Are You Near or Far Sighted?

When I was about five years old, our annual family vacation took place at a beach called Ocean View. You might know it. It’s just across the Hampton Roads Tunnel, although at that time, there was no tunnel or bridge. You had to ride a car ferry as it slowly puttered its way across the water. Ahhh…I could feel the breeze as the boat cut through the waves. It was good to be a child.

Ocean View Beach had an amusement park that would have been considered lame compared to what the kids have today, however, it was a big deal back in the dark ages of the 1950’s. We would spend our days on the beach, and then at night, we would walk to the amusement park to eagerly experience the thrilling rides. There was a huge, wooden roller coaster (called the “dips” back then), and I used to marvel at how high and scary it was. The park was an enchanting place at night with all the colored lights, the sweet smell of funnel cakes wafting through the air, the sounds of the carnival games (where people sacrificed their money, hoping to win a cheap prize that fell apart before you could get home), and hearing the thundering roar of the roller coaster cars as they zoomed around the hills and curves. I was totally mesmerized by this “Magic Kingdom” which existed years before Disneyland was even a thought. (Disneyland was opened in 1955, but California may as well have been on the moon for my family to be able to travel there from Virginia.)

One evening at the amusement park, I was walking along with my mother, father, sister, and brother. We were looking around at the wonderful sights, when suddenly I realized I no longer had someone’s hand. I guess I had excitedly pulled away at some point. It was then that I quickly looked up for a familiar face, and to my horror, I saw only a crowd of strangers… absolutely no one was there that I recognized. Somehow, I had gotten separated from my family. Completely surrounded by a sea of unknowns, I began to cry because I knew I was lost. (To make matters even worse, I was small for my age, and it made grown-ups appear as giants.) At this particular moment, I had never felt so dwarfed and insignificant in my short life. “Help me! Help me!”, I inwardly screamed. As I desperately listened, there was absolutely no one calling out to me. My family was gone, and I was terrified to think I may never see them again.

Before you freak out that I may have been snatched, this scene didn’t take place in an era of fearing stranger danger, therefore, my family also hadn’t practiced a ‘here’s-what-you- do-when-lost’ plan. I had more than likely passed the “Lost Child Station” multiple times, but who can read big words like that when you’re five? (Plus, my eyelids were partially stuck together due to my face that had attacked a cloud of cotton candy on a stick.) Through my complete breakdown, all I could think was, “Mama and Daddy, Where are you? Why have you left me?” My perception was that the people who had loved me the most were gone, and I was on my own. I fell prey to a very fearful conclusion because of the overwhelming circumstances of that moment. All I knew was that I was scared. It was a horrible experience.

We hear a similar circumstance at the crucifixion where Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27, Mark 15) These were the last words of Jesus which revealed how deeply he had felt being abandoned by God. His rejection was real. His lonliness was real, and it wasn’t because he had just perceived the absence of his Father. God really had removed his presence. (That’s why we say in the Apostle’s Creed, “…He descended into hell”.) In his humanity, Jesus uttered these desperate words of abandonment despite the fact that he knew the long view of God. He was fully aware that He would suffer now, but be miraculously raised on the third day. Nevertheless, when rejection and lonliness are perceived or experienced, it’s difficult for anyone to endure it and think beyond how it feels…. even the human side of Jesus.

When I was lost as a child, I had no vision beyond my limited understanding of that moment. All I knew was how I was feeling….a short view. But, when Jesus willingly went to the Cross, He knew that whatever he would experience would have meaning and purpose for the future of mankind. He knew the Father was doing something that would have an eternal impact for a good purpose….he knew the long view. By contrast, when we embrace the short view, it can cloud the reality and work of God’s eternal purpose for our lives. Remembering the long view gives us an understanding that God is always at work to conform us to the image of Christ for our good. (Romans 8:28) Understanding this contrast in perspective makes all the difference, particularly in rough times.

