Many years ago a friend made an unexpected observation about me: “You’re not as calm as I thought you were.” He was right. Although I usually project a calm exterior, on the inside I’m wound pretty tightly. Some of this is just intensity and passion but there’s a goodly streak of anxiety marbled into the mix too. My friend’s observation didn’t seem neutral to me, though. I came away feeling diminished; taken down a peg, having disappointed yet one more person – after all, aren’t godly Christians are supposed to be filled with peace? I’d been outed. Over thirty years later, while I’ve grown spiritually, that stubborn streak of anxiety still prowls the grounds despite my best efforts to give it the bum rush.
Have you ever been found out? Disappointed some people? Been disappointed yourself? This is the human lot, isn’t it? One of the tradeoffs in getting to know others is that everyone’s warts become more visible. Some of the warts are petty – nose-picking sorts of things. Others are middling-they don’t always listen very well. Still others carry more heft – previously unknown pockets of meanness, dishonesty, narcissism or negligence.
It’s at these moments, these “feet of clay” discoveries, when we face a crucial decision – how will my new negative knowledge about so and soaffect my relationship with them? I find a couple of tendencies in myself in these situations especially if the flaw perceived in the other is significant. First, I devalue them. They come down a peg in my estimation. Like certain goods sold in the store they go from being on the main shelf to sitting in the bargain bin – marked down. I now admire them less than I used to.
This can easily lead to a second tendency. After I devalue them I pull back from them. I’m less interested in them now. They’re just not as important to me any more – no longer on the “A” list. I’m still nice on the outside (that’s my personality and I’d feel guilty if I were unkind) but on the inside something has shifted, nevertheless. Left unchecked, this devaluing, distancing tendency can even slide into cynicism and contempt (”She’s just like the rest – always looking out for #1”).
Why do the flaws of others often cause us to distance ourselves from them?
· I may distance myself because I’m disappointed with you
I had a picture of who you were and you fell short of it. On the outside most of us strive to look our best. We cover our flaws, or at least reveal them selectively. This isn’t necessarily hypocrisy. Most people don’t want to hear about our warts and, even if they do, they don’t know what to do with them. Plus, first impressions can be lasting, often unfairly so, so why not get off to a good start? Nevertheless, when I discover that you’re more self-centered than I thought, it’s tempting to pull back. This leads to the next observation:
· I may distance myself because I don’t want you to hurt me
Once bit, twice shy. Your flaws may end up hurting me. My brother once had a friend who talked smack about others, in a gentle, sort of “bless their heart” way. It seemed like good-natured gossip until the day that my brother overheard the friend putting him down to someone else. What our friends will do to others they can do to us as well. Think you’re the exception? You’re not.
· I may distance myself because I don’t want to be identified with you and your flaws
If you look bad, and I’m friendly with you, others may assume that I’m like you or that I approve of your behavior. It looks better if I hang around with “winners”. Jesus himself took flack for eating with tax collectors and sinners.
· I may distance myself because I don’t want you to overuse me
When someone has especially obvious flaws, others pull back and it’s hard for them to find a support system. I’ve noticed that if I’m kind to certain people I often become the main one they turn to for help – the“go-to” guy. Instead of the whole church ministering to this person I get stuck with meeting their needs while others keep a wary distance.
· I may distance myself because I don’t like you very much any more
Your weaknesses/sins/problems make you unattractive to me. You’re no longer a person I’m drawn toward, not a natural friend or companion. I now find you irritating or boring, or hypocritical or slightly creepy, or whiny or whatever.
· I may distance myself because we now have significant disagreements
If you think differently than me, that’s not necessarily a flaw, we may just have a legitimate difference in perspective, but often we can’t be that even-handed. The other becomes “stubborn”, “unbiblical”, “worldly”, etc. And, to be frank, sometimes they are. Some church differences involve conflict between biblical and unbiblical views, or moral compromise versus moral purity. Attempts at even loving discussion about these areas can flare into quarrels. In the end we may just pull back and settle for civility.
So, what to do? When I see your warts do I push you away? Is this what God wants? Is this how He treats us? I’m convinced that God wants our perception of flaws in others to serve, not as a deterrent to love, but rather, to become an incentive to love even more. It’s true that certain flaws may lead me to set some protective boundaries (if I find that you’re a gossip, for instance, I will be more careful what secrets I share with you) but I can still do whatever I do out of a deep commitment to your welfare. Your flaws can become my loving concern and the focus of my prayers. Rather than becoming less committed when I see your feet of clay I want to become even more committed. Rather than caring less about you I want to grow to care even more. In other words, I want to reflect the heart of Jesus; the heart He shows toward me.
This godly mindset is especially needed in the church wheretoo often we pretend to be better than we are and then pull back from those who get outed. This hypocrisy makes us hesitant to be real with each other. Our relationships with fellow believers remain superficial and even, to some degree, false. It’s a shame. I need your help in dealing with my weaknesses and you need mine. It’s easier to discover my feet of clay issues and to overcome them if you willhelp me. And it’s such a relief to know that I am loved regardless of my flaws; that I am accepted.