“And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32
I introduced Moses and the burning bush to my Sunday School students when I noticed a few of the boys looking at my feet. I looked down and instantly realized what they were staring at: the knobby bunions protruding out between my sandal straps. One boy, without any guile, blurted out, “Do you have tumors on your feet?” I decided to set the record straight that I had an autoimmune disorder that affected my joints, including my feet, resulting in bunions, hammertoes, and nodules. I spoke without shaming the boys, knowing that this was an honest question and, as one boy stated in the past, “Wow, I thought your feet were uglier than my mom’s.” Children are naturally curious and draw conclusions without understanding possible underlying medical conditions or social protocols. I wanted to be honest and talked for a few minutes and then moved on in the lesson. Soon the students’ attention was back on the burning bush, not on my deformed feet.
I am conscious of my feet and their deformities. Often, after wearing shoes all day, the bunions can be painful and swollen. I have difficulty finding shoes that are comfortable yet stylish. Surgery is an option, but even that has its potential pitfalls. But despite all these challenges, I am thankful that my feet are still able to get me from where I need to go.
It’s easy to be conscious of something obvious like the two-inch bunions on my feet, but harder to be aware of some of my internal shortcomings like selfishness, a judgmental attitude, and labeling of others. Like the boys in my Sunday school class, it’s easier to point out what I see as a fault or character flaw in others, than it is to look at myself and see my own faults and flaws.
Several times in the last few months, God has quietly addressed some of my personal shortcomings while I have been venting to my husband or friends about some frustrations. Every time I spewed unkind or judgmental words from my mouth, God, in his kindness, gave me some epiphanies about myself. While complaining about someone’s lack of generosity with their time, He reminded me that, although I am generous with my time, I can be selfish with my limited finances. While expressing judgement of an expensive purchase someone made, despite their complaints about their limited budget, God reminded me of foolish purchases I have made. And when someone misread my expression as frustrated, I was reminded of the times I have mislabeled my husband as angry or moody. In all these situations, God, in his kindness, has led me to repentance.
God calls us to sacrifice even out of our limitations, to pray for others and show grace, and finally, to show curiosity instead of labeling someone. All these actions require us to be honest about areas where we find it hard to give, pause before talking, pray sincerely for others, and take the time to really listen to others. Yet, instead of those things, my judgmental attitude erupts quickly, just like the young man who blurted out about the “tumors” on my feet. But instead of acting out of a place of innocence, these attitudes flow from years of me thinking that I am right. I easily draw conclusion about others, without internally evaluating myself.
The Bible addresses this failure with a harsh but true word: hypocrite. Even the sound of the word is harsh and staccato to my ears. As a teenager, I recognized the demeaning nature of that word when I hurled the insult at my stepfather, calling him a hypocrite because he was against drugs but had an obvious alcohol problem. Jesus, the only one who can legitimately use this word, uses it to address those of us who point out the “tiny speck” in a friend’s eye when we have a beam in our own eye. My husband envisions a person walking around with a log sticking out of their eye, banging into everyone around them while pointing out a sliver in someone’s pinky.
It may be funny, but this comedic image reflects the sad state of my heart. I discussed this rigid judgmental attitude in last week’s post, “Views” but it prevails across all areas of my life, not just my views on social justice issues, but also how I treat, or think about, others. Empathy is a trait I have consciously cultivated over the years. But in moments of frustration, or when I feel misrepresented, my judgmental heart comes out swinging and I “vent”!
Venting itself is not wrong. It’s important to have a good ventilation system in your home. It keeps the air fresh and healthy indoors. Good ventilation helps remove unwanted moisture, odors, gases, dust, and other pollutants. And, on a personal level, we need to be able to talk about frustrations and problems we are experiencing. But I need to do so in way that is not tearing down someone else. This is hard and I am not always good at it.
What I am learning is that empathy is easy to apply when the situation doesn’t personally involve you, but less easy when it affects you. Those are the moments when I need to pause. I can address frustrations using “I” statements. I need to examine why I feel frustrated and get to the heart of the issue. In each of the above situations, I had what I deemed were legitimate frustrations, but in examining the reasons for the frustrations, I discovered some hard facts. In one situation, I had pride in the time I offered towards others. In another, I was frustrated that God hadn’t answered a prayer. I also discovered I had no problem labeling others, but I didn’t like having my expressions or actions being misinterpreted. In each of these situations, I discovered my own flawed humanity, placing me humbly at the feet of Jesus. This position of humility can only increase my empathy and keep my personal ventilation system healthy.
The last two books I read have shed light on the beam in my own eye. Sue Klebold’s “A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy” helped me see the other side of the Columbine Massacre. The mother of one of the shooters shares candidly the responsibility she feels and holds her son to with the unfailing love of a mother. It helped me see that good parents can raise children who do horrible things.
Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” is changing my view on those in prison and how they are treated. One story that stood out is that of a victim, Debbie Baigre. She suffered a gunshot wound to the jaw, resulting in losing some teeth along with painful damage. Her shooter, Ian Manuel, thirteen years old when he committed the crime, was tried as an adult and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. He spent the next eighteen years in uninterrupted solitary confinement. After calling Baigre to apologize for his crime, the two developed a relationship that resulted in her advocating for leniency and voicing that the conditions of his incarceration were inhumane.
When reading about these situations, I can see how I have misjudged and mistreated my friends in minor frustrations. Can I learn to be as vulnerable as Sue Klebold is in her book when facing harsh scrutiny? Can I show as much as grace as Debbie Baigre when I have been wounded? How do I choose not to be a hypocrite? The apostle Paul answers this question in his letter to the Ephesians by saying, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you with all malice.” This is what my unhealthy venting sounds like. He continues with, “Be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” When I remember how my God graciously forgave me, how can I, in good conscience, help but treat others with more grace? The answer: I can’t!