Have you ever felt abandoned by God? A time where you cried out to him, “God, why have you left me? Where are you?” In those moments, we know in our heads that God really hasn’t left us, but sometimes we feel in our hearts that He’s AWOL, and has left us to fend for ourselves. Then, to make matters worse, the feeling continues to spiral down into guilt, because we think believers shouldn’t feel or think this way…. that it demonstrates weak faith and failed love. What??! We shouldn’t feel this way? Then, how should we feel? Are we supposed to feel good about sensing God’s absence? Well, unless, you’re a masochistic zombie, I wouldn’t expect you to feel any differently, and neither would God. Remember, Jesus understood God’s specific plan, yet he understandably cried out when God left him. Frequently, we don’t understand what God is doing, so it stands to reason that we’d feel confused and alone when things go south. When we sense God’s absence in those instances, it sparks a real fear of rejection. We tell ourselves that God doesn’t care or understand. What we fail to remember in those cases is that God always has the long view. He knows what the end of our story looks like, as well as the end of history, and everything in between. He doesn’t act capriciously. He has a designed purpose behind every situation in which we find ourselves. There is no moment when God isn’t there. There is no occasion when He lets go of our hand. We may feel like our life has gone off the rails, but He is always the greater force behind our circumstances. We have to fight what our feelings are telling us, and ask the Holy Spirit to remind us that our hope lies in remembering the long view…..that our Redeemer lives to bring us to eternal glory with Himself one day.

Psalm 13:1, says, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Shortly, just four verses later in 13:5, the psalmist remembers, “But I have trusted in Your mercy; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifilly with me.” The long view is that God, in His grace and mercy, has reached down and called you out as His own. His work in your story isn’t finished because He hasn’t finished His story. Just because you can’t sense His presence, doesn’t change anything about Him. Trust the fact that your feelings don’t have the power to change what is true…. He loves you and is wholeheartedly committed to you. Your difficult circumstances are prime opportunities for you to consider the strength of your faith, to challenge the treasures of your heart, and to recalibrate your loyalties. They are designed for our good as we rest in His parental love. The next time you feel that God has disappeared, Turn Around and remember that when He ordained the Holy Spirit to dwell in your heart forever, He took up residence there. Consequently, because He lives in you, He has claimed a permanent home, no matter how it feels. There’s no need to be afraid, as I was in the amusement park. We’ll never be lost to Him, as He refuses to loosen His fatherly grip on us.

(As a side note to my story of being lost at the amusement park…..obviously, I wasn’t raised by the carnival people. My parents finally did claim me after awhile…..although my siblings were probably disappointed. My suspicion is that they had already started casting lots for my toys.)

Loving “Toxic” People: Part II

I’ve undergone five eye surgeries in five years. Count’em…five. That’s enough to make me want to be a cyclops; at least it would have only totaled two and one-half times under the knife, instead of five. But then, the downside would have been weird-looking glasses. Oh well…

On the upside though, each eye surgery has forced me to invest in a new pair of specs. Thankfully, these have helped me see more clearly, and they’ve given me a new perspective as to how distorted my old peepers were in days gone by. My newly corrected vision is by no means perfect, but by comparison, it’s surely a far cry better than what it used to be.

On a similar note, we could also benefit through corrected vision if we would take an honest look at our difficult relationships. Most of us would quickly acknowledge that we aren’t perfect, however, we tend to view our sin in comparison to those unlovable toxic people we’ve tried so hard to avoid. Be honest….we oftentimes see their sin as SO much bigger than ours. We clearly look better through those lenses , don’t we? Isn’t it always preferable, and entirely convenient, to compare ourselves to someone who looks worse than we do, rather than better? To be fair, it IS somewhat understandable given most things in life are set up this way. We often find ourselves evaluating most things in relation to how well others do, in order to assess how well we do. So, in general, whether consciously or unconsciously, we measure our status against the standards set by man. This is virtually true in sports, academics, fashion, health and fitness, home ownership, financial status, parenting, and you can fill in the rest. (As I sit here hyperventilating, I find myself wondering if this post will pass muster as compared to other people’s posts! Sigh…) We simply want to make sure we’re doing better, and look better, than the next person.

