Holy Asides
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August 30, 2016, 7:58 PM

Hurt vs. Harm


Six years ago I had a total knee replacement on my right knee. In the midst of my physical therapy, my doctor had me shift from low-impact, high-repetition exercises to highly intensive exercises held for lengthy periods. I used a ratchet strap to bend my knee back as far as it could go and hold it there for two minutes. This was to make sure that I would have enough flex in my knee—and this exercise HURT! But, it did not harm me, in fact it is what helped bring healing to my knee. Without this pain, I would have either had to undergo another surgery or be extremely limited in my activities.

I think that there is some amount of confusion in our lives about the difference between “hurt” and “harm.” We talk about our “feelings being hurt” or “not hurting others” or giving in to “avoid being hurt.”  We go to Thanksgiving dinner at our mother’s, even though we had an opportunity to go with friends to their cabin, because we don’t want to hurt her feelings. Betty never tells Archie that she actually hates Mexican food because she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings since he always takes her to Two Amigos on their dates. Rather than risk losing her father’s approval, Sarah applies to go to his Alma Mater, even though another college is stronger in the major she wants to pursue. In none of these cases would “hurting” the person actually be “harming” them. Mom would get over you not going to Thanksgiving (maybe, but that’s her problem); Archie would find a different restaurant, if he cares about Betty; and Dad would adjust to the hopes that he might be projecting onto his daughter. Moreover, there is an opportunity for a deepening relationship and healing that can take place, as we risk being vulnerable with the people we care for deeply.

On the other hand, there are a variety of ways in which when we choose to avoid hurting someone, we actually can cause them harm. There are plenty of parents of adult children who continue to enable destructive and immature behavior through financial and emotional support, because they are afraid of losing their child’s love. There are friends and family members of those suffering with chemical addictions afraid to speak out for the same reasons, while the ones they love are slowly destroying themselves. I had a parishioner who was once placed in the uncomfortable position of either taking the car keys of their elderly parent, who had macular degeneration, or allowing them to drive and risk harming himself or others. 

I think the reason that this topic jumped out at me is that I am aware of the disconnect in our society and our churches when it comes to “hurt” versus “harm.”  By and large Christians are supposed to be “nice”, therefore, they are not allowed to hurt someone's feelings by telling them “no”, or by turning down an invitation, or by creating effective boundaries. We are often willing to go to great lengths to avoid being hurt or inflicting hurt on someone else. Yet, I am not sure how much we ever assess the harm that might take place. Harm, of anger turning into bitterness and resentment; or attitudes and behavior going unchecked. This of course does not mean failing to take people’s feelings into consideration. Not to do so would be cruel. But, we are called to speak the truth in love; and the foundational word is “love.” 

Jesus speaks with love as he reinstates Peter after his denial of Jesus. After the third time Jesus asks, “Simon do you love me,” Peter was deeply grieved. He was hurt. These were difficult words to hear; he’s answered “yes” twice already. He cries out, “Lord you know everything; you know I love you.” And Jesus completes the reinstating by calling Peter to “feed his sheep.” These words were painful, but they were not harmful. In fact, they were the words of life and a new call for Peter as an apostle of the Messiah, the Christ. May we draw on the strength and grace of Jesus as we seek to live fully for him, knowing that “hurt” is an inevitable reality of life, but in Christ we may be set free from those things that cause  “harm.”


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