Cultivating a Tender Heart

How group leaders can overcome a cynical attitude

Note: Dennis McCallum is Lead Pastor of Xenos Christian Fellowship and will be speaking at the upcoming Xenos Summer Institute. Click here for more information.

Over the years I have frequently struggled with cynicism. It's a very confusing area, because people are often motivated by selfish concerns. A cynical perspective just seems so right so much of the time. Standing up and baring our souls once again to others after repeated experiences of betrayal and disappointment just seems foolish!

How do we overcome our toughened heart toward others, while at the same time remaining tough enough to withstand the rough-and-tumble world of ministry?

In seeking an answer to this question, I have often contemplated John 2:24-25: "But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man." Jesus knew better than to entrust himself to humans—he was cynical, too! Not really. He certainly was tough. He was tough enough to wade into virulent conflict. He was tough enough to face the cross.

But Jesus shows a remarkably tender heart toward people. Watch him weeping over Jerusalem. Hear his affectionate words at the last supper. For some reason, Jesus' insight about the people's selfishness didn't lead to any need to distance himself from tender feelings toward them. Jesus may have distrusted humans, in the sense that he knew how self-serving we are, but he never became cynical.

This paradoxical difference between Jesus and my tendency toward cynicism takes us deeply into the mysteries of a truly sacrificial outlook. Sacrificial people get messed over by their friends just like others do. But they aren't afraid of it. They have willingly chosen the path of self-sacrifice; they have already counted the cost of vulnerability. At my best times, I've felt this—knowing the chances are good that a certain person will mess me over badly, I have been able to nevertheless give my heart over in love. These relationships have resulted in some remarkable transformations in discipleship. At other times, I got messed over as expected. But strangely, these cases of betrayal don't hurt like the others.

A Sad Reality

Why is being betrayed by a friend so frightening? Isn't it our determination to avoid sacrifice that makes this prospect seem so menacing? When we willingly wade into sacrifice, God sustains us, and it's not as bad as we thought it would be. One reason such abandonment hurts less is that our conscience feels clear—I know I loved the person from my heart and gave all I could give. On the other hand, if we contemplate how to protect ourselves from the need to sacrifice, the prospect of betrayal grows larger and larger until it becomes a formidable fear. When abandonment or betrayal hits us, all our fears seem confirmed. The reservoir of dread and fear we have saved up all come crashing down like a loud warning to avoid this in the future!

On the night of his death, we read of Jesus that, "having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end" (John 13:1). As he sat down with them, he spoke vulnerable words of affection, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you … " (Luke 22:14). Yet he knew perfectly well he would be betrayed and deserted by each and every one of them that very night!

Jesus showed an amazing ability to give out—emotionally and every other way—even to those he knew would let him down. Jesus' attention was so riveted on his intent to give that any urge to protect himself was banished. To love one another as he loved us, we will have to take our fears in hand and commit ourselves to give.

One need not be the son of God to maintain a tender heart in the face of intense spiritual battle. Paul gives us a list of horrors he experienced in ministry that none of us could match. And the list includes betrayal by false brothers. Yet we see extraordinary vulnerability, sensitivity, and emotional affection in his epistles. How poignant his comment is in Philippians 2: "For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus" (20-21). But in the same book he declares: "For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus" (1:8).

You sense clearly Paul's tender heart when he tells the Thessalonians: "Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us" (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

Practical Steps

Here are some principles and ideas to keep in mind as you work toward cultivating a tender heart toward the people you serve.

Awareness. The biggest barrier to dealing with a toughened heart is realizing we have the problem. The shift to emotional distance is so gradual, and our functional giving is so objective and real, that we can easily come to believe we are just as engaged as we ever were. Only careful reflection in prayer may reveal that a shift has occurred. Occasionally, other people may point out a difference. If they don't, we could always ask. Another way is to study our own commentary on ongoing events. Often, we find it easier to identify our cynical words and thoughts than any missing heart-felt love.

Loneliness is also a common sign that we have ceased giving out emotionally at an adequate level. But even loneliness is difficult to recognize. Often we just feel a vague sense of restlessness or depression that we can't put our finger on. I know of several times in my life when I have struggled with vague, low-level depression over a lengthy period without knowing why. Only after sitting down for some deep heart searching did I realize, "I'm lonely!" How strange, considering all the people I'm involved with. I knew I had to put a new urgency into deepening my key relationships.

Dissatisfaction with ministry is another sign of a toughened heart. The reason we feel dissatisfied may be that we are disengaged from our people. When we are really loving our people from the heart, our churches and groups may not be growing as we'd like, but we still see valuable ministry we can do in the lives of our friends.

Preparation in prayer. We should begin cultivating a tender heart by spending some in-depth times with God, searching out the toughness in our hearts. Much of our ability to overcome tough hearts begins during our times away from the people we want to love. Like David, we should pray, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there is any hurtful way in me … " (Psalms 139:23-24).

As we pray through the people we serve, we can ask God to kindle a warm heart of affection for each. We can consider the risks and disappointments we see in each relationship and ask God to empower us to look past these, and to give our heart unstintingly. Gradually, we may sense a growing warmth of heart, and God may even give us words to speak the next time we see that particular friend or colleague. As we persist in this, our relationships will grow in intimacy and care.

Choose to invest. Gary DeLashmutt counsels, "Invest in your people until you feel affection for them." This is good, practical advice. When our heart is toughened, only lengthy, determined investment will ultimately take us to a place where our affection is awakened. We can't simply command our hearts to open up, even if we have made a decision before God.

But if we have given out and struggled with a friend over time, we do begin to feel a change. Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." This principle seems to work when it comes to relational investment just as it does with financial investment. The very fact that we have invested so much seems to awaken the deeper feelings of love in our hearts.

Success comes to success. Just as relational distance snowballs as others reciprocate our relational patterns, reciprocation works in a positive direction as well. Displaying a tender heart toward others causes them to respond with more openness. Relationships grow from deep to deep and become more rewarding. We also find ourselves more effective in motivating and guiding a friend when our relationship is deep.

Churches and groups usually begin growing when the leaders and workers in the group forsake the safety of distance for real heartfelt love. Members built up and sustained by real love are less likely to fall into temptation and sin. Their emotional lives gradually become more stable. We find it easier to cultivate a grateful attitude in the church, so important to spiritual growth. If we see the need to raise tension and call for change, we are far more likely to be heard. Fewer people will resent admonition when we have given our hearts to them.

Taking initiative. We naturally feel willing to open up and express our heart to a friend if he does it first. When self-protection rules our hearts, taking initiative is the hardest part in cultivating warm-hearted love. It would be so much easier to respond to warm-heartedness from another, because that way we are less vulnerable. But we need to make the commitment to be the first to open up.

I may have to lay out a specific plan involving me disclosing my inner struggles, hurts, and failures. I may need to plan specific things I can say that I know will warm the heart of my friend. This need not be manipulation. This may be no different than deciding I have a problem with overeating, and going to the store to buy different food for my diet. This may be no different than deciding I need to quit smoking and buying some nicotine gum. I am merely laying specific, practical plans calculated to overcome my problem.

I am convinced that relational problems like the toughened heart will not yield to mere reflection and inner resolve. We have to take proactive action if we expect movement.

—Dennis McCallum; copyright 2009 by the author and Christianity Today International. Used with permission.

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