Sunday’s Sermon - Why don’t people understand me?
Below is a podcast of the sermon I preached on Sunday, March 12, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. It's the second sermon in a series entitled, "Why: Answering Some of Life's Hard Questions." You can find other sermons, devotions, essays, articles, and announcements on The Cove Community blog. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information. If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.
As you remember, last week we started a new series dealing with some of what I consider life’s most difficult questions. And for each question, we using a different part of Job to ferret out some answers. Now that’s what we’ll be doing right up to Palm Sunday.
And during the first message, we looked at that simple, modest, easily-answered little question: Why do bad things happen to good people? And we talked about how sometimes good people suffer because of what they’ve done to themselves or what’s been done to them by others, but other times, there just doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for their pain, sort of like what happened when God allowed Satan to take away everything from Job, a righteous man just to show that he’d remain righteous. In other words, sometimes suffering is not fair; it just happens, because it does. Not a great answer, right, but it’s the only one we’ve got. But as we talked about last week, whether we can understand it or not, I think it’s important for us to remember three things. First, we’ve been forgiven and cleansed; therefore, we’re not bound to keep repeating the past like Bill Murray did in Groundhog Day. And second, our future have been secured; therefore, whatever’s happening now is temporary. And third, we can be confident that God is with us all the time. Now that’s what we talked about last week.
And today, well, today we’re going to consider the question: Why don’t people understand me? Of course, anyone who’s lived or worked with a teenager has probably heard this question before. I mean, even prior to becoming a father, I was a high school teacher; therefore, I already knew that anytime a teenager didn’t do what was expected or reacted in an extreme way to something that both a preteen and a post-teen would consider pretty insignificant, the problem wasn’t with her or her friends or even the situation she was facing. No sir, the problem was with me and my total inability to understand what she was going through. And for that reason any advice I might give or suggestion I might offer could be immediately rejected, because you see, I’m ignorant. I live under this great big rock. I just don’t understand. Now, that’s what I learned, a lesson that’s been reinforced these last two years.
But having said that, I really don’t want to suggest that the question, why don’t people understand me, that it’s only asked by folks going through adolescent hormonal changes. As a matter of fact, I think we might all find ourselves asking this exact same question from time to time. I’m telling you, I think, from time to time, we all wonder why the people around just don’t understand us.
And even though sometimes the issue we’re facing is trivial and unimportant even to us, at other times it’s not. For example, it may involve the kind of situation Job faced when he tried to share the undeserved, unfair, and unexplainable suffering he was enduring to his closest friends, and they all kind of blew him off. I mean, the more Job told them that his suffering had broken the fundamental rule he’d followed since birth and how he’d lived what really was a righteous life, something we know was true, and God had allowed horrible things to happen; man, the more he share the injustice he was facing, not only couldn’t his friends understand what he was saying, they accused him of lying. For them, God wouldn’t and couldn’t allow a righteous person to suffer for no reason. That wasn’t possible; therefore, Job must have done something wrong, and for his own good, he needed to admit it and then he could die in peace. But, of course, both Job and the reader, meaning us, we know they’re wrong. They just don’t understand.
And you know, when it happened to him, I think Job went through the same emotions we generally feel when people don’t seem to understand us. I mean, as we read this book, we see that Job went from a lonely-kind of sadness to genuine irritation and frustration to honest-to-goodness anger both at his buddies and even at God when it appeared that, not only did no one care that he was suffering, but that no one, including God, was even willing to explain why it was happening. You see, that’s what happened to Job, and I think that can also happen to us.
But I’ll tell you, when it does, I think we can do more that just sit there in the ashes and argue with guys who aren’t going to listen because they’re champing at the bite to talk. You see, I think we can understand why this kind of thing happens. But more than that, we can also get a pretty good idea about what we can do about it. And in my opinion, it all comes to two verbs, “will” and “can,” and how they apply to the people around us. Let me explain.
When we’re really struggling and that struggle is making us sad and frustrated and angry, because we feel that no one really understands what we’re facing, I think it’s important for us to remember that we’re always, and I mean always surrounded by four kinds of people. For example, whether we like it or not, there will always be folks who both won’t and can’t understand. You see, for some reason, they’ve made the decision that they will not understand what we’re saying or what we’re facing or what we’re feeling. They’re just not going to do it. Of course, they have their reasons: maybe, like Job’s friends, the stuff we’re talking about doesn’t fit into what they already believe, and they don’t really need to listen, or maybe they don’t feel they have the time or the energy to deal with someone else’s problems, or maybe they just don’t care, that’s another possibility. But regardless of the reason, they’re just not willing to understand. And that’s actually alright, because they really couldn’t understand even if they wanted to. Let me give you an example. I remember, back when I was in seminary, there was a guy in my class named Duncan. He had muscular dystrophy. He was limited to a wheelchair all the time. And his time on earth was going to be brief. That was Duncan’s life. And I’ll tell you, no matter how much I read about the disease and no matter how much time I spent with Duncan and no matter how kind and compassionate I tried to be, I was never able to understand what he felt when he woke up in the morning and when he rolled himself to class and when he worked and studied maybe harder than the rest of us to do something he might never live to do, and he knew it. You see, what he faced was so foreign to my experiences, I don’t think it was possible for me to understand what he went through every day. And I think that applies to all kinds of situations, including some of the stuff you and I face. Some folks couldn’t understand even if they wanted to. And I’ll tell you, when you combine this inability with a lack of desire, man, those folks are just about as close to a lost cause as you can get. I mean, they’re probably not going to listen. And if they say anything at all, it’s probably going to be brief and unrelated to what we’re feeling. In fact, they’re probably only going to increase our sadness, frustration and anger. And if we go to them for understanding more than once or twice and then leave feeling worse, and I think we all know that’s going to happen, we really only have ourselves to blame, because these people won’t and they can’t understand.
