Sitcoms through the decades, from Three’s Company to The Office, became popular because they humorously illustrated our human potential for misunderstanding. While amusing to watch on television, it’s not nearly as funny in real life when others get the wrong idea about us. Especially when things get personal, our tendency is not to laugh out loud but to cry foul and complain, “You don’t understand me at all!”
Unfortunately, the blame for misunderstanding cannot always be laid at other’s feet. Of course, people will misunderstand us. But we can misunderstand ourselves as well. Until we admit that we may not know ourselves as well as we think, we will feel increasingly frustrated and alienated during conflict. We must consider that other people, even our harshest critics, may be onto something significant that we do not yet perceive, and that if we listen wisely we will be better off.
Keep in mind, most of us share a sixth sense that calls into question the innocence of those who too eagerly claim the high ground in a conflict by asserting, “I feel misunderstood!” Below are examples of such attempts that I’ve heard this past week:
- “I’m not trying to be controlling. I just like things done a certain way.”
- “I don’t want to gossip, but I just want you to be in the know.”
- “Okay, I yelled! But I really wasn’t angry. I was just tired.”
We feel justified claiming the high ground but unless we stand on rock solid truth, most people will feel emboldened to dismount us — and for good reason.
It is easier to recognize when we are misunderstood than it is to recognize when another person might feel the same way. We simply don’t know the mitigating circumstances behind other people’s stories, and we tend to give ourselves, not others, the benefit of the doubt. If we are not conscious of such inequities, we become sitting ducks for crippling self-pity and nauseating hypocrisy as we relate to others. Tragically, we may even start to believe that being misunderstood is our unique lot in life.
At least in private, most of us are quite comfortable sticking negative labels on others, but then resist anyone’s attempt to label us. We get defensive and say things like, “I am not controlling. My father was controlling but I am not like him.” We are understandably resistant to being labeled. Labels tend to form an identity and that terrifies us. So, we might admit that we lose our temper from time to time. But, don’t you dare suggest that I’m an angry person! I may be moody but I am no Debbie Downer.
How shall we be justified when so many negative labels fly about? The childish person fights. (“No, I’m not. You are!”) The religious person compensates. (“But look at all the good things I’ve done.”) The modern person victimizes. (“I suffer from an anxiety disorder”.) The post-modern person deconstructs. (“Is it selfish if I am just being true to myself?”) Honestly, none of these approaches address the real issues without equivocation and fear. They all resist grappling with the full truth and offer, at best, a cheap version of grace.
The gospel of Jesus Christ uniquely empowers us to receive criticism without getting defensive because it completely guts the source of fear. Remember gospel means good news, not good advice. In a court of law, lawyers can give good advice but only the judge can give good news. For the Christian, God has already ruled. His judgement is good news because it meets both the demands of justice, and our need for mercy. It is good news because, even though we are guilty, we are cleared of all charges based on what Jesus did for us. He paid our penalty and then offered us His reward. This good news means God already knows the worst about us but has not let it stick. Though our sins be exposed they don’t ultimately define us. The cross reminds us that God keeps hold of us, even at our lowest, in order to restore us higher than our noblest ideals. Such grace is rich, transforming and liberating!
Only when we know we are loved at our lowest can we have confidence to face the worst in ourselves with complete honesty and unyielding hope. So when other’s point out our faults we don’t need to fear. The gospel gives us the courage to be completely transparent about our issues, and even entertain the possibility that our blind spots are bigger than we realize.