What do you say when a friend is
feeling totally unappreciated? I have written recently about
sacrifice, partly because I fear many among us have become
self-focused and unwilling to sacrifice very much, if at all. If
true, that also means that many fail to appreciate or even notice
the sacrifices people make for them, not just soldiers for us as a
nation but parents, spouses, friends. As one who encourages
sacrifice in the name of calling or passion, if not just for love for
family and friends, what do I say to someone who gives sacrificially
and feels like his/her love, kindness, and generosity is taken for
I have always considered love within a
family or between friends to be like an investment; a person gives
expecting, quite naturally, that those who receive will reciprocate.
However, that is not the primary model of love that God provides.
His love, represented by the frequent use of the Greek word άγαπη
(agape), is unselfish sacrificial giving without direct
expectation of return. For a Christian, that should always be the
primary sort of love we give; but, being human, each of us has
moments when we feel unequal to the task. Humanly speaking, loving
and giving and never getting anything back would be intolerable, if
not impossible. Of course, “with God all things are possible”.
As I considered the frustrations of my
friend, the next day, I realized I felt the same disappointment, and not for the first time! I
would have said that the nature of my life–unmarried, no children,
few close friends, and few friends close—was the cause of my own
similar feelings. I had assumed…I should have know better…that
low “returns on my investment” of love were from being having
less intimate relationships. Surely married folks, those with
children and grandchildren, and people blessed with close friends
don’t suffer what I do! Considering my friend, I realized I had
looked into a mirror, and the reflection there wasn’t quite what I
hoped to see.
I’m reading 2 books: Madeleine
L’Engle’s book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
and Lee Strobel‘s
The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest
Objections to Christianity.
I picked up both books from the church library at the same time,
just because they caught my eye, not with any sense that they
addressed similar material. I’d read Strobel’s earlier The
Case for Christ
and wanted to read this one. I had recently reread L’Engle’s An
and reading her devotional book appealed to me. Now I wonder if the
Spirit wasn’t leading without my conscious awareness.
writes about Charles Templeton,
a friend and evangelist of Billy Graham’s early days, who became an
agnostic. His reason for ceasing to believe in God was the problem
of suffering, and that is the first issue Strobel discusses. I won’t
try to summarize his interview with Peter Kreeft, but it concludes with
the observation that Jesus suffered to redeem us and that our
suffering finds purpose in his. To my surprise, L’Engle makes a
similar point but adds that suffering is the stuff of art. I’m still
struggling to digest her insights, but I’m glad I “happened” to
pick up her book.
Some time ago, I
read a book on “listening prayer.” The idea made sense, but I
never could quite get into it, as a practice. L’Engle observes that
prayer begins in selfishness, but that the “gimmes” are necessary
for us to get to the listening part. That thought is still
percolating, but it makes sense.
see, that is our problem. Not only are the people around us selfish
and self-centered, but we are, too! No matter how much we learn and
share and, in my case, preach and teach άγαπη
love, we all, to one extent or another, expect something in return
and are disappointed, perhaps deeply, when we feel like we get
nothing. I felt rather helpless when my friend shared such feelings,
and that’s not normal for me. I’m a pretty good listener, with
effort, and an effective counselor, usually; but I couldn’t think of
much to say. As a friend or counselor, I am quite adept at putting
aside my own troubles, however strong, when someone needs me. At the
time, I didn’t even feel preoccupied, but I still had very little to
offer by way of comfort or encouragement.
hours later, I finally understood the problem; I saw that her problem
was my problem, too. Earlier in the day, I felt alone, bereft, and
unwanted. If anything, my feelings were worse, in a sense. I would
claim to be a stronger believer. I am confident that God loves me,
that Jesus died as the greatest gift of love ever given, but, here’s
the rub, I easily take it for granted. We all do!
quotes Aeschylus, “And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against
our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” Now,
Aeschylus lived 500 years before Christ, and he was a Greek
playwright, not a Jewish prophet. Yet, his words reveal a truth;
L’Engle suggests that God speaks through all art as He speaks through
creation. In a sense, both L’Engle and Strobel endorse the same
wisdom, painful as it may be to accept, “the awful grace of God.”
gain through suffering, if we are willing, perhaps even if we are
not. In Roman 5: 3b-5, Paul says, “(S)uffering
produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love
into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”
Good stuff comes through suffering, but that doesn’t make suffering,
being taken for granted, or whatever other pain we experience
enjoyable; it doesn’t stop the frustration, disappointment, or anger
(Anger is the worst, when we feel anger toward the very people we
love, who ignore us in their own selfishness, but who very likely
still love us, who are also selfish, if we’re honest with ourselves).
ago, somebody advised me, as a pastor, never to resign on Mondays.