But you know, there are others who could understand if they wanted, but have decided they don’t. These are the can, but won’t folks. You see, they really are able to identify with us. They can do it, because we’re facing something that they already faced. Maybe they endured it themselves; I don’t know. But that’s really not important, because whether it’s from a lack of time or energy or interest or concern, they’ve decided that they will not be understanding. They just don’t care. And even though I think it’s possible to convince them to become concerned, I honestly believe it’s pretty unlikely. I mean, let’s get real, if someone can identify with what we’re facing but just doesn’t care, I think we may waste a lot of time trying to convince them to change their minds. And when we’re feeling like Job and the sadness, frustration and anger is on the rise, time may be one thing we don’t have. And so, unless we have some kind of martyr mentality and deep down really want to believe that no one understands, that no one cares, I think we can move past both those who won’t and can’t right along with those who could but won’t.
But even if we mark these guys off our sharing list, there are two other kinds of folks that we might want to approach. You see, there are plenty of people around us who actually care and who genuinely want to understand us; unfortunately, they just can’t. In other words, they’re willing to take the time and to make the effort and to offer direction and support and comfort. Man, they want to do it; they just don’t know how. They just don’t know what to do, because what we’re facing is different from anything they’ve ever experienced, you know, sort of like what I was saying about Duncan. And I’ll tell you, for those who want to understand but can’t, man, that can be extremely frustrating, and I’m talking about for them as well as us. But even though it won’t be easy, I think we can help them with this identification problem by trying as best we can to understand their backgrounds and then to explain what we’re facing in a way that relates to their experiences. In other words, if they can’t understand what we’re saying, we might need to speak with words and images that they can grasp. And even though, like I said, that’s certainly not easy, especially when we’re kind of struggling, it’s a whole lot easier than trying to convince someone that they should care when they’ve already decided that they don’t. I think those who are willing but not able have a greater potential to understand.
But even though it’s possible to bring them into our experience, when we feel as no one understands us, the best folks for us to turn for help are those who will and can, in other words, those who want and who are able to understand us. And we can identify them, because they already care about us. They’re already concerned about what we’re facing, and they’re already willing to take the time and make the effort to offer whatever insight and sympathy they’re able to muster. But more than that, they’re also able to understand, to identify with our struggle, including our sadness and our frustrations and anger. And I’ll tell you why; they may have actually walked in our shoes. They may already have survived what we face. Good night, they may have muscular dystrophy like Duncan. In other words, they have been where we are. And because they also care, they’re ready to listen; they’re ready to understand. And that should be good news for us, because now we have someone with whom we can share, without worrying about whether, at some point, they’re going to start looking at their watches or rolling their eyes or whether, after sharing our story, they’re going to look like we’ve either started to talk in Portuguese or suddenly have lobster clawing out of our ears. Man, those worries are gone; therefore, we’re free to share. But more than just talking, we can also start listening, listening to what they have to say, listening to the words of comfort they’ll offer as well as the advice they might give. And we can decide to trust that what they’re saying comes from both the heart and the head, you know, from sincere concern and actual experience. I’ll tell you, these people can make a huge difference when we need to be understood.
In fact, that may be one of the reasons why in the church, the Body of Christ, God has drawn together so many different people with different backgrounds and who have gone through different experiences, but who are united by one command: that we love one another as we’ve been loved. And along with a God who is always present and who always loves and who can identify with us on our worst day, because, remember, as the writer of Hebrews said, “Jesus understands every weakness of ours, because he was tempted in every way that we are. But he did not sin!” God will and can understand us, and we should certainly be able to find the same among his people.
Now, like I said earlier, I think at some point, we don’t have to be teenagers to wonder if there’s anyone who will and who can understand how we feel. And when this happens, I also think it’s natural to experience some sadness and some frustration, maybe even some anger. But I think we can avoid this grief when we recognize that some folks won’t and can’t understand while there are others could but won’t or who are willing but just can’t but that there are still others, hopefully right here in this community, who do want to understand and who can identify with us. And I’ll tell you, those are the ones to whom we can go. And you know, if we do, that can offer a lot of comfort when we feel like asking the question: Why don’t people understand me?