Good sense makes one slow to anger,
and it is his glory to overlook an offense. (Proverbs 19:11)
A few years ago I had to pick a friend up from the hospital. A few months prior, his leg had been crushed in a skid steer and very nearly lost. Many surgeries later, while it was still extremely fragile, he had another skid steer accident. The fork attachment broke off, flipped and came through the cabin…skewering my friend’s leg…his other leg. This was a good thing because his other leg couldn’t have taken another trauma, he would have lost it. It was a bad thing because he now had two bad legs. As I mentioned, I drove over the mountain to pick him up and take him home.
On the way home, we had to stop at Walgreens to get his prescriptions. He’d forgotten his handicap sticker, but he obviously needed the handicap parking spot, so I parked there and we slowly, carefully, oh-so-painfully hobbled into Walgreens. He was hungry, and the meds were going to take a few, so I left him there and went to grab some dinner for us for the drive home. He was in too much pain and feeling far too sick to go even think about walking out and going with me. He waited there on the meds so he take care of the insurance and bills and such and I ran to Chipotle.
Why am I telling you about these random details you ask? Because it matters to what came next. As I was leaving Walgreens a man was walking in. What he saw was a perfectly healthy person getting into a truck with a TX license plate (who notices those things really?) parked up close in a handicapped spot. He never considered if there could be more to the story. Instead, he launched in a hate filled string of curses basically saying that maybe it’s cool in TX to park in handicapped spots, but they don’t do that in CO… (That’s the g-rated version.) I’ll be honest, I was so innocent of wrong doing and so focused on my friend’s desperate pain and need, that it took me a minute to even register what this man was cussing me out for. By the time I did, it was too late to clarify the situation.
It really bothered me, not only the hate and offense he was throwing at me, but also the thought that I had been so misunderstood. That I had so offended him that he could be that aggressive and violent to a stranger over a parking space. I felt equal parts ticked off at his unfair accusations and upset because I felt like a bad person.
A similar thing happened today. I went to a park to meet up with some friends and exercise. I backed into a parking spot beside another car. I got out and realized I was a bit crooked according to the lines, but I was straight according to the car next to me. If I had corrected, I would have caused issues with the car next to me, so I left it as is. Now, I did not take up two spots. I only went over the line a smidge in the back of the spot next to the curb. There was still plenty of room for a car to park in the spot next to me–maybe not another large truck like mine, but for most cars. In fact, when I returned, there was a mid-size SUV parked in that spot quite comfortably. So yeah, it wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t horrific either. And, like I said, it was necessitated by the car’s crookedness next to me.
Well, when we got back from our hike, there was a man putting a note on my windshield. “Learn how to park, a**hole” was angrily scrawled across a torn off piece of paper. REALLY???? I know what it looked like, the crooked car next to me was gone and only mine remained, making me look like I couldn’t park straight, but there was more to the story. There were also plenty of other parking spots. Not to mention, its’ an exercise place, so who gets mad about not getting the closest spot and having to walk a little further anyway? He certainly can’t claim that offense as he went out of his way to walk back and forth to leave a hate-filled note on my car. He was more interested in spreading his hate than saving his energy. But the point has nothing to do with whether or not I inconvenienced him, really. It’s about how we respond to offense.
That being said, I should clarify that I’m not telling you these stories to spread the offense, defend my actions, or point out someone else’s rudeness, although I confess it really is bothering me. Again, I’m torn between rage at his rudeness and guilt that I feel like I did something wrong that set him off like that. But that’s not my point. I want to talk about how we respond to perceived offenses. How these guys responded to me, but the same applies for how I respond to them too.
The Bible says that love covers over a multitude of wrongs (Proverbs 10:12). It also says that love isn’t rude or irritable, but rather is patient and hopes all things and believes the best (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). The reality is that neither of these men demonstrated a loving response. There was more to the story than either of them saw, but they jumped to conclusions. Wrong conclusions. Conclusions that assumed the worst about me and about the situations.
Not only did they assume the worst in their hearts, but, and this is what always shocks me, they didn’t just keep those assumptions to themselves. They acted on them with violent, accusing, hateful words and name calling. James says, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers,[c] these things ought not to be so.” They might not have realized it, but they were speaking death and curses over me for something they didn’t understand. Even if they had been right about me, it would have still be wrong to respond as they did—because it’s not right to speak curses over people “made in the likeness of God”—which is all of us. So at some level, it doesn’t matter if their perceptions were right or wrong—their response was wrong regardless. But it seems all the more so when you realize the unfairness of their response.
I think there is a better way.
