November 15, 2009
Faith and
Assertiveness

Speaking Your Mind and
Setting Boundaries
As a Christian
  
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It’s 10:30 Saturday evening and Susan’s phone rings. Wanting to ignore it, she lets it ring four times, then out of guilt picks it up. “Hi, how are you? This is Pat,” a woman’s voice announces. Before Susan can respond, Pat continues, “Hon, I know this is asking a lot, but could you pick me up at the bus station and drive me home? I just got in from San Diego.”

“Do you have the money for a taxi?” Susan asks. “If I have to,” Pat responds. “But you know, Christmas is only a month away, and I really need to conserve . . .”

Susan, already worn out, still has work to do on a junior high Sunday school lesson she has to teach. The bus station is twenty minutes away, and Pat’s home is on the other side of town. By the time she’d get back she’d have no energy left to prepare. Besides, Pat has taken advantage of her more times than Susan can remember.

Susan would like to tell Pat she has neither the time nor the energy to come for her. And, when she can collect herself, she would like to speak honestly with Pat about her presumptuousness. Yet Susan remembers Jesus’ admonition to go the second mile. “Isn’t this clearly a situation where I need to bend for someone else?” she wonders. “Wouldn’t confronting Pat violate Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek? Doesn’t God require me to deny myself for Pat’s sake?”

The Ongoing Question

To assert yourself or not to do so? To stand up for yourself or go along with someone else’s wishes? We struggle with this issue often as Christians. For Susan, the question is whether to cave in to a friend’s unreasonable expectations. Like her, we each face situations where people try to take advantage of us—occasions when friends expect too much of us, for instance, or when someone in business tries to exploit us. The sensitive Christian wonders, “Should I stand up for my rights--or is it more Godly to give in?”

In other cases our concern isn’t with standing up for our rights but with whether to express ourselves straightforwardly. Should I speak up and say what I’m thinking in this class? Should I tell her how much I care for her? Should I share my faith with him? Should I state my qualifications confidently in this job interview?

Many of us are uncomfortable asserting ourselves in some situations, and some of us are uneasy doing so in any setting. One problem may be that we are shy or feel awkward with people. We fear we’ll fail in our attempt to be outspoken and experience unbearable embarrassment. Learning how to confront and manage our fears is a major step forward in becoming more assertive. We need to strive, too, for greater optimism about our possibilities for success.

Yet we’re often hindered as well by misconceptions about biblical teaching. We assume that being assertive implies behavior that is patently un-Christian: demanding our rights, trampling over the needs of others and feeling the freedom to blow our lid whenever we feel like it.

Healthy Assertiveness

Most writers and teachers who promote assertiveness have two goals. One is to help individuals “own” their own lives--to break free of the control of others’ expectations and to stay in control of their emotions when they speak. If I ventilate anger at others, for example, it suggests that I’m not being freely assertive but am letting their expectations control me, for I’ve allowed them to upset me. Owning my own life is more likely reflected in my responding calmly, even politely to them. Thus the feisty Manuel J. Smith, author of a best-selling book on assertiveness, devotes a surprising portion to helping readers learn to accept criticism graciously and nondefensively.*

The other aim of assertiveness training is to encourage individuals to take initiative to express their convictions and concerns honestly to others. Such self-expression shouldn’t be at the wholesale expense of others’ feelings; indeed, assertiveness is most effective when exercised with empathy and compassion. Still, expressing yourself is important. It contributes not only to your own well-being and productivity but to the quality of your relationships as well.

When defined this way, assertiveness is not incompatible with Paul’s instruction to speak the truth in love to each other in Ephesians 4:15. There, he clearly admonishes Christians to be assertive, at least within certain boundaries.

Still, we may be more inclined to think of the boundaries than of the freedom or mandate implied in any biblical teaching on assertiveness. And the notion of owning our life, at the heart of assertiveness training, seems to fly in the face of what we’ve long been taught--that we must sacrifice our interests for others’ needs. Can such unselfishness possibly reconcile with owning our life?

Owning Your Own Life

In fact it can, and the two concepts go hand in hand in Scripture. In the biblical understanding, I am called to give myself to another’s needs as an act of free will. It’s this free-choice aspect of my decision to help another that makes it a true response of Christian compassion. Yet I can only give myself freely if I own my life in the first place.

