The elephant in the room

In one way, people are nothing like elephants: they’re too thin-skinned. But in another way, they’re just like elephants: some things they never forget.

That’s not a great combination where relationships are concerned.

Or churches.

Love, writes the apostle Paul, is not “resentful” (1 Cor 13:5, NRSV). The phrase he uses is difficult to render exactly into English. The NRSV’s “resentful” seems to describe an emotional state. But other translations point to behavior: love “keeps no record of wrongs” (NIV) or “doesn’t keep a record of complaints” (CEB) or “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (NASB). That’s wordier but closer to the mark. A dead literal translation of Paul’s words would be something like “love doesn’t reckon the wrong”: it doesn’t keep an account of bad things.

Combine that with what Paul said before: love isn’t “irritable.” The picture is indeed one of resentful behavior (hence the NRSV): people in the church are easily provoked to anger, and are bearing grudges against each other.

Hardly the loving environment we’re looking for when we join a church. Sadly, it’s the one we often find.

We have long memories for the ways we’ve been hurt. That’s how we’re built. It helps us survive.

If a particular food makes you sick, you probably won’t need to make a note to yourself to remember not to eat it again; your body will create its own automatic revulsion to it. If someone hurts you badly, especially if they do so repeatedly, you will learn to fear and avoid them when you can. That’s not being small-minded — that’s survival.

Several studies have demonstrated that negative emotions have more of an impact on us than positive ones do. My favorite example comes from psychologist Roy Baumeister. If you find a $50 bill in the street, you’ll celebrate your good fortune for a while. But if you lose a $50 bill, you’ll be upset and berate yourself. Your anxiety or anger will probably be stronger than your happiness would have been, and your unhappiness will also last longer.

Again, from a survival standpoint, it makes sense to pay more attention to the things that hurt us than the things that make us happy.

But what if we want to do more than just survive?

Reading between the lines of 1 Corinthians — and what Paul writes about love in particular — one gets the sense that the congregation was a competitive spiritual arena. Whatever personal and cultural methods of survival the Corinthians had already learned were imported into the life of their fledgling church.

And something similar is true of us. We bring our personal histories with us into our congregations. We bring our memories of past pain, our sore spots. We may compulsively rehearse the resentful thoughts that keep us vigilant and defensive.

Like elephants, we never forget.

But if we want to do more than just survive, we need to learn the meaning of a love grounded in the grace of a crucified Savior.

And that might mean admitting, even and perhaps especially in the midst of conflict, that we are the elephant in the room.

Or one of them, at least.

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