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(Un)righteous Anger

I got a phone call this morning, and it made me angry. It was a follow-up call from a local agency that helps people in trouble in our community. I had phoned them a while back, hoping for some context, some background on a particular couple who was asking our church for material assistance. But they hadn’t had time to respond and a decision had to be made. The people I was talking to were desperate. They couldn’t wait. 

“Yeah, we know all about _______,” they said. “It’s always the crack cocaine with them.” I sighed. “They got some big inheritance from a relative this summer… Well over a hundred grand. But it just all went into partying… Up in smoke—literally! We’ve tried to help them in so many ways…  Their kids have been taken away from them so many times… but they just keep going back to the same old things.  ”

I heard these words, and I was angry.

I was angry because I hate being lied to. I had sat with these people while they told me the most heart wrenching of stories, through tears and snot and sadness… I had sat with them while they spoke of the many noble ways in which they were trying to move forward… I had sat with them while they pleaded for “anything you can do, anything at all, we have no food, no house, no nothin’…” And then, my credit card and I had done what we could. It felt like a band-aid solution at the time, but it was something, right? Something for the sadness and the snot and the tears? Something to help them keep limping along. And was any of it true? Probably not. At least not much. Maybe the snot.

I was angry because I hate being manipulated. I don’t like to think of myself as gullible, but they had clearly gotten precisely what they wanted out of me. They knew that Christians were supposed to be good people who did good things for poor people. They knew that Christian pastors, of all things, could quite reliably be counted on to bring a whole bunch of misplaced guilt and obligatory compassion to situations like this. They knew that with the right combination of emotion and storytelling, that I would be appropriately wearied by the burdens of goodness, and would help.

I was angry because, as I’ve written about before, I hate being the judge, the gatekeeper, the one who must evaluate who is or is not “worthy” of the church’s benevolent aid. I hate how situations like these always have built-in barriers—barriers between “haves” and “have-nots,” donors and clients, rich and poor, able and unable, etc. I hate it that it so often feels like everything that is said to me in these situations is filtered through the lens of “how can this make them give me what I want.” Or, from the other end, “how can my response to these people in need make me feel better about myself as a good Christian who helps poor people.”

I was angry because as soon as these people had received what they wanted from me, they had not responded to any of my calls, had not said thank you for the church’s assistance, had not said or done anything that would have indicated even the slightest desire for an ongoing relationship with me or with the church. They had gotten what they wanted. I was no further use to them.

I was angry as I thought about their kids, bouncing from foster home to foster home.  I was angry because it is so often kids who suffer for the sins of their parents.

So yes, I was angry. And I sat in my chair, looking hard-heartedly out my window, inwardly resolving to be more suspicious from now on, to ask better questions, to not be so gullible, to be more stingy with the church’s aid, to be a better judge.

There I sat, marinating in my righteous anger.

And then I began to think about the ways in which I often come to God. I thought about how often I come to God demanding things, help, wisdom, anything—particularly when I have made a spectacular mess. I thought of how often I make the same mistakes, over and over and over again. I thought about my own cherished habits of selfishness, sin, and stupidity. I thought about how reliably I can often make decisions that hurt myself and those around me.

I thought about what it might be like if I had to exhibit “appropriate need” or “demonstrable initiative/progress” in order for God to grant me an audience… About what it might be like if I had to provide proof that I was managing my meager resources with suitable competence before my case would get a hearing…. About what it might be like if God or others in my own life would apply the same standard to me that I was self-righteously rehearsing in my mind in the context of these people who found themselves in a hard place, before extending a welcome.

I thought about a story I had once read about a father who had a son, and about how this son had blown a vast sum of money on partying…

I shuddered.

And then I prayed. For forgiveness, yes. Certainly for forgiveness. But also in simple gratitude that there is such a thing as grace this world. And that this grace drags us—sometimes with deep gladness, sometimes, alas, kicking and screaming—along for the ride.

