Tender

Our host was friendly and open at the start of our lunch visit but after an hour he suddenly turned quiet. And despite some serious conversational CPR we three guests realized the party had died so we said our goodbyes and slipped away. Later I learned I had stepped on a relational landmine.

My companions—a couple who knew the host and his wife well while I had only met them—offered an informed guess afterwards that shed light. The host, they explained, despised a certain historical figure who I happened to admire. So when I praised this long dead saint I’d unwittingly stepped on it.

I’m still processing the visit. All of us have tender spots; and this tenderness comes by God’s design—he created us to have soft hearts. So there isn’t any shame in being sensitive to another person’s attitudes and actions. Or in feeling anger or grief. Jesus tipped tables over in the Jerusalem temple, wept for the city, and at the tomb of Lazarus he wept again with Mary and Martha in the face of death. So our lunch host’s response was part of life in a tender world.

It’s also true that we all build friendships through shared emotional bonds. So when I find a person with a common passion it’s easy to trust him. The bond can be as small as a shared joy in hiking or as profound as a deep love for Christ. Then even if we disagree over lesser matters we can usually maintain a bond of trust through our common core values.

After our lunch I found myself thinking of two other tender conversations in the past month. One was another landmine surprise that still has me mystified. The friendship in that case wasn’t broken and a working relationship reemerged—but the underlying issue wasn’t explained despite my blind apologies. So now I’m tentative around him. In the other case I wasn’t part of the hurt but I did hear how a wrong relationship from forty years ago still causes debilitating pain in this person’s life.

So, what to do? If we ask how to avoid giving and receiving tender spots—hurts—there isn’t one happy answer. A blunt, “Stop being so sensitive!” is a great way to make things worse! And the opposite call, “Just wait—time heals all wounds,” only ignores issues and hardens separations.

Does the Bible offer any help here? Will a gentle conversation—Paul’s “speaking the truth in love”—help build trust and restore bonds? That’s certainly ideal, yet it takes two to make it work, And when alienation is already active that’s all too uncommon. Instead mistrust often hardens until a soul-callous forms over the tender spot in the offended soul; and the offender is pushed away.

Let’s return to Jesus. In working with his disciples he could be tough. As in a set of Matthew texts (15:16, 16:8 & 23) where he asked, “Are you still without understanding?” And, “O you of little faith …” And, again, to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” He wasn’t giving hugs!

Yet Jesus did display a way forward. He never harbored hurts or remained isolated. Instead he offered bold love. His often-thoughtless disciples were never rejected. Even Judas Iscariot ate at the Lord’s last supper before he left to betray Jesus, when Jesus already knew his plan. And a few days after Jesus called Peter “Satan” he invited his flawed follower to see his mountaintop transfiguration. Jesus always defused landmines, he never planted them.

Yet it’s crucial that we don’t confuse the last point with his purpose to cleanse the temple; and to confront the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians who finally crucified him. He let evil have its day. Yet he was proactive as he offered up his life in the face of hatred. His warnings were invitations to repentance—a call to restored relationship—and he turned evil for good by making crucifixion the pathway to salvation.

Paul captured some of this in writing to the Ephesians in a text we used already (4:24-32). He allowed for anger but not sinful anger—so that we “give no opportunity to the devil.” Our prayer, then, is for all believers to grow closer in a shared love for Christ. So that any lesser disagreements won’t break relationships but, instead, build them.

A clear pathway forward here comes through another form of tenderness. As followers of Christ we’re invited to grow ever more tender to the Holy Spirit as he forms God’s love, joy, peace, and patience in us. And his active presence in turn supports trust, respect, and sweet conversations.

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