How do we handle being told what we don’t want to hear? (A thought from Jeremiah)

Posted: 09/18/2013 in Uncategorized

I was encouraged in a perverse sort of way yesterday while reading Jeremiah… “The weeping prophet” is not typically where one goes to receive encouragement, but a principle in ministry emerged that helped me – and hopefully will help others.

 Jeremiah was unique in that he was an Old Testament prophet with a direct line to God that most of us today will never experience, even on a much smaller scale.  His words carried a prophetic authority that ours do not.  However, there are some principles to take away from his ministry when it comes to one of the biggest stumbling blocks for all humanity (and, sadly, born-again folks are no different than the world much of the time):  How we respond to being told something we don’t want to hear, especially if it involves taking a course of action (or inaction) that we don’t want or like.

Jeremiah had an established track record – not just as a legit prophet (which was enough by itself) but also as one whose integrity could be trusted.  His pattern was to fear and obey God more than worry about what people thought about him – leading to much anguish and personal suffering.  It does not often make one popular to tell others what they don’t want to hear.  Yet his track record of being right should have gotten him a lot more credit and understanding with people… but it did not.  Jeremiah’s counsel was repeatedly and tragically ignored over and over again by those who were in a position to know he could be trusted.  So much personal tragedy could’ve been avoided by those Jeremiah warned and instructed if they would have listened to him.  

The principle I read in Jeremiah that is so painfully familiar is this: people, God’s people even with their “issues”, run through so many stop signs, refuse to heed so many detour signs, and end up making their problems so much worse and excruciating for themselves while plugging their ears to the sound of any voice telling them what they do not want to be told.  

Some of Jeremiah’s audience thought his advice was just wrong – thinking that their wisdom and knowledge of God was superior to the prophet’s.  Others feared what others would think if they listened to Jeremiah’s unpopular counsel.  Amazingly, those with the best perspective to judge Jeremiah’s track record – and who swore to do whatever he advised no matter what – turned on him and accused him of lying once he told them what they should do.  The perverse encouragement I got from reading all this was: if otherwise smart people who claim to live for God can blow off such obviously-divine warnings, prophecy, and counsel – I should not be surprised to observe it happen in the 21st century.  

On an emotional level, Jeremiah was undoubtedly troubled at seeing the pain and devastation that could have been avoided if those to whom he spoke would have just been able to handle hearing what they didn’t want to be told.  It is an empty, hollow, painful feeling to watch those you have tried to advise make shipwreck in a stubborn refusal to heed anything but the counsel of their own will or the voices that will only tell them what they want to hear.

We tend to look for those who tell us what we want to hear.  As one who is frequently in the advice-giving and warning business, I am amazed at the small percentage of pastoral counsel that is actually heeded, including by those who earnestly seek it out.  Counseling will kill most pastors – if not their physical health, in terms of their zeal for disciple-making, kingdom work.  This is not because they don’t love people or want to help them but because they realize they are often being invited into what is an emotional situation that guarantees them pain, defeat, or diminished relationships if they tell people what they don’t want to hear.  Think of Jeremiah and his words.  Some people will throw away their salvation afterward.  Some will explode in anger or denial.  Others will split a church over counsel they loathe.  Most will simply do whatever they want to do regardless, not realizing that they are erecting a wall in the relationship that they must maintain for their own emotional survival… most cannot afford to maintain the same respect for a man whose spiritual authority and perspective they willfully disregard.  Again, think of the psychology of those responding to Jeremiah’s counsel.  They must knock him down a few pegs to rationalize their attitudes and actions.  The anxiety that can envelop pastors before, during, and after these times of advising, encouraging, and warning is unlike most pressures many will ever understand.  I have also learned the hard way that most people want an advisor who agrees with them rather than one who tries to give a true, honest evaluation or sage advice.  I thank God for every person and every family that has come seeking godly counsel and acted on it despite the fact they may have not wanted to hear it at that moment.  I think of the success stories in my time as a pastor.  These people are my heroes – not because they heeded me or my designate, but because they were sincere and humble enough before God to welcome painful truth and inconvenient guidance even when they didn’t want to hear it at first.  The fruit of their lives demonstrates God’s favor as a result of their humble faith, and they are truly a privilege to pastor.  My joy comes from seeing their success and avoiding of devastation, not from “being right” or saying “I told you so.”  Alas, some charge ahead like the soldiers on Paul’s doomed ship to Italy (Acts 27).

