By Wendy Clark © 2020
Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, we make the mistake of thinking that everyone else sees the world the same way we do or that if we could just talk persuasively enough, others would shift directions and see the world the way that we see it. The “right” way.
We’ve all seen the written shouting matches going back and forth on social media. Most of us have been caught off guard when we have posted something heartfelt and were met with hostility from people we think of as “friends.” We may have responded with a harsh answer back, or with silence, or with more explanation, or by deleting the entire conversation, or even by blocking the other person from ever engaging with us again.
In 2020, it has become clearer than it has been in a long time, that we are living in an age of clashing worldviews. No matter who you are and how you see the world, you can be pretty sure that you see the world differently than many of those around you: co-workers, neighbors, friends, even people in your own family.
We all see the world from a perspective that has been shaped by our experiences and how we have interpreted and responded to those experiences. Our interpretation of events is an interweaving of what we see, hear, feel, and believe.
When something happens to us in life, especially something uncomfortable, painful, or traumatic, we try to make meaning out of the experience, to find a place to categorize the what happened to us.
We tend to play what happened over and over in our minds, the order of all of the little pieces, all of the details, but we don’t just sort through the facts; we have feelings attached to what happened, whether we recognize and acknowledge those feelings or not, and what we feel shapes our understanding of what we experienced, sometimes correctly, and sometimes incorrectly.
I think back to a very turbulent time in my life, back when I was in the 6th grade. Someone who did business with my dad–a man who was a missionary–cheated my dad out of a lot of money. This threw our family into an economic crisis.
I was attending a small Christian school at the time and had been there since kindergarten. I was with the same kids every year and had known most of them from the beginning. My parents had sacrificed to pay for us to attend there, and we had received scholarships and other financial help as well. But now we could no longer afford to stay, so suddenly in 6th grade, I was entering a K-6 public school, knowing only a few of the kids that lived on my block.
What a relief that this turned out to be a great school and a great situation for me! I loved my sweet teacher. I was put in a challenging, interesting, and fun class. I was making friends. But then . . .
To deal with our financial situation, we had to sell our house and rent a house in another neighborhood. I didn’t really understand how public schools worked and that this would mean I would need to change schools again. One day during school, the principal called me into her office to tell me that I would have to leave the school and go to a different school, closer to where we had moved.
I remember that I was completely shocked and devastated as this woman, who looked so cold and uncaring delivered the news, watched me break down into sobbing, and never said one kind or compassionate word.
I asked her why I couldn’t just stay and finish out the year. I had already switched schools once, and we would all be changing again the next year for junior high. She responded to me in a tone that I remember being harsh and unkind:
“I can’t even get my own daughter into this school. Why should you get to go to school here?”
She sent me back to class a complete wreck. My kind teacher felt very bad and said she would do what she could to help me stay, but I had to leave anyway. She did have the class write to me a few times, which was very kind.
I am stunned by the fact that I started crying as I was writing this, some 45 years later.
The new school experience was terrible for me. The class of the motivated and engaged students was full, and I was put in a class with the lower academic students. I was pulled out of the class for an advanced reading group and a few other things during the week, but it was clear what kind of class this was, and all of us in that class (and all the kids in the other class) knew it was the class for ‘the dumb kids.”
For a long time I didn’t have any friends in my class, and one girl at the school kept trying to bully me. I use the word “tried” because I stood up to her, but it was a difficult and troubling time for me.
A few weeks after I had moved to the new school, my family and I were eating in a restaurant when the principal for the other school walked in. I felt sick to my stomach. Then I was filled with rage so powerful that I didn’t know what to do. I remember silently praying over and over, “Jesus, help me! Jesus, help me!”
Why was that woman so unkind to a young girl who was clearly devastated? I have often wondered about her, and I have had to forgive her over and over again. Even now, I find myself having to forgive her as I write this and to choose to think merciful thoughts about her. I doubt she ever had any idea of what effect her words, actions, and attitudes had on me, and how even the memory of them still has the power to affect me.
And recent events have brought this childhood experience to mind yet again because I started wondering how I might have interpreted this event if I had been a black little girl, facing that unloving white woman across the desk in her office. Would I have been sure of her motives, sure of her heart? Would I have “known” that her attitude toward me was because of my skin color?
I was white, and she was white, so of course it never occurred to me that her harshness was due to racism because it was not. I don’t know why she behaved the way she did. I think it had something to do with her wanting her daughter to go to the school where she was a principal, but I had nothing to do with whatever was going on there. She didn’t speak to me with kindness or compassion. She didn’t try to help me. Why not? I don’t know, and I can’t imagine that I ever will.
As I think back on that experience, I’m struck by how what we believe about God plays a part in how we interpret events, both how we relate to Him, and how we understand Him to relate to us.
When I was filled with a sickening rage against this woman for how she had treated me, I started praying because I understood, even then, that the source of my strength and help was and is the LORD. I also understood that holding onto those feelings was not good for me, and that I needed a way to release them, to release her, and to move forward in my life.
