Why does it seem so normal for me to feel isolated and out of touch with people around me? The feeling becomes especially intense on those occasions — the parties, the greet-your-neighbor part of church services — the very ones designed to bring people together, that I seem to feel like a square peg in a round hole. In response to this awkward, hurtful feeling I very often tune out the people and activities around me and look for the earliest opportunity to escape.
I suppose that at the root of this self-inflicted punishment is the thought that people tend to be shallow and capricious in their associations. I suspect that the very same people who come up to me to be friendly and obliging would just as soon attack my character with bitterness and venom if only they knew who I am. At the very least they would turn away in embarrassed silence, and politely put a safe distance between themselves and me. The very thought of this hurts, so I defend myself by being detached while trying not to be impolite.
I look at the smiling face before me and I prematurely hear words like, “Well, ah, nice talking to you Barry…” followed by, “Boy, that guy is really strange. What’s his problem?” And if only they found out what my problem was, their response would run something like, “A fag! I knew it had to be something like that! I hope he doesn’t come this way and try to talk to me.” They have nothing to worry about. I won’t.
With a different group of people, my version of their thoughts runs, “Oh no! Another disgruntled refugee from a banana republic. If those people don’t like how we do things here in America, why don’t they just go back home?” There are a few other variations of this monologue, but all have the same theme: “I am trying to be polite to you, but I really wish you weren’t here.”
So what is my problem? Is it that the world is as intolerant and hostile as my little fantasies suggest? Or has something gone wrong in my own head?
No one can deny that there is enough intolerance and hostility in the world for every living being to get a generous helping. Yet, the Lord Jesus, who bore the brunt of the world’s hostility, still managed to live a full life with wholesome social interactions and close friends (notably James, Peter, John, and Lazarus). He radiated life wherever He went, even in the midst of hostility (John 8:48-51), and despite its opposition to Him, He loved the world.
So there are difficulties to be encountered in the world, but if Jesus is any example (and He is!), then the solution to my social problem lies in my own mind and spirit. But how did Jesus manage to live above the negative attitudes all around Him? Why wasn’t His self-esteem as tattered as mine seems to be?
Perhaps the answer lies in John 13:1-5. In part, this passage states, “…Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God, and was going back to God, rose from supper, and… began to wash the disciples’ feet…” Jesus knew what the Father thought of Him. He knew that the Father esteemed Him so highly that He had entrusted all of creation to Him. This wasn’t just a theological concept in Jesus’ mind. This defined His reality. His sense of origin and His sense of destiny both rested on the fundamental knowledge that the Father loved Him and held Him in high esteem.
A noted Christian psychologist upholds the idea that our definition of self is largely determined not by what we think we are, nor by what people think we are, but by what we believe people think we are (Dobson, Hide or Seek). If this is how sensitive and malleable we humans are, then Jesus, who was every bit as human as the rest of us, must have at least felt these psychological forces at work in Himself. Yet somehow He learned to let Himself be shaped not by what the people around Him thought of Him, but by what the Father thought of Him. Had He been shaped primarily by what others thought of Him, He would have been, at best, another prophet to the Jews. The reality is that He was the “…Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6) He knew that this was the word of God concerning Him. And He believed God.
Being secure in this knowledge, Jesus did not expend great amounts of emotional energy defending a fragile ego. His self-esteem rested on the Father’s unchanging word. This gave Him the spiritual latitude to be a compassionate servant and a bearer of life to those around Him who so badly needed it.
So where does my self-esteem rest? Unfortunately it rests, for the most part, on how I believe people perceive me. This is undoubtedly why I torment myself so much with my little monologues. And in those moments when I manage not to be so subjective about people and circumstances around me, I admit that most of my perceptions could be a step removed from reality. Maybe people aren’t always mentally cutting me into ribbons.
But how do I stop this senseless self-flagellation? If my insight into what shaped the man Jesus has any validity, and if I am to follow His example, then I must move away from trying to read peoples’ perceptions of me. I must begin to focus clearly on what God thinks of me, and give more weight to that. After all, isn’t God’s love for mankind the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Then why do I allow my warped perceptions to overshadow the esteem in which God holds me?
