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June 3, 2008

Christ-Like Answers to Annoying Questions



I have a neighbor who is obsessed with the size of my house. Every time we visit it comes up. At first I thought it was just me observing something weird, maybe imagined, but then she said something to my husband and his head is on straighter than mine, so I knew it really was an obsession. Case in point: Last week we saw her at a local antique shop. "Filling up your big house?" she asked. I didn't know how to reply, so I told her the boring truth. We were there because some visiting family members had wanted to stop by.

So I started obsessing about the whole thing, making up dialogue and back-stories. I wondered if, perhaps, she grew up in a tiny house like my grandmother - four girls sharing the same double bed, wearing hand-me-downs, working for the Woman in the Big House (like mine). I started thinking, "No matter her history, her present house is no smaller than mine; I've seen it. It may be even be larger."

But this isn't about square footage, or even personal history. This is about me obsessing about her obsession, me formulating some caustic response, telling her not to identify me with my house. "I have to go now," I imagined telling her. "I have to spend time thinking about my enormous house." Or, best yet, "Our big house is full, but our monstrous empty new cottage up north is in great need of expensive antique furniture." "That'll get her," I thought. "That'll make her shut up about something that's none of her business." (My sin nature is very evident in my inner monologue.)

I did not go so far as writing about this in my journal (I think . . . ), but I did ruminate on it, probably more than I should. Then, yesterday, during my preparation for a small group I'm in, I had an epiphany.

My small group is working through Companions in Christ: The Way of Grace , a study of Christ's interaction with several characters in John. Yesterday the text was John 1:35-50, and Companions in Christ had little discussion on Jesus' question for John's disciples when they pointed him out. The TNIV version says that Jesus asked them, ?What do you want?" but other translations read, "What are you looking for?" In Companions in Christ, it is noted that this question is "A simple query on the surface. But Jesus' words in John's Gospel rarely have to do with surface meanings. Jesus' question invites them to an intentional act of self-reflection: What am I seeking?"

Then it hit me - outside of the Gospel's context, outside of the original meaning of the text, I had an epiphany that had nothing to do with either one. I knew that rather than guessing my neighbor's motive and allowing myself to be annoyed by it, I needed to give her the space to talk. Rather than being defensive, or offensive, I must to approach it from a new way. I must find out what she wants.

I still have to do it, of course. This epiphany happened yesterday, and I haven't bumped into her yet, but next time I see her, when she brings up my house, I'm going to say, "I've noticed you often mention the size of my house. What are you looking for?" It's an open door; we'll see where it leads. And no matter what happens, I'm not obsessing anymore, praise be to God.

So I'm going to add this to my response vocabulary. When I don't know how to respond in a conversation, I'll try avoiding the natural snarkyness that seems to spew out of my mouth. Instead, I'll respond with a question. "What are you looking for?" And it makes me wonder, "How I would I answer this if Christ asked me?

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Comments

Whoa...powerful, and pertinent. Just had a similar encounter with an individual who challenges my ability to be a 'nice Christian'. I love your confession that your inner monologue reveals your sin nature...that is me, too.

Thanks for sharing this. It means a lot.

Thanks for your story. I deal with similar feelings in my own life, although I think I'm the side of your friend. Everything I have I had to work for, my parents were unable to help me in any way. I worked hard and now I have some nice things, but I think sometimes I resent people who seem to have had it so easy. Maybe your friend has that problem. You may know what you went through to have what you do, but she doesn't. Maybe she thinks it was a piece of cake whereas her situation, to her, seems like it was alot of sacrifice. I hope you resolve your situation.

one of the most useful things i ever did was spend my first year out of high school studying to be a social worker. in one of my classes, (called "interpersonal relationships"!) we learned about and role-played passive (i feel...) and aggressive (you made me feel) conversation. as someone who naturally tends more towards the aggressive response, sarcasm, and blame, this was a huge eye-opener and, seven years later, i still the best, most frequently helpful thing i learned in school. even though social work quickly turned out to not be my calling, and i now make glass instead, the passive response i learned has been immeasurably helpful to dealing with others in the art world (a high-ego environment), and with my new husband.

if every you have the opportunity to take a theory and practicum class on interpersonal relations, i highly recommend it.

I love it when God reveals to us through scripture what he really wants us to see in people. She was totally calling out to you and satan intercepted that call-- throwing you off. This recently happend to me as well. I love how honest you are in your posts--your not fake :).

It's amazing to me how naive we women are about each other; it's as plain as the nose on your face that the mouthy 'big house' lady is trying her darndest to make you feel bad/guilty/wrong in order to feel better about herself. In some way, she perceives you as a threat and is trying to dig a hole in the playing field for you to fall into. (There is no such thing as leveling in the female world.) Your attempt to 'play nice' will do absolutely nothing for you---in fact it will probably make things worse.

