How to Lose Friends & Irritate People
AUGUST 2, 2017
As you know, I’m writing a new book with the working title How to Speak Truth to People Who Don’t Want to Hear (or How to Be Right Without Being Insufferable). Yesterday I junked a chapter I had almost finished. I actually thought about keeping the chapter (and might even put it back) because the title is so good, “How to Lose Friends and Irritate People.”
Maybe you’ve read one of those “how to have a happy marriage in six easy steps” books, followed the steps, and then had your spouse refuse to read the stupid book and your marriage headed south. Or maybe you bought a book on the “six easy steps to wealth and financial security,” read it and followed the steps, only to find yourself on the edge of financial disaster. There aren’t six easy steps to anything! Life simply doesn’t work that way.
I was afraid my book was beginning to sound like that—how to see thousands saved and hundreds healed in six easy steps. I seemed to be saying that we really have been doing it wrong and I’ll teach you not only how to do it right…but to be successful in doing it right. The truth is that no matter how right we are and how right we do it, there is a danger of having expectations that are way too high. Thus I decided to write an entire chapter disabusing people of their high expectations. Given the importance of it, I decided to include the caution throughout the whole book instead.
If you want to lose friends and irritate people, tell them the truth. It is, after all, the nature of truth to divide and create hostility. Paul was quite surprised at the Galatians when it happened there. He wrote, “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16).
Paul should not have been surprised. Jesus was pretty clear on the matter: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Jesus didn’t just caution us one time, making it a minor matter. He makes it abundantly clear and does so repeatedly, even telling us that he was letting us know beforehand so we wouldn’t be surprised and get discouraged when it happened (John 16). Jesus said, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Jesus also said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you…A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you…all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me” (John 15:18, 20-21). In John 16, Jesus said that they would kick out of the synagogues those who spoke truth (Goyim/Gentiles should read “churches”) and even kill us, believing they are offering service to God. Then Jesus’ words are especially sobering here: “I came to cast fire on the earth…Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49-53).
Now let me tell you something quite astonishing. We almost always read and see Scripture through our neurotic lenses. We read about persecution and rejection, and think it’s because we are good people and the bad people hate us. That’s crazy! Jesus said that we should allow the world to see our “good works” so they would glorify God (Matthew 5:16) and Paul said that we should be good so that even the powers have no reason to persecute us (Romans 13:3). That is generally (with some significant exceptions) the outcome of being good…not persecution.
Listen, it’s not our goodness that’s offensive; it’s our lack of it. Note in the verse above that Paul is surprised he had become the Galatians’ enemy because he told them the truth. The truth (the main theme of Galatians) was the grace of God to people who didn’t deserve it and could never earn it. Be nice to everybody, bake cookies for your neighbors, feed the hungry, comfort the broken-hearted, be a good citizen, and be involved financially and personally in a charitable organization, and the world will rise up and call you blessed. But when you are truthful about God’s grace, you have to be careful because that can get you crucified. It’s what happened to Jesus.
If you want to lose friends and irritate people, tell them the truth. It is, after all, the nature of truth to divide and create hostility.
So what’s offensive about grace? Why, in some cases, will Christians be the “smell of Jesus” and in others, the “smell of death” (2 Corinthians 2:15)? Why can’t we always be successful in speaking truth to those who don’t want to hear it? I’m not exactly sure why a message of God’s love ticks off people so much. I used to be glad God called me to teach grace, forgiveness and mercy…because people would love me. I was so glad to not be like my friend, Tony Campolo, whose prophetic ministry constantly ticks off people. All I had to say was that if people ran to Jesus, he wouldn’t be angry…and they would think I was wonderful.
But then I started getting the angry letters. In the beginning, those letters genuinely surprised me. I just didn’t understand and sometimes I still don’t. I’ve thought about it a lot, though, and I have some tentative answers.
If you speak the truth of Christ you can lose friends and irritate people because some people just don’t want to admit (even to themselves) that they are at all needy and sinful. They say, “Okay, so I sometimes make mistakes, but I’m a good person and I dare you to say that I’m not.” People won’t ask for forgiveness if they think they don’t need it, for mercy if they think they’re doing fine, or for grace if they think it is only for winos and prostitutes. If you start saying things like our righteousness is as “filthy rags,” you will be (as someone has said about another issue) about as welcome as a wet shaggy dog at a Miss America pageant.
There’s something else. In order to speak the truth that offends, one must start with the clear message that the one who speaks that truth is, as Paul said it, “the chief of sinners.” Frankly, many people think that’s “wormology” (“I’m a wretched worm”) and the path to a horrible self- image. And people want their leaders and upstanding citizens to be a cut above the rest. The problem, properly understood, is that the truth we speak to the world must always start with confession…and that makes people very uncomfortable and sometimes angry. Anything less than that and our truth becomes nothing but self-righteousness.
I remember the time when, as a pastor, I decided that, rather than sitting up on the platform, I would sit with my family and then walk up to preach. You would have thought I was advocating sacrificing a virgin on the altar. Some people in the congregation started up a petition (really!) urging me to sit up front because “our young people need an example of authority and Christian leadership.” Of course I tore up the petition and continued to sit with my family. But if you think that made the people who signed the petition happy, you’re crazy. (As an aside, I tore up the petition and threw it in the trash can right in front of the woman who brought it to me. Was she angry? You have no idea! But I was young then…and I have often repented of my arrogance, both then and since. Nevertheless, I was right, even if insufferable.)
There is one other way to lose friends and irritate people. Tell them that Jesus likes you…and that he likes you about 10% more than he likes them. That really ticks off people. And yet that’s the message of the Gospel. When a church gets grace, it looks sort of like children in a family fighting over whom mom loves the best (“No, you’re wrong! Mom loves me the best. I’m her favorite.”). Of course, the love of Christ isn’t exclusive, but if a Christian doesn’t sometimes feel like it is, he or she has probably missed what this thing is all about.
I remember after I once spoke for a large ecclesiastical gathering, a very serious young man came up to me and said, “Dr. Brown, you are arrogant, prideful and rude.” “Bingo,” I replied. “But I’m better. You should have seen me four or five years ago.” I’ve thought about that since. Of course he said it because I have to so often repent of my arrogance, pride and rudeness, and he was right. But I trust he was angry with me because he didn’t like my freedom that said in essence, “I don’t give a rip about what you think about me! Jesus can’t even have a party unless I’m there…and that’s far more important to me than what you think.” People who know that Jesus likes them 10% more than he likes others are dangerous. Not only are they dangerous, others find that quite irritating.
If you’re losing friends and irritating people simply because you’re irritating, self-righteous, arrogant and rude, for God’s sake, stop it.
However, if you understood what I just taught you, for God’s sake…go out and irritate somebody!
He told me to tell you.