The last thing I wanted as we drove dark Texas roads until we found our new I flew home one week before Christmas? Community. Having experienced deep fractures in my soul on the mission field — mostly at the hands of other Christian leaders — I felt spent, utterly tired, and leery of anybody. On the plane from Southern France on our way to jump into “normal” life in the states, I made a little vow. I would wall myself off. I would protect my heart.
We drove dark Texas roads until we found our new home for the foreseeable future — a tiny apartment carved into the corner of a barn on a ranch. I wondered if our family of five would even have Christmas.
When we arrived, someone had strung twinkly lights in front of the two-bedroom apartment. We entered to find a Christmas tree erected, music playing, a stocked pantry, made beds, and cookies sitting on the table. Friends greeted us with warmth. In that moment, I had a decision to make. I could fulfill my stay-away vow by fortressing myself off from others, or I could tentatively step back into a community that offered such amazing hospitality.
I’m so grateful I chose the latter (by God’s strength — the process was certainly not easy or streamlined). Looking back, I learned this powerful truth: What wounds us is what heals us. Simply stated, God uses good community to heal you from difficult community. But so often we choose isolation and fortressing our hearts out of fear, believing isolation will help our hearts heal. While it is good to exercise discernment and create boundaries for predatory people in our lives, it’s better if we think in terms of fences and fortresses as we navigate our pathway toward relational healing and living.
A fortress walls us off from everyone — kind-hearted and narcissistic alike. This fortress is effective in preventing pain, but it also eliminates joy. But a fence has a gate, an opening where you allow safe people into your emotional yard and begin to heal alongside them, while still barring emotional vampires from entrance. Joy has a chance to flourish.
We live in a fractured world, and the holidays tend to augment our relational brokenness. What does Scripture say about difficult community and how to deal with it? And how do we navigate the holidays when we may encounter people who have deeply wounded us?
Here are five practical tips.
1. Minister in the Opposite Way You’re Treated
Paul reminds us to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:14-15). It may not be possible to pray in person, but Paul does encourage us to pray blessings over those who’ve hurt us. I’ve also found a creative way to work out my relational grief after reading a story about a woman trying to enact better habits in her life. She battled someone often, and every time he hurt her, she would retreat into herself and face a very hard day. She decided to apply what she learned about habit formation, using his mean remarks as a trigger to do something different. When he yelled, she did something kind for herself. This reframed how she felt about his antics, and it eventually led to healing. When he cursed, she blessed herself. I decided to experiment with a particularly difficult relationship that often spiraled me into sadness.
Now I let those reminders prompt me to bless someone else. Instead of wallowing, I write a card and send it to a friend. Or I record a prayer for someone struggling. Taking what’s meant to be a curse and turning it into a blessing for someone else has helped me reframe the memory and find joy. Perhaps it will help you too.
2. Anticipate Discord with Detached Expectation
I have a friend who used to create a bingo card of the insensitive things a relative would typically say to her during gatherings, keeping it hidden from view. Every time the relative said something insensitive, my friend would quietly check that anticipated comment off on her bingo grid that evening. If she got a bingo or a blackout, she would do something after the visit to rejuvenate herself. Instead of dreading insensitive words, she approached the situation lightheartedly, with detached expectation. This way, she wasn’t caught off guard. She understood that broken people say foolish things, and she internalized Proverbs 29:11, “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise person holds it in check.” Her bingo card was her way of quietly holding her words back.
3. Take the Lowest Seat
To exercise humility in gatherings, we can heed Jesus’ words in Luke 14:10: “But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place.” In difficult family situations or relational quagmires, this means asking Jesus to help us be like Him, who assumed “the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). Taking the lowest seat means to assess the needs of others instead of insisting people serve us. It means doing the dishes when no one watches or sitting with that complicated relative when everyone else is exasperated. When we’re humble, we begin to think less about our own needs being met, and we partner with the Spirit to demonstrate the love of Jesus.
"When we receive God’s comfort, it spills over. It takes our eyes from ourselves and gives us compassion toward those who hurt. To step into another’s shoes means listening, asking open-ended questions, and exercising empathy."
4. Step into Another's Shoes
When we’re hurt, we’re well aware of what it is like to be us. We live in reaction to our hurt, and we keenly understand what our trigger points are. But if we can shift just a little toward empathy, we’ll be less consumed with hoping everyone else notices us and more interested in truly understanding where other people are coming from. We can’t fully do that, though, until we have already gone to God with our pain. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 1:4,“He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
When we receive God’s comfort, it spills over. It takes our eyes from ourselves and gives us compassion toward those who hurt. To step into another’s shoes means listening, asking open-ended questions, and exercising empathy. But we can’t give what we haven’t received, so bring your pain to Jesus first.
5. Don't Let Bitterness Win
Healing from emotional wounds doesn’t happen all at once — our healing journeys take a lifetime. Paul writes in Philippians 1:6, “I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” God is always working, but we have to realize that there may still be discord this side of eternity. Romans 12:18 reminds us to “live at peace with everyone.” We’re responsible to do our part, but that doesn’t mean others will do theirs. We can pursue reconciliation, but that doesn’t guarantee the reconciliation since that type of coming together involves two people.
You can’t make someone like you, love you, forgive you, or reconnect with you. But you can embrace eschatological living, walking in light of the kingdom of God. You can be responsible for your own heart, so that if someone does return to you, bitterness will not prevent that reconciliation. I prayed that prayer many times throughout my life with a particular family member. Often, I was tempted toward cold bitterness, but I prayed, “Lord, if this person ever comes back to me, I don’t want my personal bitterness to block the way. Please help me forgive now, let go of pain, and be able to reconcile if the time comes.” Honestly, I never thought reconciliation was possible, though I prayed that prayer for decades, but one day, the relative approached me, extending a hand in relationship. Had I still been embittered, I wouldn’t have seen a miraculous reconciliation.
This season is full of relationships — both difficult and delightful. Some relationships (like our friends who surprised us after our time in France) rekindle our love for people, and others drain us. Even so, we can remind ourselves that even when people disappoint, we serve a God who left the glory of heaven to be with us. Jesus ministered in the opposite way He was treated. He knew exactly what humankind was capable of. In coming to earth, He took the lowest seat. He stepped into our shoes, experiencing broken life on our soil. And as He hung from the cross, He shed bitterness by saying, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus will walk with us while we celebrate Him this season ... no matter who we encounter.
This article courtesy of HomeLife magazine.