The following is an excerpt from Paul Tripp’s book, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands. No preamble needed – Tripp speaks well for himself.
Getting to Know People
Everyone felt like they knew Betty and Brad. Their presence was so central to the life of our church that no gathering seemed official without them. I had spent many hours in meetings with Brad. I had been impressed by how quietly practical he was. We had picnicked together as families, shared evening meals, and worked together on Christian school projects. We knew their children and their extended family well.
Late one autumn evening, Brad called me to go out for coffee, making it clear that he wanted to do it right then. I heard the urgency in his voice, so I got dressed and we met at a local diner. I arrived first and as I saw Brad enter the diner, I knew that something was seriously wrong.
Brad sat down and said, “I don’t know where to start. I guess I should have done this a long time ago, but I kept thinking that we could work things out. Now we’re in a mess and I don’t know what to do.” He seemed both discouraged and angry. “I’ve put up with her stuff for years,” he said. “It has been an everyday thing, constant demands, and when I don’t do things just the way she wants, there’s hell to pay! There is never a day that I am not in trouble for something. She has called me horrible things in front of our children. Once a month she threatens to leave. For the last week she has been so depressed that she hasn’t gotten out of bed, except to eat a cracker or go to the bathroom. The kids keep asking what is wrong with Mommy, and I’ve made up a thousand stories to cover for her in front of our friends.”
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Brad went on, “A few years ago Betty was making supper and was very angry that I couldn’t help her on a project that night. In the middle of our argument, she threw a saucepan lid at me. I ducked and it flew by me and broke our kitchen window. When I heard that window break, I guess I lost it. I rushed over and slapped her across the face. She responded by kicking me in the groin and we launched into the first of many physical battles. We have been physically fighting ever since. We have broken most of our pottery and lamps and put holes in almost every wall in the house. I have hit Betty so hard that she had to stay out of sight for a week so the bruises could heal. Most of the injuries that you thought were the result of my clumsiness at home repair actually came from Betty.”
“It has really affected our children,” he continued. “Our three boys swing from whiney and demanding to fearful and timid. They hide whenever they feel like trouble is brewing. They almost always disappear when I am expected home. Recently, when we are in the middle of a fight, our seven-year-old has taken to hitting and kicking whichever off us is closest, while screaming, ‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.’ Betty is constantly telling me that I am destroying the children, yet she regularly points out to them the things that I do wrong. I am here tonight because I don’t know where Betty is. We had the most horrible fight we have ever had. Our house looks like a war zone. We fought from room to room. We said the most awful things we could think of and we threw everything we could get out hands on. She is out there now, insanely angry, with all of the debit and credit cards, and a huge bottle of wine.”
It was hard for me to pay attention because Brad’s story was so disorienting. I had known this man for years, yet I knew nothing of what he was telling me now. My mind went to the many hours we had spent with this family. I had assumed I knew them, so I had never asked anything that would give them an opportunity to say anything about the true state of their personal lives. I wondered how this could have gone on for so long without anyone knowing. In that moment I realized that the most personal and important parts of our lives fly under the radar of our typical relationships in the body of Christ. We live frenetically busy lives with activity-based friendships, punctuated only by brief conversations with each other. Now I was sitting across from a friend I did not know.
Breaking Through the Casual
Have you ever thought you knew someone well, only to discover significant detailed that you did not know at all? Have you ever started to share a story from your own life and been interrupted by someone who said, “I know exactly what you mean!” – but clearly didn’t? Think of someone you believe you know well. Try to identify someone of the gaps in your understanding of his or her story. How much do you know of your friend’s family of origin? Do you know where he struggles in his relationship with God or in his understanding of the Scriptures? What do you know about the quality of her marriage or the struggles she experiences with her husband? If he is single, do you know how he spends his hours alone? IF she is a mother, does she think she is a failure? Could your friend by fighting disintegrating relationships at work or long-term problems with his extended family? Perhaps his heart is driven by lust or eaten up with bitterness. Might she harbor deep regret over a past decision or jealousy over the successes of a friend? Are their financial woes or physical problems?
We tend to have permanently casual relationships that never grow into real intimacy. There are things we know about each other, but they fool us into thinking that we know the human beings who live within the borders of those details. So we fail to pursue them with good questions. This sets the stage for all kinds of misunderstandings. Our effectiveness as ambassador is blunted because we don’t know others well enough to know where change is needed or where God is actively at work.
Think about it. Most of the conversations you had today were mundane and rather self-protective. We spend most of our time talking about things that are of little personal consequence – the weather, politics, sports, and entertainment. There is nothing wrong with this expect that it allows us to hide who we really are. A person may be terribly distraught about her marriage, yet when people ask how she is, she will quickly answer, “Fine, how are you?” The person asking doesn’t really want to know and the person answering doesn’t really want to tell. They are co-conspirators in a casual relationship. Whether it is over the back of a pew, in passing at a school function, or over the phone, we are skilled at newsy but personally protective conversations.
There are many reasons why our relationships are trapped in the casual. One is that, in our busyness, we despair of squeezing ten dollar conversations into ten cent moments. There are times when we would like to tell our story, but there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity to do so. We all deal with the disconnect between our public reputation and our private struggles. We wonder what people would think if they really knew us.
Another reason we keep things causal is that we buy the lie that we are unique and struggle in ways that no one else does. We get tricked by people’s public personas and forget that behind closed doors they live real lives just like us. We forget that life for everyone is fraught with disappointment and difficulty, suffering and struggle, trials and temptation. No one is from a perfect family, no one has a perfect job, no one has perfect relationships, and no one does the right thing all the time. Yet we are reluctant to admit our weaknesses to ourselves, let along to others. We don’t want to face what our struggles reveal about the true condition of our hearts.
The Bible teaches that people love darkness rather than light because their actions are evil. We all find the searching light of true friendship a bit intimidating. True friendship calls you out of the darkness of personal privacy into the loving candor of mutual concern. It moves you from being a sealed envelope to an open letter. The best relationships are built on a foundation of mutual trust-giving and truth-speaking.
Another reason we rarely talk beyond a casual level is because we do not see. The Bible has much to say about how blind we are. Sin is deceitful, causing us to see others with greater clarity than we see ourselves. Because we tend to believe our own arguments and buy into our own excuses, we are often unaware of how great our need for help really is. We can’t bare what we don’t see. We think we are okay but wonder how the person next to us can be so unaware of his own sin. This not only distorts our perspective on ourselves, but shapes the way we tell our story to others. It may even lead us to question whether we need to tell our story at all.
Perhaps the simplest reason for our lack of self-disclosing candor is that no one asks. The typical rhythms of our lives mitigate against going below the surface. In the busyness of life it seems intrusive to ask questions that cannot be answered without personal self-disclosure. Yet there is a way in which we all hunger for relationships of that quality. These are the relationships in which the Redeemer does his good work.
We must not let ourselves become comfortable with the casual, where ministry is limited to offering general principles that would fit anyone’s story. The genius of personal ministry is that it is personal. It can take the grand themes of the Great Story and apply them with utter specificity to the particulars of an individual’s life. Personal ministry is not preaching to a very small congregation. It is the careful ministry of Christ and his Word to the struggles of heart that have been uncovered by good questions from a committed friend. This means that effective, God-honoring, hear-changing personal ministry is dependent on a rich base of personal information. You cannot minister well to someone you do not know.
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