During my time of seventh-grade bullying, one girl was the primary cause. Supposedly a close friend, she instigated the incidents. Over the years I needed to learn the hard way that I couldn’t trust her. Originally I confided in her, trusting her friendship. Then she betrayed me. Repeatedly. Because she had been my first friend in my new school, it was hard to wrap my mind around the fact that she was acting as my enemy. Finally my mom got me to see, after far too many times of being betrayed, that I couldn’t trust my friend. Then my parents taught me the even harder lesson of loving difficult people by faith.
Loving difficult people by faith.
Loving by faith initially seems to contradict our definition of love. When we think of all the ways we use the word “love,” we usually associate it with pleasure. We love pizza. I love chocolate cheesecake, especially when I make it with Kahlua. Mmmmm. We love great books and great movies. And, of course, we love people. We love all the special people in our lives.
But what about the difficult people in our lives? Don’t we all have difficult people we love? And, if we’re honest, aren’t we difficult to love at times too? My parents taught me the importance of praying for difficult people. But here’s the most challenging part. We’re not allowed to simply pray that they stop being annoying or sinning against us. We need to pray for them in a way that cares about their needs being met. That meant I needed to pray that my frenemy would be happy, that life would go well for her, and that she would feel loved. That meant I could never complain about her to our friends.
God uses prayer to create love.
In his Love is a Feeling to be Learned, Walter Trobischer explains that the feeling of love follows the actions of love. Not the other way around. Infatuation can come first. Or an intense, sudden best friendship. But the feeling of real love follows our learning to love unconditionally, as God loves us. It also comes after we learn to love by faith. My parents gave me a tiny book by Bill Bright that changed my life and relationships: How to Love by Faith. This tiny book taught me how to trust the Holy Spirit to give me his love, as I prayed for the person who bothered me so much. What a revolutionary, biblical concept!
Prayer for others changes us.
To me what was most amazing about this process was that God used it to heal me. He took away my anger, my desire for vengeance, and even much of my pain. As I really prayed for this girl, I began to notice the ways she was suffering and saw that she was lashing out because of her own pain. My changed heart allowed her heart to change–slowly. I didn’t notice the change in her as quickly as I noticed it in myself. But God changed both of us, through my prayers.
Over the years, God has called me back to that lesson many times. Because I forget. When people act nasty toward me, my automatic reaction can be to feel hurt and angry. But each time God brings me back to his lesson of loving difficult people by faith, he brings healing. To me and to the other person.
One-Time Comments Have Lasting Impact.
Telling kids that only sticks and stones can hurt them–not words–may make speakers feel better. But both kids and adults know it’s a lie. Fortunately, positive one-time comments have lasting impact too. In this world of physical bullying and cyber bullying, it’s more important than ever for adults to speak words of hope to the kids in our lives.
Girl dancing in church expresses her praise.
Parents have lots of opportunities, but any adult can bless a child with words of lasting impact.
Even our brief conversations with children at church during greeting times can affect them powerfully. Negatively or positively. I mentioned before my twelve-year-old daughter’s horrid reaction when an older woman told her to enjoy her childhood, since these were the best years of her life. The well-meaning elderly woman had no idea of the negative impact her words conveyed and that my daughter would never forget that one comment.
At the same time, a sincere question to a child about to start a new school can be powerful. It affirms the child’s importance and the significance of that time in life, because the grown up acknowledges it. Hearing that an adult they don’t know well is going to pray for them in this time validates their membership in the body of Christ. It points to the fact that they are valuable human beings and not simply partially formed adults. We can help our church children to feel embraced by the Body of Christ, so that they can open themselves up fully to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
One woman I know overheard a nine-year-old say something to her mom about the sermon reminding her of her recent nightmares.
She told the girl she had overheard and remembered her own children experiencing nightmares. Her children had been blessed by having her come in and pray with them. She had simply prayed, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command you, Satan, to leave this child alone! Lord Jesus protect this child from further attack and give your peace.” Instantly, the child had experienced the peace of Christ and freedom from nightmares.
This woman asked the girl if she could pray with her right there. She eagerly accepted. After praying for her, she reminded the girl of 1 John 4:4 “because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” She also reminded her of the power of the name of Christ.
The next week the girl initiated conversation. She told how she had needed to pray that on her own one night. But since then, she had been nightmare free. The woman now tells of how this girl she didn’t really know, and still doesn’t really know, has a special bond with her. Because one-time comments have lasting impact, they share a special greeting each time they see each other at church. She knows the girl feels the certainty of being a part of the Body of Christ with her.
Sunday School teachers have special opportunities.
In talking to friends lately about our faith journeys, I’ve realized how many of us remember something an adult said to us decades ago. Just once. I remember being struck by my Sunday School teacher telling her fifth graders that God had no grandchildren. To adults, that may seem obvious. But to me as a young child, it was striking. She challenged us that we were not automatically part of God’s family just because our parents were. We needed to make our own choices.
