Why, “You’re Too Nice” Is The Best Compliment That Sounds Like An Insult There Is

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On October 5th, 1971 the Rock and Roll star Rick Nelson was invited to play at Madison Square Garden.  He opened his set playing his well known classics.  The audience cheered, applauded and sang along.  However, halfway through the set he switched to a newer sound, including a countrified version of a Rolling Stones hit.  The crowd turned vicious, booing and jeering him until he left the stage.

He wrote a song about the incident called “Garden Party.”  The low key, melodic chorus teaches us the lesson he learned from the fiasco:  “You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”

As a Christian pastor I definitely relate but I also disagree.  Anybody who works with people quickly realizes that you can’t really please anybody.  As I have been in ministry I have learned that on an instinctual level most people want control.   They know insulting others is the best way to gain control.  This is true even of myself.  We don’t even realize we are doing it.  We just sense that we are not in control and we begin to criticize others as a way of gaining it back.

So as a pastor I have learned that criticism is unavoidable.  In fact the measure of my faithfulness is not if people are booing and jeering me off the stage but rather what they are booing and jeering me for.  If I can’t avoid criticism, I would rather be criticized for the things that matter.

On that note I have been accused several times of being too “nice.”  The people offering that criticism have good intentions.  They truly believe that if I were just a tad bit more confrontational, a tad bit meaner, a tad bit more firm than the church would grow, the kingdom would come and everybody would get saved and sanctified.

Sometimes this criticism has appeared amidst personal conflicts.  Someone is mad at someone else and they want me on their team.  So they argue I am being too nice to “them” and if I would just grow some pastoral cahones I would be mean and confront that person with their “sin” and all heaven would break loose.  At times I have quietly reminded that person that the minute I start being mean and judgmental I am probably going to start first with myself and second with them.

At other times I have broken down and actually decided to be mean and judgmental and not surprisingly the people who criticized me for being too nice were the first to cry foul when I was “too mean.”

Then there are the more academic critics who have said the reason I am too nice is because I am too afraid.  If I would just be less afraid I would be more confrontational.  They read that in some psycho therapy book and assume it applies to me.

I am not going to say that there isn’t some truth there.  To deny I am afraid would be to deny my very humanity.  There is a type of person that does scare me and I do avoid them in order to protect myself from severe harm.  I am still not entirely sure I should but in this fallen world it is the only option.

But beyond that my “niceness” does not come from fear.  It comes from a life devoted to the Scriptures, particularly Paul’s epistles.  My “niceness” comes from passages like 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 12, Colossians 3, Ephesians 4 and Philippians 4.  I could also include the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of Jesus in Mark 8-10.  These passages teach me that God is patient, therefore I must be patient.  God is kind, therefore I must be kind.  Jesus was silent before his critics and accusers.  Therefore I must also be.

I am not passive, patient and kind because I am afraid.  Quite the opposite my passive, patient kindness is borne out of hope.  Yet it is not the hope that patient kindness might be the most effective manipulation tool.  I am not that naive.  I know that passivity and patient kindness get you crucified and that quite often.  People take advantage of me constantly.  Even my closest friends and family members take full advantage of my kindness.  They take me quite for granted.  People in my churches have and continue to get away with things they wouldn’t under a more manipulative leader.  So my hope is not that I will somehow control people more if I am passive.  This is not a political strategy like “non violent resistance” or what we blandly call, “pacifism.”

Instead my hope is in a coming Kingdom, a coming glory, a coming King.  My hope is that some glad morning when this life is over the trump will resound and the Lord will descend and when it gets to be my turn to face him, he will smile at me and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  Forget mansions in glory.  That’s all I want, a smile from the King and a nod that says, “You tried your best, even if you did fall short.”

Maybe that means I would edit Nelson’s song to, “You can’t please everyone, so you better please the Lord.”  But maybe that sounds too hokey.

