"How Are You?" - and other declarations of malice
Imagine that you're severely stressed. Maybe that's not too much of a stretch for you right now. If you're anything like me in tense times, then in addition to stress-pounding Skittles to cope, you develop an irrational suspicion of other people's motives when they encounter you in your turmoil. Someone asks "How are you?" But the inquirer seems afraid, and you interpret the nervous eyes to say: "The answer to my question is any number of positive words, followed by your grateful acknowledgement of my asking.” If you do give an upbeat answer, no matter how dishonest, and you follow it up with your thanks, no matter how insincere, you think you spy in their smiling response not only happiness, but relief. And that makes you boil. Or, someone just looks at you in your stress but _doesn't _ask how you're doing, and you get mad about what seems to be an obvious lack of concern and you suspect that they're silently condemning you. Either way, they can't win. Stress and the charitable judgement of others are not natural friends.
Sometimes we think that people who ask about our well being have merely expressed a perfunctory politeness, and even worse, that they've forced us by their obvious insincerity into a lying response. How dare they?! Despite our blatant dishonesty in telling such people we’re doing great, we start to seethe at the secret dishonesty which we presume lies behind their inquiry into our well-being. The relief we see in others when they’re spared from bearing our stress may be exactly that. Or, it may be the misinterpreted reaction of someone genuinely wanting to help, but feeling very ill-equipped to do so - and, given our current mood, justifiably afraid to try. Their relief might reveal a deeply felt inadequacy rather than a hypocritically shallow reservoir of genuine concern. We don’t necessarily know, and when we’re stressed and spiteful thoughts are convincingly suggesting themselves as relief, we’re not in the best position to accurately assess another person’s actions. We're quick to find them uncaring, and even condemning.
When our nerves are raw, we’re especially sensitive to the possibility of our being judged. But we’re also very prone to judge. When we’re emotionally drained, we’re very willing, sometimes eager if we’re honest, to believe that behind people’s socially polite smiles, they’re condemning us in their hearts. We crave the personal vindication that such knowledge would bring us, so we stretch our suspicions as wide and tight as they’ll go, straining to make suspicion fit around even the slightest possible confirmation that our uncharitable assumptions are accurate. But this effort adds tension to an already stressed heart, and might be what finally makes us snap.
Sometimes we don’t even want to know if we’re wrong about the other person. We’d rather indulge our quiet anger, nursing the accusation within us that the other person is indeed guilty of judging us, and therefore deserves from us the very treatment which we so despise when there’s even the least hint that it’s being directed our way. Without any due process which remotely resembles a fair trial, let alone the presence of an impartial judge to weigh the merits of our accusation, we condemn the accused as guilty of judging us, and feel completely innocent in doing so. We might even flash an insincere smile while we're thinking all this!
Does this sound familiar? You might think: “Yes! People judge me like that all the time.” Yup. Me, too. But, lest we be self-deceived, the point of this post is for you and me to look at ourselves in the spiritual mirror of God’s law first, to see whether we might be more perpetrator than victim (or at least whether you are.) Let’s look to God’s law on this point as it’s displayed in 1 Corinthians 13.
1 Corinthians 13 is all about love. The passage is beautiful in its own right, but is often separated in popular use from the contextual soil in which Paul’s words about love are rooted and from which they flourish in fullest bloom. The context is, quite simply, Christian. The true and living God is love (1 John 4). Paul writes elsewhere that the goal of apostolic teaching is love and that the fulfillment of God’s law is love (1 Timothy 1). Jesus summarizes all of God’s law with the commands to love God with everything that we are and then to love our neighbors as ourselves (Exodus 20, Matthew 22). So the love of which Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 is not mere sentiment, nor is it subject to our redefinition of the term. It cannot be manipulated to tyrannize others with arbitrary tests of affection and loyalty, i.e. “If you love me, you’ll …” The fact that love “bears all things” is not license for us to force people to tolerate our sinful behavior. Nor does Paul’s statement that “Love believes all things” render the person who loves especially susceptible to deceit.
Paul does not mean that to love is to be gullible, simpleminded and easily manipulated. He does mean that to love is to have a disposition toward others which wants and which seeks, within the safe and honest confines of truth, to believe. When it comes to evaluating the actions of others, a loving heart is wisely wary of what might be out of place in motive, but its ultimate concern is to seek the well-being of the other person and to build a Christ-centered, mutually freeing bond between both parties, a bond which the simple question “How are you?” and our sincerely grateful response to it can begin to forge.
When someone asks us how we are, and we’re not doing well, we shouldn’t be dishonest. But honesty never demands discretion's death. We need not unleash a torrential response for which the inquirer may not be prepared as a test of their actual level of care for us. A simple “Not the best; I’d appreciate your prayer” could suffice. And if the person asks for details, there’s nothing wrong with a kindly worded refusal to provide them. Either way, it’s good to thank the person for asking. Whether theirs was perfunctory politeness or something deeper and more sincere, our acknowledgement of the importance of the question and your sincere gratitude for its being asked is a simple, but sometimes profound, expression of love for the other person, especially if that person had to muster great courage to ask us how we are. And if we were emoting our stress prior to their question (which we tend to do much more than we realize), it may well have taken real courage to approach us.
Even if we somehow learn on good, not gossipy, authority that our worst and most uncharitable suspicions are actually correct, that the person really was inwardly motivated by hostility and a desire to amplify our pain by drawing attention to it, doesn’t the Lord know it the whole time? And isn’t it a terrible condition of heart which would give rise to such spiteful actions, one which calls for our fervent prayer for the person possessed by it?
Stress and sound judgment can in fact be friends. They’re found working side by side in a heart tuned and tempered by God’s saving grace (2 Peter 1). A heart ever mindful of the extent to which its own sin has been forgiven, is open toward others (Luke 7). A heart which honors God seeks eagerly to find and encourage the evidence of his image in the words and actions of others. And a heart that is stressed, but ever mindful of God’s constant, loving presence, can find in a simple question like “How are you?” a gift from the Savior, and an opportunity to love another person in his name. And not that this should be our motive, but actively considering the needs of others to be more important than our own tends to ease the strain we feel in stressful circumstances (Philippians 2).
As you might have inferred, times have been a bit stressful lately. But I'm fine. Thanks for your concern. Now where are my Skittles?!