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.
Michele Morin says
You were incredibly brave, Mary, and this mindset — the awareness that everyone is carrying brokenness somewhere — is the gift that came from your own hard experience. I want to slow down and carry that prayerful and caring mindset.
Oh my heart! Your words sooooo spoke to me today ..thank you for reminding me to guard my heart but to offer grace to others.
Bev @ Walking Well With God says
I never would have been so transparent in my writing decades ago because I grew up in a home where you didn’t “air you dirty laundry” and you certainly didn’t share your emotions. Sometimes I think I was born into the wrong family because I had all these strong, powerful emotions that I spent a lot of energy keeping bottled up. I could probably err more on the side of guarding my heart, because when you put it out there, chances are someone will inadvertently step on it. But, I have found that by being real and sharing struggles (not droning on and on to everyone about them), but being brave enough to say that my life isn’t Facebook perfect, invites others to be real too. It gives them permission to share is they feel led to. Sometimes just being heard and having our feelings validated is what we need most, so I try not to offer too much advice. One way I invite people to share (if they have something they want to) is I simply ask, “Is there anything I can pray about for you?….or how can I lift you up in prayer?” That opens the door and if they choose to walk through then so be it. Thank you for reminding us that everyone is battling something and to give mercy and grace before we assume things we don’t know.
Kris Hammerbacher says
You nailed it. Thank you!
Donna Torrado says
thia was a timely blog for me. I am in one of those seasons now. I agree, asking if there is some need I can pray about means a lot to the one being asked.
I had created an email account for anyone who needed prayer. I would tell anyone I gave the cards that I do not need the reason for prayer just write “please pray for me.” God knows the need and right now I just cannot go into details. I believe that should be acceptable to anyone who truly wants to pray for you.
Thank you for this blog today!
On point. Wow you said it all. So much nuggets of truth tied up in this message and spoke to me on so many levels.. Thank you so much for sharing this. Praying for my friend BB who might be going through something but has chosen to keep it to herself. May God shower her with His love..
Melissa Henderson says
We may never know what someone else is experiencing in their life. We need to pray for the person and continue to love them even if they are not showing love to us.
Thank you for this reminder Mary. It’s a truth I try to remember as well, especially when I’m frustrated with people. I never know what they’re going through, or what they have gone through in the past to cause them to react this way. I love the imagery of the broken glass, and how we can be hurting others simply by being less-than gracious with them. I wish I could be more like Jesus. That’s the goal I guess .
Wow, Mary! This is such a timely message and it applies to everyone. We have recently had a transition of leadership within our women’s ministry at church. The team is brand new and we’re still working out all the kinks as far as knowing who has certain gifting. But…that being said the amazing thing about our new leader is that she has the ability to unite us in love and has set an example to all of us by her ability to love on us and reminding us of the very same thing you wrote about today, that we all have a battle we’re fighting. Thank you so much for this today, God Bless You!
I’m so sorry to hear about your sister-in-law, Mary. ((hug)) I think about this often…how everyone has *something.* Several years ago, my sons had a few friends take their own lives within a 2 year period of time. Thinking about those young lives and wondering if one smile, one wave, one acknowledgement would have made a difference–is a thought I haven’t been able to quit. Sometimes when we know, it’s too late. Oh for the grace to know without knowing. To understand the truth that everyone has a story–and knowing the details isn’t a requisite for grace. Life is just hard, and kindness is healing. (Reminds me of something I read in one of Jen Hatmaker’s books, “Kindness needs recipients.” — Thanks for sharing, Mary. ((hug))
Julie Garmon says
Kay Lake says
Mary thank you for this. Long ago I had a friend, Bev, who reminded us that people do the best they can with what they have at any given time. So sometimes I just sit with someone, say a prayer for them in my heart (for surely God knows what they need), and remember my wise friend in NH. As you said, tough things can happen in all our lives, so forgiveness, gentleness, grace, and love are gifts that we can offer. After all, those are exactly the gifts that Jesus has given to us!
Blessings to all my sisters at a distance, ~ Kay Lake
Thank you very much for this very good sharing and reminder. I’d been too immature when I was a new believer or even as a person. Yes, I might have my own struggles yet I wasn’t too kind towards those who might be suffering themselves. Thank God for many challenges that made me grow up and mature. Life is not always about me or even if I’m not being treated as I should, I have no right to treat others unkindly. God help us! You died for us while we were sinners, You showed us mercy though we deserve otherwise. Though all may forsake us, You’ll never leave or forsake us. In Your light, we shall see light. Thank you Mary!
There have been times this past year when I would enter work and see others and right away exchange the same words, “Hi, How are you?” ……more often than not I would get sooo ANNOYED! Great way to start my day huh?
I would usually think, “Why does she ask? I can see her footsteps are that of one walking with a purpose, not a stroll to really listen to my response.” Then other times when some were strolling and I maybe shared a little more than “fine”… I always wished I had kept my mouth shut. The response from my coworker was often awkward and out of sorts….like she literally didn’t know how to respond in the moment.
I quit asking others how they were.
I guess this post helps to see things a little differently….next time I’ll try not to get SO ANNOYED. ha! 😉
Liz Centi says
You never know what’s in someone’s backpack.
We never know what lies around the corner, not God has no corners. I’m grateful from your story for Father’s provision and grateful for your reminder to offer the same grace and more to others as I would hope for…
Danielle Bernock says
Mary – love love love loved your article. Thank you for sharing. One favorite part (of many) is: “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. ” I’ve been there. I still have the latter of those 2.
Rebecca L Jones says
I had to laugh at the mind reading, discerner comment. I get that quite a lot. But I was taught to locate people by their words, if you explain something and the person isn’t listening, I think they either don’t get it or don’t want to hear it. I used to be naive and give people the benefit of the doubt, and God the credit for working on them, but now I know they have to receive. He doesn’t force faith, love, healing or salvation on anyone. We all do have broken pieces. But God can mend anything. I have seen the powerful healing that took place for someone not expected to live. Keep believing.
Thanks for sharing some lovely nuggets of friendship wisdom. I wrote a post a while back called “Stand In” for those moments when we need to lean in to our friends’ time of need, yet also need to allow others to do the same for us…a precarious, precious balancing act. “Two are better than one…if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
Beth Williams says
Praying for your sister-in-law and your family. Everyone has trials. There are many times when you don’t feel comfortable telling the world your problems. Not everyone will react kindly & some may use it for gossip. We need to really look people in the face & try to feel them out. Maybe a hug is all they need at the moment. Let’s do our part & share Christ’s love with everyone-simple hugs, smiles, I’m praying for you. It may make someone’s day!