Unfortunately, we utilize the same human standard of relativity to assess our sin. We put on distorted lenses, then look through them at someone who has sinned against us, and subsequently make the determination that we’re better than they. We tell ourselves we’re not anything as bad as the evil, verbally abusive, difficult people in our lives. We say to ourselves, “I know I’m not perfect, but compared to them, I haven’t done or said anything close to what they’ve done to me.”

Let’s review the above process through a biblical lens…Is that really the true measure God uses for us to accurately see our sin? When we stand next to a serial killer, of course, we’ll always look better in our eyes! We’d never do what they do. (I surely hope we won’t.) In contrast, sin’s standard is never measured by human behavior; it is measured strictly by God’s standard of holiness, which only a sinless Christ was able to fulfill. When we put on God’s glasses to look at our sin, the only way to accurately see it is in relationship to Christ. So consequently, standing next to our risen saviour, how do we look now? Pretty darn bad. (Now, remember to consider the entirety of what you say, do, and think. What we think comes from the heart, therefore, being a truer measure of our fallen nature.)

Additionally, we may say, “It isn’t fair. This toxic person has earned the distinguished position to be cut out of my life. They don’t deserve any grace.” If we’re going to use that rationale, then we’d do well to remember that if God was fair and He gave us what we deserved, we’d be in a hot, fiery place right now, without Him and with no hope. We tend to see other’s sins against us as big, and our sin against God as smaller. This lopsided viewpoint conveniently justifies unforgiveness, and serves to undergird victimhood. Don’t get me wrong….at times we are truly the recipients of injustice by unrelenting, selfish people, but to store victimhood in the bank of our memory only serves as a conduit for grudges and hatred.

You’ve probably read of the wake-up call from Christ in Matthew 7, as he taught about judging others, using the metaphor, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Later in the passage, he calls those who think this way “hypocrites”. (The Greek word means “actor”.) We tend to see other’s sins against us as the giant log, and our sin as the tiny speck, while we act out our self-righteous role of piety. This passage warns us that we’ll be judged in the same way we judge others, therefore, to consider our own sin first before we start throwing stones at others. This doesn’t mean that others haven’t sinned against us; it means if we consider our own sin in the equation first, then we’ll judge the offender with the proper attitude out of our heart’s redirection. This shift should produce humility. It tends to put things in the proper perspective, even though it dosen’t erase or cancel others’ sins against us. As we consider our response to the situation, it helps us to remember that Jesus faced his “toxic people” with the selfless attitude of a servant, submitting to the will of the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11). He was confident that his “safety” remained in the hands of God, even though things often looked grim. In relating to the Pharisees, Jesus most certainly wasn’t singing, I Wanna’ Hold Your Hand, but he also wasn’t shouting, Hit the Road, Jack. He carefully protected the gospel message by keeping the door slightly open. We’ll look at some examples of this door kept ajar a little later in this post.

It’s been my experience that when someone is labeled “toxic”, they can be better understood if we consider their backstory. There is often a history that has probably included abuse, or rejection, or some kind of dysfunction in prior relationships. This, of course, doesn’t excuse, rationalize, or justify their bad behavior, but this insight slightly helps us to understand why they feel they must behave as they do. It will hopefully, through the Spirit’s work, drive us to develop a sense of compassion, even though we may continue to dislike their company.

