Tools for Improving Relationships
by Beverly Caruso
Many times, we as Christians become privy to important and even intimate information about others. It’s ingrained in the nature of our Bible studies, Sunday schools, prayer groups and even our friendships to ask for prayer and counsel from one another. Too often, however, our “sharing” crosses over an invisible line and becomes damaging, even though we may never have intended it to.
The Apostle Paul exhorts us to focus our conversation only on things that are true, honest, just pure, lovely and things that are of “good report” (Philippians 4:8, KJV). Another expression used here is: “whatever is admirable” (NIV).
Obviously, there are times and situations that require us to talk about “people problems” that are not admirable or of good report. What are the guidelines that can help us when these situations occur?
Our struggle to learn these guidelines–as a church and as a pastoral couple–happened under some of the most difficult circumstances.
Doug and Barbara Andersen were among several of our church families who lived in the same apartment complex. Even the managers, Jeannie and Ed, belonged to our church. A wonderful warmth and closeness developed between the families who lived here, including the Andersens.
Then came the near-tragic incident that made me question whether this closeness would prove to be such a good thing after all. Through this incident, however, we learned a great deal about handling vital and very personal information about others that we have become privy to. Or, to put it another way, we learned to difference between gossiping and giving good reports.
Barbara Andersen was a lovely blonde, whose hair was always styled nicely to complement her blue eyes and high cheek bones. Not long after I met her, Barbara confided that her careful attention to personal grooming and dress was, in part, her way to compensate for the other characteristic you noticed right away.
Barbara walked with a decided limp. It was the result of a childhood accident that left her with one leg shorter than the other. Anyone watching her closely might also have detected something limping in her spirit as well. As a child, she had been teased by the other children at school and, she told me, always felt conspicuous and uncomfortable in groups as a result.
I felt compassion for Barbara. My first thought when she came to mind was not, “She’s the woman who limps.” I thought of Doug, her husband, who like his wife was a new Christian. He seemed to love her very much, and I thought of Wendy, their pert eight-year-old. Though I could sense Barbara’s reluctance in groups, I did not pick up the deep, deep wounds in her spirit. Nor were any of us aware that Barbara was facing one of her worst fears.
Then Pete and I received the shocking phone call about Barbara’s suicide attempt.
Doug and Wendy had been out working in the garage and had gone in to find Barbara laying across her bed, her head dangling off at an odd angle. Beside her lay the tranquilizer bottle she had emptied. Doug sent Wendy running to call Jeannie and Ed. Paramedics had rushed Barbara to a hospital, but they had no way of knowing if she would make it.
That night, Pete and I stayed with Doug and Wendy in the waiting area outside the emergency room. We prayed. We hugged Wendy. Near dawn, we were notified that Barbara was going to live. The doctors made it clear that she would need a long time of quiet and rest in order to recover physically and emotionally. Pete and I invited Doug to move his family in with us, at least for a few days, so we could support and counsel them at close range.
After Barbara was released from the hospital, however, I wondered if we had made the right decision.
First of all, it was clear that Barbara was in a dangerous state emotionally. We spent long hours talking, curled up on our living room sofa, and a painful story emerged.
Doug and Wendy were close and they enjoyed each other’s company very much. On the one hand, that made Barbara happy. But it also struck another chord deep down inside, down where there was a crack in her self-esteem. At times when she saw them doing things together a voice in her had taunted her, “They really don’t need you. In fact, maybe there’s someone who would be better for them.”
She’d been able to fight these thoughts for years–until she learned Doug’s terrible secret: He was having an affair. Worst of all, he was seeing a model, a perfect beauty, the image of everything Barbara felt she was not. For several months, she fought for Doug’s affection, trying to be cheery and loving. But the affair continued.
Doug’s rejection hit like an earthquake, opening the fissure that Barbara had fought to keep closed. It even seemed to her that Wendy preferred her dad. Self-loathing and self-pity burned through all Barbara’s resistance. and so, one evening when Doug and Wendy went out to work in the garage, Barbara reached for her prescription tranquilizers.
As she looked at me now from across the sofa, I was chilled to think of the promise she’d made the day the hospital released her: I’ll do it again if I get a chance.
