As the holidays are in full swing, many find themselves in the company of others who may be the source of a past transgression or hurt. People let other people down. Here’s how to show mercy and move on, without isolating yourself.
When I was a very young man, just starting out in the dual pursuits of being a Christian and a husband — which are not necessarily the same things — one day a curious message came to my mind. It was curious because it seemed to have nothing to do with anything I’d been thinking about or was experiencing.
I was in an uncommonly happy period. I’d found fulfillment, joy and a sense of hope in my burgeoning faith. I was practically a newlywed, blissfully married to a kind and beautiful girl who adored me.
But this message came to me, unbidden. It wasn’t audible; it didn’t need to be. It burned itself into my brain as if etched there with a laser. More than 40 years later, I still remember it virtually word for word. It was so powerful I thought it might be a message from God. Today, I’m sure it was.
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“People are going to let you down,” it said. “Everybody is going to let you down. Your friends will let you down. Christians will let you down. Your parents will let you down. Your spouse and children will let you down. But when this happens, look to me, for I will never let you down.”
I recall being puzzled. Until then, hardly anybody had ever disappointed me in any serious way. Perhaps I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the human race generally — I’d never thought about that. But I had absolute faith in the people closest to me: my fellow churchgoers, my mom and dad, and above all, my bride.
Over the ensuing decades, though, that message has come back to me times without number. It turned out to be hauntingly accurate — accurate beyond my poor ability to reckon with it at the time.
The only part of it I’d question now is the very last part: In my observation, God also lets us down, or at least we think he does.
Anyway, the message arrived as a warning, a spiritual word to wise me up. This is how life really is, the voice was saying. Get ready for it. Pain is coming. It’s inevitable.
Woven into the fabric of the universe is the tragedy that humans are flawed and fallen creatures. They’re selfish and narcissistic. They’re muddled in their understanding of themselves, others and the Lord. Even when they want very much to do right, they frequently end up doing wrong. Too often, they’re ignorant of the havoc they create.
They love their kids so much they’d die for them, yet end up warping them into mirrors of their own neuroses, pettiness and prejudices. If humans can’t even get it right with their kids, God help everybody else who deals with them.
So, then, it’s a foundational truth that folks are going to disappoint you. And the closer you are to them, the greater your pain will be when they do.
They’re going to overlook your deepest longings. Or they’re going to lie to you. Or they’re going to cheat you. Or they’re going to abandon you in favor of some addiction. Or they’re going to do any other of a million things that can crush your soul.
Worse, because you’re as human as they are, you’ll somehow, somewhere along the line, in some way, crush someone’s heart, too. You may pray to heaven to keep you from doing harm, but you’re going to do it. You may not mean to, you may not even realize you’ve done it. Yet you will do it.
One solution, of course, is to simply run away. You can become either so fragile or so bitter that you shrink from human contact. But that leads to spiritual miserliness, to a gnawing, caustic loneliness. It becomes a living, solitary death.
Better, I believe, is to recognize we’re all caught in this unavoidable web of hurting others and being hurt, often without malice aforethought. We can’t read each other’s minds. We’re each absorbed in our own problems. We don’t know what others need, and they don’t know what we need, and even if we did know, we wouldn’t be capable of meeting all those insatiable desires.
That being so, we can choose to simply grant grace to those who’ve disappointed us. We can recognize that we’re every whit as flawed as they are, and that we no doubt have damaged them as well. We can remember that everybody is suffering and (nearly) everybody is just doing the best he knows how to navigate this messed up world. We can give everybody — and ourselves — the benefit of the doubt.
We can reach out, even through our pain, and offer forgiveness and mercy and love.
Paul Prather has been a rural Pentecostal pastor in Kentucky for more than 40 years. Also a journalist, he was the Lexington Herald-Leader’s staff religion writer in the 1990s, before leaving to devote his full time to the ministry. He’s the author of four books. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.