Well, there have been a few issues that have been burning in my mind to write about. Most of these are about further church-related issues and experiences I have had.
However, I believe that God has taught me something so powerful over the last few days that it is big enough to completely change my perspective on many of these experiences and change my focus altogether.
I have been struggling with anger and bitterness for a very long time. Some of this is due to different things that I have experienced in some of these churches. However, I have been aware for a very long time that my anger was completely out of all proportion to whatever anyone might have done. Moreover, some of these things happened literally years ago – three, four,five years ago. Why am I still reflecting on them now? Why am I still turning them over in my mind, over and over and over? The effect of this is that I will just get more angry each time I think over the thing. So the actual thing might not have been much of a big deal when it was actually done, until it has been fed and watered by frequent reflection and much bitterness and it grows from a small seed to become a huge tree. So someone might have done something once and yet it is sufficient to keep me smouldering with rage for years afterwards. Multiply this by all the times that various people may have stepped on my toes and this equates to: a very angry person. I am an outspoken Christian. No-one needs to tell me that this is not of God or of Christ!
So I was thinking over the course of the week, and I thought: “Right! I’m fed up with this, I need to get this sorted!” So I brought my heart before God, and I prayed, and I said “Father, please help me with this!” And thankfully He did. So have I not prayed before? Yes, countless times! However I guess the difference is that this time I realised that I have to totally uproot all of this from my heart, and I prayed with that kind of understanding.
I believe that God showed me how I could think about all these issues in a positive way. So here then, is the parable of the pet shark.
The Bible teaches that we are to forgive people who hurt us, or who treat us badly. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5v44 that we should love our enemies, and pray for people who treat us badly. However, where the actions were deliberate, I have always struggled with the concept of forgiveness, because I always think “What if they do it again?”
So someone will do something bad to me and I will forgive them, and then they will do it again, and I will forgive, and then they will do it again and I will forgive and so on and so forth….by always forgiving people I am just making myself available to be trampled on. For a long time, I have known that this is the root of my anger; it’s like I have had to deliberately keep the memories of what people have done right at the front of my mind, to stop myself from accidentally getting too close again, so that they might hurt me again…
Sometimes, when people do things, you know it is not their usual character, it is uncharacteristic so you can easily forget about it without worrying that it might happen again. However, many other times, people do things and you know that there is nothing unusual about such behaviour, because it is totally in keeping with their normal character. So if you were to make yourself vulnerable to them again, they would do it again – they would do it a million times over, because that is simply who they are.
I guess lots of my bitterness has come from reflecting on how dreadful many of these people have been – and they did this, and can you believe they also did that! And these experiences have been especially aggravating because they happened in church settings, places where (if you are naive, like me*) you actually expect to encounter excellent character and true friendliness. [Because of all this I now appreciate why I have such a tendency to only see bad things, and why my attitude towards other people always tends to be so critical – because I tend to only be looking at the bad things which people have done wrong – and then I would feel so bitter at the idea that I would have to forgive them, and potentially expose myself to more of the same. ]
So this is what I believe that God has revealed to me: a way to think positively about absolutely everyone – even people who have actually acted in a dreadful way towards me, even people who are actually like that, whose characters are poor, perhaps even people who have been as angry as me! And yet, while thinking positively about everyone, still knowing how to keep a safe distance for the sake of self-preservation.
So it is like this. Every human being – every single one – is precious and valuable in the sight of God, because they are a human being. God values all His creations, but He has chosen to grant special dignity to us people, He has made us in His image. So there are certain fantastic qualities of being human which are to be recognised and appreciated in everyone, regardless of what they may or may not have done to me, regardless of who they are or their status in life. And this will always be the case for everyone. Moreover, Jesus has paid the full and complete price, to pay for absolutely anything that anyone could ever do – so there is no-one who is beyond redemption. So I believe that God taught me that when I look at someone, I should look at them and see these precious and valuable qualities, the fact that they are human beings. I should let my heart be moved by empathy, to realise that none of us is perfect, we are all struggling, to different extents we are all failing! When I look at someone I should smile and feel positive at the fact that this person is a human being. No matter what someone may have done to me in the past, or may even do to me in the future, they will always be human, they will always be worthy to be cherished and valued as a human being, as God values us.