What we believe about other people, how we see them, and how we believe they see us, also plays a part in how we shape our experiences, and because that is true, I recognize that my memory of those events may not be completely accurate. I remember that principal as being cold and uncaring and for certain she said nothing kind to me, and she didn’t help me in any way. I still wonder why she called me into her office during the school day to give me that news. Why didn’t she call my parents? Why wasn’t my mom there with me? What did the principal think was going to happen?
But maybe she was moved by my distress, and I didn’t perceive it. Maybe she was caught by surprise by my reaction. My memory of her as being hard and uncaring is part of how I interpreted what I saw and heard and felt that day. The evidence seems to support that interpretation, but it can’t reveal what the woman was thinking or feeling on that day or why she behaved the way she did.
Fast forward many years to an encounter with another woman who appeared to be cold and unfeeling.
I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when I was 32 and had two daughters, ages 2 and 4 months old. It was a shocking and devastating time for my whole family. Again I found myself sitting in an office across from a woman who seemed unmoved as she laid out to my husband and me treatment plans and what we could expect. Although we had an appointment early that day, we had waited for several hours before getting in to see this doctor. We were on edge, and she was expressionless. I went out of that room feeling like the doctor was a competent but hard woman.
Months later, after I had finished my treatment, was cancer free, and was coming back for a follow-up appointment, one of the nurses talked of what she remembered that first day. She said that she knew from the beginning that I was going to be okay because I had a positive attitude and I was looking to the future. Then she said something that surprised me.
She said that after our meeting, the doctor sat in her office for a while and cried. She talked to the nurse about her great grief at the young women with cancer that she was treating. (Another of her patients also had a baby and was being treated for cancer.) The doctor herself was pregnant. She was overwhelmed by imagining what it might be like to have a new baby and be diagnosed with cancer. She was struggling to “keep it together.”
When we have a bad experience that is connected to someone else, we want to know why people do the things they do. We often make up our minds about why they do those things, and our worldview plays a big part in what we decide is true about other peoples’ hearts and motives.
But we have no way of knowing what is inside the heart of someone else. Sometimes we are not even able to see our own hearts clearly. The Bible talks about this problem:
“Every way of a person is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2).
When Samuel was sent by God to anoint the person who would be the next king of Israel, he was distracted by what he could see and what he thought about who should be king. God corrected Samuel when he incorrectly picked out the person he thought should be king:
“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).
We can’t see inside to the heart. We can see lots of clues, and we are told to look for those clues, the things people say, the things people do (what the Bible calls “fruit”) in order to have some understanding about who is trustworthy and truthful, but in the end, we can’t really know why people do what they do.
“Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart . . .” (I Corinthians 4:5).
Motives and intentions are something that we can’t really know and we have to leave to a future time when God will reveal those deeper things that for now remain hidden.
Because we are such complex people, with so many things that shape how we see the world, God tells us not to use the world around us as the guide for interpreting events. Instead, we are to replace whatever worldview we have come to have with a Biblical worldview. We are to line up our thinking with God’s thinking.
The Apostle Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
We must actively resist thinking like the world thinks by renewing our minds and being transformed. How do we do that? We surrender our thoughts, to God’s thoughts. We let the Word of God shape us.
Jesus prayed for those who would follow Him, that the Father would sanctify us (transform, purify, refine) in the truth, and then He said this, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17).
So if I can’t know why people do the things they do, then what am I supposed to do with all the bad things that others have done to hurt me?
The Apostle Paul writes, “Since God chose you to be the holy people He loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others” (Colossians 3:12-13).
I can choose how I will think of other people. I can choose to think of the principal with mercy and to forgive her even though I do not understand why she did what she did. I can choose to remember that doctor as a person, as a woman struggling with her own hopes, dreams, and fears.
The Apostle Paul also writes, “The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith” (I Timothy 1;5).
And to the believers at Philippi, he writes, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
I can examine myself, comparing myself against the Word of God, I can agree with what God says is true and reject what I think or feel when it is contrary to God’s word. I can surrender and submit my thoughts, ideas, attitudes, and feelings, even my memories to make them obedient to God’s Word.
No, I don’t know the motives behind the things that you say and do. I don’t know your heart and all the places where it has been hurt and broken.
Here’s what I do know about you: You were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). God knew you before you were even born (Psalm 139:13-15). God knows everything about you (Psalm 139:1-6). God loves you (John 3:16). God’s desire is that you would know Him (2 Peter 3:9). God wants me to love you even if you are not kind and loving toward me (Matthew 5:44). God’s goal is for you and I to live in peace and unity, and that we would love each other (Psalm 133;1-3).
None of these truths hinge on your experiences or my experiences. They are true whether you or I believe them or not. And as I was taught long ago, the only two things from this world that will last forever are people, and the Word of God.
So we ought to give great care to both.