This is one of those (many, many) blog posts that occurred to me in that dreamy hinterland between sleep and wakefulness, where my mind was alert enough to think through these issues, but still too tired to actually wake fully. I hope I will be able to adequately convey the points that occurred to me as they were slightly tenuous even as I was thinking about them!
Why this post?
The reason these ideas occurred to me in the first place was because I read a series of posts about a Christian couple’s divorce, available here. This triggered all manner of thoughts in my mind. I think it would be useful to evaluate such external posts to get true life stories of things that happen in true life marriages. This would help cut through much of the theory that I think through on this blog. I hope to do that in future blog posts. Concerning the thoughts that I will express here on this post, I think that they occurred to me as a result of my mind subconsciously meditating on the issues contained within the external posts, even as I was asleep.
“But I was outstanding!” – By this I am actually referring to my interaction within churches…
In the post I have linked to above, the woman concerned wrote about the breakdown of her marriage. This caused questions to arise in my mind…
For instance, this was a very big question for me: she did not seem to specifically identify the particular traits or attributes in her husband which caused the breakdown of the marriage. And she definitely did mostly blame her husband for the breakup, although she acknowledged that she was not without blame herself. Actually, on rereading it, she said that her husband lied, and that he abused her emotionally, and he spoke harshly to her. He also had issues with alcoholism. And yet she did not identify the internal traits: insecurities, pride, frustrations caused by work pressures etc, that could have been responsible for these external actions.
So then, this is what occurred to me as I was thinking over what she had written. Why did she not identify those internal character traits his behaviour had sprung from? This might be because she knew the traits and wanted to protect him by not spelling them out. Or it might be because she herself had never sat down to identify them. I have to admit that that second option does not sound plausible to me for a marriage that lasted over twenty years. But this gave me particular pause for thought because in interacting with people I am always trying to identify the internal traits that cause their behaviour. I thought to myself: is it possible that my evaluations of people might be overly simplistic? Could these situations and marriage as a whole be a lot more complex than I could possibly have anticipated?
Secondly, to move to the title of the post: “But I was outstanding!”
I reflected on the writer’s acknowledgement that she had also contributed to the breakdown of her marriage. I pondered on the fact that whenever there is a disagreement or breakdown in relations of this nature, it is standard practice for each party (or whoever is talking publicly about it) to acknowledge that their own behaviour would also have contributed to the disagreement, that they “were not perfect”. I think that people do this to demonstrate humility, to show that they don’t think that they are perfect etc.
My mind went yet again, to those many church situations that I have complained about so often, and I thought to myself, yet again: “Actually I was outstanding, and it literally was all their fault. They genuinely did behave appallingly“. Obviously this was not true in every situation, just the ones I complain about the most. (There have also obviously been times in my own life when my behaviour was far from outstanding, where I have to acknowledge that I was single-handedly responsible for everything that went wrong.)
Actually no, what this really caused me to think on was this: was my behaviour truly as excellent as I thought? Even at the best of times in these churches I demonstrated ego and disdain and I do make excuses for these of course… Anyway, what I was asking myself was this: is this also what I’ll be saying in my eventual marriage, insisting that everything is his fault, and I am utterly outstanding? The aspects of my own behaviour that I make excuses for, could they legitimately be considered as awful as the things which I myself have criticised at such length in these people? Perhaps if viewed from their perspective, I might see things very differently. And yet with all that sophisticated reasoning, and attempts at self-awareness, I still maintain that I acted outstandingly, and many of these people were utterly deficient in character.*(Please see below)
To be perfectly candid, I do strive after excellent character for myself. I strive to cultivate truth, righteousness and integrity in my heart, and treat people with these characteristics. I take responsibility for my own actions. I don’t try to foist responsibility for my own actions onto other people. I identify insecurities in my heart and deal with them, instead of leaving them to seep out to hurt other people. As I say I am outstanding. I wish I knew more people like me. And yet this is outstanding only because it is so unusual, which it should not be in the Christian world. Conversely these supposed Christians lied. They deliberately spread completely ungrounded rumours about me. They apparently sought to punish me for daring to boldly present myself as someone of excellence. I made it very clear that I did not need to ask their permission for this, and I went out of their way to make it clear that I disdained their expectations that I needed their permission to consider myself excellent, or indeed for anything else. And then on top of that, many of those who were White were racist. I have nothing good to say about these people. I have no spiritual respect for them whatsoever.