Not that I have attained all this.  I am not saying I am the perfect specimen of passive, patient kindness.  In fact, several times over the last several years I have spent days angry at the world and angry at the people who have taken advantage of me, who have gossiped and lied and yelled and scream and booed and jeered.  I have sat with my back against a wall and shaken my fist at the air and thought about all the mean emails I want to send and all the angry things I want to publicly say.  Then I calm down, cry a little and ask God for the strength not to do that.  In those moments I remind myself that crucifixions are what I said “yes” to so many years ago.  And I have begged God for the strength to get up again, go out into the world smiling, answer the cursing with blessing, the insults with compliments, the abuse with love and the anger with patience.  I’m not sure I am doing very well and sometimes God hasn’t answered that prayer and I have let a harsh and careless word slip but I have always been quick to apologize and that too has taken a toll.

But surely the fact that people are still telling me, “You’re too nice” means I am getting closer to my reward.

 

Come, Lord Jesus.

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Pulling the Bitter Weeds: Anger Addictions Pt. 3

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Monday and Tuesday I wrote about anger in the lives of Christians, particularly among clergy.  I mentioned that I have found the temptation towards anger has worked in me much the same way the temptation for sexual immorality seems to work in others.  In fact if I read books like C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” or “Every Man’s Battle” and substitute “sex” for “anger,” I relate a lot more.

Yet nobody seems to be talking about anger or the addictions that can form around our wrath.  More than that we seem to reward anger, with the stipulation that the anger is directed towards that which our anger is directed.

Today I want to begin a conversation towards a solution to the prevalent anger addictions.  As with all my posts, I do not presume to have the final word but just hope to kick off a conversation.

I also do not endeavor to begin a new area where we can be overly suspicious of each other.  One of the worst things that has happened in our struggle against sex addiction is that now every adult male who is younger than 40 is automatically suspected of being a pervert.  I do not want to add to that absurdity by now claiming every adult male over 40 is now angry and bitter.

With that qualification I do think we need to be better at identifying and helping those who are struggling with anger.  Here are a few areas where such intervention might work the best.

1) Pastors Retreats and Conferences:  Over the last few decades retreats and conferences for clergy have become a multi-million dollar market.  As a pastor I get invited once a month to someone’s next great conference.  While these conferences and retreats tend to be ridiculously expensive (which leads to the exclusion of pastors of smaller churches), they are still a valuable venue for discussing vital aspects of ministry.  Therefore I think these conferences should provide space in their plenaries and workshops for talking about anger.

2) The Ordination Process:  I just now counted how many times I was asked about sex during my nine year process of ordination.  I am sure I missed several instances that are buried in my subconscious but I can still count 30 particular instances where a governing board asked me about how I control my “hormones.”  I cannot remember once being asked about anger.  I was asked a few times about how I resolve conflict but never once about anger itself.  Seminary classes, ordination interviews, interviews with D.S.’s and the like are all great places to discuss anger and its harm and it should be a topic of scrutiny in the ordination process.

3) District Superintendent Oversight and Mentors:  When a Pastor is caught in a sexual sin the district is usually the first call, as it well should be.  In those situations the D.S. is meeting with the pastor the very next day, if not by nightfall.  A D.S. should take reports of hostile rage just as seriously.  The goal of the reaction shouldn’t necessarily be immediate removal but the D.S. should intervene quickly and provide the necessary support and remediation so that one outburst does not become a habit or one bitter and angry sermon doesn’t bring down the whole church.

With that said, I do not seek to add more work to our all ready overworked church leaders which is why every pastor should have a mentor.  There should be some form of direct oversight of the clergy from outside the congregation for issues like these.  I have personally benefited from a few mentors as I have battled with the demons of anger, hostility, rage and bitterness.  Those mentors have been invaluable, not just to me but also to my D.S. who doesn’t need me calling him every week.

I want to close this series by giving the same encouragement I was often given about sexual temptation:  If you find the seeds of anger sprouting in your soul, please seek help before the weeds overcome your Spirit and destroy the harvest of righteousness in your local congregation.

Be kind and compassionate and patient, bearing with one another in love.

