Christians, ego, and hurt feelings

Thin-skinned people irritate me. (To be fair, I bet I bug them even more.) You don’t “like” their every Facebook post, their feelings get hurt. In a casual discussion, you cautiously question an idea of theirs, and they are deeply wounded.

Sometimes I just want to say, “Forget it.” However, my sympathy grew last fall during one unpleasant week, when:

  • A long-term reader criticized my article as poorly written, irrelevant, and stupid.
  • A close friend blatantly refused to help when I asked for the tiniest of favors.
  • I completed a two year service commitment, and no one bothered to thank me.
  • And those were the high points.

I thought I had the tough skin of a rhino. Turns out I have the thin skin of a peach. And my emotional life was in the pits. (Sorry. I didn’t even try to resist.)

Do you ever feel unwanted, see your ideas rejected, or get taken for granted? It ain’t fun. During that un-fun week, I felt used, abused, and confused. My motives were questioned, my ideas rejected, and my character assassinated. At least shot at.

I thought nasty thoughts about those villains; I considered them to be insensitive dolts. I was hurt. And a tiny bit pissed. I wondered if their parents had ever been married. As I pondered their questionable lineage, it struck me,

It wasn’t my feelings that were hurt—it was my ego. 

What do we even mean?

I want to outlaw the phrase “hurt feelings.” We say, “You hurt my feelings when you said that,” or “I don’t want to hurt her feelings.” But what do we mean? How can my “feelings” be hurt? Compare my hurt feelings to,

  • He cheated on his expense reports and his career was hurt.
  • She abandoned her family and her kids were hurt.
  • I banged my funny bone on the cabinet corner and my elbow was hurt.

An elbow (career or family) suffers a degree of damage and the result is a measure of pain. Something tangible is hurt and the consequence is a ration of suffering.

But when I say, “You hurt my feelings,” what tangible item is damaged? Sure, I feel unpleasantness, but what was hurt? The critique of my article that “hurt my feelings” really just wounded my pride; is it possible that my writing falls short of Hemmingway?

Screaming elbows

Most of our body works just fine. Most of the time. And it goes unacknowledged. I’ve never exclaimed to a friend, “Look at my right elbow. It bends and straightens and twists. It’s amazing. What an elbow!” I rarely appreciate the wonders of my elbows.

But if I bang that elbow, it taunts me as I turn a page, type a blog (be it good or bad), or twist a bottle cap. My battered elbow shamelessly screams for attention.*

So do our feelings. We don’t think of them until they are hurt. Then we think about them unceasingly. (But remember, it’s our egos that are hurt not our feelings.)

When our elbow is hurt we nurse an injury; when our feelings are hurt we nurse a grudge. Hurt pride shouts, “What about me?” Then I ponder harsh thoughts about you.

Maybe you’re just a better person than me. You probably are. (Although admitting that doesn’t make me feel any better.) But nursing hurt feelings (ego and pride) never results in something good. We brood on our unjust hurts or we dwell on the evil in others.

What about Christians?

Christians should be the most immune to hurt feelings. But I think we are every bit as sensitive. Maybe more so. If our inner-strength comes from the promise of love from a faithful God, shouldn’t we—of all people—have the inner-poise to examine our hurts realistically and honestly?

Look at the critique of my article. It was either wrong, mean spirited, or accurate.

  • If it was just plain wrong, who the heck cares? Why should my feelings be hurt by somebody else’s folly?
  • If it was spiteful, why does the critic’s dislike of me outweigh Christ’s love of me?
  • If the criticism was spot on, why is my heart so wounded? Maybe (just maybe) my writing could improve. Do I really think I’m the living reincarnation of Lewis, Tolkien, and Hemmingway, rolled into one?

What are we missing?

Paul wrote, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). He didn’t mean that no one will be against us. Quite the contrary. He meant, “Who cares!

When our feelings get hurt, the insult is more real to us than anything else. We lick our wounds and wallow in malicious thoughts about those critics (or neglectors or ingrates). Instead, let’s make the gospel more real. Jesus didn’t just suffer, he suffered deepest pains in our place, he took our suffering upon himself:

  • If you feel rejected, Jesus took your rejection so you are accepted forever.
  • If you feel neglected, Jesus was overlooked so you will never be forgotten again.
  • If you feel unwanted, Jesus became undesirable so you could be his beauty.

I know what you’re thinking

Some are thinking of an uber-sensitive spouse, friend, or pastor. Remember, I thought those same thoughts (of the weakness in others), right before my week from hell. Avoid that path. Think instead of your own “touchy” areas, and why you are so sensitive there.

Some are thinking, If I can’t hurt their feelings, I’ll say anything I want. But hurt pride hurts no less than hurt feelings. Let’s not use this message as a license to be a jerk.

Christians should be the least delicate—yet most sympathetic—of all people. The pain of hurt feelings may be the very medicine we need to rid our hearts of soul-killing pride.

Besides, who is more fun to be with, the thin-skinned, easily wounded, nursing-hurt-feelings narcissist; or the self-effacing, you-can-tell-me-anything, self-forgetter?

Just don’t tell me my blog sucks.