It’s in this spirit that Paul declares, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor 9:19 NIV). Here and elsewhere Paul emphasizes about equally his cherished liberty as a child of Christ and his deliberate decision to invest his life for the sake of others. Because he is free to begin with, he can make the choice to sacrifice for others from compassion and healthy motivation.

Whenever the Scriptures instruct us to give ourselves to others’ needs, in fact, the assumption that we must first own our life is implicit. We see it in various descriptions of Jesus himself. He was able to wash his disciples’ feet, for instance, because of his strong sense of identity (Jn 13:4-5).

We find it, too, where we might least expect it--in Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek in his Sermon on the Mount. There he cautions against a retributive spirit and mentions three occasions where we should give double compliance to an aggressor:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Mt 5:38-42 NIV)

It might seem that Jesus was exhorting us to be a doormat to others’ aggression and abuse, and many Christians have taken his teaching in exactly this way. This is certainly the last thing Jesus meant. Rather, by urging double compliance, he was telling us to take control of an unjust situation.

By choosing to walk a second mile with someone, instead of the single mile they demand, I demonstrate that I am deciding for myself what my response will be. From this angle, going the second mile and turning the other cheek are profoundly assertive acts. Such double compliance also aims to have two redemptive effects on the other person. It shows him I will not let him manipulate me, and perhaps erases his desire to do so. It also shames him for his decision to take advantage of me.

Considering the Outcome

This perspective is truly liberating, for it suggests that if turning the other cheek will not affect another redemptively, or will result in someone’s harm, I’m not expected to respond in this way. Certain Christian men during the Russian revolution who stood by and allowed soldiers to rape their wives, believed they were fulfilling Jesus' requirement for passivity yet seriously misunderstood his intent.

Numerous unjust situations occur where we benefit no one by complying with the injury or by rolling over and playing dead. A woman whose husband abuses her helps neither him nor herself by allowing him to treat her cruelly.

In the same way, I am usually kidding myself if I think that any positive Christian witness results from allowing someone in a modern business situation to cheat me financially. An impersonal climate exists in most business transactions today that renders turning the other cheek ineffective.

If a car dealership performs shoddy repairs on my car, for instance, I help no one in their spiritual journey by choosing not to complain. Employees won’t likely connect my silence with my Christian convictions. The proper Christian response in this case is to point out the problem to them and to calmly but persistently insist that they make the proper repair--for by doing so, I’m denting their conviction that they can take advantage of their customers.

Does the Shoe Fit?

I also doubt that Jesus meant to lay the mandate of turning the other cheek upon all believers at all stages in their spiritual development. He gave this instruction to his “disciples” (Mt 5:1)--that is, to those who were at a stage of growth where they were ready to respond to others at this level.

Not once in the Gospels, for instance, did Jesus preach self-denial or the need for noble sacrifice to someone who was physically or emotionally ill. Instead--and without exception--he healed the sick or needy person and did not immediately lay the burden of moving mountains upon him or her. It was to those who were well, in body and mind, that Jesus urged self-denial. They were able to give themselves to others for his sake because they had a self to give.

There is, in short, a developmental process in becoming assertive that accords fully with biblical teaching. Turning the other cheek is the ideal. Yet we must be honest with ourselves about whether we’re ready to do it in a healthy manner. If you’re shy, you’ve probably found it difficult to stand up for yourself and to make independent decisions. Allow yourself time to grow and to learn to own your life more fully. Then, when you can truly do it freely, be open to those special instances when Christ may call you to turn the other cheek. Focus first upon becoming more assertive, as part of taking responsible stewardship of your life as a Christian.

One other point is helpful to keep in mind in turning-the-other-cheek situations. As my friend Omar Omland points out in his inspiring book The Third Mile, Jesus spoke of double compliance in certain situations, but never of triple compliance.* While he encouraged the second mile, he didn’t necessarily recommend a third. There may be limits, then, to how fully he expects us to sacrifice in order to help someone. In every case the vital matter is that we give ourselves freely. We’re called first to own our life, then to respond to others’ needs in light of the energy God gives us and the priorities he lays upon us.
   

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