How hurting people hurt themselves and others
By Jim Van Yperen
Think about a time in your life when you were hurt; when someone said something insulting or accused you falsely; when someone sued you, threatened your livelihood, or stole your honor and reputation; when someone in authority over you forced you to do something against your will; or when someone used you and took advantage of your generosity.
What did you do with your hurt?
If you are like most people you responded in one of two ways; both hostile, each trying to make the hurt go away. . .
Meet Larry. Larry is a hostile man. He does not think he is hostile. He thinks he is right. In fact, Larry is so convinced that he sees the truth clearly, Larry believes God has placed him in leadership to ensure God’s truth. If you happen to disagree, Larry will confront you directly, accusing you of not listening. If you listen and still do not agree, Larry will shake his head and say that you are sadly deceived. He will try to sound humble when he says this to you , but he will speak with pride when telling others. Gossip is not gossip in Larry’s mind. It is standing up for truth to correct the wrong, for your sake and the sake of the church. Larry interprets every disagreement as a challenge and every conflict as a contest—with winners and losers. Since Larry wants to win, he also wants you to lose. He wants all wrong punished and publicly rebuked. “I would insist no less for myself if I were wrong,” Larry tells himself. But Larry is seldom, if ever, wrong. Larry might confess some minor fault, but always with an eye toward you admitting the bigger wrong. Consequently, Larry’s life bears the scars of broken relationships: divorce, remarriage and divorce again; quitting one job and being fired from another, and finding himself at the center of three church conflicts. When Larry reflects back on all that he has suffered by “standing up for truth,” he is sad for the pain but consoles himself with pride, because he knows he was right.
Have you met Larry? He lives in every neighborhood and worships at every church.
Perhaps you are a Larry? Or, perhaps you are more like Linda.
Meet Linda. Linda is a hostile woman. She does not think she is hostile. Quite the contrary! Linda thinks she is gentle and humble, even peaceable. All she ever wants is to live in harmony with others. But Linda is very sad; sad because of how hurt she feels. Linda is hurt because of what you said to her, or did to her; or what you did not say or do. Linda will not tell you why she is hurt or how you’ve hurt her. She will not go to you to explain or confront. She assumes you know and interprets everything you do as insensitive, or intending more harm. When you ask her if everything is okay, she says, “Everything is fine.” But then she will tell others how you have hurt her. In fact, Linda will tell everyone but you about her hurt. She wears it like a badge; a large “H” embroidered on her dress. Linda is a victim and she wants everyone to know.
Which person are you more like, Larry or Linda? Both people are hurt. Both fail to redeem their hurt, and in failing, both allow their hurt to turn into hostility.
If you are like Larry, your hostility is turned “outward.” By outward we mean the tendency to process hurt externally, usually by taking defensive or aggressive actions. Outward hostility manifests itself in outbursts of anger; shouting, screaming, hitting and so on. You will manage your personal hurt by inflicting emotional or physical pain on others, especially those who hurt you. You live by the oldest law in the world, the Lex Talionis , tit for tat, eye for eye and tooth for tooth. When someone hurts you, you strike back; insult for insult, pain for pain, evil for evil, abuse for abuse. You want your “pound of flesh,” and will not rest until you have it, (forgetting, of course, that Jesus has already given every pound of His flesh for us.)
You will plot revenge. You will lie awake at night scheming about how to get back at someone; to do to them what they did to you; to exact just revenge for their crimes—to get them fired, publicly embarrassed or punished. You are right, and if people cannot accept this, it is you against the world
Is this the way you handle hurt?
Or, perhaps, like Linda, your hostility has turned “inward.” Instead of outbursts of anger, you bury your hurt down deep and stuff your emotions inside. This can happen in many ways. You can minimize the hurt. You may run away. You can refuse to think or talk about the harm. In other words, you manage pain by refusing to face it. The problem, of course, is that the hurt is still there, just turned inward.
Inward hostility begins as a passive or evasive response, but ultimately turns passive-aggressive—using non-verbal aggression such as sulking, self-pity and blame. Your hurt turns to hostility against yourself and others. Why? Because unreconciled pain grows inside of you like a virus. You want to bear your suffering silently. Yet you desperately want others to know how hurt you’ve been. So, your whole disposition reflects the hurt, begging people to see your pain and ask, “What’s wrong?” For example, when conflict rises in your church, you respond by leaving silently. You stop attending worship and quit your small group. You want people to notice, to say they feel sorry for you and empathize with you. But if people do not call you or take your side, you will mope around saying, “No one cares about me!” You set up scenarios like this to interpret every action and response as more evidence for your being a victim. You process life through your hurt. If people don’t recognize or validate your feelings, the pain deepens. Eventually you will learn to think, to act and to relate with others as a victim. Bitterness grows inside you, consuming you. You want to punish others, but you punish yourself instead by separating yourself, or shunning the very people who love and can help you most.
