My Grandma told me once about a time when my Uncle Pete was just a toddler, a time when he wouldn’t stop crying and fussing. She fed him, had already changed him, tried to comfort him, then put him to bed. He kept wailing and fussing. She even gave him a little spank because she thought he was being obstinate about going to bed. His cries persisted, his little cheeks all wet with tears. She decided to check his diaper again and maybe even give him a bath to calm him down. As she undressed him, she found that one little toe had gotten all bent up caught in the elastic of his footie pajamas and was all red. She confessed, almost teary-eyed, that she felt awful being upset with him when the whole time he was crying because his little toe was hurting and he didn’t know how to make it feel better.
As adults, we may not always cry, but there are times we get irritable, aggressive, critical, negative, or angry and it’s usually because somewhere inside it hurts. Hurt people hurt people.
The author Anne Graham Lotz tells of a little gray toy poodle she inherited as a girl, who quickly became her best friend. His name was Cedric and he slept in her bed with her, sat on her lap, followed her everywhere, and waited for her at the door when she got home from school every day. One day as she was leaving the house, in the car driving down the driveway, somehow Cedric got out and came running, chasing the car. She heard the dreaded bump-bump sound of him getting too close to the rolling tires. She jumped out of the car and ran to him, but when she reached down to pick him up, he bit her so hard she had to use her other hand to get him to let go. She says, “Now we were both hurt and bleeding. Cedric was whimpering and I was sobbing!”
When she asked her mom later why her sweet dog reacted that way to her, her mom told her that you have to be careful approaching an animal in pain, because sometimes their pain causes them to blindly lash out.¹
Have you ever worked with someone who is usually friendly and cooperative, who suddenly becomes withdrawn, defensive, or reacts harshly to you over a simple, everyday question or remark? It takes us by surprise, we most likely get defensive, maybe even indignant, saying to ourselves “Sheesh, what’s his problem?” We might make not so nice assumptions only to find out later that friend has just gotten bad news, or lost someone they love, or is facing a troubled marriage at home, or other private struggles. In our pain, sometimes we blindly lash out. We’re hurt and so we hurt others.
Sometimes somebody may seem to keep finding fault in you, making you feel like nothing you do will ever be good enough. It is really easy to get defensive or angry, or even want to distance yourself from them to avoid those painful encounters.
When we were young in the pastoral ministry, a dear, older and wiser friend pulled me aside after she saw I had been hurt by a few of the ladies in our church. She said, “You know when someone makes me angry I want to pretend they’re not there, to just avoid them or act like they’re invisible, but that’s not right. I know you’re hurt by what happened, but the next time you see these ladies you’ll be gracious and loving because Jesus will help you to and it’s how He wants us to be.” I accepted those motherly, loving words from her and did my best to follow that advice.
There’s a Bible verse that helps me in those times, too, from Ephesians 6:12 that says
We are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places…
Our real enemy is the devil and he hurts people, lies to them, steals from them and destroys (John 10:10). His influence makes people act out when hurt, so the flesh and blood person you find yourself toe to toe with is not the real enemy.
If only we could remember that in the heat of conflict, it would help immensely!
If you’re a Jesus follower, you want to learn the way He handled hurtful behavior so you can follow suit. Jesus encountered all sorts of accusations, hidden-agenda questions, speculations, judgments, assumptions, gossip, rejections, ridicule and more. When you read the Gospels in the Bible, it seems it happened to Him pretty much every day.
He never backed down from His message or the Truth, but He didn’t return hurt for hurt either. Here are a few things He said we should do:
- You have heard people say, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.” But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong. If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends. If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that? Matthew 5:44-47
- I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek. Matthew 5:39 CEV
- Treat others as you want them to treat you. Matthew 7:12
- Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34 NLT (He said this while he was dying on the cross, looking at many of his accusers)
The Apostle Paul gave good advice, too:
- Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep…. Romans 12:14-18
- Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Colossians 3:13
All of this instruction and the example Jesus and Paul gave us are rooted in love, compassion, humility and empathy. It will be difficult sometimes, but we have to step outside ourselves, outside the realm of “it’s about me,” and genuinely try to put ourselves in the other person’s situation.
I’m constantly having to relearn this and be reminded that God offers grace and forgiveness to me when I am like that little snarling, injured dog. And even when I hurt and disobey Him, He still forgives, He still loves, He cares, He won’t write me off or give up on me. The same is true for you! And He wants us to extend that to others.
There’s no guarantee that when we live out Jesus’ words the other person will miraculously change and suddenly become our BFF. The point is that we have done what is loving, which is what God wants, and we can have peace in that no matter the outcome.
God promised to always be with us (Matthew 28:20), that in our weakness He is strong and that His grace is sufficient (II Corinthians 12:9). Our part is to yield ourselves to Him, willing to follow Jesus’ humble example, willing to care about, pray for, and offer HIS grace to hurting people.