We must look to Jesus to show us the way to be strong people who are compassionately tender at appropriate times. Jesus experienced a wide range of emotions himself. He openly wept (see John 11:35); He felt deep compassion for people (see Mark 3:5); and he even displayed righteous anger (Mark 3:5). Consider this episode in His life for our instruction.
After Jesus' wonderful mountaintop experience of His transfiguration, Peter, James, John, and Jesus return to find an upset father surrounded by a crowd in debate and the other disciples who, although experienced at the ministry of exorcism, were not able to cast a demon out of a boy. The father approached Jesus to lodge his complaint: “I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not” (Luke 9:40; see also Matthew 17:16; Mark 9:18).
Instantly Jesus let out a very personal and emotional response, “O unbelieving and perverse generation, . . . how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” (Luke 9:41). The comment conveys frustration regarding the lack of faith of the father, of the crowd, and even of His disciples—or, as J.P. and I prefer to say it, a lack of God-confidence. Jesus then dealt with the situation: "Bring your son here'" (verse 41). As the boy was being brought to Jesus, the evil spirit threw him into a convulsion. When Jesus rebuked the demon in the power of the Spirit (see Matt 12:28), the boy was instantly healed. Later, while alone with His disciples, Jesus responded to their question regarding why they could not cast out the demon. “Because you have so little God-confidence” (see Matthew 17:20).
From this passage, consider the following general points, which may offer some guidance for how to respond appropriately with God's grace when facing difficulties and crises that arise with family members, friends, fellow church members, colleagues at work, and neighbors:
1. In a conflict situation, leave room for healthy emotional venting.
“Venting” suggests the letting off of a bit of internal emotional steam or frustration. R. T. France notes that rhetorical questions, as Jesus made in this particular situation (for example, “How long shall I stay with you and put up with you?”), "need be no more than idiomatic expressions of frustration."[[i]] Because Jesus never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), His expression of frustration gives us permission also to vent our own frustrations. But we must also notice how He did so. He identified the object of His frustration in their lack of God-confidence ("What an unbelieving and perverse generation!" Matthew 17:17; Luke 9:41) as one commentator translates it)[[ii]]—more of an aside to Himself, the lament of a prophet. It's not a blaming statement starting with you, but with “I” although a few Bible versions unfortunately interpret the emotional Greek interjection “O” as “You” here. Then, he owns His feelings: "How long shall I... put up with you?" And it’s not the time for fix-it solutions yet. Now is the time for appropriate emotional expression and feeling the hurt or pain of the one venting....
2. Together work on dealing with the immediate situation.
Jesus asked for the boy, and the disciples brought him. Jesus interviewed the father about the problem and diagnosed it. He healed him, in dependence on the power of the Spirit (Matt 12:28), and gave the boy back to his father. So, after we leave some time for emotions to be vented and affirmed, we then look at the pressing need together as partners, rather than as adversaries. Of course, honest venting and empathic listening sets the best tone to move to this second step. If we start looking at the past to fix blame, we've moved back into the mode of sinful compulsions and defense mechanisms, and we're also wasting valuable time and energy that could be used to work on the immediate problem. If there is an immediate issue, it must be addressed right away. That is the primary concern, not the history of how we got here. "So what do we do now?" We face the conflict as a team. It's our problem, not your problem. We postpone any discussions of what brought the conflict on....
3. Later, privately and at leisure, discuss the episode and brainstorm ways to decrease a recurring problem.
After the healing was completed, the disciples went privately to Jesus and asked Him why they couldn't cast out the demon. Jesus explained that it was their lack of God-confidence. He then used the occasion to teach about God-confidence (see Matthew 17:20–21).
Once the impending crisis is addressed in some fashion, we can agree on the best time for reflecting on the event, when emotions are calmer and the pressing need of the problem won't oppress the tone of the conversation. We can then be honest about what went wrong. Each of us can admit the part we played. If need be, we can apologize and ask for forgiveness and receive it. For those of us who tend to fix problems, we can then offer systematic solutions that might help prevent this kind of problem from recurring.
At this point, a deeper question arises: how is growing deeper in our relationship with God tied with being more aware of our emotions? Because honesty before God is highly valued by Him, as indicated in David's psalm of confession: “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place" (Psalm 51:6, emphasis added). If we know that God wishes us to open up our deep emotions to Him, we can't go on living the same clueless way. To ignore God's invitation to open us to His searching gaze would indicate a willful resistance to His loving embrace in the deep parts of our lives. Rather, as David closes Psalm 139, let us invite God in: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (verses 23–24).
This blog article is adapted from The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life by J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006), Ch 3: “Forming a Tender, Receptive Heart,” 61-79.
[i] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 366.