Getting ready to get back on the highway after grabbing an iced tea at a rest stop, I glanced at my phone. I was on my way to my largest speaking engagement to date, and a text message from my father-in-law was unexpected. I stopped the car and read the also-unexpected news that my sister-in-law’s heart had stopped that morning and she was on life support.
As I tried to focus on my presentation notes that night, I laughed a little. I laughed, even though it wasn’t funny at all, because my message included a long section about various times I’d visited loved ones in the hospital — including times those loved ones had died. Thanks, God. I didn’t really need the extra material, but I guess you gave it to me anyway.
Facing tables full of women the next morning, I wasn’t sure if I’d mention my family crisis to them. After all, it wasn’t directly related to my message (though it did fit into my topic of choosing joy in the midst of hard times), and they didn’t know my family or me personally. Plus, I’m not exactly known for keeping my composure when talking about emotional issues.
When I reached the part of my presentation where I specifically spoke about losing loved ones, I paused — and then I briefly explained my family’s current situation. Kind eyes offered comfort from across the room, but I don’t think I was the only one relieved when I kept it together and moved onto the next point of my talk.
That morning I went on to speak about Jesus and joy; I smiled and laughed and visited with new friends. I meant every word and grin, but I was also full of worry and grief. Neither version of myself — the one facing outward and smiling or the one facing inward and crying — was untrue. Both were real, but only one was appropriate in that situation. The church was full of welcoming, kind-hearted women that morning, but they had come to be encouraged. And so I smiled and spoke joy, and I encouraged.
When we talk about real-life friendship and authentic community, so often we remind each other to share our hard stuff, our broken hearts, our messy lives. We’re urged to confess our struggles and to let others in to see our pain. But that’s not always easy or even possible.
Sometimes it’s not appropriate to share your innermost thoughts and feelings, like when the cashier asks how your day is going as she scans your peanut butter and hot dog buns. It’s not wise to give everyone access to our hearts; we must guard them carefully and choose wisely whom we tell our secrets.
Sometimes it’s not convenient to share your struggles because the situation is complicated or you simply don’t have enough time in that moment, like when a friend breezes past you and your family at church on Sunday, chirping, “Good morning! How are you?” Well, you might not be fine at all, but what’s a girl to say when one kid is making a beeline for the snack table and the other is crying about a misplaced coloring sheet?
Or perhaps your friend is the one with her hands full, asking how you are because she truly does care but she’s late to getting miked to lead worship or needs to catch her own kids before they destroy the snack table. She wants to know and to listen and to give you that hug you need . . . but she just doesn’t have time right now.
Sometimes you want to share, desperately, but you don’t know how. Or maybe the thing hurting your heart right now isn’t only yours to tell. Or maybe what you’re facing is too hard, too big, too overwhelming or embarrassing to utter out loud. I’ve been there — when what has been eating me up on the inside seems too ugly to tell anyone, when it’s been so long and I think I should be over it by know and surely everyone is tired of hearing the same old thing from me, when it’s not just me in this battle but I need someone to hold up my arms while I fight.
I’ve been there.
Maybe you have, too.
Maybe we’ve all been there. Because the truth is we’re all broken in one way or another. Some of us have more scars and more broken pieces we hide and hold close than others. Some of us, in fact, have so many of those shards of glass that all it will take to slice open our hearts is a little bump. And the worst part of this is that you can’t see the broken pieces I’m hiding — and I can’t see yours. But, busy and distracted, we walk around like bumper cars, carelessly knocking each other around at times, and never understanding the pain we’re inflicting, the damage we’re leaving behind.
I’m not saying we should treat everyone we meet with kid gloves, just in case they’re having a bad day. I’m not saying we should all become mind-readers, able to discern what each person we encounter is facing. What I am saying is that we have the great privilege of treating one another with kindness, with gentleness, with care — because we have no idea what battle they’re facing or what broken pieces they’re carrying. But by treating them with love, we might give them the strength to carry on for one more day, or the courage to share their burden with a fellow traveler.
I used to get really annoyed when anyone would say, before a group prayer in Sunday school or at small group, that she had an “unspoken prayer request.” Uggghhhh! JUST SAY IT, I’d think, not so graciously. What could be so important that it needs to be mentioned but so secret that you can’t?!
Back then I was naive. I didn’t know. I do now. And now, rather than get irritated, I try to assume that every single one of us has unspoken prayer requests — and then lift them up to God. Because He knows. And by doing that, not only am I praying for my friends and their unspoken struggles, but I’m also reminding myself that what I see is not the whole picture, that more is always going on behind the scenes than I can comprehend.
So let’s be kind, friends, to those fighting battles we can see and to those who are surely fighting ones we cannot.
Let’s not assume the worst of our sisters, but let’s assume love.
Let’s treat each other gently and pray for the things spoken and the things never mentioned.
When a smile seems forced or fake, let’s not take that personally and let’s ask again — this time with feeling — how she’s doing. When we hear an announcement or news or — let’s call it what it is — gossip, let’s not jump to conclusions or make assumptions that we know anywhere close to the full story. When someone shares too much or doesn’t share enough, when she says one thing with her mouth and another with her eyes, let’s be kind. Let’s be forgiving and gentle. Let’s offer grace.
Let’s offer grace — because we never know when what sounds like a simple example in a blog post or conversation (or message at a women’s brunch) is actually a person’s deep grief and heartbreak. Even in close community, even with those who are transparent and authentic, we never know the full story God is writing in a person’s life, so we must do our best to live with eyes open to what might not be obvious and grace offered for what might not be shared.