Has it happened to you? A well-meaning friend or even a stranger has offered advice that you did not ask for and ended up totally baffling you or leaving you feeling worse than before. “Aren’t you married yet?” someone said to our wonderful single friend who had endured horrible relationships and yet was a positive and insightful woman. I still remember a family friend looking me up and down when I was about ten. “David, you’re too fat!” she exclaimed.
Off the top of my head, there are a few categories of comments we make:
- Nitpicking (“Pastor, you pronounced Mephibosheth incorrectly. I knew you’d want to know.”)
- Uncalled for advice (To someone with cancer: “Well, you know the statistics. One in three will get it.”)
- Judgments (“She looks like she’s pregnant”), and
- I don’t know what to say but I have to say something. (To the pastor: “I enjoyed your little talk.”)
No one group of people is better at this than others. We’ve all put out foot into our mouths. Some people seem to live that way. As we approach another presidential election, be prepared for wild and sweeping statements by just about everyone, whether it’s the latest Hillary bashing, Hillary bashing someone else, the right wingers assigning all liberals to hell, or the liberals calling the right wingers idiots. Hey, it’s our national pastime and its Bibles are in the tabloid racks at supermarkets and the airwaves. Twitter is a helpful vehicle if you want to get the word out quickly. We all know that the truth can be gauged by the number of hits on a web posting, the number of views on YouTube, or the latest polls from the media.
If you want to live your life far from the madding crowd, step back from all the hype and blather, take a deep breath, and think before you speak, post, or write. Perhaps we should hit fewer “Like” buttons on Facebook and consider the true needs of the people with whom we rub shoulders day after day. Isn’t sharing posts we have not researched in 2015 like gossiping at the backyard fence in 1940? Our yearning to be the first one to communicate it trumps whether or not it’s true. Or wise. Or kind.
Think before You Speak
I was blessed to grow up in a Christian home. Our denomination leaned toward Wesley rather than Calvin (free will vs. predestination), and we emphasized unity, sanctification, and divine healing. If you don’t know what this means, hang on for a minute. Let me illustrate briefly how even the best-intentioned of people can say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
We loved the doctrine of divine healing and share stories of those who were miraculously restored to health. One of our main leaders displayed on his office wall the crutches and canes of people who no longer needed them. Without discounting any of these marvelous testimonies, let me observe that many slipped into the seat of judgment when talking to or about people who were not healed. Our theology was a little thin at this point. While praising faith we forgot grace, and sometimes assumed—and said so—that people were not healed because they had unforgiven sin in their lives. We criticized their faith as insufficient or flawed. We said they didn’t pray with the right words or passion.
We had to face it as time wore on. Not every Christian was healed. When a prominent and respected national leader’s twins died instead of recovering in spite of prodigious efforts around the world to move the hand of God, we began to relax our theology of healing and consider that God might not fit into the box we had built for him.
What the family—the one whose twins died—needed was not judgment but compassion. They didn’t benefit from the endless speculation about their failures of faith. In fact, I imagine it wounded them deeply. What they did need was arms around their shoulders and an outpouring of love and support.
A Call for Kindness and the Benefit of the Doubt
The other day one of my tennis friends returned from an extended vacation. She had not seen us in a while and wanted to catch up on everyone. When I mentioned the name of another player I knew she didn’t care for, she…let’s say she found it challenging to be positive. (I knew for a fact she had refused to play on the same court with that person.) I mentioned how well the uncared for tennis player had done in her absence, pointing out a few of her good qualities. My recently returned friend looked at me with amazement. “You’re incredibly kind!” she said. Am I? I know that I want to be
What do you say to someone you know has been diagnosed with what could be a terminal illness? Here’s where we need to stop and think before we rush in and say the wrong thing. What not to say:
- “I’m sure you will be better soon.” This attempt to be positive is inaccurate and unhelpful.
- “You need to try these essential oils (or organic products, bee pollen, etc.)” Thousands of popular remedies may have marginal benefit if any. Those with terminal illnesses get far too many of these simplistic solutions. Leave prescribing to the doctors.
- “Have you prayed for healing?” If you are very close friends who share the same faith you might possibly ask this. Too often, however, it strikes the wrong, judgmental chord instead of bringing hope.
Kindness and gentleness, two of the nine characteristics of a genuine Christian (found in Galatians 5:22-23) will guide you. Ask yourself what you would want to have someone say to you.
What to say when you don’t know what to say.
When your friend is bereaved or experiencing huge loss, sometimes the most eloquent thing to say is nothing. But do not ignore them. Cry with them. Hug them. Send cards or notes. Touch them on the shoulder in passing. Pray for them and assure them of your prayers. Stay in touch. A simple “thinking about you” text from your phone can bring the ray of sunshine they need that day. Be there. Instead of asking how you can help, pick up the mail, run errands, mow the lawn, or take a casserole. People will often forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
And as for the news, political candidates, wars, and the economy? Watch and observe. Make your own judgments but don’t be quick to assume you have the answers. Name-calling is the practice of those with small minds. Keep your disdain for people private. Don’t sit in judgment. Offer the kindness of the benefit of the doubt. The greatest man who ever lived said it this way, “Be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).