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. James #

    There’s two stories here, aren’t there? I had just such a visit last week and heard a story of immense pathos. My “go to” place has become- the greater the pathos the less I trust it- and yet, like you I gave- though quite certain I was being lied to. It’s part of the puzzlement that I’ve come to take for granted. The 2nd story, maybe the undertone of the article for me, is to make sure when I’m going before God asking for grace- is that I’m really sincere. “Search me O God . . .”

    November 18, 2014
    • Yup, two stories. At least. And, I suppose, the hope that the second story will always continue to exert a bit of pressure on the first.

      November 19, 2014
  2. mike #

    Don’t worry,Ryan, you will get a chance to redeem yourself. …probably tomorrow. 🙂

    The goal (for me) is to give what I can when asked, without reservation. …especially hard to do when I know that I’m being Conned or used.

    November 18, 2014
    • Yes, it’s hard. I was talking to someone about this yesterday and they asked me, “Even if you were being totally used and conned, do you think Jesus would be displeased with what you did?”

      I felt better after that conversation. 🙂

      November 19, 2014
  3. Ryan, I’d love to respond to this post but before I do ( and I have lots of opinions) I’d like more details. Please provide more context: What was the couple asking for, why was there such a rush, what did you give them.

    (In my work in Community Corrections I get “worked” every day. What is the angle? How can my agreement to this request cause harm to others? Why is this such a rush? These and others are questions that have become second nature to me now after years in the business.)

    Anyway loved hearing about your anger, can’t figure out what you needed forgiveness for and hope you have time to give some more context.

    Larry S

    Love your blog

    November 18, 2014
    • Hey Larry, I probably shouldn’t get into too many specifics in a public context like this… They had many needs, but their most pressing one was accommodation. It was cold outside and they needed a warm place. That accounted for the urgency in this case.

      The “second nature” questions you instinctively ask are ones that need to become more instinctive to me, I think. I’m not naive—at least I don’t think I am—but I know that I do tend to err on the side of compassion and taking people at their word. I know that often this simply perpetuates unhealthy habits and ways of being in the world.

      Re: forgiveness, I suppose I was just thinking that my attitude toward these people after learning more of the story was not what it could or should have been. The whole log and splinter thing, you know? I don’t know what it’s like to be these people, to face their demons, to battle their histories, etc. A look in the mirror is usually a pretty good place to start when pronouncing upon the merits and/or deficiencies of others.

      Thank you for the kind words about the blog.

      November 19, 2014
      • Larry S #

        Thanks for the response Ryan – here are some thoughts put together at the end of the day:

        No need to answer this I’m just musing out loud. I’m always curious about how a con is set up. Did they show up at the end of the day when you were tired, when agencies you could have reached out to are closed, when you have no way of checking with what we call “collaterals.” Did they deluge you with information, panicky emotion (not to mention snot filled tears, yuck) to overwhelm you and keep you from being able to think clearly – all the while keeping the pressure up?

        When scenarios are set up like this perhaps it helps to slow things down – resist the pressure and ask the people why they won’t go to the shelters in town. I’d say find out all about those support agencies/policies, hours and financially support those groups. The time to deal with these types of situations is before they walk through the door.

        I still don’t see why you need to ask forgiveness for being angry at being used. In the people business we are going to be lied to, set-up and cheated. That reality and its attendant anger comes with the territory. I’d say own your anger but don’t nurse it which is what you seem to have done by venting on your blog 🙂

        On a good day when I’m not too tired or harassed by people who tend to only think about themselves and have the maturity/patience of a 13 year old I think of Jesus’ story about the guy who was forgiven a huge debt then went and put someone in debtors prison who owed him only a little amount. I’m forgiven and hope to learn what grace is and extend it to others.

