Putting on new clothes
When my autoimmune symptoms are flaring, I find it really hard to get dressed. The discomfort, bordering on pain, as the cool air bites my skin… The stiffness in my shoulder and hip joints… The exertion of lifting my legs and arms… Even the cognitive effort of working out what to wear…
On my worst days, it’s all too hard, so I opt to stay in my pyjamas!
Colossians Chapter 3 says that our attitude towards other people is like clothing. Take a good, slow look at this beautiful description of the Christian life:
Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him... Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love... (Col 3:10, 12-14)
It’s such an apt metaphor, isn’t it? When we belong to God, we take off our old clothing — i.e. the self-focused attitudes that come so naturally — and put on fresh new clothes. We want to be more like our Creator: full of love.
Windows and mirrors
Speaking of new clothes, a story from my teenage years comes to mind.
I used to catch the train to and from school every day. Across the road from the station, perched on the corner of an intersection, was a quaint boutique store with a huge window at the front.
As much as I tried to just look away, it was really hard to ignore my reflection! Because there was no footpath on the other side of the street, I was forced to walk head-on towards this huge pane of glass that acted like a full-length mirror, every single morning.
For the first few months of term, I remember feeling very self-conscious about my school uniform. At my new school I had to wear a kilt. Not just any old kilt, either… School policy mandated that kilts must sit five centimetres / two inches below the knee. (I know! Embarrassing, right?)
1. Two types of mirror effect
a. Looking at myself
In my long, grey tartan kilt and tailored white shirt with a Peter Pan collar, I felt completely out of place.
That shop window reflected my new uniform in all its perceived hideousness. It gave me a perfect opportunity to obsess in awkward silence over my appearance.
I would have felt much more at ease in a t-shirt, a pair of jeans and Doc Martin boots (it was the 90s) — that’s what I’d worn at my previous school! I couldn’t understand why my new school, which was just a local public school, had such an old-fashioned uniform!
b. Fixing myself up
But it wasn’t all bad, this mirror effect. Sometimes, the reflective window gave me a chance to fix myself up.
Often I left the house in such a hurry that I had to throw on my jumper (US: sweater) while walking. As I approached my shop-window-mirror, I sometimes noticed that my collar looked weirdly wonky. One side of the collar would be untucked while the other side remained hidden beneath my V-neck jumper. Not a good look! (I did have some pride in my appearance, despite my reticence to wear the uniform.)
2. A new perspective
Something interesting always happened when I was just a few metres away from the window: my focus would shift. Suddenly, I could see what was on the other side of the glass!
I was fascinated by this change in perspective. Looking through the window, rather than being engrossed in my own reflection, was a welcome distraction.
Instead of being preoccupied with my appearance, I was now aware of the interesting products on display, and the shopkeeper tinkering away at the cash register, and the occasional customer browsing through the items.
Learning to do relationships God’s way
Our relationships are a bit like that shop window, aren’t they? We can focus on our own reflection, or we can look beyond ourselves and notice what’s happening on the other side of the glass.
Learning to do relationships God’s way is a long-term endeavour. It takes time, practice, prayer, and sometimes counselling — for more challenging relationships.
Along the way, we make lots of mistakes, don’t we? But that’s OK, because we’re living under the shelter of God’s grace. His Spirit is tirelessly working; transforming us from the inside out, to make us fruitful. (Rom 12:2, Gal 5:22, John 15:5)
The aftermath of Rob’s “helpful” pep-talk
Speaking of mistakes, let me tell you what happened after that awkward conversation with Rob…
Honestly, it took me a long time to recover from his “helpful” pep-talk. I didn’t respond in a mature and godly way at first. But the good news is: we are still friends!
See if you can link your own relationship struggles to the analogy of mirrors and windows, as you read the end of the “Helpful” Pep-talk story below.
1. Two types of mirror effect in relationships
a. Focusing on yourself
When you’re struggling with grief and despair, it’s very hard to see through the window, isn’t it? Your feelings are so raw that all you can see is your own reflection… A whole lot of things could be going on behind that glass and you wouldn’t even notice them because you’re focused on your own stuff.
When Rob gave me his pep-talk, I was not in a good place, emotionally. My heart was filled to the brim with grief and despair, and a generous dose of self-pity.
After our awkward conversation, all I could see were my own feelings. My coping mechanism was to retreat and switch to passive (rather than assertive) mode. It took a couple of years for me to emerge from my “coping cave”. I couldn’t face initiating contact with Rob or his wife, and whenever they contacted me I was consistently vague and non-committal.
You might relate to my experience. There may be people you have retreated from. Are you in a “coping cave” right now? I encourage you to keep seeking God with all your heart. Ask him to help you. Pour out your sorrows to him. Tell him how that person made you feel. Tell him what you’re confused about. Voice your self-doubt to your heavenly Father. He always hears, and he’s strong — he can take it.
b. God’s word, a mirror
James (Jesus’ brother!) says that God’s word, the Bible, acts like a mirror — it reflects what’s going on inside your mind and heart. (James 1:23-25)
Just like a mirror shows you those pesky hairs that need to be plucked, or that dark speck of sushi lodged between your front teeth, or that telltale smudge of chocolate brownie beaming unapologetically on your chin; God’s word reveals the blemishes in your heart.
