Have you ever received a compliment that made you feel worse?
I once received one of those compliments at a women’s church event. It wasn’t a back-handed compliment and it wasn’t intended to make me feel less than. It was sincere as can be, but something about it made my spirit lurch.
I walked into the room and greeted some of the women there. I approached a friend to hug her and catch up, and that’s when she looked at my hair and my outfit and sighed, “Wow, you look so cute! You always look so cute.”
It was a compliment, but it didn’t feel good at all. I could tell that, behind her words, was a feeling of inferiority or failure or insecurity. I had had time to get ready in the morning, but she had a newborn and was barely able to get out the door. So my appearance made her feel less than.
I’ve always remembered that interaction, and ones like it. On the one hand, I can’t stop other women from feeling insecure. Not entirely anyway. That is between them and the Lord. In that sense, that type of compliment reveals more about the other person than myself.
And yet, those compliments about your appearance, your home, your cooking, your “perfect” looking family, they can be glimpses into the insecurities and struggles of another woman’s heart. And to me, they feel like an opportunity to steward her heart. If I know a woman is struggling to measure up, to feel accepted, to feel dignified in the Lord, how can I not tend to her heart with truth and love?
The question is how.
In Philippians 2:4 Paul tells believers, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Then, Paul points to Christ as the ultimate example of “looking to the interests of others”, writing:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (v. 5-8)
It strikes me that, in this most radical act of divine hospitality, Jesus changed his appearance. He didn’t just come down in all His glory and start talking to people. Because, well, they would have freaked out. It would have been a barrier.
Instead, Jesus relinquished his splendor so that he could enter into people’s lives. His appearance wasn’t a barrier but a bridge, and everyone felt welcome in his presence.
What does this mean for us? Should we all wear burlap sacks, have dumpy homes, cook mediocre meals, and only Instagram our very worst moments, just to make other women feel better? Certainly not. The lesson here is not about legalistic rules, but the orientation of our hearts: Are we oriented toward managing our own image, or toward loving others? Are we oriented toward being the cutest in the room, or toward dignifying others? Are we oriented toward being impressive, or toward building up others?
When my heart is oriented toward God and others, instead of myself, it helps me to see my imperfections in a whole new light:
On those days when I run into someone I know at the store and I’m not wearing makeup and I haven’t washed my hair in 1 or 2 (or 3) days, I don’t have to feel embarrassed. That woman may look at me and think, “Woah, Sharon looks seriously rough.” but you know what she’s not thinking? “I could never measure up to Sharon.” And as strange as it sounds, that is a gift. In an image obsessed culture like ours, sometimes that is what it looks like to die to self out of love for another.
Whenever I run into someone who doesn’t know I’m 15 weeks pregnant, who looks at me and wonders, “Is she pregnant, or did she just eat a lot of Taco Bell chalupas?” (And for the record, the answer is both/and).”–rather than frantically explain that “I’m pregnant and I don’t normally look like this,” I can die to myself.
Rather than apologize to the unexpected guest who sees my house in all its toddler-ravaged glory, I can die to myself.
And rather than apologize to my dinner guests because my cooking is not very good (seriously, it’s not), I can do my best to make them feel welcome and then, die to myself.
In all of those situations, in which my own vulnerabilities are exposed and I’m tempted to feel embarrassed or insecure, in which I want to hide away my own imperfections, I can see those moments as opportunities to relinquish my splendor for the sake of another. My imperfection is, in a very powerful way, a gift to her.
This way of thinking turns the notion of “coming up short” on its head. When I allow others to see my less polished self, it is not a reason to feel ashamed of my shortcomings. Instead, it is an act of love for them. In that moment of exposing my humanity, I remind other women that I am not perfect, and they don’t have to be either.
Relinquishing your splendor is hard sometimes. It can be humbling, and humility can really bruise. But those yucky feeling compliments remind me that, from time to time, I should relinquish my splendor when I sense it is a barrier to love.
Just as Christ did for me.