Back when I was 18, I had two different guys I dated break up with me and give me the exact same reason: I was intimidating. That’s the word they both used. Which is really weird. I’m about as intimidating as a tree sloth. Which is to say not in the least. Now if they had said I was sloppy or spent too much time sleeping or wasn’t ambitious enough, that I could have understood. (See – like a tree sloth!) But intimidating? Hardly.
Interestingly enough, it turned out that both of these young men felt intimidated by me for the same reasons. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t view making money as the most important goal I could have for my life. And they did. Now, I had never criticized either of them for these things. Not even obliquely. They drank. I didn’t. No big deal. I never asked them to stop, never said I didn’t want to be around them when they did, never spoke poorly about people who drank. Nothing. The same with smoking for the one who smoked. The same with money. But both of them were intimidated by me because of this.
What was really going on was that by not sharing in their behaviors and priorities, I wasn’t affirming them. If I had been critical, they could have just blown me off as a stick-in-the-mud. If I had tried to get them to change their behavior or priorities, they could have told me to mind my own business and leave if I didn’t like it. So when I also didn’t criticize or judge them for the ways they were different than me, they didn’t have anything to react against in order to self-affirm. But I didn’t do those things. Instead I was content to let them be them and me be me and just enjoy each other’s company. Which meant all they had was themselves. And there was something in both of them that wasn’t entirely comfortable with their own choices and priorities. Being around me made that discomfort harder to ignore. It made them feel less confident and sure about themselves which was why they experienced me as intimidating.
This came to mind today when I read a new blog post by Dan Rial called Christ the Difficult in which he talks about something Jesus says in Luke 14:25-26:
“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”
I could be wrong here, but based on my own experience I think that this business of hate comes out of the conflict which following Jesus’ teachings causes with those around you. Just like I experienced with my two short-lived paramours, simply following Christ in your own life tends to convict people and cause conflict without us even meaning for it to happen. When it happens with someone who you aren’t in a permanent, covenant relationship with, the result may be that the relationship is simply allowed to dissolve. But when this dynamic begins its work within the context of a family, marriage and community, it can be the source of enormous suffering.
The reality is that we humans all make excuses for why we are less perfected than we ought to be. We hold grudges, we gossip, we judge, we cut corners with the truth, we indulge in a million petty sins. And as we do that we tell ourselves stories about why it’s ok: “they deserve it, it makes life easier, no one is hurt, it’s my right, others are worse.”
When we get serious about following Jesus and refuse to allow ourselves to indulge in these excuses and slights, it convicts people. It makes them uncomfortable. And they will blame you for their own discomfort. Which in turn tends to cause conflict. And often the conflict it causes has no obvious basis in anything you’re doing. People don’t say, “how dare you forgive your abusive parents and make me feel like a petty jerk for not forgiving my sister-in-law for forgetting my kid’s birthday? I really enjoy being able to be self-righteous and offended over that.” Frankly, I doubt many people could even articulate exactly what it is about you is making them feel bad.
When people feel bad, they tend to become nasty towards the person who triggers that experience. They will see it as all the other person’s fault. Without even realizing it they can become overly critical or distant or willing to create conflict on the thinnest of pretenses. Often people will amp up their petty sins to see if they can trigger judgment and give them something to push back against as a way of affirming themselves. Again, I don’t know if people even realize what is happening, but I have seen it happen over and over again.
It’s an awful lot like what happens in a co-dependant relationship when one person in it starts to get healthy. It puts enormous psychological pressure on the other party to change as well. And people will often act out in ways which are unconsciously intended to bring the relationship back into the old, unhealthy equilibrium it had before. Or at least one which is unhealthy enough to keep them from having to change more than they absolutely have to. (If you haven’t already seen it, the 1994 movie When a Man Loves a Woman is a great portrait of this dynamic playing out.)
Of course, being on the receiving end of someone who is behaving this way is no picnic. It can cause enormous pain. You may even come to hate them for how they are treating you. But part of the genius of these unbreakable relationships is that they hold you in place and don’t allow you to escape as a way of relieving the psychological pressures created as God’s ways and human failings slam headlong into each other.
Being in a relationship like this is an enormous cross to bear. It tests the resolve of the one who is learning a new way of being. And it also gives you a chance to really learn how to love. When someone seems to be doing their darndest to be unlovable, it takes a great deal of self-control and sacrifice not to respond in kind. When the people who are closest to you aren’t doing anything to endear themselves to you, your love for them has to come out of who you are rather than as a response to who they are. Which means learning to love the way God loves – the ultimate goal for anyone following Jesus.
Jesus’ demands also come with promises. If you give up your life, you will gain it. If you carry your cross, you will become one of his disciples, marked by love. The sort of conflict which brings you to the point of hating those most dear to you is what marriage therapist Dr. David Schnarch brilliantly calls a crucible point in a relationship. A crucible is a container which can withstand very high temperatures while its contents become heated, altered or refined. When we reach this point in a relationship of having to hold onto ourselves against enormous opposition and hostility from the people around us, then we are truly being worked on by the refining fire. Properly done, it forces you to become more of who God has truly created you to be.
It’s a good process. Genius even. But it’s really, really hard on the way. I think Jesus’ words are probably a lot like Cris Rock’s quip, “if you haven’t thought about murder, you aint ever really been in love.”