Lord Jesus, you left the splendor of heaven and came to this sin-ridden earth to suffer and die for me. You knew all about me even before I was born, and You still went through all that for me anyway. I know You can’t be thinking of me as a fag, or a disgruntled refugee, or a tongue-tied half-wit, or any of those hurtful things. Lord, Your death for me proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that You love me with a love that’s stronger than death. Your Spirit is a Spirit of kindness and gentleness, not criticism and harshness. You love me with an everlasting love.
Father, grant that I may fully accept, and base my whole life on the simple truths that You have communicated to me through Your servants, the prophets and apostles. You have chosen me (I Thessalonians 1:4) and made me complete in Christ Jesus (Colossians 2:10). You have sealed me in Christ with the promise of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13), and now You are protecting me as the apple of Your eye (Psalm 17:8). You have even mad me a joint-heir with my Lord Jesus Christ! (Romans 8:17)
Father, You hold me in such high esteem; how ridiculous it is for me to feel slighted by what a mortal man might be thinking about me! Help me to rise above the petty, ego-shielding maneuvers I so easily resort to. Grant that the quiet assurance of Your Spirit may show itself in me. May I put aside the childish fears of the old, unregenerate man, and take on the Spirit of humility and compassion. May I seek to heal the wounds of others rather than nurse those I inflict on myself.
Lord, the next time I look at a smiling face, or even a frowning face, may I see instead Your kind regard, and recall the dignity You have bestowed upon me. And may I, like Jesus, seek to wash the feet of the souls you place in my path.
Barry’s testimony is very eloquent and typical.
Our ministry is always working with healing of relationships, and we believe it always involves uprooting emotions and thought patterns first. If this is not done, in our relating we will fall into old ruts of rejection: not receiving compliments, ruining good things before they fall out from under us, causing rejection through bad behavior so we won’t be rejected while trying to be good, putting up “claws” to protect rather than be vulnerable, and easiest of all, isolation.
We have found that Satan’s counsel is very strong in this isolation, telling the person he/she will be hurt just as in the painful past, and that isolation is the best way – we’ll be alone, and safe, and “just have fellowship with God” without having to deal with people! However, when we are alone, the demonic suggestions revive our past hurts and we sit in solitude, immobilized by a mix of pain, fear, helplessness, anger, vengeance, and resentment. This is the bitter fruit of isolation, not the “sweet fellowship with God” we had planned. To help us, the Lord provides Himself, His Word, and fellowship with other Christians so that we can make a firm decision not to isolate, but to write down our feelings and what God has to say about those feelings. Then we can decide further to push through the old emotions and to interact with others and be “toughened” by the normal give-and-take of relationships. We will find that we can have conflict and confrontation and still be accepted and reconciled. We are free to be ourselves and say what we really feel and still be loved.
This healthy function of the Family of God helps to overcome a false identity, from which much isolation comes. Many of us see ourselves as destined to be left out, ignored, not able to speak, and alone. This explains how Christians can be part of a warm, Spirit-led service full of praise, sharing, and teaching, and still feel socially awkward and fearful when it’s over and we have to relate to each other one-to-one. We may feel we don’t belong with all those people who can so easily relate and have their own social circle, so we may look for someone who seems as left out or rejected as we feel, and mutual acceptance may be found. This is where God’s truth sets us free. We MUST live by the truth that we are accepted in the Beloved and that our worth is based on His death for us, and we MUST know the Lord well enough to accept this. Being secure in God and the worth He gives is the basis of all healthy socializing. The questions of our value and identity are settled once and for all in the Lord’s love and death on our behalf. We can take this truth into us by studying the pamphlet “Who I am in Christ” and rebuking the lies that we are worthless, outcast, or helpless. God tells us we are the light of the world, oaks of righteousness, and new creations in Christ and we must receive these truths. He will never leave us or forsake us and His mercies are new every morning, so come out of isolation and breathe the sweet air of freedom! You’ll love it.
Ron and Joanne Highley
On Feeling Isolated and Hurt