        November 19, 2014
      • Slow down, ask more questions, ask better questions… Yes, these are all among the lessons that I am (intermittently) learning… 🙂

        I don’t know about whether blogging about these things would fall into the “owning” or “nursing” anger category… Probably a bit of both. I guess I’ve learned over time that others seem to find value in my sharing of these experiences, so I do. The longer I do this job (particularly with the gifts I do and do not bring to the table), the more I think that one of my main tasks is to be a good steward of the stories that I come across, that I am a part of, to invite others in, to say, “here is how things look from where I stand…”

        The story of Jesus you mention is a great one—one that is both profoundly liberating and sobering at the same time (as so many of Jesus’ stories seem to be!). On my good days, I try to keep this story in mind, too, and to learn and extend grace.

        November 20, 2014
      • mike #

        “The longer I do this… the more I think that one of my main tasks is to be a good steward of the stories that I come across, that I am a part of,to invite others in, to say, “here is how things look from where I stand…”


        November 20, 2014
    • mike #

      I think that you’ve hit upon something of Epic proportions here concerning our role as stewards and conveyors of real-life stories and experience(s). It’s the monumental difference between aggressive “preaching” *AT* a congregation and simply communicating/relating to a flock through one’s life experiences,…a Lite hearted gentle reasoning if you will.

      November 21, 2014
  4. You might enjoy the documentary “Overnighters” if you get a chance to see it. Very compelling in the way it deals with the questions you raise as well. (Though there’s a twist at the end that takes the story in quite another direction.)

    November 19, 2014
    • I’ve heard of this film, Dora. Thanks for providing a bit of motivation to find out more.

      November 19, 2014
  5. mmartha #

    Very thoughtful writing.
    For us to dismiss another whatever the circumstance as having “mis-managed” can be a lofty way to go when all that we have is gift, maybe even of management, by inheritance, a windfall, a talent the world has been waiting for ! Some of those may be unlikely avenues, but “we must learn to look through every gift and every event to God” (Meister Eckhart as quoted in Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God, p.119).
    I don’t mean this is simple, just that we often need to lean on understanding beyond our own limited evaluation.

    November 19, 2014
    • mike #

      Beautifully said,mmartha

      November 19, 2014
    • Great image—”looking through” things to see God…

      November 19, 2014
  6. mike #

    Who/What is it in us that takes such great offence to being conned/used by these less fortunate individuals, Ego?. many of them are simply evil opportunists, right?
    I confess that I sometimes entertain delusions of Grandeur when I help out one of these people, secretly hoping for yet another Star in my glorious Crown…Evil Opportunist, Who? ME?

    November 19, 2014
  7. Paul Johnston #

    I would imagine this to be a serious situation for a pastor to find himself in. Defining moments, so to speak. Either you are enabling sin or fostering grace. Larry advises you well. Hard questions must be asked. Emotional detachment is essential, both from the drama around you and from your own insecurities. In the end, the food, shelter and money we may offer are fleeting and insufficient. We must offer Christ and fellowship within Christ. If they are receptive to that offer, Christ working through all, will reclaim his lost sheep.

    Don’t be afraid to confront substance issues. Who in our culture truly suffers from material impoverishment unless they are an abuser or the child of one. OFFER CHRIST. Offer salvation. The price is repentance to the fallen and fellowship and support from the Christian community being confronted. If those who come to you refuse your offer of Christ, what of any lasting value can you offer them?

    Social agencies offer material respite without concerns of forgiveness and redemption. If those who come to you seek only material outcomes, direct them accordingly. While they are in your company remember that God has blessed you mightily with an ability to communicate His story.

    Preach preacher, preach. 🙂

    November 21, 2014
    • I appreciate these words. So often we scramble to offer scraps out of profoundly mixed motives, and neglect to address the deepest need that each of us will ever have.

      Thank you, Paul.

      November 21, 2014
    • mike #

      Paul!, your sounding to me like a fundamentalist Evangelical 😦
      What more purer motive to give/help-out another human being is there than to offer it without strings or conditions? It just seems to me that this would be as close to the heart of the Christ gospel as we can get. ….such a gray area this topic.

      November 23, 2014
      • Larry S #

        On this issue, I would likely land somewhere between Paul and Ryan/Mike.

