Graceful Responses To Nasty Emails.

I woke up that Sunday morning and perused my sermon notes over coffee. I was pretty satisfied with the effort that I had put into crafting a teaching that would help us, as a church, put some things in perspective, but I knew what Monday morning would bring. I told my wife as I headed out the door “I’m probably going to receive a nasty email after I this sermon”. She looked at me with a furrowed brow and responded “Why, what are you preaching on?” . “Community”, I answered. She nodded, “The loners don’t like to hear about community”. As I walked out the door I looked at her and said “And, lone rangers are always looking for a fight”.

The next morning the volume on my phone was set at full volume. Just loud enough to hear the “ding” of an incoming message. It was my sabbath, so I rolled over and put the phone on “Do not disturb” mode. Eventually my intrigue got the better of me, and I opened up my email to read the scathing, ungracious, angry, insulting and deriding pile of steaming excrement had been launched at my soul on, what was supposed to be, my day of rest. My morning was ruined.

I’ve only ever been a pastor, so I’m not sure what other people have to put up with, but I’m fairly certain that this can’t possibly be the only profession that invites these kinds of letters. I imagine that many of you receive them from time to time.

Today I want to address this seemingly new phenomenon of human beings, professed followers of Jesus, launching virtual cannonballs from the comfort of their couch and pajamas. I imagine that the rise in this type of behavior is due in part to the easy access that we have to the people we are upset with. It used to be that when you had a grievance you would either set up a meeting and prepare your thoughts to be delivered face to face. You were forced to look into the eyes of the other person. Where your body language spoke far more than your words ever could. Where there is a sense of respect and decorum. That type of scenario is exactly what cowards fear, and what kept them (and their emotional outbursts) in check.

But in this day and age we can inject ourselves, our anger, our unhealth, and our spiritual darkness directly into the souls of the person who has become the object of our ire during their family dinner, their prayer time, or the busiest parts of their day. And for the bitter minded, this is far to big of a temptation to pass up.

So what do we do? How do we respond? How do we interact with ungraciousness? Well, I can only tell you what I have learned over the years (through both my failures and successes) about how to respond to this type of behavior. So here are some simple rules that I follow. Rules that have helped me turn many of these interactions into helpful dialogue instead of heated and destructive breakdowns in relationship. So here we go.

Rule #1: Wait 48 hours before responding.

I make a general habit of trying to treat the majority of digital correspondence as if it were not digital at all, but tangible. Like a handwritten note that I received via old fashioned snail mail. Putting some chronological distance between the initial emotions, and the response.

This does 2 things:

1) It gives them time to think about the repercussions of their actions.
It takes time for information to be processed. They probably haven’t taken that time. They acted out of anger mixed with access to you. A couple of days of letting their thoughts settle will do them (and you) some good. Often times I will receive a follow up email a day later that will try and soften their previous letter, and sometimes even a request to meet in person… which is the best possible scenario. Regret and shame weigh heavy on people. It can drive them to the realization that they are in a dark place and need to draw near to people, not push them away. Time to think and to let the spirit of God do his work can soften the heart.

2) It gives you time to think about your response.
Your first instinct is to defend and fire back. You, no doubt, know about some easy jabs that you could throw at them: pointing out their struggles with some sin that you know about, stupid things that they have done, all of the misinformation that they have gathered. This is not only unhelpful, it throws more heat on the fire.
Remember, they weren’t thinking clearly when they wrote the letter and, at this moment, neither are you. Let things settle, abandon the scene of the accident and return when the adrenaline has worn off. You will find that you can easily look at things differently, and only then will you be able to respond with your integrity intact.

Rule #2: Do not defend yourself.

Let me quote a passage from my favorite book, “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster:

The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. If I have done some wrong thing (or even some right thing that I think you may misunderstand) and discover that you know about it, I will be very tempted to help you understand my action! Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification.

Silence is a spiritual discipline, and spiritual disciplines are there to bear fruit in our lives. One of the ways that we can practice silence is to remain silent when our reputation and motives are under attack. The fruit of silence is freedom. Freedom to let God justify us.

If there are personal attacks, things specifically written to demean your character or bring pain and insult to your soul, say nothing of those. If they are true, then you have some internal spiritual work to do that has nothing to do with them. If they are untrue, then be at peace. Be silent. Rest. Your integrity is intact, and now you can enjoy watching God be your defender.

Rule #3: No negativity!

Diamonds and emails are forever. I have said things that have come back a decade later and sucker-punched me right in the kisser. Those negative and emotional words will live forever in someone else’s inbox. They will never be deleted. I know this because I have kept every awful email that I have ever received. I use them as a reminder to either set up boundaries in the future, or for when I find out later that there was sin that the sender was hiding that has come to light, and now I can read it through the lens of their pain and guilt. It is a reminder that most of the time they don’t hate you, they hate that you have reminded them of themselves… and they can’t stand themselves. That email, sent out of a sinful place, now becomes a warning sign for your future interactions with them. If you see them going down that same path again, you now know what to look for and how to help them confess, repent, and cope.

Sending negativity through email is akin to sending your kryptonite out into enemy territory. It will be forwarded to others, and your problems will only increase as more and more people see a side of you that you wish would disappear.

If you must respond through email, do so with positivity and encouragement. Express your desire for reconciliation and grace. Be hopeful with them that you can find common ground. Apologize if necessary. Tell them the spirit with which you are writing, and ask them to read it in that tone.

Rule #4: Look for substance. 

Print that nasty email out, and get a sharpie. Black out (redact!) all of the personal attacks and insults. Things that are unfounded and assumptions that are not grounded in actual reality. What are you left with? Is there a legitimate concern? Address it. Address it with dignity and grace and a desire to find a remedy. The entire email probably could have been boiled down to that one point, so pretend that it was and focus all of your efforts towards meeting that need.