I'd be very interested to hear the follow up story.

I agree with Marilyn's comment (above) in some senses. There are some people in this world who, no matter what one tries, don't respond well -- they're just out to be negative. It sounds like your neighbor may be a bit like that. Sometimes we have to accept that there are people who are just plain rude, annoying, or mean and we can't change them.

BUT I also think that the point here is not so much your ability to "make progress" with this neighbor or for things to turn out peachy. I think, rather, that the point is that we each are "responsible for our own response" -- and I think it is admirable that you are evaluating your feelings and your response here and aiming to respond in a way that is God-honoring. The value here is not in what she says but in what you say (or refrain from saying).

Like you, I've found that rehearsing conversations in hindsight is one of my favorite secret hobbies -- I always come up with amazing one-liners, conversation-stopping comebacks, or very spiritually-convicting (and underhanded) remarks. It really isn't right -- it's like a private little world in my mind in which I am right, she/he/they are wrong, I am the best, they realize it and become ashamed, and all turns out well. Ha! It really does reveal my sin nature too! I'm glad that I'm not as "witty" in real-life as I am in these fake, mental, hind-sight conversations b/c I'd end up being a very mean person! Thanks for drawing attention to this issue -- it is convicting.

i found it interesting how you worked through your inner dialogue. i find myself doing the same thing. what a challenge to me to be open even in that inner place. thank you for sharing this.

A few years ago we had just purchased a more expensive hand made area rug than we had ever owned. We were very pleased with the way it enhanced our family room. My next door neighbor stopped by and noticed our rug with interest. This particular neighbor had beautiful hand woven rugs all over her house as it had been a tradition in her husband's family to give such rugs as special gifts.

When she first saw ours she was complimentary. Then she fingered it and made the comments, "Your rug is very thin and not of highest quality." That comment seemed unnecessary and was very hurtful. I knew she didn't know what she was talking about, as the rug we purchased was not suppose to have a high pile as it was woven in a different part of the world than hers. We had purchased it from a dealer who had traveled all over the world and knew his rugs. Some of the best designers in our city went to him as he had good quality rugs at a reasonable price.

I struggled with her comments for several weeks. One part of me never wanted to speak to her again, another wanted to tell her how much what she said had hurt me.

As I continued to pray about it finally it seemed a very trivial matter in the light of eternity. It took time but I finally chose to forgive her, to not remain offended and to not rehearse the incident in my mind anymore. Amazingly, I found her words no longer hurt and I also chose to stop trying to figure out what caused her to say what she did as it didn't make any difference. I thought of Jesus' words. "Forgive them for they know not what they do" though this was hardly a major offense.

Since that time we have remained good friends helping each other out from time to time. Choosing not to be offended can be a very healing and freeing thing, and the Holy Spirit is the One who does that work of grace.

Hi,

Wow. Very though provoking. We all put people in boxes and how I am very grieved and hurt when people put me in a box with a comment about my past behavior or tendencies. I have responded in the past very often by saying to people when my feelings are hurt to tell them that they have just hurt my feelings and also say that I am responsible for my feelings and not them. But maybe they need to reflect what their motive was in saying what they did to me. Sometimes it has opened a door for a deeper conversation especially when I say it to my brothers in Christ.

Thanks for helping me to see situations like this in another way-as a doorway or a bridge.

Thanks

Tim

We all dialogue internally, we can't help it; unfortunately, your attempt to sort out your feelings and come up with a proper, nice 'Christian' response to a person who is only interested in your descent down the invisible totem pole is probably a complete waste of time. It's not going to make you feel better or prevent her from spreading her 'good cheer' in your direction whenever the spirit moves her. There are times I wish the word 'nice' could be removed from the language and thought processes of all women. 'Nice' does not equal 'kind.'

Usually the annoying behaviour, in ourselves and others, comes from a place of insecurity and vunerability. You're right that she needs to talk about something, or get past it. I don't think I'd say "what are you looking for?", because it would put her on the back foot and make her feel defensive. But acknowledge and nod - "it IS a big house!" and smile and wait.

And ask yourself, do I myself feel that my house is too big for my family. Something about this encounter seems to be bothering you, too.

Today everything about me hurts. I just want to give up. I am sure I am obsessing on obsessing. Every little thing brings up a torn place in my heart. Yet, I know that God is caring for me and that if I do His will, He will be pleased. Today He must be very sad that I can't get it together. I am sorry Lord. I ask for your prayers to get up and get out of this attitude.

Today everything about me hurts. I just want to give up. I am sure I am obsessing on obsessing. Every little thing brings up a torn place in my heart. Yet, I know that God is caring for me and that if I do His will, He will be pleased. Today He must be very sad that I can't get it together. I am sorry Lord. I ask for your prayers to get up and get out of this attitude.

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