* I heard this elbow metaphor once and I never forgot it. But I forgot who said it.

There is much growing up that we need to do and much that God is up to in our journey of discovering, developing and delivering our calling. This week, as I was praying for myself and for a friend, God spoke two words: courage and humility. I’ve been wondering why those two words.

Courage and humility seems particularly critical in the days that we are living in and seem intrinsically linked together.

Courage is needed in this time of intimidation by the world and by religious systems. I feel it. The threat not to be wrong, fanatical, misinformed or an embarrassment. The threat of loosing something important like a position or a place or a relationship. We need courage to offer what we see, hear and know so that we can deliver counsel, creativity, correction or collaboration.

But courage without humility is often experienced as arrogance, dominance, insensitivity, harshness, and elitism. This is no different than the world.

Humility is needed in this time of “worldly spiritualism” where high decibels, dollars and dominance are the marks of effectiveness. Humility infuses kindness, caring, love, honesty (in other words, relationship) into our courageous offerings. Humility gives us perspective. Humility guards our heart.

Phillips Brooks said, “The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is.”

It was reported that before retiring to bed, Theodore Roosevelt would often gaze at the sky, searching for a tiny patch of light near the constellation of Pegasus, and recount, “It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.” Then he would walk to his bedroom saying, “Now I think I am small enough.”

  • Courage causes us to run toward a need. Humility stops us from running over people.
  • Courage causes us to hold tightly to what is right and true. Humility allows us to hold loosely our current understanding.
  • Courage causes us to speak truth unapologetically. Humility allows us to listen to others.
  • Courage causes us to help another. Humility allow us not to demand something in return be-it some sort of personal benefit or their immediate change.

“Do not be afraid – I am with you! I am your God – let nothing terrify you! I will make you strong and help you; I will protect you and save you.” – Isa. 41:10 (GNT)

So, I pray for courage and humility for myself…and for you – my friend.


Three years ago (this month) I repented to God for something dinky. I hadn’t stolen candy from a baby, oppressed a widow, or coveted a neighbor’s cow. I had simply failed to control my eating.

During the previous six months I had lost ten pounds. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I found them again in cookies, pies, and chocolates (and only once in the hand of an infant).

So I prayed, “God, I’m sorry about my poor self-control; I’ll stop eating between meals, and I’ll stop buying those tempting snacks.” I sensed God sigh, “Stop!”

I thought, Okay, I get it. That’s not the only area I lack self-control, so I prayed, “God, so-and-so is irritating the heck out of me, and my thoughts are like untamed beasts. I will begin being patient and start to domesticate my mind.” And God said, “Stop!”

A flood of other uncontrolled areas came to mind, and I willed myself to do better. I felt God shout, “STOP!” This time I stopped, and this time I shut up.


What was so bad?

What was wrong with my repentance? I had acknowledged a measure of weakness and resolved to act better in the future. Isn’t that textbook confession and repentance? Isn’t that how we teach turning from our sins? Yes. And no.

I felt God ask me to pause in my moment of confession—before my repentance, before my change. I had briefly mentioned some weaknesses but then quickly moved on to my solutions. And God asked me to pause in my weakness and shame.

Because my repentance (commitment to change) was simply self-serving. Sure, I snuck in a humble confession, but then I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and told God how I would do better. I presented myself to God on the basis of my future behavior.

And I felt better about myself. I had plans. I had resolve. And it was a New Year. I was going to make something of myself. God would do well to forgive me. He’d be proud he backed me. If this was a horse race, I was a good bet. (If I lost those ten pounds again.)

I was covering my shame with plans for self-improvement. And God asked me to pause in the moment of confession; just to stop right there. Uncovered.

The never-ending audition

My self-serving repentance was little more than trying to get God to like me. And my pathetic promises for better behavior began to sound stale. Even to me.

It was like the longest job interview ever; a never-ending audition for the coveted role; seventeen years of dating with no engagement ring in sight. I was performing on stage before God, and I was stumbling over my lines.

Just stop right there

Pausing in confession—resting before resolving—does something everyone hates. It abandons all pretense to power. It means standing unclothed in front of the God of the universe, and just standing there naked. No willpower. No resolutions. No great ideas. No fig leaves. Just an inner abandonment of all our posturing.

We really hate this. Something inside us clamors for an air of worthiness, a sense of merit, a value we can contribute; convincing God that we’re a good bet, a sure thing.

We like the old adage, “It is better to give than receive.” It usually is. Except here, in this moment, when we come before God. We need to come empty, neither auditioning for a role nor interviewing for a job.

Let’s abandon our virtues

John Gerstner was a 20th Century Christian thinker and a family friend. He wrote:

The way to God is wide open. There is nothing standing between the sinner and God. There is nothing to hinder. Nothing can hold us back, except our “good works.” Nothing can keep us from Christ but the delusion that we do not need Him alone—that we have any good works of our own that can satisfy God.

All we need is need.

But, alas, we cannot part with our “virtues.” Even though they are imaginary; they are real to us. So it is grace that becomes unreal. The real grace of God we spurn in order to hold on to the illusory virtues of our own (Theology for Everyone, slightly edited).

