Having a nearly 100 pound German shepherd dog creates both opportunities and challenges. Like most German shepherds, my dog has the intense gaze and keen alertness typical of the breed. He does not have an ‘inside bark’ but rather exerts the full capacity of his lungs whenever a visitor or stranger comes to the door. For the person on the other side, venturing into the house is filled with fear. For all they know, a barking-mad, wild beast of a dog awaits them! I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the wide-berth I am given or the anxious looks I receive as I traverse the sidewalks of my neighborhood with my dog. He looks and sounds absolutely ferocious.
Given this description, it might be hard to believe that I have ample opportunities to showcase my dog’s gentle, calm, and loving demeanor despite his apparent ferocity. Kaiser is quick to roll over on his side when he meets another dog. His ears flatten with joy and his tail wags a mile a minute as he greets children and adults alike. For those who give him the opportunity, he proves himself time and time again to be an affectionate, docile canine.
My dog Kaiser is often misunderstood. His size, the reputation of the breed, and past memories of fearful encounters with large dogs will forever preclude a wonderful encounter for some who meet him. While I know this intellectually, I cannot help but take it personally every time I see individuals cross over to the other side of the street. No matter how much convincing I do, or how well-behaved my dog, there will always be those who simply don’t believe me when I tell them how friendly he is and how much he loves to meet other dogs and people. I reluctantly conclude that there will always be some people who misunderstand my dog and his good intentions.
My pain over my dog being misunderstood is simply a small, trivial example of the pain of being misunderstood. Being misunderstood by others is never pleasant or easy, and can often feel like a personal rejection. Being misunderstood can also stir up feelings of self-righteous anger. How could this person believe that about me? Don’t they know me better? Why wouldn’t she give me the benefit of the doubt? The desire to justify oneself rises up like a wave. I am right, I am smarter, my point is valid.
As I think about my own reaction to being misunderstood, I recognize how often it is rooted in pride. Like the Hollywood image-makers who craft perfect personas, I desire to be viewed in the best possible light—always. My fragile ego cannot hold up when I am not seen as ‘perfect’ by others. Being misunderstood by others can offer me the gift of being able to see the true nature of my shabbily built self-image; for any misunderstanding of my super-human status demolishes its self-righteous construction.
As a Christian, when I read the gospels I find that Jesus mastered the art of being misunderstood. He often asked questions rather than giving answers. Or he answered those who questioned him with parables or enigmatic exhortations that left his followers (and those on the outside) without even the smallest shred of understanding. Consider his remarks in the gospel of John as an example:
I am the living bread which comes down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. The Jews therefore began to argue with one another saying, ‘how can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ Truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in yourselves.(1)
The gospel goes on to tell the reader that as a result of Jesus saying these things many of his followers withdrew and were not walking with him any longer. But Jesus doesn’t go on the offensive and try to explain what he was saying. He leaves the very hard things he has just said to stand. Mysteriously, he allows himself to be misunderstood. He leaves room for those who heard these strange sayings to wonder; he leaves room for wrestling, and even for many to walk away.
While there are many facets of the art of Jesus’s life and teaching, his willingness to be misunderstood is a facet I cannot ignore. His conversations, his questions, his hard sayings all create an uncomfortable space for all of us who want to justify ourselves. He does not have the need to be justified, understood, or to be liked. His was not a presence that clamored for attention nor did he strive to protect his image.
Unlike my dog, Kaiser, there are many things I do to create misunderstanding that must be corrected and made right. Yet, there will also be times when what I say or do—even with the best of intentions—will be misunderstood. In these times, I have the opportunity to allow room for being misunderstood rather than giving way to my desire for self-protection, or worse, self-justification. In remaining in that uneasy space, a certain kind of art can be created. It is the art of practicing a necessary discipline—like Jesus—to “have no stately form or majesty,” nor craft an appearance to which “anyone would be attracted.” Instead, as followers of the one who was despised and forsaken we too can practice the art of being misunderstood.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) See John 6:48-66