Barbara’s emotional state and spiritual needs were only one problem. The second major problem complicated things even more. Pete and I sensed the need for complete confidentiality in this situation. Could she face the church, knowing that they knew? How would Barbara gain ground on her already poor self-esteem if gossip about her attempted suicide should spread? What if she bumped into one of those chatty and full-of-advice-in-the-middle-of-the-grocery-store types? It might even trigger another attempt.
In fact, Barbara and Doug’s story has an intriguing ending to it. It’s with their blessing and approval, of course, that it’s repeated here in the hope that it will benefit others. We’ll look at what happened in this particular instance shortly. For now, let’s examine some of the biblical principles that can guide us in handling good and bad reports about others.
The United States government has coined a term that refers to the passing along of important and even secret information. Individuals are selectively chosen to receive information on what is called a “need-to-know” basis. One of the first guidelines we can use when it comes to handling privileged or delicate information is to share our knowledge only with those who need to know.
Immediately the question arises: Wouldn’t that include anyone who knows–let’s say, the Andersens–and might be called on to fast and/or pray for them?
The answer is no.
It’s time we were honest with ourselves and admit that sometimes we “share” information because it lets others know that we are “in-the-know.” Instinctively, many of us sense that knowledge equals power and position. To be “in” on privileged information makes us feel important. Who among us can resist when someone pulls us aside and whispers, “What I’m going to tell you now is strictly confidential…”?
If we want to build relationships on strong and true biblical principles, we’re going to have to get down to examining our motives when we give or receive information about each other. Very simply, we must ask ourselves, “Does this person really need to know”? Or, “Do I really need to be in on this?”
Of course there are very definite occasions and positive reasons for divulging private or possibly damaging information. And there are ways that we can do it effectively so the results are constructive, not destructive.
First, let’s consider who might be included in the “need-to-know” category. You will have to decide in any given situation from these recommended guidelines.
We found, with the Andersens and with numerous other more minor incidents over the years, that a simple rule applied. Those who need to know are persons who are either part of the problem or part of the solution.
In the Andersens’ case, that cut out a large part of the church immediately, even though they might have been counted on for prayer support. It did include only those responsible for overseeing Barbara and Doug’s spiritual support. In this instance, Pete held the pivotal position in counseling and standing by Doug.
Now let’s say a friend has come to you for help with a very personal problem. Your “need-to-know” might include a Sunday school teacher, Bible study leader, or the close Christian friend of the one who is struggling. Be clear on this: We’re not referring to your teacher, group leader, or close friend. We can inadvertently spread reports about others by going to outsiders for advice. To me, it would have been a violation of the Andersens’ trust and confidence for me to pick up the phone and call someone who had no direct influence in the crisis and spill their story.
Only those who are directly related to the persons involved should be called in at first. Why? Because they are the ones whom God has already chosen to have a role in your friend’s life.
If you think that your friend might benefit from talking to another Christian or to a professional counselor–someone who has either personal experience or counseling expertise with the same problem–consider this as a good guideline: Ask your friend’s permission to share the information, or else introduce your friend to the counselor, then step into a position of prayer and emotional support–and seal your lips.
Once you’ve determined that a person fits into the “need-to-know” category, I’d like to recommend some other guidelines. Remember, in trying to follow the biblical patterns, our goal is to keep the report a good one. What does that mean?”
It means that you share only as much detail as the person you’re involving needs to know. It is important not to add your own judgments. (“He’s such a terrible husband–I’ve never known him to live up to his word”; “She’s the most controlling woman I’ve ever met–it’s no wonder he’s run off with his secretary”). Your judgments can be prejudicial, coloring the way another will view the problem. In fact, your perspective is only that–your perspective. Though you think so, you may not have all the facts. And your goal isn’t to get this third party to agree with you, but something higher. What is that goal?
The goal, which we so often lose sight of in “counseling” relationships, is to help the hurting person remove the blockages of sin and emotional damage so they can move on in their relationship to the Lord. We are talking about encouraging someone on to maturity–no matter what we thank their “fault” or “sin” might be. We are not out to prove how sharp our insight or wisdom is.