To wit: Several years ago, I met a woman who seemed to be nice, who loved Jesus, and who had many similar interests of mine. We became good friends, manytimes pouring over her long, family history of abuse and neglect. Over time, she proceeded to expose an ugly side of herself, demonstrated by gossiping about me to others, lying to me, and even feigning a serious mental illness in order to manipulate me into giving her more attention. (This breakdown in relationship happened years before the term “toxic” was coined, so I’d describe her then as simply being a bad influence and a difficult person to love.) I knew I had to do something to change the face of the relationship. I could no longer hang with her, although I was keenly aware that she had a backstory of rejection which explained a lot of her behavior. Consequently, I tolerated the dysfunctional relationship for longer than I should have, out of a bit of compassion, a lot of laziness, and fear of how she’d respond. Finally, after many honest confrontations with her in order to address her treatment of me, followed by enduring a litany from her listing all the ways I had sinned against her, I knew I had to close the status of the relationship without getting into any more spitting contests. I had a difficult decision to make. I thought, “Do I cut her off? Do I simply put up with it? Is there something in-between?” I mused, “Christ continued to dialogue with difficult people and serve them in some way. Could I do this, and yet, not set myself up to be manipulated once again?” I honestly didn’t even like her at this point, but I was convicted to act out of what was right, not out of how I felt, because the reputation of Christ was at stake. I pondered, “Do I value my safety in keeping my distance from her, more than I value my care of how this will reflect on Him? Is there some way to love her (even though I definitely don’t feel like it) at some sort of distance?” The Holy Spirit kept nagging me, “Janice, as far as it is up to to you, be at peace with her.” This difficult truth prompted me to call her, and ask her forgiveness for any way I had ever truly sinned against her. But, then I told her we wouldn’t be hanging out together anymore because it wasn’t beneficial to either of us. No more discussion….end of conversation. I wasn’t seeking her opinion, nor was I asking her permission. I just stated a fact and respectfully said good-bye. As expected from her, rumors started flying about me in regards to how I had shunned her. It was hard for me not to justify my position to others, but I refused to get into her sin against me, knowing I had done what was necessary, and I had peace.

Now, regarding my examples for the door kept ajar which I had previously mentioned: Over the years I have sent her birthday cards, and I visited her once when she was ill. I called her when there was a death in the family, however, our relationship will never be the same, nor do I want it to be. I haven’t totally cut her out of my life, and am maintaining a wise distance, but there will always be room for small, undeserved graces because I desire for her to experience the sweet touch of Christ. Conversely, by the world’s current definition, this friend would have been considered “toxic”. Therefore, out of fear for my emotional safety, current secular thinking would say that I should have stayed completely away.

I am, by no means, using myself as a textbook example. I’ve messed up plenty of times in trying to figure out how to continue to love someone who has been difficult. Jesus is the only One who has demonstrated to us the supreme example of unselfish love that we follow and desire. I only tell you my story in order to give you ideas as to how you can continue to be a minister of grace to your “toxic”, unlovable person, yet stay at a distance. It isn’t easy, so forget that idea. Examples might be to consider an unlovable parent who would be surprised to receive a get-well or birthday card or note; or encourage a rebellious teen by typing them a text; or make a brief, affirming phone call to an estranged relative; or consider a “toxic” person you could briefly visit in the hospital; or bless a jealous co-worker by leaving a donut at their desk; or do a chore that would please your difficult roommate, etc. These gestures keep the door open. Just a small crack. It doesn’t mean the old relationship will be revived, nor should it necessarily be, but it does demonstrate who Jesus is. Christ had every reason to close the door on us because of our so-called “toxicity”. He had every good reason to cut us off because of our lack of love and respect for him. But instead, he chose to die for us. Are we ever justified to be any different to those who’ve not loved and cared for us? And just to remind you….an unselfish response from us would be entirely the work of the Holy Spirit. Our flesh has been wounded, and we’ll naturally want to run in the other direction out of fear or repulsion or disgust. Don’t expect positive recognition, a thank you, or any human appreciation. We do these things as a thank you to Christ for loving us first.

Again, as I mentioned in my prior post, this one isn’t meant to address serious issues of abuse. If there is physical or sexual misconduct, you have to remove yourself. It is, however, meant to spur you on to keep a door open that you may have closed, all because someone has made you feel bad through their verbal abuse, lack of respect, and inconsiderate behavior. Jesus is glorified when we die to ourselves, trust him for outcomes, and pursue peace. He did this for us…. shouldn’t we do that for him?

Turn Around and see the blessing in returning good for evil, despite what you feel. Don’t let the world’s solution in dealing with toxic people influence you. Be willing to stand for what is glorifying, and let Christ take care of the outcome. In John Piper’s daily email that I received recently, he wrote, “The only way to have the power to follow Christ in the costly way of love is to be filled with hope, with strong confidence that, if we lose our life doing his will, we will find it again and be richly rewarded forever.

Amen….grace and peace to you as you persevere in living out the gospel to the glory of God!