Now… How do you handle being told what you don’t want to hear?  It could involve an education or career choice, a romantic entanglement, a family or financial arrangement, choice of a church or friendships, involvement in a ministry, spiritual disciplines, work ethic, or any number of things that may seem small in the moment, but are the hinges upon which the door of your life will swing forcefully.  Avoiding personal devastation may hinge upon how well you heed hearing what you don’t want to hear.

This is not unique to pastoral ministry.  We observe family or friends – God-loving people – and they charge ahead with questionable, life-impacting decisions that result in spiritual, emotional, and family devastation.  Why?  Often they did not want to hear that they could be making a mistake.  They did not want their judgment questioned (We Americans HATE being told what to do – even when we’re wrong).  They did not want to reveal all the hidden details and their personal anxieties for fear someone will plead with them to back away from their chosen course of action.  Even in the midst of their “charging ahead”, opportunities for helpful advice are disregarded by decent people who genuinely love God and His word.  Why?  They will not receive wise counsel during those times because they simply do not want to hear it.  Tragic devastation that gnaws at the soul is usually the predictable result.  I have lost count of the times I have lamented to my wife at how much needless pain and anguish God’s people bring upon themselves simply because they cannot handle being told what they do not want to hear.  Usually “their way” isn’t even the most enjoyable of their possible paths! 

Jeremiah was a true friend and helper to those he warned, but when he told people what they did not want to hear, many made him into their enemy.  They hated the one who loved them enough to warn them and tried to prevent their needless suffering.  They abused Jeremiah.  They hated Jeremiah.  They wanted to kill Jeremiah.  They accused Jeremiah of speaking evil and speaking discouragement.  They mocked and gossiped about Jeremiah, awaiting to celebrate the failure of his prophetic counsel.  Most of us can relate to Jeremiah’s emotional desire to just shut up and not say anything because it’s no fun to be considered the bad guy, especially when you see the dangers but know your warnings will be disregarded.  May God forgive the times I lacked the courage of a Jeremiah in this regard.

 Jeremiah humbly confronted when he knew his counsel would be either ignored or attacked.  Many of us fail in this since we know that the accusations of being unloving or controlling or unethical or abusive or wrong are sure to follow.  It’s just emotionally easier to say nothing.  The 21st Century American church is so similar to ancient Judah in this regard – we may tend to despise those who humbly tell us what we don’t want to hear when it comes to specific behaviors and decisions in our lives.  We may love “hard preaching” in general (and a quick trip to an altar that follows) – or the ease at which we can look at another pew and hope someone else is hearing it.  But when specific actions are personally evaluated and found wanting, all bets are off.  

I never cease to be amazed at the psychology of those who take out their anger with disliked pastoral counsel by mistreating the pastor’s family – directly or indirectly.  Happens everywhere in every denomination, which is why many studies confirm what few on the pew realize – pastors and their families often pay the price for this “call” in the hard currency of frequent loneliness and rejection.  There are wonderful benefits too, but always remember this fact the next time you hear guys declare that they feel called to preach or pastor or start their own church.  If so, they are going to ante up in unique types of pain, loneliness, and rejection – and their families will not get to jump off that train once it leaves the station.  The (seemingly) easiest way to pastor in America today – never tell people what they don’t want to hear.  You will be considered the most loving, least controlling, least abusive, kindest, most encouraging and tolerant, and on and on and on.  Jeremiah probably would have loved such a cushy ministry assignment.  

But it is not just for pastors.  The body is called to edify itself while pastors equip, yet I remain amazed at two wonders:  (1) Christians who refuse to confront real wrongdoing in their brothers and sisters (leaving it for “Pastor Bad-Cop” to deal with) because of the realities I’ve described, and (2) other Christians who confront for the wrong things or in the wrong spirit, usually in a haughty, self-righteous manner.  Jeremiah was not perfect, but he was not an arrogant nitpicker.  He addressed root issues.  May we all learn from his example.