From my own analysis, all of this is because they failed to truly strive after Christ. God is not a respecter of persons. What that means is that the same standards that are available to me in striving after the utmost of Christ are available to absolutely everyone. The responsibility that we have is to bring our hearts before God, to be sincere before Him, to be honest before Him about our failings (and what might be causing them) and then to deal with them. At the risk of flogging a dead donkey, from my interactions with these people it was obvious that the overwhelming majority of supposed Christians do not do that, at least not in the churches that I had the privilege of attending. Shaking my head. The reason I tend to exonerate myself in these situations even despite my own character failings is this: I rightly or wrongly consider my own disdain, etc, to be a reaction to their own behaviour. Even if I had not demonstrated that disdain as I did, it would not have changed the fact that they had already acted in a way as to reasonably break any expectation of sincere Christian interaction. This following is an analogy. It might not be a very accurate analogy, for reasons I will discuss later in this post:
If I go into a shop, and they give dreadful service, then that is sufficient reason for me to conclude that I do not want to further patronise their business. Now they have already offered the appalling service. Still there are different ways I could respond to their service. For instance, I could be gracious and kind and patient and lovely. Alternatively I could be pushed to anger, and demonstrate pride and disdain towards the shopowners. To come back to these real life situations, the way I have been acting regarding the churches is this second “angry” option. What I have been learning is to modify my behaviour to act in a way that more corresponds to the first “gracious” option. And yet because my own behaviour is a reaction, it does not change the fact that their own behaviour has already been sufficient to break interaction between us, regardless of the way I might later choose to react towards it.
Now this is why the analogy could be considered very flawed: because in a church we are constantly acting and reacting towards one another in endless micro-interactions. Whether I like it or not, the pride and disdain I demonstrated earlier on would have contributed to their subsequent actions. And there is also the fact that if I had acted more positively, that would undoubtedly have encouraged them to behave better in subsequent interactions. And yet, think on the ways that these people considered appropriate to “retaliate”, because I wore completely disdainful expressions on my face, and because I made it clear that (unlike them) I actually know the Bible, thank you very much! They made up completely false rumours, they tried to destroy me and my reputation by any means possible, they sought any and every way of humiliating me. I cannot but shake my head. Man, these people were bad! In fact, they were evil. My big confession: for such a long time I have been itching to spell out some of the things that they did, and with enough identifiers so that people close to each situation can work out who did which thing. One big reason why it is an attractive idea for me to spell out what people did, even if I didn’t identify the actors involved, is because it would enable me to demonstrate to readers that what these people did truly was utterly unacceptable; it is not that I am overly sensitive. But – self-control, Tosin!
At any rate, the big and powerful postscript to all of this is this: as well as learning to cultivate a positive attitude to people regardless of their poor behaviour towards me, what I have also been learning is how to pre-emptively gauge churches etc to avoid all of this poor behaviour in the first place.
So then I guess it is quite easy for me to blame my previous relational breakdowns on the fact that the others involved were not truly striving after God. The assumption is that if I were in a relationship, for instance a marriage, where we were both striving after God with utmost determination and sincerity, then such ugly breakdowns would not happen, even though there would undoubtedly still be difficult times.
But then I asked myself “Is it really as simple as that?” The big question that came to my mind was this – and this is something that really did make me stop and think: even if both parties are sincerely investing their absolute utmost into striving after Christ-like character, and working in partnership with God, and obedient to God, even through the inescapable flaws of their humanity, is it still possible that a painful breakdown could occur like the one Elizabeth Klein describes in her post?
I would love to emphatically declare that “No! Such a breakdown should not be possible!” But…I hope I am too grounded in realism to declare that. Anyway, one conclusion that I have recently come to is this. This is the way I see things. I like to be quite simple in my thinking. Whenever you are in a relationship, and there is an issue that crops up, there are not an infinite number of possible causes (I wonder whether this itself could be a demonstration of over-simplicity?)