I lived in an apartment where the parking was really a challenge and I had my own frustrations with people who couldn’t park straight, or who intentionally took up more than one space to make sure their vehicle never got scratched, or took up a front row spot for a trailer that never moved, etc. Frankly, those things seemed really selfish when there were young mothers toting groceries and kiddos up and down the stairs, lugging stuff from a quarter mile away because some one cared more for their vehicle or their convenience than for their neighbor. I caught myself getting frustrated with these things, and with the drivers. People who had tiny econo-cars who could park in the half spots near the garages, but chose the bigger spots next to them, leaving empty spots that my truck couldn’t fit into…so I had to park down the road. I’ve been there at times when it mattered much more than at the exercise park full of empty spots where a little walk didn’t hurt anyone. I say this because, I actually get it. I get how something as benign as a parking spot can bring someone to such an intense place of frustration.
I get the frustration, just not the response.
So what did I do? I’ll share with you, not to set myself as a model of behavior, by any means, but to share my humanity and my struggle with this. I had to wrestle with my emotions and try to do the right thing, no matter what I felt like doing. Here is how this played out. For one, I talked to God about my annoyances first, rather than leaving nasty notes. I tried to think about what love looked like in that situation. Love doesn’t assume the worst, so maybe there’s more to the story…and I would talk myself off the ledge of offense just a little. Then I would think about the power I have in what I say and do. I can speak blessings or curses over them—what am I going to choose? I would often pray for them—maybe praying God would show them how their actions were affecting the community…maybe simply praying God would bless and love them. I would pray for my attitude, confessing my irritation and asking God to give me a more loving, gracious response, one of forgiveness. On good days, I would remember that Jesus said to bless those who persecute me (Matthew 5:44-48) and actually try to do that.
Paul writes the same thing in Romans 12:14 and then expands it:
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… 16 Live in harmony with one another. … Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it[i] to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
It’s a better way. We have such power to speak life and blessing into people, or to speak hate, curses and death. I get it, sometimes it’s hard to speak blessings when we are offended, but at the very least, can’t we just keep silent and say nothing? Did you ever hear of that book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”? Well, most of us learned that “If you don’t have anything nice to say…don’t say anything at all.” It would serve us all well to remember what we learned in Kindergarten. What happens to us as we get older? Why do we so often think that we now have a license, maybe even an obligation, to say really not nice things to people now that we are adults?
Today I had to wonder, how much hate do you have to have in your heart to go that out of the way to be ugly to someone you’ve never met? Think about it. He had no idea who the driver of my truck was. He didn’t know me. He went to the trouble of finding paper and pen and walking to and from his car and mine all to leave behind a note with his disgust. He wasn’t even going to see me receive it or gain any satisfaction from my response. He just needed to spew his hate. In doing so, he didn’t alleviate his own anger, he increased it. When we repeat an offense, when we respond in anger, when act out of our offendedness, that offense actually grows and gains power. It’s magnified. The only thing that diminishes an offense is when we cover it over in love.
This isn’t to say that we can never speak up. We can speak up! We can challenge people. We can say when we are upset or offended by things, but again, there’s a better way to do that. Rather than accusing and name-calling, we can ask productive questions. We can come from a place of trying to understand, and of giving someone the benefit of the doubt that maybe there is more to the story that we are willing to try to hear and understand before we jump to conclusions. For example, that guy at the Walgreens could have asked me why I, a healthy person, parked in the handicapped spot and given me a second to explain. That would have started a dialogue and given me a chance to clarify. Or, if I’d done wrong, it might have challenged me to think about where I parked and to know that people are watching and that it matters. He could have even come on a little stronger and said, “You know, it’s really not good to park in a handicapped spot if you don’t need it…some of us do. I’m sure you haven’t really thought that through or you wouldn’t have done, so I just thought I’d mention it.” That response, while full of correction, at least assumes that I didn’t intend to do wrong. It’s not accusatory though it is corrective. Accusations put people on the defensive and nearly ensures they won’t hear what you are saying. Assuming the best in someone keeps them from being defensive which allows them to be more receptive to your message.
Take the note I received today, all he accomplished was to make me mad. If I’d known who he was, I confess I would probably even be tempted to want to park crooked next time intentionally, just to irritate him (not that I would have, don’t get me wrong). If, however, he’d gently written a note explaining why my parking job was so offensive to him and asking me to consider being more considerate in the future, I would be so much more receptive to that. Not to mention, I would actually understand what I did that was so wrong—because honestly, my friend and I were both puzzled about it. I wasn’t super straight, but again, I wasn’t taking up two spots or anything???
His response was counter-productive to any goals he might have had about changing my behavior or making me care. I wasn’t teachable after that note. The only thing that note accomplished was to spread hate in the world…not only did it not accomplish any good, but it actually did harm.
People, we have a choice. We can do better than this. Our responses either help others become better friends and neighbors and members of society, or they make us angrier and harsher…which makes us worse friends, neighbors and members of society. Not to mention, it’s the way of Jesus.
If one gives an answer before he hears,
it is his folly and shame. Proverbs 18:13
The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him. Proverbs 18:17
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;[b] 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7