So it is like this value of being human is a constant (in mathematical terms) that never ever, ever varies, either from one person when compared to another person, or even within the same person over time. It is this constant that I can be mindful of when relating to people, or thinking about them. For the mere fact that someone is a human being, they are worthy of positive and gracious behaviour from me as the Bible commands; love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentlessness, self-control (Gal 5v22) – and every other positive attitude and behaviour that the Bible directs us to cultivate towards people around us.
However, while each and everyone one of us shares this amazing “constant” or characteristic of being human, the fact is that we all also have various character failings. What I believe that God taught me is that, when thinking about people, in my mind I need to separate the character failings from the constant of being human. Thus far, when thinking about people, I have tended to focus on the bad things that they have done, or the bad things that they are capable of doing, rather than on the fact that they are gloriously, joyfully human. So it is a little like if each of us has a pet shark (or wolf, or bear, or some other ferocious animal) that we take with us everywhere we go, and this shark (or whatever) represents our character failings. And while we are all human and precious and valuable, we all have sharks varying from size to size. Some people demonstrate character that is so excellent that it is as if their sharks are little more than ordinary fishes, and when they “bite” it is more like they are nibbling you. Other people have sharks which are of such considerable size that they take up the whole street. However, regardless of the size, each of these sharks is being pulled around by a human being, and the central aspect of being human is deeply precious and valuable.
So when people treat you badly, it is as if these sharks of theirs bite you. Times when people might have treated me badly in the past are like when their sharks have bitten me.
So I believe that what God taught me is that when I interact with people I have to ignore their sharks, look at the central person, think graciously, kindly and sincerely about the human being and forget all the times that their sharks may have bitten me in the past. However, because I obviously do not want to get bitten again, I have to leave enough space between them and me to prevent myself from being bitten by their sharks. So I am (only) prevented from making myself vulnerable to ordinary interaction with other people by the size of their sharks. Because the central value of being human is a constant, it never changes, the only thing that stops me from being able to appreciate people and engage with their precious humanity close up is the size of their shark. As people deal with their sharks and they get smaller and smaller I can get closer and closer until I am interacting normally and freely with them. Here I am only talking about normal interaction, church life.
So in conclusion, the point is to be aware of the shark (that is prudence) but to not keep staring at the shark but to instead focus on and concentrate on at the human being dragging it (that is love by Biblical standards).
So with some people I am trying to interact positively with them and look at the human being but they have such a big shark in the way that I can only be kind and gracious and lovely from a distance. And then there are some people like this: not only do they not appear to have any sharks or ferocious animals about them, but every time they interact with you, instead of taking away from you and biting you fiercely, instead they gently, graciously and generously add to you and increase you. When someone is like that then you can actively go beyond normal interaction to positively cultivate friendship with them, because you don’t have to be scared of any sharks that might bite you.
“And do you have a shark?”, I hear you ask. I wish I could pretend that I did not. On the whole, my shark will only bite you if you bite me first (I guess everyone likes to think that about themselves). However if you do make the mistake of biting me, my own shark can very quickly grow to the size of a whole street (trust me on this!) and utterly devour you and your own shark and everything else you own in one angry and vengeful gulp! However I am working on it so hard, and God is teaching me so much, and bringing me to the place where I can genuinely be one of these beautiful people who always brings light and love and joy to everyone around them 😉
*I am not really naive. However, I think it’s fair to say that my wholesome and excellent experiences of church while growing up have not always been representative of what I have seen since then
I John 1v9:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Photo of Great White Shark by Skeeze on Pixabay