So then, either the issue is me, or it is you, or it is external circumstances, including other people, or it is the devil. I guess it could also be that God is testing you. And then of course the likelihood is that none of these causes would happen in isolation. Rather these difficulties etc might be caused by the interplay between all these factors. However, something that I have subconsciously always thought is this: that issues would be resolved if we managed to correctly identify whatever might be causing the issue, and if we then dealt with the cause we have identified. So if I am the one causing the issue, and if I work on whatever part of me is causing the issue, or contributing to it, then that would be problem solved! Conversely, if you are the one truly causing the issue, then my lack of patience might be making the situation worse between us. In that case, I would have to work on my patience, while you are working on whatever the problem is. If a situation did actually arise where I could sincerely say that this situation is actually all your fault; it is not other people, it is not the devil, it is definitely not me – it is just you; still my own commitment to support you and encourage you would make a big difference.
So then the question arises: why did I not demonstrate that kind of patience and commitment to these people? [
Because I went into the church for the sake of finding community, not for the sake of putting myself into intense battles. Where each church failed to give the necessary community that I was looking for, I angrily left then moved on to the next church. If I had wanted to go out onto the battle field, then I would have prepared my mind adequately, and I would have ordered my life correspondingly and I would have gone to join the army. The reason I feel legitimately angry is because these churches did not correspond to what they claimed to be. If they had been honest about what they had truly been or what I might truly expect then I would not have gone near them at all and I would have saved lots of my precious time…and effort….and money. Instead each successive church held out the lie of “a loving community”… and they took all my money in the meantime. In a marriage, I might similarly find myself in a situation where instead of amazing love and community, I feel as if I am on a battle field. The difference is that before marriage I will know what I am committing to. I will have evaluated him extensively, and I will move forward into the marriage knowing that from other people’s experiences, this marriage will sometimes resemble a battle field more than a loving community. I would already have determined for myself that unlike those churches, this particular man is worth fighting for to any extent necessary.]
I know what I want to say, but I find it hard to express: in short, my interaction with these churches demonstrated that for my purposes, they did not represent valid or legitimate Christian interaction. So interacting with them was an exercise in wasting my own time. It is not a matter of trying to reconcile with them, because they were never good enough in the first place. Instead of trying to redeem our interaction as Christians, the wisest thing for me to do was to leave to seek true and valid Christian interaction elsewhere. Because they are human beings, they are still deeply valuable and deeply loved by God, and I need to consider them this way. This is where I have been desperately coming short. However it would have been highly imprudent of me to continue to make myself vulnerable to them the way I would make myself vulnerable to Christians who could genuinely represent appropriate Christian fellowship for me. In short, it would have been like trying to commit to a non-Christian husband, where his ways would be exactly what would frustrate my attempts at serving God. Additionally, the usual model in many churches is that you just visit a church, and quickly throw yourself into church life after checking out the church for a few weeks at best. I have not found a straightforward way of deeply evaluating a church before joining it. This system of getting involved in something, investing time, effort and money, submitting to the leadership, before you have been able to thoroughly evaluate it seems perfectly designed to result in deep frustration and resentment. Unsurprisingly, this is what does eventually happen in countless cases, not only my own. I have made up my mind that I am never going to get involved in a church via this method ever again. With a husband though, I will have taken time to sit down and assess his character, and satisfy myself that I can commit to him, before I actually go ahead and formalise that commitment in marriage.
A thought to finish this post. When all is said and done, even knowing that determined pursuit of Christ and Christlikeness will not necessarily guarantee a smooth interaction between me and my future husband, still I would personally much rather get married to someone who is in aggressive, relentless and utterly sincere pursuit of Christ and Christlikeness, even if he and I were not naturally well suited. I would much prefer this to marrying someone who was perfectly well-suited to me, but less spiritually determined.
*I know that this is a bold claim, even for me, that possibly verges on arrogance. I have just written a post to try to explain what I mean. See it here.
PS: While trying to find appropriate Bible verses about reconciliation, I’ve just come across this great piece on forgiveness and restoration, here
Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
Photo of “Thumbs Up” in shadow from Pixabay