Do You Have
How to Hug a Porcupine
by John Reed
Ministering to dysfunctional families is sometimes like hugging a porcupine. They either flee, or they wound others. It can be painful, and sometimes even make you question your sanity. Mark Twain once said, “A man carrying a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” When we decided to begin a church in Green Bay, Wisconsin, we felt impressed to go “to the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46). Here are a few things we have learned along the way.
Porcupines think they are normal. Many times, multiple generations of dysfunction leave families “guessing at normal.” While I believe “normal” is just a cycle on a washing machine, people do some pretty bizarre things. Empathy is the key to unlocking the behavior of the deeply and repeatedly traumatized. As broken people, we follow patterns. We must explore the resources available to learn to minister to the hurting.
It is best to reach across—not down—to a porcupine. The “us and them” language in some Christian circles leaves me wondering what one has to do to move from the “them” status to the “us” status. Normally, that language comes from a list of sins, and depends on the person who makes the list.
When I look into the Bible, I find God’s definition of sin based more on certain responses to Him. He clearly wants us to trust Him and allow Him to meet our needs. Things that seem pretty tame at first glance—eating fruit, whacking a rock with a stick, and doing troop inventory—all elicited grave consequences from God. Why? These individuals attempted to meet perceived needs apart from God.
If acting independently of God becomes our working definition of sin, we will develop a whole new understanding of sinful behavior, one that helps us reach across, not down to others. We can put our lists away (Romans 3:10-23). People are attracted by humility and repelled by arrogance. When we accept that evangelism is, as one writer described it, “one beggar telling another where he found bread,” we will find ourselves far more effective in reaching the “least of these.”
Porcupines need community. When we realize that God is the only One who is normal, and we share His gospel from a heart of humility, it is only natural to create a community of strength and hope for those to whom we minister. Cultivating and sustaining a safe environment for new believers is never easy and must be protected at all costs. Life transformation is the work of God, both in redemption and in continuing discipleship. God uses trusting community powerfully to bring about such a transformation.
Jesus can heal a porcupine wound. “Hurt people hurt people.” They just do. Once we are deeply wounded (and if you work with people, you inevitably will be), it becomes a strong temptation to be self-protective. Any athlete will tell you that “playing not to get hurt” is a bad idea. Understand the theology that teaches when we are deeply wounded by others, Jesus can raise us up again (John 11:25, 26).
Some porcupines don’t want to hug. Jesus said that when we follow Him, He changes us. People will often let us work a lot harder on them than they are willing to work on themselves. It is important to identify genuine fruit of repentance in the lives of those we disciple. Ask a few basic questions: Is genuine humility present? Honesty? Integrity?
As a result of my early struggles as a Christian and the commitment of a few men who refused to give up on me, I find it hard to step away from broken people, even when little change is evident. Still, because time is so limited, I have had to learn discernment in my efforts with broken people. Repentance does have a distinctive look, even in someone who continues to struggle.
Saying “Yes” to yourself may sound like “no” to some porcupines. Self-care is not selfish. To be effective, we must learn to say no to many good things. Airlines encourage travelers to “first secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others.” Simply put, if we are dead, we are of no use to anyone else. This world has many noble causes, but understanding our limits and choosing our causes wisely are vital to long-term sustainability.
We all have quills. God uses hurting people to expose our own weaknesses and fatal flaws. Fear and pride hide in the crevices of our ministry terrain every day. When we are busy doing, sometimes it is difficult to identify sins such as pride, jealousy, envy, and insecurity. We begin to view people as “for us” or “against us.”
Just remember, we can learn as much from enemies as we do from friends. Avoid the “bondage of being right.” A friend of mine taped a saying on his mirror: “l am looking at the problem.” While that may be an overstatement, it is always a good idea to ask the question, “What part of this challenge is my own issue?” God resists the proud. He gives grace to the humble.
Reproducing your heart in others is imperative to long-term sustainability. Because evangelization of the “oft-overlooked” is my passion, I inadvertently neglected leadership development for a number of years. As a result, we burned out many people before we developed a model of apprenticeship for leadership development. Today, we intentionality avoid doing things alone, but constantly involve others in an effort to replace ourselves.
Porcupine people matter to God. I am amazed at the number of mature Christians who have little or no “relational intelligence.” The old adage remains true: people don’t care what we know until they know we care. If we are not careful, the Christian life can become more about acquiring knowledge and telling everyone how much we know.
In contrast, if we love and care about people, they will begin to ask “about the hope that is within us.” This rarely happens when we justify “not liking” people because they act like sinners. We should not be surprised when sinners act like sinners.
Value, respect, and trust are key components in building relationships. You may not like another person’s viewpoint, but listening to them communicates respect and builds value. Once trust is established, it is amazing what people will allow you to share. “High standards” are sometimes just a smoke screen for refusing to love people.
Getting folks to put down their quills is a “sanctified art”. As we worked in an environment full of porcupine people over the years, we have learned that even porcupines can reproduce. We love this ministry to which God has called us, and we consider it the greatest privilege in the world (2 Corinthians 5:19). Next time you end up with a splinter, thorn, sliver, or even a quill in your hand, remember to pray for us.
About the Writer: John and Cheryl Reed are working as Joint Project Home Missionaries with the Home Missions Department and the state of Arkansas in planting a Free Will Baptist church in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Read more at www.homemissions.net.