Some years ago I read a book by a Chinese Christian whose life was severely impacted by the mercurial demands of his mother. In that culture at that time, respect for elders was taken to extremes, and neither this man nor his wife felt that they should ever confront his mother. He wrote of the Lord using the situation to smooth some of his rough edges, like a pebble that has been worn round and smooth by being tossed and bumped around in a stream. I wish I could remember the book title or author’s name, because I would love to revisit this book. (By the way, I am not suggesting that mothers-in-law should act that way or that adult children shouldn’t sometimes have some frank discussions with their parents, but this was how this man felt led in his time and culture.)*
Around that same time, there was a lady at the church I was attending who, I am sad to say, really rubbed me the wrong way. Unfortunately, that says more about me than it does about her. She was not mean or unkind. I won’t go into the details about what I found so irritating, but I had just about decided that the best way to keep positive thoughts about her and to keep peace in my heart towards her was just to avoid her as much as possible. Then one January, our ladies’ group at church drew names for “secret pals” from others in the group: our primary duty to our secret pal was to pray for her, but we were also encouraged to send notes and small gifts through the year. Guess whose name I drew. Yes, that particular lady. I was tempted to put her name back and draw another, but I decided that was petty, and this woman was one for whom I was supposed to especially pray that year. And praying for her did help. I began to understand a little of why she acted the way she did and, though we never became very close friends, I saw her in a different light and my attitude changed.
I don’t remember exactly when those two incidents happened in relation to each other, but in my mind I connected them, and began to think of my “secret pal” as a sandpaper Christian, one designed to smooth off some of my jagged edges.
Though I have moved away and lost touch with that particular lady, it seems like I almost always have one or two sandpaper acquaintances in my life. Again, that is a sad commentary on me more than a reflection on them. I admit sometimes I wonder who is sandpaper to them, but God reminds me that’s His business, and He is working with each of His children to help them grow more Christlike. And, sadly, though I am not aware of being an irritant to anyone else, I am sure I am unwittingly sandpaper to somebody.
Elisabeth Elliot wrote in A Lamp For My Feet (and it encourages me that she felt this way about some people, too, sometimes):
How can this person who so annoys or offends me be God’s messenger? Is God so unkind as to send that sort across my path? Insofar as his treatment of me requires more kindness than I can find in my own heart, demands love of a quality I do not possess, asks of me patience which only the Spirit of God can produce in me, he is God’s messenger. God sends him in order that he may send me running to God for help.
We’re all made in God’s image and deserve each other’s respect for being His creation if nothing else. That image is marred in each of us not only because sin in general entered the world, but because each of us has our own particular sinful tendencies. God loved us “while we were yet sinners,” and since He wants us to love as He does, that means loving others who are still sinners, who aren’t yet perfect, who don’t have their act completely together yet. And if the other person is a Christian, he or she is my spiritual sibling. Further, He calls us to “in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.” I often remind myself that I am no better than the other person; in fact, I am a good deal worse.
I am often discouraged by my lack of love and my abundance of irritation towards people, and it is a frequent matter of prayer. In a quote I saved but can’t find now from a sermon by David Martyn Lloyd-Jones from I John, he makes a distinction between liking and loving and says we are to love people we might not necessarily like, and that helped some. Biblical love, after all, is not just a warm fuzzy feeling. I always appreciated Bible verses about “forbearing one another in love” partly because it’s an admission that there are going to be people in our lives who are going to require forbearance. Sometimes I have felt that tolerating or forbearing was the best I could do, but God calls me to more. They are His dear children for whom He died, and He wants me to love them as much as I love myself, and even more – as He loves me. A tall order that can only be accomplished by meditating on His great love.
A few years ago I read C. S. Lewis’s Weight of Glory, and one section in the first essay of the same title really helped along these lines. After discussing what our future glorification in heaven means, he writes:
“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to …remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”
I would disagree with what I think he is saying about the sacrament – I believe it is symbolic and representative and doesn’t contain any glory in itself. It is bread, not Christ’s actual body, meant to put us in mind of His body torn for us. But Christ does indwell a fellow child of God, and he is continually working in His children so that more of Himself can be seen through them.
No mere mortals. No ordinary people. Future glorified saints. Fellow citizens of the household of God. Sons and daughters of the King. These are the ones with whom we have to do. May we treat them accordingly. And may we treat those who are not yet in the family of God as if we are eager for them to be.
Beneath the cross of Jesus
His family is my own—
Once strangers chasing selfish dreams,
Now one through grace alone.
How could I now dishonor
The ones that You have loved?
Beneath the cross of Jesus
See the children called by God.
~ Keith and Kristen Getty
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Matthew 25:40
(Revised from the archives)
*There are times to confront, and there is some behavior that should not be tolerated. Sometimes the authorities even need to be brought in, for example, in cases of abuse. This post is not dealing with those issues, and I am not saying we should be doormats for people to walk all over us. This post is talking mainly about those everyday irritations we experience as our personalities bump against each other.