Our imaginary virtues are the fig leaves we use to cover our shame. They become more real to us than the grace of God. But they are illusions. In some way, counter to all moralistic teaching, we need to abandon our virtues and stand naked before God.

The power of the pause

I’ve been learning to pause in my confession; to stop after admitting my failure; to rest before repenting. Like these Psalms,

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness. According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)

When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away by my groaning all day long. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:3 and 5)

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. (Psalm 130:3-5)

The audition is over. Let’s remove the makeup and costumes; let’s quit acting the hero; and let’s come before God as we are. We can promise virtue to win his favor, or we can be virtuous because we already have it.

True repentance is letting go of self in naked confession. God does the rest.


Every December I invest fifteen hours or so to plan my life for the next twelve months. I review my current activities, I add some items, remove others, and I prioritize.

Then I literally budget how many hours each week I’ll invest in each area. Last year I decided to write a book, I budgeted hours for it, and it was published last December.

For the last ten years, I’ve budgeted about five hours a week in a small non-profit group. While planning this year, I began to question that investment. They are a great group, but I’m not sure I’m making a difference. I wondered if my weekly five hours is bearing fruit.

Actually, I did more than wonder. I obsessed. When my wife asked what to do for our weekly date, I talked about my question. While washing dishes, I mused on my concern. I emailed friends, talked with strangers, and tossed and turned all night. Obsessing.

A weekly five hour duty was grabbing fifty-percent of my mind. Probably more. I beseeched God how to budget that time. I just wanted an answer to my question.

Instead telling me how to budget my time, God told me to learn to budget my brain.

Where does your mind go?

Do you share my frequent slippage into obsession? I carefully allocate hours each week for work, writing, chores, preparing my taxes (another fun December duty), and play.

But my mind has a mind of its own.

Failure to invest my time wisely results in tax penalties, a sink full of dishes, and an unhappy wife. And no book gets written. So I budget my time to accomplish my tasks.

But what are the consequences of not budgeting my brain? Where does my mind go when I don’t have a plan? My mind goes to anxiety, obsession, fear, anger, bitterness, and self-centeredness. (Don’t ask me where it goes on my bad days.)

As a brain budgeter I am a profligate, squandering my mind on whatever stirs it.

Choosing our thoughts

After a couple weeks of spendthrift, mind obsession, I read Philippians 4:8,

Finally … whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever ispure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, keep thinking about these things.

Paul is saying we can choose our thoughts, that we can budget our brains. I was deliberately planning my time but just letting my mind go where it wandered.

Why had I never budgeted my brain? (My siblings would say that there was never much to budget anyway.)

Paul’s thought-list was positive; my obsessive thoughts were largely negative (surprise!), dragging me down, and pulling with my friends along with me. I needed a change.

So I chose positive images: sunsets on warm summer evenings, family times together, and sailing on Lake Michigan. I nourished my mind with McHappy-meal thoughts.

But the real world interfered. The skies outside were grey; my kids were with their in-laws for Christmas; and my sailboat sank last spring. My mind left that happy place in a McHurry when reality intervened.

My self-hypnosis, happy thoughts evaporated like morning mist in the noonday sun.

So I tried a different approach

Instead of self-hypnosis, I tried abstract contemplation on the nature of truth (and purity and justice). What does truth mean? It is more than the opposite of deceit? Is knowing truth the same as grasping the reality of the world we live in, or is it more?

I had fun. For a bit. Maybe a day. But the cold, sterile concepts didn’t capture my heart.

My obsession over my involvement in that small non-profit kept meddling with my mind. The reality of a needed decision trumped the intellectual thoughts. They were abstract, but day-to-day life is tangible. It intruded upon my mind.

A couple days ago I read a passage in which Jesus rebukes the Bible experts of his day,

You examine the Scriptures carefully because you suppose that in them you have eternal life. Yet they testify about me, and you are not willing to come to me to have life (John 5:39-40).

Jesus says that scripture (including the Phil. 4:8 passage above) is about him; not self-hypnosis, McHappy thoughts, and not abstract, philosophical answers. As C. S. Lewis said, “We come to Scripture not to learn a subject but to steep ourselves in a person.”

So I began to think about the person of Jesus and how Paul’s list in Philippians perfectly reveals the person of Jesus. Instead of abstract truth, I thought of God’s promise to rescue us, and how he kept his word even at incredible cost. I began to trust him more.

What I needed most was not a watertight answer but a watertight person. And that’s what we have. As I saw more of Jesus, my preoccupations just sort of melted away.

I mistyped the title to this blog

The title of this blog is, I’m Learning to Budget My Brain. Just before posting it, I noticed I had mistyped “budget.” I had left out the “t.” It said, I’m Learning to BudgeMy Brain.

Perhaps it was Freudian. In this New Year, maybe I must simply get my brain moving.

But once it’s moving, I want to learn to choose my thoughts, to take every thought captive, to budget my brain. We live inside our minds 24/7, yet sometimes I wonder if it’s the true final frontier we must conquer; not outer-space but inner-space.

Nature abhors a vacuum—so does our mind. Let’s decide what fills it.