I was hiking yesterday with a friend and we were talking about one of my favorite subjects, the importance of #doing your own work. The easiest thing to do when we are in distress is to blame someone else for it. The Bible is full of examples of blaming and avoiding responsibility. But at times my teaching about #doing your own work can be misunderstood.
When I say take responsibility or #do your own work I’m not implying that you are 100% responsible for the problem that’s happening, or even 10% responsible. You can be an innocent victim and still need to do your own work to learn, to heal, and to grow from what happened to you.
For example, if you are in an abusive relationship what do you need to do to heal from the damage caused to your heart, soul, or body? How do you learn to recognize some of the red flags of destructive individuals sooner? Can you speak up for yourself when you need to? Do you know how to forgive so you aren’t caught in lifelong bitterness and resentment? This is some of the work you must-do if you want to heal, learn, and grow even if the relationship fails or the situation that’s troublesome doesn’t change.
This week’s question about friendship comes from one of the recent responses in our blog community.
Question: I’m struggling in a friendship and was hoping you might be able to give me some advice.
I have a friend (with whom I used to be so close) who is overwhelmed with taking care of two kids. I want to show her grace and give without expecting anything in return. However, I am hurt that she was too busy to spend any time with me while I was isolated and struggling with PPD (Post-Partum Depression). At the time she didn’t have kids and had more free time. She considers me one of her “closest friends” and invites me to her house, parties, etc… but can’t seem to respond to text messages or show up for me when I need her. At one point she informed me that she was “busy for the next two months” when I tried to get together. I’m not sure whether I should talk to her about this because I doubt she’ll change and honestly, I’m just over this friendship. Do you have any thoughts?
Answer: First, I’m a little confused. You opened your question saying, “I want to show her grace and give without expecting anything in return.” And closed with, “Honestly I’m just over this friendship.” An important part of your own growth is gaining greater self-awareness so that you can do your own work here, even if the friendship changes or ends.
Let me try to help you understand a bit of what I hear you saying. Your true self, or your Big Circle self as I call it, wants to be forgiving and gracious. You want to be a person who can give to your friend without any expectations in return. But other parts of you, specifically your thoughts and feelings are screaming, “This is not fair. We don’t have a close friendship if it isn’t mutual and she doesn’t care about my needs or feelings.”
How do you typically handle those different parts of you? For example, do you feel guilty for feeling angry and resentful towards your friend? Or do you feel justified feeling your feelings, but then give up on the person you said you wanted to be; a gracious person who gives without any expectations in return?
I think this is where Biblical teaching has often been anemic and sometimes wrong. The typical Christian thinking is that a mature believer would always be a servant. Never thinking of herself at all. She is someone who continually gives with no expectations of mutuality or reciprocity in her relationships. But when reality smacks hard, and you’re married or friends with someone who continually takes and takes without giving back, you feel hurt and angry and resentment often rears its ugly head.
Does that make you wrong? Immature? Perhaps sometimes. But it also tells you something is off in the relationship itself.
Let’s look at Jesus who shows us what a mature human being looks. Jesus had different kinds of relationships and not everyone he interacted with were his friends. He gave to many people who never gave anything back to him. Like Jesus, we too are called to be kind, not only to those who are kind to us but also to those who aren’t (Matthew 5:45).
Remember the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19? Jesus healed them all, but only one came back and thanked him and Jesus noted that difference. Yes, Jesus ministered to thousands with no expectations of mutuality or reciprocity, but he wasn’t friends with these people. It was ministry, not friendship.
Jesus didn’t have many close friendships. Peter, James, and John were his closest disciples out of twelve. And as we see him in conversation with them, Jesus had some needs and expectations. For example, remember when he asked them to watch and pray while he was going through the hardest time of his life? (Matthew 26:38-41). He needed their support and prayers. Yes, they failed him, but we don’t see a precedent for Jesus not asking or not needing other human beings care and support.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were close friends with Jesus. They often had him over for dinner. It was a place Jesus could relax and rest with his close friends. Yet they too had some expectations of him as their close friend. Remember when Jesus delayed in coming back to Bethany when Lazarus was critically ill? Mary and Martha were upset and disappointed with Jesus. They expected more. Yet Jesus didn’t scold them for their feelings. He understood, even if he didn’t meet their expectations (See John 11).
So what can you learn here? For starters, your feelings are real and will be helpful informants to let you know that you are not okay with having a close friend who doesn’t want to give back to you when you need her. Don’t feel guilty. However, don’t lose sight in your legitimate hurt and anger that you also want to be a giving a gracious person. In these moments it’s very easy to lose sight of who you really are (or want to be).
Second, #do your own work. Have you ever shared with your friend how you feel about the lack of reciprocity or mutuality in your friendship? Have you told her (truth in love) that it hurt you when she has no time for you, even for a quick response to a text? Or that she was unresponsive when you were struggling with PPD?
