Some of the hardest times for us are those times when someone sits in judgment of our work. Whether it is from a teacher, a mother-in-law, a boss, or whoever, it is hard for us to listen to criticism. It seems that no matter what we tell ourselves, these people are sitting in judgment of us as people.
You know what I mean. Somehow a negative comment about a presentation becomes, in our hearts, a negative comment about the person. When someone criticizes a messy house, the homemaker feels it as a personal wound. When the boss says the job could have been done better, the employee believes that his job is in danger. If he loses the job, he will be a failure as a husband and father and man. You can come up with your own illustrations, I am sure.
But why do we do that? Why do we assign negative comments about our work to ourselves as people? Why don’t we just shrug our shoulders and try to do better next time? Probably because we were trained to think that our work is who we are. When we made our beds, we were good children. When we spilled our milk, we were told that we were careless. We learned that “stupid is as stupid does.”
We learned the opposite also. We learned that good little boys and girls do what they are told. They clean themselves and their surroundings. They do their chores and keep their promises and know when to be quiet. Orderly children are good children.
So, when we hear judgment or criticism, we receive it into our hearts. Most of us are not able to simply take it and use it to better our actions. We have to go through the process of talking ourselves out of feeling rejected and worthless. Poor quality work makes us poor quality people, we think. Failure makes us failures, we think.
But that’s a lie!
This week we are going to look at the idea of failure and judgment and identity. Check back tomorrow!
I recently heard a sad story about a young lady (adult) who escaped a legalist home and tried to set up a life apart from the constant criticism and control. She went through several difficulties, but eventually ended up returning home. Back to the legalism, the judgment, the condemnation, the shame. No doubt the return of the prodigal was cause for celebration, but almost certainly not the celebration of parents to have their beloved daughter home. Instead, it was the celebration of the system, the affirmation that the daughter needed what the system gave and “did the right thing” by returning. And I expect that the other system followers consider themselves to be generous and gracious by allowing the shamed one to return.
Why would someone leave legalism because of the condemnation and then return to it? This happens often. People leave a legalistic church, then find their way back with their tails tucked between their legs in repentance. Or they simply find another legalistic church to attend. People leave behind a legalistic teacher but continue to read his books with a strange longing in their hearts. What pulls them back?
Legalism messes with your mind. It controls by manipulation of emotions and twisting of logic. The primary tools used by almost all legalistic groups are:
- Criticism – the constant criticism of any alternative thought, whether it is from the world or from the individual. Often the legalist system teaches more on what they are against than on what they believe. To harbor thoughts that are contrary to the established teaching is considered both foolish and evil. Those who try to leave find that little voice of condemnation goes with them.
- Comparison – Along with the constant criticism is the perpetual state of being compared with others. Children grow up being compared with others who are “doing it the right way.” Wives are provided with examples of how they should act. Men are compared (unfavorably) with the teacher. To “measure up” becomes the goal. No one wants to be at the bottom of the pile. Those who leave know that they will forever be the object of that comparison: “You don’t want to end up like so-and-so, do you?” Returning holds the promise of being celebrated and of being held a little higher than those who didn’t return.
- Cut-off – Separation has long been a hallmark of legalism. Because those outside the system, even close relatives, are seen as inferior or evil, there is little or no support structure outside. The world is a cruel place for those without support and encouragement. Things have been said and done, even in formerly close relationships, that have burned bridges. It is difficult to go to someone for help, when unkind and judgmental thoughts and actions have been committed toward that person.
- Cause and effect – “Bad things happen because of disobedience.” This false idea is hammered into the minds and hearts of legalistic followers from the earliest ages. They grow up knowing that anything bad is the result of their own sin. Once the person gains enough strength to leave the system, he or she will encounter challenges. The normal response is that the challenges come because of disobedience. This is communicated directly through any continuing contact with family or friends in the system, but it is also considered axiomatic by the person. The only way out of the trouble or challenge is to return to the system in repentance.
There’s more to say on this, so watch for tomorrow’s post!
Grace and giggles asked: I wonder Dave……what did you learn and /or take away from that experience? Was there some grand lesson in it for your life?
What a great question! Here are some things I learned:
- This pastor was a jerk. Yes, I believe that is a true statement. He was so intimidated by the job I had done that he could only respond with accusations and attacks. He lifted up himself by tearing me down. I learned that this wasn’t really about me—it was about him.
- Jerks can neither run nor ruin my life. I confess that I have had to learn this over and over. Jerks have a way of pulling us to a place that is uncomfortable for us, a place where they seem to have power. They have learned, through the circumstances of their lives, how to manipulate and most of them are pretty good at it. But that doesn’t mean that I have to do what they say or think what they want me to think.
- In the middle of the process, I learned nothing. I was numb. I remember some of the things he said (even now 35 years later!), but nothing in his words impacted my ministry performance. In other words, I made no changes because of what he said. This is important. When we are cornered, we have two choices: counter or cower. If we have the strength, we may counter-attack. Most jerks are too smart to put strong people into that position. Instead, they attack subordinates or people they believe are weaker. That’s why we usually cower, waiting for the next blow. The words mean nothing as arguments. Their only meaning is as weapons. So we learn nothing.
- Not only was the pastor an abusive jerk, he was wrong. I had done well there, so well that he heard about it and was compared to me. In some ways, I think this was a beginning of being able to separate feedback from real evaluation in my life. What I mean is that I began to understand that I could not judge the quality of my effort by the responses or criticisms I received. That’s a challenging thing for most of us to learn. I have to be reminded of it from time to time.
So those are the things that come to mind quickly. It was a tough experience, one of the worst of my life. Yes, I value it as part of what the Lord used to bring me to grace, but I would never have chosen it and I wouldn’t want to go into another situation like that.
One of the things I have tried to learn, perhaps partly based on the feelings I had in this experience, is not to do this to others. Kay mentioned this in her comment. When I think that I have, I have returned to the person and I have admitted being a jerk and apologized. To try to motivate someone using shame and condemnation is more than ineffective, it is cruel. Grace teaches me to value the other person. Motivating others through love may be difficult for most of us, because it is foreign to the way we were trained, but it is the right way and the best way.
Watch for a post on jerks tomorrow!