        Offering money and/or goods to someone in active addiction is likely a very foolish thing to do. Doesn’t it usually just enable that individual to continue the destructive behaviours?

        Whenever I read “normals” talking about how the’ve given out money to street people panhandling (thinking it is some kind of God appointed event” I think the times I see people I know are prolific offenders standing on traffic islands with signs begging for “food”.

        (just so I don’t come off as a complete rednck, I am on the board of “Hope for Freedom” a faith based recovery society in Pt. Coquitlam. The Society has beeninfluential in starting the Mat Program where area churches open their doors to the homeless and feed them for a night. The Society also has a federal contract to reach out to the homeless. We use people in recovery with a personal history of homelessness as paid Outreach Workers to connect with the homeless offering them assistance to get off the street. Often this includes people entering recovery.

        November 23, 2014
  8. mike #

    I appreciate your response, Larry. This is such an interesting conversation.

    Do we enable an individual when we give to them, knowing full well that it will be misused?…yeah, in one sense we do. I think the concept of “Enabling” is a complex idea with many contradictory nuances, needle exchanges and free condom programs being such examples. WJD? ..It’s purported that the highest form of Love is Unconditional, would this universal Law extend to our Giving as well?…exceptions??…..I don’t know…

    November 23, 2014
  9. Larry S #

    I agree that the concept of enabling is complex – the best thing I can say about giving away cash to the dude on the Traffic Island is maybe he it will slow down his B/E activity 🙂 but I’ll never give away anything to anyone on the street. Not when there are street-wise charities – Like HOPE FOR FREEDOM out there to support. – shameless plug

    This thread brings to mind an experience I had a month or so ago. Its’ probably a bit off topic but the idea of people lying brings it back to me.

    – I had a new client – a street-wise guy in his 40 or 50’s with a bit of a criminal history I was doing an Initial Intake Interview on him going over bits of his history and his present circumstances. I don’t remember what I had said to get this response probably talking about his addiction or something but the guy started to tell me this: “I really appreciate how you care about me, how you are trying to help me, you are way different then my last supervisor.” I looked at him for a moment and then said, “Quit working me.” The guy looked at me, startled and didn’t say anything for a few seconds. Then he looked at me straight in the eyes, leaned his head back and gave out a loud open mouthed laugh. The interview moved on. We seemed to have established the parameters of our relationship.

    Anyway, I don’t know that Love is all that unconditional – it seems to me there are limits to everything – but that is another topic.

    have a blessed Sunday

    November 23, 2014
    • mike #

      I place a high value on your insight, Larry, and I admire you for your service to mankind.

      Love the story new client story. I hear much the same Bull in AA meetings.

      November 23, 2014
  10. Thanks, all, for your comments. It’s fascinating to read how others work through some of these matters in their own contexts and with their own backgrounds and perspectives…

    I don’t have much to add aside from this. The longer I am involved in situations like this, the more I find myself pulled in two directions. On the one hand, I am convinced that it is scandalous to address someone’s spiritual needs while doing nothing to address their miserable physical conditions. This is what the book of James (among other parts of Scripture) goes to great lengths to tell us to avoid.

    On the other hand, I am often painfully aware of how limited the physical help that I (or anyone else) can offer really is. So often, offering material assistance feels like slapping a band aid on an open, festering wound. It does nothing to address painful hurts that have resulted from a lifetime of being victimized by others. It does nothing to address the many ways that people cling to habits of sin. It does nothing to affect reconciliation between God and others.

    So, acknowledging this tension is probably just another way of reminding myself of the basic reality, affirmed throughout Scripture, that we must treat one another as whole human persons, body and spirit, and must never neglect one at the expense other.

    November 24, 2014
    • mmartha #

      “(W)e must treat one another as whole human persons” I agree. What is our heart-attitude ? Or as a theologian that I read often would say, what is the habit of our heart?

      November 24, 2014
  11. mike #

    …Great summations.

    November 24, 2014

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