As Indians, we are used to all sorts of unsolicited advice and candid remarks -- from welcome and unwelcome sources -- especially about our physical appearances. We receive ‘muft ka advice' (free advice) wherever we go, and even more so as young women or young mothers. I cannot count the number of times my decisions as a parent have been questioned by shopkeepers, sweepers, co-passengers and other strangers on the road, and advice has been doled out from every corner (some of it has actually been beneficial). I’ve also heard ample comments on how fat I am or on how I must shape my daughter’s nose so that she will have a beautiful nose (this is apparently very important for many Indians!).
On politics, current affairs and sports, most Indians have a strong opinion even on matters they barely know, and a discussion can soon break out into a heated argument. However, our culture is also one where appearances and the family image are placed above values like justice and integrity. And those of us who were quick to speak out on so many not-so-important issues, are suddenly silent about matters that are of great consequence, to God and to us, both as a society and on the personal front.
Our culture gives high importance to family honour. We are subtly or explicitly taught not to speak about the struggles of our families. We know what to say, what topics to avoid, and to what lengths we can go to avoid any uncomfortable or unpleasant situation, conflicts or bringing shame on our families. The rhetorical question ‘what will people think?’ is one that many of us have heard on numerous occasions, whether it is to do with the clothes we wear, the friends we have or whom we marry.
This ‘people pleasing’ aspect of our culture also breeds our reluctance to talk about deep hurts.
Victims of abuse are shushed until the scars run so deep that they take years to heal. Personal grievances are brushed under the carpet and misunderstandings build invisible walls so that relationships look perfect from the outside while decaying inside. We accept injustices and the trampling of our dignity and bodies as a part of life – some of us even tell ourselves that this is a cup that we ‘must bear' as a woman. We keep silent about uncomfortable relationships as it often involves those close to us. We do not want to disturb the ‘harmony’ that exists, scared of the consequences that may follow a confrontation.
Whether due to cultural influence, my skewed response to values taught in my social circles, or my own personality, I too struggle with being a people pleaser. This is an area that often causes me to stumble and fall.
Our Bible study group recently did an exercise to identify our ‘heart idols’ that often stole the place of God in our lives and kept us away from gospel driven transformation. As I looked at the list, I did not have to think twice. I knew immediately that my heart idol was mainly the idol of approval and security. My insecurity and desire to be thought well of makes me avoid conflict at any cost. In order to avoid hurting someone, I often just end up bottling everything up inside. I find it easier to deal with my own emotions than with the idea of an unpleasant conversation.
When someone hurts me, I cannot help but think over and over again about how the person would react if I brought it up, and whether we could still share the same level of comfort. My heart breaks to see someone in sin but instead of addressing it in love, I tend to keep quiet for fear of hurting them. I shy away from sharing my faith with friends for the same reason. This also affects the depth to which I allow people to invest in my life, putting up a mask that looks like all is well while I desperately clutch at straws to stay afloat in my worries and issues. How can someone help me if I won’t speak up?
It is beautiful how the gospel frees us to enjoy the riches of culture we live in. There are values I can hold on to from this culture – the respect for people and especially those older than us, treasuring families and relationships, and living at peace and harmony with people around. The gospel also breaks the bondage of the negative influences of culture and I am reminded over and over again how my security and my identity is in who I am in Christ and my approval comes from His blood shed for me, not from relationships around me or what people think of me.
My heart idols were actually preventing me from using my tongue the way God wanted me to: to encourage, to build up, to speak the truth, to speak up for the weak and defenceless, correct, guide. They also kept me from loving my friends with Christ-like love. Amy Carmichael in her book ‘If’ sums it up perfectly:
“If I am afraid to speak the truth, lest I lose affection, or lest the one concerned should say, “You do not understand,” or because I fear to lose my reputation for kindness; if I put my own good name before the other’s highest good, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”
I appreciate those who have held me accountable, correcting me and being instrumental in teaching me humility. I am also thankful for the people close to me who persevered, looking behind my mask and bringing up things that I was desperate to talk about. And I know that this is not just my story, but that of many others who have this same longing. My prayer is that we – myself included – will have the courage to speak the truth with love and grace.
I am thankful for the voices that speak up for those who are being trampled upon, for those who cannot speak for themselves. I pray for courage to be one of these voices and that my words may bring life and not death.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those that love it shall eat its fruit.
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