Last week, Ben wrote a great post entitled “New Hope for Old Wounds” about those times in ministry when restoration and reconciliation don’t go as planned. It got me thinking about another kind of relationship we sometimes encounter in ministries that don’t go as planned.
“Not the Way I planned”
With almost a decade of ministry under my belt now, I can think of a number of relationships that didn’t pan out how I planned. Relationships that were characterized by conflict more than chemistry, disagreement more than teamwork. Whether it was with a co-worker, volunteer, parent, or teen, they were relationships that ended in conflict.
Some ended with a fizzle, some ended with a bang, but all of them ended with a bad taste in my mouth. It wasn’t necessarily a moral issue, perhaps just a difference of opinion, a different style of leadership, a personality conflict that we couldn’t or didn’t want to get over. But it ended with a “bleh” that lingered far beyond our time together.
Have you ever had one of those relationships?
They eat at you. They’re the kind that gnaws at your soul because they go unresolved. They’re formed by conflict that didn’t have a clear bad guy or an obvious sin to confront. They just ended poorly and that stinks.
An Obsession with Closure
If I’m really honest, I can find myself carrying those relationships with me for a long time. I hold on to them because… well, I’m not sure why. I feel unfulfilled, I feel misrepresented. I think to myself, “If only they’d have understood me, we would have been fine.”
In reality, I hold on because I want to be acknowledged. I want my pain, anger, or sense of injustice to be recognized and validated. When I feel I’ve been wronged, I want to be asked for forgiveness. I want to hear, “You were right.”. I want what I want, and I want it now. And I don’t really want to forgive until I get those things.
Do you ever feel that way?
In reality, however, I don’t need those things. In fact, getting them might end up damaging my soul. My obsession with closure is my own issue, and when it goes unchecked it breeds bitterness, cynicism, and sarcasm. God may very well be using the most difficult relationships in our lives to draw us closer to Him, to confront our self-righteousness, or to humble us as we learn to be content in Him.
I’m a work in progress with all of this, but I think it’s important for us to start talking about it. To not simply resign ourselves to thinking this is the way it’s got to be. As God continues to work on my own heart, I’d like to share four healthy habits He’s been sowing.
4 Healthy Practices for Moving Forward
1. Be honest with what you’re feeling.
It’s important that we give ourselves permission to recognize and name what we’re feeling – anger, disappointment, betrayal, mistrust, etc. Those feelings are trying to reveal truths that we’re holding onto deep in our soul.
Stuffing unpleasant emotions down does little to help us overcome them. In fact, stuffing them down may allow them to grip us more than ever. Instead, by noticing and naming it for what it is, I’m able to bring it to God without feeling ashamed that I’m not feeling what I think I’m “supposed to feel” in the moment.
God’s given us our emotions to reveal the hidden things in our heart, and as difficult as they may sometimes be, they enable us to invite God to search our heart more deeply. That reality is that God’s already in the deepest places of my emotions, but by being willing to go there myself, I am able to finally meet Him there.
2. Avoid the inner-dialogue.
I don’t know about you, but I have this nasty tendency of playing out dialogues in my head. I imagine myself confronting a person that I’m struggling with. I picture their response. I envision my retort. I role-play our miscommunication back and forth, and the whole thing devolves into a mess. In the end, I take away a very real feeling of frustration and anxiety thanks to an imaginary conversation. Those inner-dialogues can be guilty pleasures, but they do nothing to bring healing. As I put predictable words in their mouth, I take away the opportunity to be surprised by God at work in both of our hearts. Just like stuffing our emotions, those inner dialogues can reinforce the conflict inside us all the more.
With all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. – Ephesians 4:2-3
3. Forgive once, let go often.
Ever extend forgiveness only to turn around and find that you’re stilling holding on to it? Me, too.
Forgiveness is a tricky thing. Extending forgiveness when it hasn’t been asked for or doesn’t feel like it’s deserved is even more difficult. One thing that complicates it for me is turning forgiveness into a feeling. When I make it a feeling, forgiveness becomes fickle. I extend it when I feel like it and take it back when I don’t. I forgive because I know I’m supposed to, but I’m not really feeling it so I just go through the motions like an empty ritual.
In fact, forgiveness is a choice. It doesn’t erase pain, it doesn’t immediately wash away the wound, but it’s a decision to start. When I offer forgiveness, I choose to no longer hold it against them. That doesn’t mean I stop feeling. Rather it means, when I start to feel pain again, I don’t hold it against them. I recognize the pain, but don’t put it on their account. Instead I recognize that it’s part of the ongoing healing that God desires to work in my life.
When I’ve been wronged by someone, I choose to no longer hold it against them. I forgive them. As painful feelings come up, I recognize and name them and let them go, again and again and again.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you. – 1 Peter 5:6-7
4. Refocus on the Most Important Thing.
In the end, it’s not about us. It’s never been about us, and that fact should help us refocus our concern and passion on Christ. It doesn’t mean that my feelings aren’t important to God, nor does it mean that I should stuff them down, suck it up, and get on with the work of the Kingdom. But it does mean that in everything, Christ reigns – over my heart, over my relationships, over the conflicts I find myself in the midst of. When He remains at the center of my focus, closure and validation seem less important, less significant, less necessary and I can begin to follow Him again.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. – Col 3:15
May the peace of Christ reign over your heart as you live with each other today.
About the writer: Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown is an Assistant Professor of Student Ministry at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. He attended Biola University and Talbot School of Theology. Before coming to LBC, he was the Sr. High Director at Living Word Community Church in Red Lion, PA. Aaron serves as the Project’s editor and web guy.