Hurt breeds hostility
Many people live on the edge of outward hostility. From Sandy Hook to Syria, Bosnia to the Boston Marathon, people have expressed their anger with guns, bombs and other human atrocities. But this is just the outward hostility; hostility that we can see.
Many more people live with private, inward hostility eating them up like cancer. Inward hostility may be more subtle, but the result is equally harmful; divorce; alcoholism; suicide; depression; eating disorders and so on.
In either case, the principle is clear: unresolved hurt breeds hostility. What is the answer? How are we to handle hurt and prevent hostility? After all, we cannot avoid pain. Living in a fallen world makes hurt inevitable, even frequent. No matter how hard you try to avoid pain, you will be hurt. So the question becomes, “What do you do with your hurt?” or “How do you stop hurt from turning to hostility?”
Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, offers radically transforming advice. Jesus’ words are radical because He calls us to embrace what we want to reject. His teaching is transforming because the practices he calls us to will re-order our lives and re-shape our character.
In just a few sentences, Jesus tells us the secret of discipleship. He taught that the cure to hurt is forgiving and loving the offender. The remedy for hostility is love.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.” 1
The Torah taught proportional justice and equivalent injury. We fail to remember, however, that this law was put in place to limit , not advance, hostility. For example, if you poke out my eye, I have no right to cut off your head. Justice must be proportional, one eye for one eye. Further, this law was not intended for private action, for me exacting hostility or revenge on you. Rather, the law provided a principle, a guideline for a judge to calculate just compensation for injury, pain, or loss. So, Jesus repeats what the crowd commonly knew and believed about their right to proportional justice, then flips the logic upside down, “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.”
My Identity and Activity in Christ
The mercy begun in the Torah is brought to full radical fruition in Jesus Christ. Indeed, Jesus offers a new ethic of self-sacrificing, unconditional love. He rejects normal, even measured, human response; refusing both outward and inward hostility. Instead, Jesus calls us to a new way of being and responding. When hurt by another, we are called to focus attention not on the evil other, but on the life of Christ . Jesus tells us to stop thinking about our rights which inevitably lead us to the pride of being right, or the pity of being victim. Instead, hurt and harm reminds us that our identity is in Christ, thus, with Jesus . . .“I am loved.” “I am a new creation.” “I am forgiven.”
Further, Jesus calls me to place my response in the love of Christ . “Because I follow Jesus, I will respond to evil by speaking the truth in love and meeting persecution with forgiving love.”
In this light, my hurt neither defines nor activates me. Instead, suffering points me to Jesus’ ethic of love that is always forgiving and self-sacrificing. Here, I am freed from hostility and can rest in a spirit of non-resentment. When struck on one cheek, I can turn the other. When insulted, I will seek no retaliation. If someone sues me for my shirt, I will give my coat also. When compelled to go one mile, I will go two, beyond what is asked or expected of me. 2 Like Simeon of Cyrene I will carry Jesus’ cross. When anyone asks me for money—whether deserving or not—I will not turn my back or refuse to help. The ethic of Jesus teaches me voluntary surrender; to say, “I will not get even.” “I will not feel sorry for myself.”
Jesus elaborates further . . .
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” 3
This is not the advice of some utopian philosopher. No, Jesus himself embodies this ethic of unconditional love on the cross. Jesus, who was in the “very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” 4
This embodied, self-emptying love is foreign to the ethic Larry and Linda live by. Larry, like Peter, wants to keep Jesus from the cross. Linda, like Thomas, can only see a cross without a resurrection. The Gospel turns all our human assumptions upside down. In the love and life of Christ, winning is found in losing, strength is found in weakness and healing is found in forgiveness.
Thus, Jesus calls you and me to a deeper faith—a radical transforming response. Jesus calls us to renounce our defensive pride and aggressive justice. He calls us to reject our passive and evasive self-pity.
The way of Christ is humble and courageous, calling us to confront every aspect of life—most of all the painful aspect of life—with enduring love. He calls us to respond to evil, not with inward or outward hostility, but with prayer and forgiving grace. Jesus calls us to learn how to redeem our hurt and have victory over evil. Jesus teaches us to say, “No matter what someone does to me . . . no matter how someone mistreats me, insults me, injures or harms me, I will not retaliate; I will not hold any bitterness in my heart against that person. Instead, with Christ’s help, I will love, pray and forgive.”
Lord, teach us to seek your face, and to apply your grace . . . that our hurt might be healed and our conflicts redeemed by your self-sacrificing love.
4. Philippians 2:6-8