Those are the rules that I have for myself, perhaps they can help guide you when someone is firing arrows in a fit of emotion.

Above all, remember. There is no reward in winning the argument. There is no joy in destroying another person. There are no spoils of war that will make you happy. Our God does not delight in the destruction of relationships. He is not proud of you for winning the argument, having a great comeback, or laying waste to those who attack you. He loves them as much as he loves you.

They might not ever fully enter into relationship with you again, and if the relationship was abusive then it is best to set up boundaries to protect yourself and the ones you love. I’ve had to let many relational seasons come to an end, and its okay. Seasons come and go, and sometimes unhealthy influences need to be removed from your life. But God is not willing that any should perish, and our desires should mirror His. Our desire should be exactly what God desires: “that all should come to repentance”. This is not only about eterna relationship with God, it is also about our relationships with each other here and now.

When the dust settles you will be left either standing side-by-side with them again, or standing alone. But then you will have to answer to God for your own responses, your own motives, and the current state of your soul. Will you still be at peace then?

I leave you with the words of Paul, who had far more attacks leveled at him then you or I ever will, and still had the purity of heart to write this in Romans 12:17-19:

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.…

Stones in your Garden.

A few years back my wife and I bought a fixer upper and we worked on house until it was exactly what we wanted it to be, on the inside that is. One day we decided that we would start working on the yard and it was entirely different territory to us.

The yard had not been worked on in years, and the house is 85 years old. Which means that there are 8 decades of yard projects that had been buried like ancient ruins. One layer on top of another. The most prevalent object in each layer was rocks. Subsequently when we started raking the yard in preparation for making a garden we realized that there were far too many rocks to plant anything.

Slowly we started pulling out the rocks one by one and a couple of hours into it we realized that (1) it was going to take a whole lot of work to get all of the rocks out, and (2) when we finish we are going to have a really large pile of rocks to deal with. We never finished the project, and we now park our car on that spot.

But all of this gets me to thinking about those fields you see all over the world where farmers have plowed the earth and gone through all of the preparation and the work involved in preparing the earth for planting. I think of places that I visited on tour last summer in Germany, and I think of pictures of places like Ireland where the earth is separated into vast fields separated by knee high stone walls that stretch the entire length of the field. There are also roads between the fields that are laid with the same stones used for the walls. They meander between vast green gardens and golden fields of wheat. They now play a very important role in the protection and care-taking of the garden. They ensure that the garden is not trampled, and they keep out those that would trample the life-giving fruits of the well tended gardens.

Do you know where those stones come from? I used to assume that they were brought in just to be used as separation for the fields, but I have learned that those stones which now protect the fields and define the boundaries of the gardens were actually dug out and removed from the place where the garden now sits.

This is an amazing thought to me, and it seems that there is something to be gleamed (pun!) from that.

We all have an inner garden. Many of us would like to till and plant in the garden of our souls, but when we actually get in there with the right tools (spiritual disciplines, prayer, study, sabbath… etc) we start to find all kinds of things that need to be removed before anything of substance can grow. 

Being a pastor, I interact with allot of people. And when you interact with allot of people, sometimes things can go wrong. People get hurt, and people hurt you. Sometimes it my fault and I need to acknowledge that and say “Here is something in my life that is a hinderance to growth, and it needs to be removed”. Other times the fault is not mine, but is cause by spiritual and moral shortcomings in the lives of those I am working with. When that happens, I need to point and say “That is something that is dangerous, or someone that is unteachable… etc”.

Yesterday I came across one of those emails that pastors sometimes receive. It was from a long time ago and it was angry. It was insulting and attacking and degrading. But wrapped up in it was truths that I needed to hear and things I needed to confront, both in my life and theirs.

Since then much time has passed and new information has been gathered and added to what I now know about that time. But perhaps the biggest thing that I have realized when coming across that old “stone” is that, instead of being a hindrance, these stones are now part of the walls and paths that are daily protecting the garden of my soul.

Some of the stones around the garden of my life and soul are used as barriers, walls. They have helped me set up healthy boundaries that protect me from unhealthy people. People that would trample my garden and destroy the life that is growing there. I have learned that there are healthy people who come and pour into me, and there are unhealthy people that are envious and destructive. In popular psychology they are called vampires (a term coined by Dr. Judith Orloff, and used by others such as Dr. Henry Cloud). They are people who need to be fed, but also need boundaries. I have learned that there needs to be well maintained paths that lead them to the wall where they can be fed from the garden in a way that is healthy and nourishing for both myself and them.

Some of the stone that I have pulled out have become paths that guide people. I point to the stones and say “Here are all of the ways that I have failed, that I needed to change, and the things that were keeping me from growth. Follow the path that I have laid, step on MY stones so that they won’t end up in YOUR garden!”.

My goal is to have a soul that is filled with an overabundance of life-giving food. Overflowing with love for the loveless, grace for the graceless, with peace for those who are constantly at war with the world around them. All of these things are found in Jesus of Nazareth who, many times in scriptures, is referred to as “The stone which the builders have discarded that has now become the cornerstone”.

Often times the things that we have discarded will end up being the same things that will ultimately lead to deliverance and freedom. Not only for you, but also for other people. Even the salvation of your soul was paved with the suffering of the Messiah. But the pain which you inflicted upon him through your sin became part of his path towards your very salvation.

So may you look back on the path that God has led you down and see that it was paved with great toil, but it was necessary to bring you where you are and where He has for you to go.

Further reading: “Necessary Endings” Dr. Henry Cloud. “Boundaries” Dr Henry Cloud”