Each month we ask two writers to respond to a quote by Dr. Stanley. During May we’re learning how best to react to others’ troubles––and how the most helpful approach might be more understated than you’d expect. Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Stanley’s book Surviving in an Angry World, with responses from Renee Oglesby and John VandenOever:
In many cases, a person’s anger has nothing to do with what you’ve said or done. He is responding out of frustration, stress, insecurity, jealousy, fatigue, or something else that’s entirely unrelated to his interaction with you. It’s not uncommon for people to become angry when they allow themselves to get too hungry, too lonely, or too tired.
I thought I needed to be a problem solver. Whenever someone began to tell me about a need, I wanted to jump quickly to the solution.
In my early years as a pastor, when it came to listening to other people’s stories, I did not have nearly as much patience as I have now. I thought—as many men, and certainly many pastors, do—that I needed to be a problem solver. Whenever someone began to tell me about a need or problem, I wanted to jump quickly to the solution, especially if I clearly saw the answer in terms of biblical truth. I did not realize the value in letting that person tell me all the details. But now I understand what a tremendous benefit it is to people when they’re allowed to share their full story. I have found that I, too, benefit from catching a glimpse of how God has worked, is working, and will work in someone’s life.
When I was young, my mother would say to me, “Tell me what you want me to know.” She never pressured me to tell her what she wanted to hear… My mother allowed me to say exactly what I wanted to say in my own timing. And, of course, I ended up telling her everything. I find my mother’s approach to be a wise one in most relationships.
by Renee Oglesby
For years it was my unusual occupation to read letters and respond to them with as much biblically based encouragement as possible. The letters were often multiple pages of cramped scrawl, requiring patience and deciphering—or alternatively, several screenfuls of email written in small fonts, with little spacing or punctuation—expressing the myriad details of painful, complicated lives.
One woman wrote with great desperation about her abusive husband. The strategies she employed to draw his attention away from their small children—hoping his frustration would be directed at her instead of at them—were wholly heartbreaking.
An elderly man wrote, grieving the sudden death of his wife of 65 years. Decades of partnership left him ill-equipped for the daily challenges of a solitary life, and he felt utterly overwhelmed by the smallest of decisions. What to wear, how to fix a meal, ways to occupy himself, all seemed beyond his ability to manage.
Some inmates wrote only to argue their criminal cases, but others maintained that prison had gotten their full attention like nothing else. Surrounded every minute by the consequences of sin, few understood forgiveness or felt worthy to receive it.
A common thread was the writers’ sense that they had no one to talk to about their troubles, and sending words on paper or screen seemed their only chance to be heard. Haven’t we all felt trapped in circumstances we felt powerless to change—while our heavenly Father, and everyone else we love or trust, felt so far away?
Yet there is a difference between feeling far away and actually being distant. Here’s one way to think about it: Galatians 6:2 tells us the law of Christ is fulfilled when we help bear the burdens of others. Now, consider that statistically, it is likely that someone in our close circle has borne some kind of abuse. Also, there are certainly widowed individuals in our churches and neighborhoods—whose needs, according to James 1:27, we are called to meet. And while we may not be personally acquainted with anyone who’s been imprisoned, perhaps we should be—how else to remember them the way Hebrews 13:3 advises: as if we were likewise captive?
Haven’t we all felt trapped in circumstances we felt powerless to change—while our heavenly Father, and everyone else we love or trust, felt so far away?
Most people have struggles that are deeper and far more complicated than what shows on the surface. And for those of us who aren’t currently beset, a too-hungry, -angry, -lonely, or -tired moment may be but a moment away. In either case, it’s good to remember that loneliness and helplessness are two common feelings in times of adversity. That’s why Jesus assures us, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever abandon you” (Heb. 13:5). Maybe He’s hoping to reach out to someone—through your outstretched arms and the quiet counsel of your listening ear.
by John VandenOever
Years ago I had a coworker who was also in my church Sunday school class. I was in a visible position in both of these environments and, frankly, leaning too heavily into my gifts rather than on God’s grace. This man had the courage to point out my arrogance and lack of preparation. While it wasn’t easy to hear, God in His kindness stilled me in that moment so that I could listen and see the patterns that needed to change.
Sometime later, I worked in an organization where management made a series of decisions that overtaxed one of my colleagues. It left him feeling unheard and exasperated. Though I was stretched thin, I went to his office and sat with him. It quickly became clear that what he needed most was a friend to listen to his concerns and his waning hope. Eventually, things improved for my colleague, not because of any problem-solving wisdom on my part. In submitting to God, he was also able to submit at work in a way that honored his supervisor.
Though I was stretched thin, it became clear that what he needed most was a friend to listen to his concerns and his waning hope.
Now, I’m a parent with children advancing into adulthood. And Dr. Stanley’s advice to listen to what a person wants you to know—rather than what you want to hear—is proving to be the best counsel for maintaining my family’s trust and esteem. I’m thankful that the grace and peace of God have helped me through so many frustrations that I can love others just as He has listened and loved me through them all.
Conflict, disappointment, frustration, and stress are all around us at every turn. But as believers, we have power from God’s Spirit to escape the corruption of the world and to pursue godliness through kindness, patience, and love. Without these, we will easily and regularly succumb to every frustration. As Peter writes, “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, for His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:2-3).
Illustration by Adam Cruft