Baruch the scribe ended up in danger for being such a close associate of Jeremiah.  Humbly telling others what they don’t want to hear out of love and godly motives?  Don’t be surprised when those closest to you feel also the wrath of your audience.  It is almost impossible not to take it personally.  Our pride doesn’t like when we are disregarded.  Good luck getting mercy from God for wounded pride.  It’s when those you are trying to help turn you their enemy – that is the wounding that hurts the deepest.  No matter the purity of your motive nor the fact that you did not intentionally wrong them in any way, you will be thrown under the bus.  Any misstep in your words, tone of voice, location, etc., will be faulted.  You will be demonized, and others will believe the slander against you.  Ask Jeremiah what that’s like.  The ones who disregarded him had to paint Jeremiah as a liar, a false prophet, a man with evil motives, a traitor, a discourager.  For emotional survival and saving face, many people must turn an angel into a devil once they are determined to disregard the angel’s counsel.  As no man is an angel, our flaws give critics plenty of raw material.  Pastors are an imperfect lot that are quite easy to “Monday morning quarterback”, often deservedly so.  But always remember, an imperfect messenger does not necessarily invalidate the message.  God has used outright sinners who didn’t attend church to speak truth into my life in ways that have shaped my destiny.  It comes down to training your ear – through prayer and knowledge of Scripture – to hear what God’s counseling.  Truth will resonate even when the content or the messenger is annoying or unworthy.  So how will you handle it when the same Spirit that came upon Jeremiah uses some shlep around you to tell you what you don’t want to hear about your course of action or the attitude on display?    

Some questions to consider when it comes to this…

1.  Is there a a course of action that I am afraid to let people confront for fear I will have to change it or do something I don’t want to do?  Whatever you are afraid to put out on the table for scrutiny is a good indicator of a potential problem.  Whatever area you get most defensive about will likely demonstrate your biggest sin struggle and where you are likely to get burned by disregarding sound counsel.

2.  Do I seek the counsel of those with proven track records of giving sound, Bible-based advice and input?  Those with the wisdom of experience and a perspective I lack?  Or do I only want someone as immature as I am to tell me what I want to hear?  King Rehoboam blew off the counsel of Israel’s elders in favor of the counsel of his peers and it split the kingdom of Israel in devastation.  In this case, and arguably in the Judah of Jeremiah’s day, many didn’t realize that God was using their stubbornness to refuse wise counsel to bring judgment on them.  Is it possible that the reason some refuse to listen today is that God is disciplining and chastening them?

3.  Is the counsel I am receiving consistent with the rightly divided Scripture in doctrine or principle?  Is it coming from a recognized source that is operating from my best interest rather than trying to manipulate me?  Am I afraid to pray earnestly over my course of action for fear that God will tell me ‘no’?  (If so, this is a warning light flashing)

4.  Do I know of tragic circumstances that could have been avoided if those involved could have handled being told what they didn’t want to hear?  How might those life-circumstances have been different?  What can I learn from those examples?

Ultimately, no mature Christian adult can abdicate responsibility for their decision-making to someone else.  Advice and counsel, calls to repent of specific sins, encouragement to pursue certain goals, etc., – these are all to assist people to make the right decision for themselves before God.  Neither a stop sign nor a green light drives my car for me.  They simply assist me – and protect me from needless pain and destruction as I do the driving.  I have been very, very angry getting stuck at red lights, but I still heeded their message because I knew the alternative could be worse for me and those in my car (usually my family).  We don’t have to enjoy being told things we don’t want to hear, but we should at least consider the possible impact of stubbornly or foolishly running red lights.  Jeremiah, like the traffic cop of old, was not on an ego trip, desiring to control God’s people.  One role of the prophetic voice or the traffic cop is to try to prevent pain and devastation while helping people get where they need to go with minimal problems.  Perhaps reading Jeremiah would be a good place to start as we evaluate ourselves and seek to avoid making life needlessly painful and tragic.  It’s difficult enough without our making it harder!  

Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. 3 For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” 4 For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. 5 Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, 6 that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Romans 15:2-6

Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid. – Proverbs 12:1

No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. – Hebrews 12:11

 

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