“Are you going to care for the opinion of men here, or for the opinion of God?
The opinion of men won’t avail us much when we get before the judgment throne.”
— 19th century British missionary, Charles Studd
It is possible, while surrounded by people, to feel utterly alone. We want other people to value our presence; treasure our friendship; dispel our doubts; support us in trials; heal our deepest hurts. In short, it is possible to seek from other people what only God can give us: fulfillment; peace; and unconditional love. While He certainly uses His children to encourage and teach one another, there is a fine line between being edified by other believers, and their opinions of us becoming an idol.
The first scenario is healthy and leads us closer to God. Galatians 6:2 tells us to “bear one another’s burdens”, and taking the wise counsel of fellow Christians is an important aspect of growing spiritually. However, the second scenario – placing over-importance on how others view, judge or interact with us, sometimes to the point of depression – is a snare. “Fear of man” can drive us away from God when we allow the opinions of others to take precedence over God’s view of us. This can happen when we believe Christians speak for God when they hurt us; or simply by allowing a lapse in our prayer life. When we forget God’s ‘voice’, others will crowd His out.
“Fear of man” (even ‘church-man’) tell us that we are not good enough when others question our motives; falsely accuse; gossip; or judge our decisions without knowing either our circumstances or which scriptural principles come into play. This is a painful, confusing place to be…..and for some of us natural extroverts, our instinct is to seek out people we trust for companionship. Somehow, if we are with friends, it will make it all better; we will again be validated, or at least distracted enough not to deal with our emotions.
I know this to be true, because after 25 years as a Christian, God had to bring me to the other side of the world (in relative isolation) to get my attention.
When God Shows Up – Unexpectedly
Within the last year, I made the painful decision to end my marriage. Although I had ample biblical grounds for divorce, for the sake of my children’s privacy I have not divulged details (apart from to a very few people on a ‘need to know’ basis). Those who were aware of the situation were incredibly compassionate – while support came from unexpected corners, hurtful things were said to me by a few I most depended on to protect me. This shook my faith in the Church, and by extension, God.
While dear friends from another church brought me to retreats, Bible studies, and spent many hours talking and praying with me, the hurt inflicted by those whose opinions I judged ‘significant’ made me ambivalent towards God – all while serving Him in ministry. I looked forward to August, a month I had set aside to serve at Youth Camps (in New Hampshire and Albania); spend time with my children; and heal. One of the things I most looked forward to was seeing precious brothers and sisters in Christ in Albania whom I had befriended at camp years prior. I ‘needed’ them – needed their presence; needed their friendship; needed to laugh.
After three days in Tirana, I boarded a bus to the southern city of Saranda where I would be met and taken to camp. Deeply hurt by a friend’s ambivalence to me, I cried silently for most of the 7-hour journey. To make matters worse, most of the staff with whom I was closest did not attend camp this year for a variety of reasons. Surrounded by unfamiliar young campers, new staff, and total immersion in Albanian, I felt much more alone than I ever had at camp. With memories of happier times, I felt downcast for days and questioned what I was doing there. Surrounded by 70 people and a team of Christian staff, I felt utterly adrift and useless.
So I spent time with God – alone. Only He saw my tears. Walking down to the pier and watching the sun set over the Ionian Sea, I would just sit there. Sometimes I would read my Bible; sometimes just think. But always realizing I was in the presence of my Father; Who was my Defender and Protector. I knew that He had orchestrated everything perfectly, but I needed to experience it on an emotional level…..which is hard to do, when you are running from your emotions.
One of the English lessons we taught the children dealt with placing God’s opinion above that of men. This was far too specific to be a coincidence…He seemed to be speaking directly to me. There were mornings that I wanted to run from the discussion group I facilitated with a British team member; the basic truths about God’s love we were teaching the children were long-forgotten promises I no longer believed applied to me.
Taking us Across the World…to Get us to Listen?
It was here that healing could begin. As if to further assure me that He was there, I received a message from one of the young British staff women (who did not know me at all) the day after she left camp, asking if I was alright. After I shared a very abridged version of events with her, she responded:
“I am thankful you have spoken to people at camp and pray they have been of great comfort and support for you. I appreciate your honesty and openness so much to share with me what’s really been going on. God has a plan for bringing you to Albania this summer, and I pray you will truly find some healing over the hardships of this year….I know God has good plans for you as he has promised to his people….
“Above all it is God’s thoughts we need to care about. And please remember that He loves you unconditionally! Draw close to him and let his wings protect you…and don’t hurt yourself by not allowing yourself to rightfully have the emotions you are having. God knows above all how you are feeling. I just don’t want you to think you need to hide it or feel you aren’t getting involved in camp as you should. Because God may want this time in Albania to be where you can heal and be raw with all the feelings. It is amazing how God uses us in each others’ lives. I strongly felt the Spirit leading me to talk to you, and I am sure that was God’s concern shining through. It is incredible how He has to take us across the world to get us to listen or draw closer to him.”
Being Transparent – while Still Trusting God
The ministry leaders under whom I serve are good friends, but I feared more rejection or subtle judgement once they knew of my divorce – justification notwithstanding. Just the opposite happened. Anxiously, I sat down and explained the situation to the Albanian pastor, and later, the camp director. Not only was my decision supported, I was still embraced as the sister I’d always been. However, the lesson God taught me that week was that it shouldn’t matter.
He affirms, loves and rejoices over me. The opinion of people (even His people) pales in significance. Even so, it was very freeing to be lifted up by friends who care about me – and understand. Pastor “Erion” (not his real name) had watched one of his sisters go through an experience eerily similar to mine, and recognized that life does not always neatly follow biblical guidelines of repentance and reconciliation. More than anyone else, this Balkan brother was relieved that I was now safe; healing; and regaining my confidence.
We cannot live, as believers, in a vacuum. It is impossible to pretend that the opinions, acceptance, love or approval of others – particularly of fellow Christians – does not matter. We were created to live in fellowship, and God grieves when His children alienate one another. And yet sometimes, in order to break the walls of others-induced shame that have kept us from Him, He needs to isolate us to where we can’t run away anymore. And when we finally start listening to His voice of Truth, He may confirm His love to us through other people. Until we discover that His is the only Voice that truly matters, however, we may stay stuck listening to the sound of our own confusion and doubt.
I expected to be used to help others understand God’s Word this summer. Instead, God ministered His grace and healing to me – in a remote coastal campsite; without friends to fall back on; half a world away.