinking this “not taking things so personally” idea was a profound revelation. And it truly has made me a much happier person. However, the more I thought about it, the more it sounded very familiar. Let me share with you something from my Lutheran Catechism:
“We should fear and love God that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, or give him a bad name, but defend him, speak well of him, and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.” (Luther’s Small Catechism, Explanation to the Eighth Commandment).
There it was all along. Not getting unnecessarily hurt or overly offended at someone’s unkind words or actions toward you is a completely biblical (and therefore Lutheran) principle.
Further evidence of its biblical nature comes at the climax of Scripture, our Savior’s crucifixion. While being taunted while on the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Now in this case, the attack certainly was personal. But the point remains, it wasn’t because of any flaw in the one being criticized, but rather in those doing the criticizing. Jesus had a thorough understanding that these were people acting in foolishness. He hurt for them, not because of their words.
Jesus was ready, willing, and able (and did) forgive those who were unloving to him. He loved them enough to even pay for their (our) sins. He knew full well how destructive and cruel and rude people really are. But he kept his sanity in this life while dealing with many frustrating people and he awaited the peace of the next life.
Consciously make a decision to be “under-affected” by people’s unkind words. Many times they have nothing to do with you. Even if they do, you can’t let it bother you too much. What matters to a Christian is whether or not I’m right with God. Because my Redeemer lives, I know I’m right with God. The world can’t bring me down with it.