Lessons in the miracle of restraint
I’ve learned that often when I think I’m helping, I’m actually interfering.
That’s what happened one day in Colombia, South America. During the first year my husband, Harold, and I pastored a church in a barrio in Medellin, we were newly arrived from Canada and had never attended a Colombian funeral. But when a young man, our church member, suddenly passed away, we were in charge of conducting the service.
By law the burial had to take place within 24 hours of death. There was no funeral director to take over as we know them in Canada, so we learned on the fly.
I went early to the concrete block church to reserve two long benches at the front for the parents and all nine siblings. Outside the open church door, buses roared by, trailing clouds of dust and smoke past elderly folk and dogs dozing in doorways.
The Colombians arrived in sombre clothing and the church filled, with many standing along the sides and back of the church. I was already tired and thirsty by the time the coffin was wheeled down the aisle followed by the 11 family members.
The program began, but the entire family stayed standing in the aisle. Why don’t they sit down? I wondered. The mother, short plump Rosa, was a relatively new believer and someone I admired for her courage. She was leaning on her husband’s arm, a man I had never met, who showed up only occasionally to get Rosa to do his laundry. Otherwise he lived in another woman’s apartment and ignored his wife and children.
My heart went out to Rosa. Yesterday her young son died and she’s been up all night at the wake. She doesn’t see the two empty rows just for them. So, although the service was underway, I stood up, walked over and indicated to Rosa and her husband that the empty pews were for them and their family. Then I returned to my bench.
But they kept standing. Why don’t they sit down? She must be exhausted in this heat. It’s just silly for her to stand when she’s been up all night. So, once again, ignoring the fact that my movements might distract others, I walked over and urgently whispered that they should be seated.
Rosa smiled serenely. “Gracias,” she said.
But after I sat down, she kept standing beside her husband. Now don’t tell me he’s insisting that she stand, I thought. That cad! And I got up from my seat for the third time, walked over and this time looked directly at the husband and hissed, “Rosa needs to sit down. She might faint in this heat!”
He slid a sideways glance in my direction. I may as well have been a cockroach under a pew. But Rosa looked at me sweetly and said, “Somos personas de pie (We are standing-type people).”
So I gave it up.
Only later did I learn the cultural and religious implications of what had happened. That day, Rosa’s husband entered a Protestant church for the first time. By taking a seat, he would have declared acceptance of Protestant doctrines and a denial of his traditional faith. For the same reason, many of the family’s neighbours had remained standing at the back of the church. Those who took a seat were reported to their local religious leaders. Rosa, though a brave evangelical woman, chose to stand for the entire service in solidarity with her husband and to show appreciation for the many community people who dared to join her in the church.
Supposing myself to be helpful, I had been annoying.
The 19th century preacher George Macdonald called this meddling. Meddling, he said, is the very opposite of helpfulness. In meddling, one forces oneself onto another instead of “opening oneself as a refuge.”
Drive to impact
In evangelical circles, we’re often urged to “make an impact in the neighbourhood,” “make a difference on the job,” and “maximize your influence in the home.”
Besides sounding like marketing slogans, this focus bypasses the main job of a Jesus follower – to shape their own character after the character of Christ.
It’s easier to focus on influencing others.
When I try to coerce others in order to “improve” them or their situation, I depersonalize them. I see them chiefly as projects. I persuade myself it’s all in love, yet love is not what I’m trying to give them. Rather, it’s improvement. And they better like it!
Yet basic logic tells me it is impossible to plan the impact I will have on someone else. I can neither predict nor organize the response some word or action of mine will elicit in someone else.
What’s more, the drive to make an impact turns my thoughts continually in on my performance. How am I doing? If only they would do what I know to be right for them! We can spend a lot of effort figuring out how to make others better rather than becoming kinder, gentler, and more generous in Christ’s image.
When tempted to imagine myself indispensable to the Spirit’s work, I think of Brother Lawrence, famous for the small book Practicing the Presence of God. He tells how at 18, alone in the outdoors in wintertime, he was transformed by staring at a bare tree. He became amazed at the thought that God would bring leaves, flowers, and fruit to that empty stick of a tree! In that moment, he says, he was converted to God.
He later took courage to tell the Grand Vicar that “our only business is to love and delight ourselves in God.” He said, “This sums up our entire call and duty: to adore God and to love him, without worrying about the rest.”
This runs counter to the evangelical conviction that it’s our duty to engage in a daily mammoth struggle to make an impact on everything non-evangelical. A subtle danger lurks in the shadows. Do I check my level of maturity by the extent of my impact on others and not by my own character growth under God? Has making an impact become my primary goal?
Sometimes, in order to grow in the fruit of the Spirit, I need to restrain myself. My eagerness to impart something leaves me with little time or interest in what the other person may offer me as a fellow human being. My arrogance opens only a channel going out from my person and none to receive.
The Russian writer Dostoevsky talks about the “miracle of restraint,” Jesus curbing his powers to allow people freedom of choice. More restraint in my own life opens room for thoughtful love.
In one of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, an inquisitive boy wonders and worries whether God is at work in his friend’s life. Aslan, the symbol of Christ, responds, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”
Had I followed Aslan’s voice at the funeral of Rosa’s son, I might have realized that the people I try to get seated may well be standing-type people. As Psalm 139 reminds us, it is God alone who knows why and when each person sits or stands.