Flush Away Your Wrath: Anger Addictions Pt. 2

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Yesterday I wrote about the similarities between sexual temptation and anger temptation and noted that both are seemingly prevalent and destructive.

I had a few friends respond to yesterday’s post and they raised some great questions concerning anger.  The first had to do with definitions.  The second had to do with reading Ephesians 4 where Paul seems to take a mild stance towards anger by saying, “In your anger do not sin” but then comes back a few verses later and says, “Get rid of it all together.”  Today I hope to address both of these in turn.

As far as definitions go, I do not assume any passion that is directed toward or against something is “anger.”  Instead I think anger is best understood as relational.  It is hostile passion that is directed towards somebody or a group of somebodies.

In this case being mad that the Chiefs lost their playoff game last winter (and boy was I mad!) does not fall under the category of an anger addiction.  However, seven months later if I am still angry about the game and demanding Andy Reid’s resignation, using various curse words to describe the coaching staff and insisting Alex Smith be traded to a 1A High School football team, then I would need help with my anger problem.

As far as the context of Ephesians and James go, I think Paul and James would agree with that definition.  Anger seems to be understood as directed against somebody and is summarily dismissed for those reasons.

With that said, Ephesians 4 is fascinating.  Yesterday I planned to write about James 4, where I will end today, but a friend brought up Ephesians and I found it to be more formative.

The chapter begins with the wonderful exhortations to no longer be infants but to grow up into Christ who is the head.  This involves no longer being Gentiles whose thinking is futile but instead putting on a new self which consists of righteousness and holiness.

Then Paul digs into the particulars of righteousness.  First, Paul says to put off falsehood.  Next Paul says to not sin in your anger and not to let the sun go down on your anger.  Then Paul moves on quite abruptly with no further qualifiers.  This is quite unfortunate because we have no idea from Paul what letting the sun go down on your anger means or what sinning in anger would look like.  We have to make educated guesses, like the NIV did by translating it, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”

If that was all the New Testament said about anger we would be left  with our own assumptions and say things like, “Anger is just fine if you resolve it quickly.”  Or, “I can be angry all I want just as long as I don’t “sin” in it.”  And many have said those things to justify their acts of rage though few have taken any effort to define what “sinning in anger” even means.

But those two verses are not all we have.  In fact, Paul comes back in verse 31 and suddenly makes a sweeping statement to “get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”  The Greek for “getting rid of” might translate into modern English as, “throw away” or “flush down the toilet.”

The words cover the gamut of all forms of anger and their expression.  Bitterness is the slow burn anger that festers over time.  Rage is the quick burn anger that blows up in a second.  Brawling is the physical blows caused by anger.  Slander is the verbal blows.  And malice is the manipulative scheming that one who is angry (or bitter) engages in.

With that in mind, I repeat what I said yesterday, “There is no room for anger in the Kingdom of God.”

I think when Paul said, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” he meant the minute you find out you have any bitterness, rage, anger, brawling and slander throw it away and never take it up again.  Put another way, I don’t think Paul was talking about “going to bed mad” or daily anger but he was talking to the very present day.

In sum it might paraphrase to, “deal with your anger today before it destroys your tomorrows.”  Then, tomorrow (and every day after) live the new life of 4:32 which reads, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Now if we turn to James’ witness in the first chapter of his epistle we find the same idea at work.  James says in verses 19 and 20, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”

With all this said, one of the greatest temptations for me has been anger.  It has been a thought and heart battle to stay gentle and kind and compassionate towards those who disagree with me.  As I have spoken to other pastors, I find many have admitted the same thing and most of us deal with it daily, despite attempting to put it away for good.

More bothersome than that are the clergy (and their spouses) who have given into anger long ago.  They pastor and preach with angry hearts and do severe damage to their congregations and no one seems to notice or care.  So tomorrow I will close this short series by suggesting a few interventions church boards and denominational committees can take to keep their pastors kind and compassionate and help them throw away the anger that manifests itself in all its forms.

You can read part 3 here.