Though I’m sure my parents tried to convey this same idea many times, no memory of it stands out. But Mrs. Bruizeman’s fervent conversation with us struck a chord. I’ll never forget the earnestness in her voice. I knew it was important to her personally that we each take God seriously and accept Jesus as personal Savior. It changed me.
A friend has a similar experience. She remembers her Sunday School teacher telling a class of eleven-year-olds that each person had to make a personal decision to accept Christ, not just assume it because of parents. And she told them they were old enough to do that for themselves. She also challenged them that they were old enough to read their Bibles daily on their own. My friend felt surprise. She also felt the challenge and a sense of responsibility she never forgot.
I pray each of us seeks these opportunities and remembers that one-time comments have lasting impact.
“Fartie Artie!” taunted Arthur’s classmates countless times a day after his tragic mistake.
The story was that one day when home alone after school, he had been playing with matches and accidentally caught the curtains on fire. He had burned his home down. And now the bullies taunting him would not stop.
Arthur was two or three years older than I was, so I had been unaware of his existence before this event. But now I continued to notice taunting classmates evacuating whatever table he sat down at for lunch.
My second-grade self felt horrible for Arthur in his shunning. I worried to my mom about it. I was afraid Arthur would never feel he belonged again.
She asked me a question I had never thought about: “What do you think Jesus would do if he were a student at your school?”
I grudgingly said, “He would probably go sit with him.”
But Jesus would have been a boy and would have probably known Arthur.
“But I don’t even know him.”
Mom agreed and was quiet.
Then a bit later, “Do you think it would be okay with Jesus if I took my little sister with me?”
Mom assured me that she thought Jesus would approve. Fortunately, my first-grade sister was good-natured and very willing to accompany me on this mission.
The next day when we sat down across from Arthur and said, “Hi,” he ignored us except to move as far away from us as possible. This was NOT part of our plan.
My mom assured me that it did not mean our joining him was the wrong thing to do. She encouraged us to give him time. So we did.
I’m not actually sure that Arthur ever spoke to us. After all, girls our age definitely had cooties. Everyone knew that.
But after several days of our odd lunches, a couple of my friends joined me and my sister. Later a couple of his friends joined him.
After a few days of our segregated groups eating at the same table, I decided our task was finished. I never noticed bullies taunting or isolating him again.
Maybe that would have happened naturally in the same number of days—just because kids would have gotten sick of teasing him. We will never know.
I certainly never had a chance to tell Arthur or anyone else that the reason we were joining him is that we were trying to be like Jesus. They will never know.
But my mom’s question for me and her quiet encouragement of me and my sister in our mission taught us a lot about the character of Jesus.
She taught us that Jesus does not shun people who feel like losers. Jesus does not taunt people who really mess up. He loves us all and wants us to show his love to those around us—especially when they mess up.
Bullying gave my dad an opportunity to change my life for the better.
I’m so glad I never had to deal with cyber bullying. I don’t know how I would have handled that. Compared to that, what I went through was not a big deal.
Yet any time a child is shunned, mocked, or picked on by peers is traumatic. Especially when it goes on for months.
My parents assumed I would not be harmed for life by these experiences if they allowed me to learn to trust God.
Fortunately for me, they were right.
But their responses could have harmed me.
They could have said it was no big deal to be called names repeatedly. Over-reacting could have been just as bad. I would have been mortified if they had immediately gone to the teacher with my complaints. I needed to vent, but I didn’t need to be babied.
Finally, though, girls flushed my underwear down the toilet and pummeled me on the way from the shower to my locker. That day my dad went to the principal and the gym teacher. I’m glad he did.
But I’m even more glad that he first used my situation to teach me about standing my ground in persecution.
“Persecution” sounds like an over-statement for being picked on for doing the right thing. But I have been permanently blessed by the fact that my dad took my bullying experience seriously enough to encourage me with verses from James 1. He read me verses 2-5 in many different versions:
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. (NIV)
Day after day.
I remember complaining that I had those verses memorized in different versions because of how many times Dad read them to me.
And I was not being thrown to the lions for proclaiming Christ. I was simply being bullied for obeying the teacher and taking a shower after gym. Stupid, right?
We all hated to shower in front of others but were forced to tell the teacher we had done it in order to get daily points. I chose not to lie about it. My Christian classmates must have felt guilty for lying, so they took it out on me.
How my dad responded to my troubles dignified my experience.
He showed me that living my life for Christ in little situations was important, even in bullying. He showed me that God would bless me through my obedience. And he always prayed with me about it. Every day.
The amazing thing is that now I look back on seventh grade as a time of huge spiritual growth. Thanks, Dad.