Mondays are the days a pastor is most likely to feel as I’ve been
describing—unappreciated, ineffective, defeated, and ready to quit.
I always remembered that wisdom, but I wish someone had taught me
how to defer or deflect my frustrations without lashing out. I don’t
think I ever did that to my congregation. I have done it to the
people I care about most. No matter how justified I felt, I have
always regretted what I said, later.
problem, of course, is we look at them, not at ourselves. We think
that the problem is them, their behavior or lack of it, their
attitude! At the worst of times, in the least effective moment, with
the greatest chance of failure, we want to change them. We’ve been
the good guys. We’ve given and given and given; we just want
something back. We’re lonely. We’re tired. We have worked so hard.
We’ve sacrificed. We want so little in return—a little
appreciation, an occasional hand with the work, a bit of kindness, a
genuine expression of love, something that says we matter.
never finished it; I can’t even say it was a good book or not. The
title pretty much said it all: Lord,
I knew enough of the Bible and fallen human nature to understand.
It’s that “awful grace of God,” though I hadn’t heard that
phrase. It’s not my job to change other people, not even as a
pastor, preacher, teacher, or counselor. People marry flawed people
with the intent to change them, but it’s not their job. Parents
think to change their children, remake them in their own images,
sometimes, but it’s not in their job description. Oh, we’d like to
change the boss; he desperately needs changing. The boss often feels
the same about his employees. An employer may lay out the work to be
done, but he doesn’t pay to change people. No matter where or with
whom, it’s not one person’s responsibility to change another; more to
the point, no one can! Yet, people will try, right up to the
threshold of destroying the relationship, and sometimes beyond.
In some 30 years in ministry, where teaching, facilitating spiritual
growth, and solving problems has been integral to my calling, I have
learned that I cannot change anyone. You’d think I would remember
during those frustrating personal moments but, alas, not necessarily.
That’s why seeing myself in the mirror of my friend kept me from
saying anything useful. How could I encourage my friend to do what I
have failed to do so often. Even now, I wonder if I know what
exactly I should say.
telling a friend who is hurting of “God’s awful grace” isn’t
likely to be effective or especially comforting. What do you say
when a person is grieving? My grandpa didn’t say anything; he just
gave enfolded me in his arms, after my father died. What should I
say when a one of my students expresses frustration at the 4 years
his case has been tied up in immigration? I can’t fix it. I agree
that it isn’t right. I share his fear that they will decide against
him and make him leave the country. His English is adequate; I could
tell him that God will take care of him, but that answers none of his
questions. When the time is right, I do tell him that, but when he
is upset, the time isn’t right.
further reflection, despite my shame at seeing my own anger and
frustration reflected in my friend, I realize that words probably
weren’t the answer. One of my favorite ways to explain love is
“listen, understand, and respond appropriately,” and, I would
add, in that order. I listened; I allowed my friend to vent. I
understood; I expressed sympathy for without endorsing actions I
thought would be unwise. It’s the appropriate response that I still
struggle to know, but sometimes it’s nothing. I can’t change my
friend’s thoughtless or unappreciative loved ones, and I can’t change
my friend. At some point, there may be a “right time” to talk
about God’s “awful grace” but only as God leads.
confessed my own angry frustrations and counterproductive impulses.
The pain of others also distresses me, especially when I know I can’t
fix it, heal it, or make it go away. Grief is like that. As a
peacemaker, I look for opportunities to help resolve the issues that
alienate people. When I do, I am sometimes successful, and broken
relationships are reconciled; sometimes I am not successful, whether
by lack of skill or lack of cooperation from estranged parties. Then
I am left only with distress at their lingering pain that, like
grief, often lingers or even hardens into bitterness. I hate that.
too, I suspect requires the “awful grace of God.” The good news
is that is “awful grace” is also an “awesome grace.” Perhaps
it is in that spirit that St. Francis wrote “Lord make me an
instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, part of. Where there is doubt, faith. Where
there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness. light. Where there
is sadness, joy.” I am grateful for the awesome grace of God that
enables an imperfect follower like me to be an instrument of peace,
whether it’s to a hurting friend or, on my better days, to the
friends who seem to disappoint me. I gain nothing by acting on my
frustrations; I gain everything by rising to the level of the
suffering Christ who gave Himself for thoughtless, forgetful, and too
often unappreciative sinners like me.