I have recently found myself immersed in learning a hard lesson, much too slowly.

It seems to have started with a lecture I heard at Wheatstone, in which John Mark Reynolds urged, as a side note to his topic, to “let your enemies just be your enemies.” In less controversial (I think) terms, he was saying that we should not strive to manipulate (an underhanded form of domination, the only form to which I am prone) people into liking us when our tastes, actions, beliefs, or very self would naturally incline them not to.  This, to me, was a brand new idea.

Perhaps this is what the Proverbs are telling us in, “Charm is deceitful.”

I have taken it upon myself to make most people in the course of my life like me. I am a close enough observer of human behavior to know how to act around different groups of people, to know how to be with them in a way that will ensure their approval of me. This is certainly a useful skill, but I am realizing it is not always (ever?) good.

I am a long-term relationship person—the youngest of my significant friendships are about 5 years old, the oldest are still happy, active, and intimate after 21 years. Longevity is often a mark of a healthy relationship for me, and, given that I’m introverted and stubbornly unwilling to meet many new people, it’s also a necessity.

Friendship

My tendency towards long relationships meant that I was a bit late in learning what it felt like to lose a friend. It wasn’t until I was 22 that I first intentionally broke relationship with friends, mutually, and full of strain and enmity. All of the sudden, I knew I had people in my life who really didn’t like me, and, from the reports I was getting back, they were influencing more.

My overwhelming impulse was to try and repair all damage, to make them like me—whether they liked it or not. For other reasons, I was not able to act on this impulse, which saved me from the sin of manipulation, and saved them from my attempts at controlling how they felt about me. It is only now, faced with a more complicated and nuanced relational problem, that I am realizing what it means to let people have the freedom to dislike me as much as they please. It kind of sucks.

And yet I am reminded that God has endowed us with an incredible amount of freedom when it comes to our relationship with him. He is very much himself (who else could he possibly be?), the originator and enforcer of difficult truths and high standards. And yet, with all the power in the universe at his command, he does not force us to be like himself, or even to like him. We are as free as can be to disagree with him (however foolish that makes us), to reject him, to hate him. If God desires this freedom for people who could, by all proper rights, be under his control, I should desire it for people who should by no means be under my command. This is not an excuse to be unkind or ungracious, but to be me, honest about what I believe and what I have done, and to allow them to be them, free of my manipulations or domination—however nicely it might have been employed.

My suspicion is that this will build honesty and integrity into my life on a level that has been missing. It might also make me distinctly less popular. But hey, if Jesus could handle the rejection of the entire world, I think I can try to be a little more real, a little less charming, a little more godly.

Posted by Cate MacDonald

  • What a cool post. For real.

    I appreciate the insight. And I am right there with you – my first impulse is often to bend over backwards to make sure someone likes me. Or to present myself in a more agreeable (to them) light.

    Of course the corollary sin is to offend needlessly, to be too careless with our words. I probably fall into that pit more often on the interwebs, and try to be the charmer in person.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  • Garry

    Cate,
    I appreciate your point regarding the ungodly use of charm. I don’t know if I would be comfortable in drawing a parallel between God and man relationally. I’m not going to get into the Calvinist mare’s nest, but could we not say that after we become believers God bends the entire universe so that we may approximate Him in affection and deed? If He truly loves us, there can be no greater demonstration of that love than conforming us to His image. My greatest act of love towards my kids is praying that they don’t turn out like me.

    Thanks for the thoughts,
    Garry

  • Stephanie

    This is similar to something I’ve been turning over in my head for quite some time now. What is the balance between being truthful in relationships with your words and deeds and coloring them so things run more smoothly (ie you still get invited to girls night out, etc.) In the past I’ve tended to the truthful side of the equation and let the chips fall where they may. As I’ve gotten older I’ve lost some of those relationships I wish I could have kept. When faced with the situation of losing friends you wish you could keep, it is very natural to me to be as charming as possible and attempt to win them back – – I’ve found myself doing that very recently. But I keep coming back to the fact that in order to keep them as a friend I’d pretty much have to be a different person. This article may help me find a missing piece of the puzzle in that regard. I’d never thought of it framed as manipulation before. Thank you for writing this Cate.

  • I love my Christian friends because they have to love me and I have to love them. They will know we are Christians by our love. But when it comes to non-Christian friends this is more difficult. Our pastor told a story (I don’t remember if it was about him) but the guys in the neighborhood were invited over to one man’s house for Monday night football. The pastor liked football but was never invited. When the host neighbor ran into some type of trouble he came to the pastor for comfort and prayer. The pastor asked him why he came to him and not to one of his football buddies. He said, “Because I know that you care.” I think that is the Christian life. We are set apart for good works. We may not be included in everyday things but if we show that we care and are available, a non-Christian may come to us. Keeping our eyes on Jesus and not on our popularity is the way to go.

  • Cate MacDonald

    Garry,

    “could we not say that after we become believers God bends the entire universe so that we may approximate Him in affection and deed?”

    I don’t know if I’d agree with you here. In becoming Christians we are, I think, starting a process of sanctification that is very much inline with who God really is, and who he always wanted us to be. So I’m not sure what you mean by bending the entire universe. I guess I would see us as just aligning with the (actual, real, pre-fall, to be fully restored) universe better than before as we grow more holy.

    “If He truly loves us, there can be no greater demonstration of that love than conforming us to His image.”

    But my point was that he could do this forcefully, and doesn’t. He waits for us to want, struggle, and strive towards godliness, knowing the failure that will surely come, when he could just zap us holy if he wanted. He doesn’t force us to be like him or to love him nor does he make it particularly easy to do so, in some senses. If God wants this freedom for us, how much more should we want it for each other?

  • Garry

    Cate,
    Let me define my terms a bit better… When I speak of God “bending the universe” I’m speaking of God sovereignly working by bringing in events, relationships, struggles, failures and victories into my life on a continual basis. The people next to me in line are there because He wanted them next to me (or me next to them). It amazes me even more that He is concurrently doing this with all people (not only believers) in all places, and all times.
    I think our definitions may differ a little with “force.” We know that God has prepared good works for us to do beforehand, and that He works in us “to will and to do.” I agree that He could just “zap us holy” (sometimes I really wish He would), but I think rather that His changes work throughout the decades, slowly, inexorably changing my affections and actions. Salvation not only works to bring forgiveness, but to also start the change that will one day be consummated before Him.
    Btw, I don’t necessarily disagree with your overall point. I agree that we should not be something other than what we are in our relationships to do other than that is not to trust in the Gospel to bring about the change that draws us together.

    Garry

  • Sabrina Stone

    Thank you for the transparency. This is something I have been mulling over in reference to relationships with non-Christians. The balance between maintaining that relationship while firmly holding to your convictions can be subtlety challenging. Charm can sneak in unawares and you can find yourself bending like a willow either way. You are either being charmed by the other person or you find yourself using charm to smooth over a conflict.

  • The knotty problem comes when allowing someone to dislike you ends up hurting other people in the process.

  • George

    This is an excellent article, insightful, thoughtful, and challenging. (I also think Jr. Forasteros’ comment is good as well, noting the corollary of offending needlessly.) Good stuff!

  • It is not always possible for human beings to raise themselves to the level of god,but at the same time, it is not impossible for us to adhere to His words as it will help in rescuing ourselves from the bitter experiences encountered during the course of our journey in this world.