Do you have a hard time saying no when others request something of you? Do you find yourself fearing losing the approval of others even if it means doing what seems to be right thing or saying something that needs to be said, even if it’s difficult? These are the traits of a typical people-pleaser, and I readily recognize them in myself – especially in wanting others to like me and to think well of me. But as Ed Welch explains below in his excellent book When People are Big and God is Small (P&R, 1997), if unaddressed, this can not only can be detrimental to yourself, but it can keep you from truly loving and helping others. I like how he puts it, especially noting how we can deceive ourselves about the goodness of wanting to please others.
“People-pleasers can mistake ‘niceness’ for love. When they do, they will be prone to being manipulated by others, and burn-out is sure to follow. People-pleasers can also mistake ‘yes’ for love. But ‘yes’ might be very unwise. It might not be the best way to repay our debt of love. Saying ‘yes’ to one task might keep us from another that is more important. It might mean that we will do something that someone else could have done better. It might mean that we will entrench the sin patterns of other people. It might mean that we interpret the church egocentrically rather than as a body, thinking, ‘If I don’t do it, nobody will.’
“Therefore ‘yes,’ ‘being nice,’ and ‘self-sacrifice’ are not necessarily the same as love. They can be ways that we establish our own personal meaning and identity more than creative expressions of loving others” (214).
In showing us Lincoln at his lowest – in the darkest fits of gloom and depression – and at his best – telling humorous stories to guests, comforting others who are suffering, and achieving great political triumphs – Joshua Wolf Shenk offers a picture of an integrated life.
He shows us that suffering, even in the form of mental illness, which Lincoln had, need not be the whole story. Indeed, it can be a crucial part of one’s personal growth and maturity into greatness. Lincoln never wished for affliction and surely he must have wished depression away many times during his life. But with the help of others as well as several coping mechanisms, such as reading poetry or telling jokes, he harnessed the monster of depression in a way that strengthened his character, his endurance, and allowed him to rise to the great historical challenges that confronted his presidency. I like how Shenk puts it in some of the last lines of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006):
“The overarching lesson of Lincoln’s life is one of wholeness. Knowing that confidence, clarity, and joy are possible in life, it is easy to be impatient with fear, doubt, and sadness. If one desires to ‘stir up the world,’ it is easy to be impatient with work for the sake of work. Yet no story’s end can forsake its beginning and its middle. Perhaps in the inspiration of Lincoln’s end we can receive some fortitude and instruction about all that it took for him to get there…The hope is not that suffering will go away, for with Lincoln it did not ever go away. The hope is that suffering, plainly acknowledged and endured, can fit us for the surprising challenges that await” (215-216). (Emphasis mine.)
One of the qualities of Christ that made him the most celebrated and universally admired, if not worshipped, persons in history was his example of personal humility and love, even toward those who hated and rejected him. Apart from questions about his divinity, through his life and death Christ changed the course of history, and others who’ve sought to imitate him – Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and Pope Francis today, for example – are also impacting their worlds and the course of history. Much of what they imitate are Christ’s “passive graces.”
When’s the last time you thought about the “passive graces”? If you’re anything like me, never, because you’ve never heard of the passive graces, and probably wouldn’t have, if you didn’t read someone like J.C. Ryle, the famous nineteenth-century bishop of Liverpool in the Church of England. In his classic 1877 book, Holiness (Charles Nolan, 2001), in the chapter on sanctification – the life-long process of becoming more like Christ – he writes about the need to give our attention to growing in the passive graces.
The passive graces are “those graces which are especially shown in submission to the will of God, and in bearing and forbearing towards one another.” For example, as opposed to actively doing something unto another, being patient and loving toward them even as they hurt you, or speak ill of you and inflict injustice upon you. The model, of course, is Christ – who submitted himself to the power of those who beat him and killed him, and even forgave them, for they “knew not what they did.”
Ryle further comments: “The passive graces are no doubt harder to attain than the active ones, but they are precisely the graces which have the greatest influence on the world. Of one thing I feel very sure – it is nonsense to pretend to sanctification unless we follow after the meekness, gentleness, long-suffering, and forgivingness of which the Bible makes so much” (35).