These are hard conversations for us to have with someone. We’re afraid to hurt their feelings or rock the boat. Yet not speaking up leaves us ready to ditch the relationship because of our brewing resentment. I remember a tough conversation I needed to have with a friend who readily enjoyed coming to our house for dinner, picnics and holiday parties, but never invited us over to her house. After two years of this pattern, I felt resentful and told myself some stories about her reasons and motives. My mind said, “She doesn’t really like me. She’s just using us for someplace to go but doesn’t really want to be my friend.” My negative stories added to my brewing resentment and hurt.
I finally wired up my courage and had that tough conversation with her and my eyes were opened in a new way. As I shared how she hurt me, she also shared how she felt inadequate as a hostess, her house was too small, she never felt she could measure up or do it right. Her lack of reciprocity had nothing to do with me or our relationship. I learned some powerful lessons. All the negative stories I made up in my head about why she never reciprocated were not true. Yet for her to grow into a good friend she too had her own work to do. She identified her own limiting stories and our conversation opened her eyes that she needed to do her own work to grow into the woman God called to be in order to love others well.
We don’t know what will happen with your friendship with this woman. But if you do your work and be the person God calls you to be, which includes speaking the truth in love without prejudging her motives, you might find that she’s got her own stuff going on that has nothing to do with devaluing you. On the other hand, if she responds to your feedback defensively and argues and blames you, that clarifies things, doesn’t it? It tells you that at least for now, she’s not open to having an honest and healing conversation nor is she able to do her own work to maintain or repair a relationship.
That knowledge gives you the freedom to get crystal clear. She is not a mutual friend. She is a ministry relationship and you can love and minister to her as you are called to with no expectation for it to be anything more.
Friends, what has helped you focus on #doing your own work instead of trying to fix or change someone else?
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That image of pointing the finger at someone else with three fingers pointed back at me has helped me. It seems that whenever I have been upset with someone else, the Lord always reminds me of my part in the situation, especially with my husband. So, I have been required to apologize for my part, whether I get the hoped for result or not. But I find that by taking responsibility for my part, even if it is only ten percent, the other person’s conscience has been activated, and they respond with an apology, too. If that doesn’t happen, then I would probably decide that the “friend” doesn’t care as much for our friendship as I do.
JoAnn, I too have found the image of three pointing back at me helpful. But I have also learned that sometimes people will see my taking the 10% responsibility that’s mine and then believe it means they have no responsibility because I have just admitted that *I am* the problem. I think it’s helpful to be aware of this dynamic.
Yes, Sara, I agree that does happen. Then I would put that person in the “B” category (or even “C”) that Cheryl defined above. Some people just can’t admit that they might be wrong about something, so they don’t make very good friends.
The deeper my sense of connectedness with God the more I’m able to let go of trying to fix other people. Looking to God to fill my big needs puts the smaller human needs into better perspective. At the same time, it really does hurt when a friend (or someone I thought was a friend) is distant and unkind. I usually cry a lot when that happens, but still at the end of the day I have to look at what I can control (me and my responses) and let go of what I can’t control (the other person’s choices).
It seems like the gal who said “I’m busy for the next two months” doesn’t really value the friendship or maybe she doesn’t have good friendship skills. I grew up very isolated so I’m lacking in many social skills, especially knowing how to be a good friend. I appreciate it when people talk to me about my mistakes because then I can learn what to say and what not to say.
I can relate to this issue. I had a similar friendship a very long time ago… and almost the exact same situation…where I always gave to her and when I decided I was ready to talk to her about something heavy that was on my heart…she looked at her calendar and said she was unavailable for the next month or two!
Then when I wrote her a letter sharing how that made me feel she became extremely defensive…she ended our friendship.
I learned she was more of a ministry to me, not the friend I thought she was.
Someone gave me the insight of, for lack of a better term, labeling your friendships:
An “A Friend” is a healthy, mutually reciprocal friendship. You both are honest, there for each other, supportive, mature, and respectful of differences. You share your deepest struggles with each other safely.
A “B Friend” could be similar, but all the boxes don’t get checked for a truly healthy friendship. So you don’t share on the same level. And you don’t expect as much in return. You can still be truly safe for them, but they aren’t for you.
A “C Friend” is someone who is more of an acquaintance. You care about them, and they you… but it doesn’t go beyond that generally. Like people you see at church all the time, that you care about, and pray for. But it’s not very deep.
It’s complicated and hard, and I find it harder to maintain friendships as I get older, especially in the light of ongoing marriage struggles. They say you are blessed if you have one or two truly good friends (A). I believe that.
May the Lord help us all to be that for someone else!
I like those categories. Shouldn’t our husbands be the “A” kind of friend? If he’s a “B”, then what you have is a disappointing marriage, according to Leslie’s book, maybe not destructive but not satisfying, either. Just a thought.
