I have the great blessing/horror of having kept very detailed diaries throughout my teen years. They are quite entertaining, but the truth is that when I read them, I spend as much time cringing as I do laughing.
I have always been what you might call a “challenger.” I am the person who asks the waiter what’s going on when the food is taking a long time. I am the one who will speak up in a meeting to address an issue that seems to be overlooked. I say things that I feel need to be said. This has gone all the way back to the days of my teenage diaries, and I assure you: it wasn’t always pretty.
So many entries in those diaries share about a conflict I was in with a friend. Someone was not talking to me. A friend was mad at me. And always the entry went something like this: “I don’t know why they are so upset. I only said what was true.” I challenged – a lot. And I hurt people – a lot. And I did damage – a lot.
And so often as I read those notes I want to scream at younger Leanne: “Don’t you see the damage you were doing??”
And the truth was – I didn’t.
Being a challenger isn’t innately a bad thing. If you love a challenger, you are probably glad when they are willing to step up to fight for justice, or when they say the thing you weren’t sure you could say. Challengers will fight for you as much as they’ll push against you, and that can be a beautiful thing in a relationship.
But our need to challenge can also lead us to places we don’t want to go, something my grade eight self did not always understand, and my 42 year old self also needs to remember.
I was reminded of that this past week as I was studying for my sermon, preaching from a book called 2 Corinthians (specifically, for you Bible readers out there 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11). Let me give you a short summary of this situation. There is a little church in a place called Corinth, formed a few years before by a man named Paul. Paul started the church and then, as he usually did, he continued to travel to help start churches elsewhere. To support them, he sent letters, which is what the book of 2 Corinthians is – a letter from Paul to the church he started in Corinth.
As we read this letter, though, we realize something: Paul and the Corinthians are going through some tension. He had promised to visit them and instead of visiting, he had sent them a letter. This has not gone down well. They are now accusing him of being fickle and unreliable. The start of this letter addresses this. He explains why he hadn’t come to visit, and the reason he feels was that God led him not to. But why would God do that?
We see as we read that there was an issue in Corinth that needed to be addressed. We don’t know what the situation was, but we know Paul felt it needed to be dealt with. BUT Paul felt that if he came and addressed it in person it would make the situation worse. That’s why he didn’t visit and sent a letter instead. This, he felt, would be better for all of them, and it’s what he explains in this little section of the Bible.
Now, this may not seem like a very profound story. But it really knocked my socks off this week, and here’s why. I recognize in Paul a person like me: a fellow challenger. Paul had no issues stepping in to confront something that needed confronting. However…he also paused and asked himself “How can I do this well?” And he chose, in wisdom, to do what would protect the relationship.
Even as I type this, I am convicted again.
Did you hear it? As a challenger, Paul realized that being right wasn’t all that mattered. It also mattered that he cared for the people he loved.
Something else Paul says here really got to me:
“For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? I wrote as I did so that when I came I would not be distressed by those who should have made me rejoice.”
He basically says: “Here’s the thing guys. If I came and confronted you in person, it would have made things worse between us and then I wouldn’t have your friendship and I need you guys.”
He says: “I need to protect this relationship, because I need you.”
You know what it is easy to happen when you’re a challenger? It’s easy to burn a bridge. It’s easy to get fixated on being right, on just HAVING to make that comment, “needing” to point out a flaw.
But sometimes, in our need for rightness, we burn bridges. We push hard and we hurt people. We say things without thinking through how it will impact someone. And we will justify it!
“I was right!” we’ll say.
“I only said what needed to be said!” we’ll say.
“Why are they mad? What I said was TRUE!” we’ll say.
We justify that burnt bridge in all the ways we can, but deep down – we grieve. We grieve because we actually really needed that bridge. We needed that relationship. And in hurting someone else, we ended up hurting ourselves.
That’s what Paul gets here. This story isn’t saying not to confront someone. It’s not even saying that we shouldn’t confront someone in person – that’s just what was right in this situation. What it is saying is that we need to be wise when we have something hard to address. And that this is for our own sake just as much as it is for the sake of others.
Let me be clear, challengers: we aren’t called to stop being exactly how God made us to be. Keep challenging injustice, untruth, and unfairness. Keep being honest and direct and forthcoming. Be you.
Let God lead you so that you can be all those things without doing damage you never meant to do.
I think this story gives us some practical ways to do that:
Paul doesn’t RUSH to speak to the Corinthians. He takes time to figure out what is best. We can also wait. I know when we get riled up we can barely stop ourselves from jumping in, sending that email, making that comment. But when we learn to wait a little, we can find that our responses will not only come with more wisdom, but often with more kindness as well.
Pray about it. Seek the advice of others. Discern what needs to be said and doesn’t and let more than your own passion guide that.
Ask: “How Can I Protect the Relationship?”
We can make this question part of our repertoire. Instead of just asking “How can they hear ME?” ask: “What would be effective to say what I think needs to be said AND keep the bridges strong and healthy?”
You know what was most painful about those grade eight diaries? How sad I often was. I would lament that people were mad at me. I was baffled and I was lonely. I didn’t want to burn my bridges and I didn’t see the damage I was doing.
I can’t go back and help grade eight Leanne. Like all of us, she had a lot to figure out. But I can let God help 42 year old Leanne, and keep praying that my challenges can build bridges, instead of burn them.