Back to the Rob story: While in my “coping cave”, I looked into God’s word, and it became clear to me that certain attitudes in my heart needed to be addressed. In particular, I felt uncomfortably aware of my resentment…
I knew that Rob’s words were never intended to be harmful. I knew Rob was a loving person who, like all of us, puts his foot in it occasionally! And I knew God wanted me to take a step towards my dear family friend.
Eventually, I was ready to initiate contact, and we met up again: my husband and I, Rob and his wife.
Being prepared was the key
Are you good at thinking on your feet? I’m not. When I feel overwhelmed or flustered, I can’t think straight.
I needed a plan…
I assumed Rob would ask after my health again (which he did), perhaps not in a way I found easy to take (yep, right, again!). So, I planned in advance how I would respond to him. I thought about:
- How much information I would give (less)
- Which details I would withhold (more)
- At what point to direct the conversation to a different topic (much, much sooner).
How did it go? I nailed it! The evening went smoothly. Phew!
Since then, Rob has not pursued the topic of “fixing me” again. That was two years ago. The relationship has continued, and our two families have spent some wonderful times together.
2. Windows are for looking through
Looking back to that night when I was finally able to be assertive with Rob, one thing saddens me…
Now, face-to-face with him again, my perspective had shifted. The mirror had somehow become a window: Instead of seeing my own reflection, I was seeing through the glass. And I was surprised by what I noticed on the other side. (It had been there all along, of course; I just hadn’t been able to see it before.)
As we talked, I saw how much Rob cared for me — as one of his own daughters. I could see how much my silence and unresponsiveness had been affecting him. But mostly, I sensed confusion and pain about my diagnosis. He was worried about me! He was concerned and truly upset about my situation.
Grief affects others, too
This is when I realised that my friends and family were going through their own grief journeys.
Chronic illness is confronting. It reveals just how little control we ultimately have, and it can shake us to the core. I certainly haven’t had a smooth grief journey. The first year or two were the worst: I was all over the place! You too?
For a while I was in total shock. I refused to envisage a future that included chronic illness. I just couldn’t bear the thought of never getting my “normal” life back. So, I tried to coach myself out of my illness. I needed to believe that I would get better because the alternative was too painful to consider for even a moment.
Similarly, some friends and family have struggled to accept that my chronic condition is here to stay and not just a temporary ailment that a trip to the doctor or some regular exercise might fix. I’ve come to understand that they might be grieving in their own way when they cling to the conviction that I’ll get better soon if I just try this or that.
Seeing through the window
Unhelpful, judgy comments aren’t always grief-related, though, of course. Sometimes, friends and family have their own mirror-effect going on:
Why is this happening to her? Could it happen to me too??! No! What can I do to prevent it from happening to me? Surely, if I keep fit and eat healthily I’m shielding myself from disease. Maybe that’s what she needs… More exercise, or a different diet… She looks so sad… I want to help her… What can I say?
Food for thought, isn’t it?
It helps me to be patient with people when I think about mirrors and windows. If someone is insensitive or rude to me, I’m learning to take a step back and think about their perspective. If they’re speaking for their own benefit (i.e. mirror), not mine, I can take what they say with a grain of salt.
How do you think your relationships might be affected if you began to see through the glass a little sooner, rather than focusing solely on your own reflection?
Clothing your heart
I’ll finish with the same words of Scripture that I started with:
Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him… Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love… (Col 3:10, 12-14)
Lord, please help us to empty our hearts of bitterness and resentment by pouring out our sorrows to you. Thank you for comforting us — you are truly the Father of compassion! Please mould and refine our character so that we can reach out in loving kindness, despite people’s faults, even when they have offended or misjudged us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
How can I help you grow?
Hopefully this post has given you some ideas about how to deal with awkward conversations in a God-honouring way. You and I can stand out, within the chronic illness community, by clothing ourselves with love.
1. Free resource bundle
I’ve created a downloadable bundle for you that’s easy to follow and adaptable — you can do it individually, with a friend, or even with a group.
Don’t yet have a password for the Resource Library? Click here for info.
The 11-page booklet contains:
- Bible study and activities based on Colossians 3:10-17.
- Real-life scenarios from 23 guest contributors*. I’m sure you’ll be nodding and cringing as you read through this bunch of awkward advice and unhelpful comments that other people have received.
- Cheat sheet: A visual guide to dealing with judgy comments in a godly way.
- Practical activity: Working through your own two judgy scenarios, using the cheat sheet to help you.
* To each person who contributed a scenario: Thank you! Your openness will help bring comfort to many people.
2. Turning Mirrors to Windows
This final resource is a downloadable course designed for parents of teens or pre-teens. I haven’t completed it yet, but I would like to do it once my kids are a bit older. I’m taking a punt that the course is fantastic because I have read a parenting book by the same authors, called Teaching Your Children Values, which I found to be wonderfully helpful and practical.
It’s funny, I always thought my revelation about mirrors and windows was original. It was only last year, as I read Teaching Your Children Values, that I noticed a similar metaphor being used in one of its chapters. Then I did a Google search and found the same authors had taken the idea further in another teaching module. So, credit to Richard and Linda Eyre for building a whole course around mirrors and windows! I hope it proves helpful for those of you who have teens or pre-teens and are hungry for some practical guidance. (I’m not sure if the authors are Christian, by the way… Just thought I’d mention that in case it’s a deal-breaker for you.)