Although I hadn't yet spent much time with her, I admired "Sarah." I could learn a lot from her, since I was a new missionary and she'd served overseas for years. She was energetic, decisive, resourceful, and confident. Most importantly, she loved the Lord and wanted to make her life count for eternity.
I can't remember exactly when my feelings toward Sarah began to change, but as the weeks progressed, I grew increasingly uncomfortable around her. She presented her opinions at our team Bible study forcefully, the polar opposite of my style. She often spoke with such authority and conviction that it left no room for disagreement.
I felt that I had only had two options in responding to Sarah. I could rip her idea apart in front of the others in the group (something I didn't want to do) or else silently disagree with her. I inevitably opted for the second choice.
The crux of the problem
I hate conflict, so I tried to ignore the problem rather than talk with Sarah about my feelings. That tactic caused me to carry my silent protestations far beyond our meetings. I brooded for days about what she'd said, as well as the way she said it. As time went on, I found myself sinking into increasingly deeper turmoil.
I knew Sarah was God's child and someone for whom Jesus died. I felt I shouldn't criticize her, either to others (like my husband, who had to put up with me talking about how she'd hurt me) or to God.
I decided just to forgive her for the way she—unintentionally—plowed over me verbally and emotionally. Rather than experiencing the peace God gives when we forgive someone, though, I was filled with guilt because the negative feelings I had toward her didn't disappear.
Looking back, I can see why this solution didn't work: Sarah wasn't sinning against me. I didn't need to forgive her, because she'd done nothing wrong. She was just being herself! I had no right to expect her to be like me or anyone else. The fact that she was relating in a way I didn't like didn't mean that she was sinning.
When, even after that revelation, the problem persisted, I decided to talk with Sarah.
Surely that will help, I thought. So after praying about and planning how I would express my feelings, I met with her.
I wanted to get to the crux of the problem clearly and without laying blame on her.
"Sarah, you and I communicate so differently," I told her. "While I hesitate to present my ideas in absolute terms, you state your thoughts forcefully. When that happens, though, I feel shut down and left with only two options: to say nothing or to fight back verbally."
Sarah seemed to understand how I felt and, though our time was tense, we left on a friendly note.
Unfortunately, nothing changed as a result of our conversation. Sarah continued to relay her opinions in the same way at our group meetings.
How could she have misunderstood? I wondered.
Next, I tried writing a letter to Sarah. I felt I could be direct and yet kind that way. To my dismay, that didn't effect any change either. I wanted Sarah to understand how much she'd hurt me and to demonstrate it by changing the way she interacted with me. In reality, I expected Sarah to begin acting like me instead of acting like herself. That was neither realistic nor fair on my part. I was the one who was putting a roadblock in our relationship, though I didn't yet understand that truth.
I just don't like her
I was desperate. I was a missionary because I wanted to help others know the Lord. But how could God use me to help others when I was such a tangled mess inside?
The first breakthrough came when I realized that I just didn't like Sarah. But was that okay?
I began to study about various personality types. Sarah is strong in leadership qualities, unhesitating, and commanding. She naturally dominates the groups she's in and won't easily concede that she's wrong. Popularity isn't nearly as important to her as acting decisively. I, on the other hand, am contemplative and sensitive. I'm a perfectionist who can spend too much time planning and not enough time doing. Although I don't like being the center of attention, I want people to like me.
Although two people with such divergent personalities are bound to irritate each other occasionally, that doesn't mean our differences are irreconcilable. Regardless of our strengths and despite our weaknesses, God loves us both unconditionally. He calls us, his children, to imitate that kind of love.
In the Lord's strength, I knew I could—and must—actively love Sarah, even if there were parts of her I didn't like. Jesus commanded his people to love one another (John 13:34), not to like them. We demonstrate that kind of love through our actions and attitudes (1 Corinthians 13:4–8). The first action I needed to take was to confess my bad thoughts and feelings and begin to truly love Sarah. I asked for God's help.
As I studied Paul's prayers for the various churches he wrote to, I discovered something instructive. Paul thanked God for the people he was ministering to. Even when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians—a church notable because of its problems—he followed this practice. "I always thank God for you," he wrote, "because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus" (1 Corinthians 1:4). He then went on to mention the good work God was doing in their lives. By doing that, Paul encouraged them while giving glory to God.
Thanksgiving also held the key to my inner peace. "Do not be anxious about anything," Paul wrote in Philippians 4:6–7, "but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (emphasis mine). Paul continued his thought with these words, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (Philippians 4:8). I needed to focus on good things in Sarah's life rather than on her "flaws." I decided to thank God for Sarah. What a difference!
I need people like her
With God's help, I turned my hurt feelings over to him and gained more of his perspective. By focusing on the good things the Lord is working in and through her, my attitude toward Sarah changed. I can now recognize her as one who desires to please God—in fact a blessing from the Lord. This new way of relating to Sarah doesn't mean I agree with everything she says. But I need Sarah and people like her. In areas where I'm weak, Sarah is strong. God wants to use our strengths to complement each other.
On a practical level, other changes helped me maintain a good attitude toward Sarah. What initially led to our conflict was discussing the Bible together. Since our vastly different approaches were helpful to neither of us, we stopped meeting in that small group setting. Instead, we were able to encourage each other through celebrating birthdays, praying for the people and events in our lives, sharing holiday meals together, and meeting in other group settings.
Through all of these changes, the Lord took Sarah's and my broken relationship and turned it into something beautiful.
Today, though we live on different continents, I still actively love Sarah. In our apartment, we have a picture of Sarah and her family that reminds me to pray for her and those she loves.
God can transform difficulties, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and pain into something lovely.
Lisa K. Clark is a freelance writer living in Bulgaria. She and her husband have worked with the Navigators for 28 years.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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