One or two truly good friends is a real blessing. I find that different friends fill different needs. One might be a “good shoulder,” and another a playmate, someone to have fun with. I have a friend who I can pray with, and we really touch the Lord when we pray together, but we wouldn’t have much in common otherwise. My sister is my closest confidant, but we don’t pray much together, even though she is a believer. So, different people fill my friendship needs in different ways.
Hi Leslie. My name is Cheryl. Your post was very helpful. In response to your question at the end, what keeps me coming back again and again to try to focus on doing my own work has been the fact that nothing has changed after all my sincere efforts to encourage change. The fact that I desperately want to be the person God calls me to be and to be obedient to Him drives me. The fact that I don’t want to be a hard-hearted, bitter person who oozes the poison of hate and bitterness all over the place is also a huge motivator. This is hard work because I find myself battling the intensity of my hurt constantly. I seem to have a hard time letting go of my learned defense of using anger to protect myself from more hurt and also the persistent desire to punish the person who hurt me so they will understand that it is not okay to keep doing this to me. I am deeply ashamed of this and yet tire easily when trying to battle all these built up negative emotions and feel often overwhelmed. I am new to your teaching and coaching and hope that the coaching will help me have the strength to keep at this.
Cheryl, I am sorry for all the hurt you have experienced. Instead of “punishing” the person who has hurt you, what’s more effective is setting boundaries to prevent further hurt, and learning how to protect yourself from the hurt. Leslie talks about setting boundaries in her book, and the book by Cloud and Townsend called Boundaries, can be very helpful to understand why we need boundaries and how to implement them. Stay with us here and you will learn a lot.
Thanks JoAnn. I read Dr. Henry Cloud’s book on boundaries years ago and have tried to learn how to implement them. I just don’t seem to be very good at it and I find myself second guessing myself a lot. I have learned a lot from Leslie so far so I am hoping it will get better and more clear as I go.
A couple of the key components to boundaries is recognizing boundaries are about what I will and won’t do, and communicating that beforehand. Then actually doing it.
For example, “Communication with you is important to me, but from now on, when you raise your voice, I am going to walk away. We can resume the conversation when we are both calm.”
This is all really healing to think of trusting in the Lord for filling us and then see if we can work out in our world how to be a friend. Since every good gift is from heaven above, then if we have an “A” friend (mutually sharing friend), then perhaps we can know she came from our Heavenly Father. I struggle with knowing when to share my perspective of hurt. I know that wisdom makes knowledge acceptable… so… I pray for wisdom so I am careful with my words, so… I am watchful on my part with my words…. so…. I pray for the right opportunity… and… try to be humble and admit my problems first or admit that I may not be seeing things correctly… I know God gives grace to the humble and it sure is a wonderful thing to have His grace. I only wish I can do what I learned to do consistently… I need to conquer some fears… conquer some lack of confidence… and conquer some lack of knowledge. Thankful for this Journey.
Thanks so much for this, Leslie. This has been very helpful.
I Loved reading this story… about the so called friends or family in my life… thank you so much… I really needed to read this … I am a Christian… and I want to act like … this just made my day….Thank you for being a good friend and mentor
Just after Christmas this year, I had a hard conversation with a friend who repeatedly said she wanted to have us over, but never did. A very similar thing happened in our conversation as in Leslie’s. I called and told her that I was confused because I felt that her desire to have us over was sincere, and yet it never came to pass. She confessed that she was embarrassed about the state of her home (constant construction because of extensive mildew problems). In the end, we did go over and had a wonderful time. It had nothing to do with me or our friendship.
The other thing that’s really important to note is the stories that we all tell ourselves, in the absence of facts, is ‘bearing false witness’. We are responsible for recognizing when we ‘fill in the blanks’ and are responsible to ask appropriate questions in order to get the real picture. Assumptions are relationship killers. Much of our attitude and emotions are born from them.
Imagine you are meeting a friend for lunch and they are 40 minutes late. The difference in your attitude if you think:
‘ our relationship is not as important to her as to me’
‘I hope she didn’t get into an accident’
“ I called and told her that I was confused because I felt that her desire to have us over was sincere, and yet it never came to pass. … Imagine you are meeting a friend for lunch and they are 40 minutes late. The difference in your attitude if you think:
‘ our relationship is not as important to her as to me’
‘I hope she didn’t get into an accident’”
Wonderful truth, wisely applied Nancy.
Trust but verify is another way to say that. As believers, I think our default position should be to give others the benefit of the doubt (I.e. trust). But trusting without uncomfortable conversations to verify reality, leaves us subject to being mistreated.
I have a friend at work who, “reads people”. He is right more often than I would be, but ends up in a long string of unhealthy emotions because he doesn’t verify that quickly enough. To his credit, he is recognizing this error and apologizing to people for his presumption.