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What To Do With Negative Information

T. Ray Rachels

A mother’s 4-year-old daughter terrorized us in the waiting area. She screamed and kicked the floor every time the mother said “no” and whined her discontent with life. The mother yawned and shrugged a “what can I do about this kid?” pose.

The child’s brother, about 6, finally put his hand over her mouth during one of her more violent, high-pitched outbursts. She bit his hand — hard! He screamed and with tears told his mother what happened. She in turn slapped him, said it was all his fault, to leave his sister alone, and what is more he had been misbehaving, so stop it! I could not help thinking, She is whacking the wrong kid.

A lot of people catch it in the neck when they do not deserve it. They try to do the right thing, but it comes out wrong, is misinterpreted, or is interpreted by somebody with poor judgment like the mother in the waiting area. Keeping your balance and a healthy attitude when misunderstood, criticized unfairly, or when negative words are being poured over you is one of life’s big challenges.

Here are a few suggestions on how to manage the inevitable negative information that comes occasionally.

Learn To Ignore Discouraging Words

Weed out negative and damaging comments from the constructive ones. Develop insight into distinguishing truth from error concerning you; then become brutal in enforcing the truth. Look for signs of life. Lift your sights to positive and helpful meanings. Do not major in minors.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the physician, author, and father of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., had little sympathy for patients who thought they were sicker than they actually were. One of his patients, a hypochondriac, had a minor ailment but was convinced he was suffering from some dread diseases. He read all the medical literature on his imagined illnesses. Then when he went to the doctor’s office, he complained that he was not receiving proper treatment and produced a medical paper to prove it. Once he waved a paper in Dr. Holmes’ face and cried, “Doctor, you are treating my sickness much too lightly. It says here I could die from what I’ve got!”

“I have never known anyone to die of your ailment,” replied Holmes; “however, if you continue to read what you do not understand, you could die of a misprint.”

Misprints are not usually fatal. They sidetrack people, but unless you internalize them or seek vengeance upon the perpetrators, most likely you will live.

The tyranny of negative words has the power to hold you in bondage. People who put their negative thoughts into words just for you can emotionally imprison you. What will break their grip? A spiritually renewed mind — that accepts Jesus’ assessment of you as a legitimate heir of God’s grace. Be secure in that fact. The truth sets you free.

Process Negative Information Through God’s Love

Though we can often be guilty of stirring unwanted passions, there is among us an informal brotherhood of the chilly winds. The scenario looks like this: He or she meets you at the altar, in the hall, in the office and says, “Pastor, I really love you, but—”; “Pastor, I know you may not appreciate this, but I am telling you this for your own good—”; “Some of them have come to me, Pastor, and asked that I tell you this—”

You shudder. You need control of your own heart, mind, and tongue when these chilling words touch you because they take a while to wear off.

In fact, Nancy Friedman, president of a St. Louis consulting firm, says that it takes customers up to 12 positive customer-service experiences to overcome the negative effects of a single bad one. Most people would rather switch companies than fight. Translated into pastoral terms, for every verbal hit you take on Sunday morning, you will need practically the rest of the congregation telling you what a wonderful person you are before your ears lose their redness or your paranoia is quieted. For some of the bigger blasts, the need for a reaffirming 12 positive Sundays is more like it.

For example, a man came to me after a Sunday morning service and asked whether I had ever thought of arranging my sermons in a more meaningful outline form so my messages would be better understood by the congregation. Zap! From that chilling moment on, I heard absolutely zero from anybody else as I dutifully shook hands, smiled, and stumbled my way through the morning.

True or untrue, those words hurt deeply. Who was he to tell me how to preach? I am the one who went to school to learn to “rightly divide the Word of truth”; to be a stirring and effective public speaker; to sway the masses. Who sweats it out up there three times a week? I concluded there will always be people who tell you what they think (often the truth), and if I am to survive, I must listen carefully for the truth even when it is given in words and attitudes intended to jolt and confront. If I am a thoughtful pastor, I will make whatever adjustment is wise that helps me to be my best because that is what I strive for. The question for me is always, “What can I do to be the most effective pastor possible?”

My weaknesses may indeed be glaring and need to be addressed. God will use people, even people I do not like, to tell me of those shortcomings. My pride must not be allowed to rule out the good God intends for me. If I am unhealthy, I will likely produce unhealthy followers. I refuse to let someone else devastate the Lord’s work in me or torpedo my emotional well-being because of my own failure to process negative information through God’s love. That is what His grace is for. Therefore, I have significant responsibility for my own maturity, even in the midst of negative experiences.

I will turn over every potentially damaging word to a Philippians 4:8 text, “For the rest, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of reverence, and is honorable and seemly, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely and lovable, whatever is kind and winsome and gracious, if there is any virtue and excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on and weigh and take account of these things—fix your minds on them.”*

See Inherent Good in Difficulties

Norman Vincent Peale told a meaningful story about weaving in the Middle East. Many of the world’s finest oriental rugs come from little villages there. Each rug is hand-produced by a crew under the direction of a master weaver.

Since ordinarily they work from the underside of the rug to be, the weaver frequently makes a mistake and introduces a color absentmindedly that is not according to the pattern. The master weaver, instead of having the work pulled out to correct the color sequence, will find some way to incorporate the mistake into the overall pattern.

Life is like that. The stringy side shows a lot. We all can learn to take unexpected difficulties and mistakes and the hurts from others and, with God’s strength, weave them advantageously into the greater pattern of our lives. Remember, there is inherent good in most difficulties. Most of us need to refer often to Romans 8:28: “We are assured and know that [God being a partner in their labor], all things work together and are [fitting into a plan] for good to those who love God and are called according to [His] design and purpose.”

If during dark times I can only remember that God is my Father and His intentions toward me always are to make me more like His Son, then the issues are manageable. Forget that and I succumb to whatever involuntary spirit of retribution is appropriate for the flesh. That almost always falls out badly.

T. RAY RACHELS, currently executive presbyter for The General Council of the Assemblies of God, Southwest Region, and former Southern California District superintendent, 1988–2010.

Endnote

*Scripture quotations are taken from The Amplified Bible.

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