This rule applies even if we are talking about the most ordinary situations. In fact, it’s in the ordinary events that most of our relationship problems take root.
For instance, let’s say you’re on the planning committee for a church holiday open house which is aimed at welcoming new people from the community. You need a hostess for the function, someone who can be at the church an hour before the event to be sure the last minute touches are in place. Someone suggests Betsy, but you know that Betsy is never on time. You pick her up each week for a Bible study and often wait forty minutes while she applies her make-up, feeds the cat and … well, you get the picture.
Now, the others on your committee don’t need all those facts about Betsy’s tardiness. (I’ve been in too many such meetings–and even in large group settings–where someone felt they had to “share” all those details. And in the past I’ve probably been guilty of it myself.”) Nor will Betsy benefit at all from your poring over her faults while you smirk and roll your eyes. You can simply say, “I don’t think she’s the best choice for that function,” and leave it at that.
At the same time, it may well be your obligation to go to Betsy and let her know that her tardiness causes a problem. But don’t cause further problems for her by giving her a bad reputation among others without giving her the opportunity to see her fault and take steps to change.
Most important, examine this directive from the Apostle Paul. It’s familiar, but too often unheeded:
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (I Corinthians 13:6,7, NIV).
Another version puts it this way: If you love someone, you will always believe in him no matter what the cost, always expect the best of him, and always stand your ground in defending him (vs. 7, TLB).
Can you honestly say that is your attitude when you have “news” about someone? Or when someone wants to share an interesting tidbit of news about a friend? We need to be reminded–all of us, over and over–when dealing with the reputations of others to live by Paul’s admonishment: “Let love be your highest aim: (I Corinthians 14:1).
To put it simply, passing along bad reports about friends and acquaintances without following scriptural guidelines can be destructive for them. And it can be embarrassing for you.
The Andersen’s story had a remarkable conclusion that taught us a final lesson about the reports we make about others.
Pete and Doug spent many, many late nights together, probing the meaning of marriage and examining Doug’s feelings about Barbara. He decided, after soul-searching, that he loved Barbara and wanted to try to make a go of it. Shortly, they decided to move back home to work on their marriage.
Pete and I prayed hard, wondering if they would make it–and wondering if stories had circulated about the Andersens that might get back to them, threatening their chances of success.
Months later, when Barbara rejoined the women’s Bible study in the apartment complex, I held my breath. Would someone’s remark tip off Barbara that people had been talking behind her back? Such a slip might undo in an instant the ground she’d gained in rebuilding her self-esteem.
One day, during a time of sharing, a newly divorced woman asked for prayer for her and her sons, that they might be able to adjust to life in a broken family. There were prayers, then offerings of comfort and hope.
Then Barbara began to offer her support, saying, “I know how hopeless life can seem. Last year when I tried to kill myself I felt so–”
Her words were cut off by a loud gasp from the dozen or more women seated around the room. Barbara looked stunned. “You mean… you didn’t know? I though everyone knew.”
A few admitted they thought there had been some problem, since the Andersens had moved in with us for a time. Personally, I was amazed, since only two or three newcomers had joined the group after Barbara’s near-tragedy. The rest of us knew each other very well. Could such a shocking event have been kept quiet, really, by the half-dozen people who had been involved?
I asked how many had really not known. Most hands went up, even hands of women who lived in apartments only a few steps away from the Andersens.
Barbara’s eyes glistened with tears. “This sure makes me feel loved. Here I’ve felt conspicuous all this time–thinking that everyone knew. But come to think of it, those of you who did know continued to love me. You never treated me any differently.”
One woman spoke for the rest of us: “If something this dramatic can happen right under my nose, and no one gossiped to me about it, I know I can trust you all now. I feel so secure.”
That, to me, is one of the greatest compliments a group of Christians can receive. For so many come to our churches and study groups, bearing hurts and the cares of the world, looking for shelter.
One shelter that we can build for them is the careful, loving handling of their secret hurts. Which is sometimes translated “counsel”–and sometimes translated “prayer and silence.”
Excerpted by Loving Confrontation, Bethany House Publishers, 1988. Bev’s first published book. Now out of print.
Still included in the updated and re-released book now titled:
A Church Learns to Get Along
© Beverly Caruso