I collapsed on my bed after school. Earlier that day I’d had a humiliating encounter with a group of fellow middle school boys who refused to let me sit at “their” table. As I walked away, their laughter sank over me like a cold, damp blanket, sapping my energy with every step.
I reached for the phone. “Mom,” I said, searching for words, “I’m a nerd.”
“Of course, you are!” Mom said without skipping a beat. I’m not sure what she’d been thinking, but these were not the words of comfort my heart ached to hear. The heavy coolness returned as I hung up the phone and stared at the ceiling.
I felt doubly misunderstood. First by the boys, who I felt had personally rejected me. And then by my mom, who, in her rush to empathize, had affirmed my insecurities.
It seems to me that most of us have had an experience of being misunderstood, when we share something important with a friend or roommate, who we hope will offer empathy, support, and understanding only to be disappointed and disconnected. In these moments, misunderstanding is emotionally costly.
Misunderstanding is an ancient human and spiritual problem. Many of us have experienced some form of misunderstanding as we’ve negotiated college life: a roommate who sleeps with the lights on, a teammate who doesn’t trust Christians, comments about our appearance or background that are insensitive or hurtful, or the simple longing to connect with other students more. While the Bible doesn’t give a list of life hacks to ensure we’ll never be misunderstood or misunderstand others, it does bring us into stories and introduce us to people whose experience of misunderstanding we can learn from.
Hannah’s story (1 Sam 1:2–2:21) inspires the fighter in me. We’re introduced to Hannah as the favored but childless wife of a man named Elkanah. She’s in a destructive family system where she is favored by Elkanah, provoking the jealousy of Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, who has many children. Elkanah responds by giving Hannah more attention, which just incites more jealousy and fuels the destructive cycle.
Hannah longs for a child, and in her distress, she presents herself before the Lord early in the morning, weeping, praying, and pleading her case. But even this action is misunderstood. Eli, the priest, assumes that Hannah is drunk and tells her to stop making a spectacle of herself.
Hannah responds by fighting to be understood. Instead of allowing Eli’s words to create embarrassment or shame, Hannah challenges Eli’s assumptions and clarifies her behavior. She does not play the part ascribed to her by Eli’s mischaracterization but clarifies for this prayerless priest what it looks like to pour out one’s soul to God.
I love this response. Hannah reminds me that it’s okay to confront misunderstanding when it arises, even across differences in status or authority. In fact, Hannah’s confrontation with Eli doesn’t end in chapter 1. When we read Hannah’s prayer in chapter 2 within its immediate context—coming right before the story of Eli’s wicked sons and within the broader context of 1 Samuel, a book largely about the need for faithful, God-honoring leadership for God’s people—we discover that Hannah’s prayer is a rebuke to Eli’s leadership and a celebration of God’s justice.
God uses Hannah’s fight to be understood to move the story of Israel forward in significant ways. It shows that fighting to be understood can be worthwhile and even beneficial when done appropriately.
Jeremiah’s story reminds me that faithfulness to God’s call is no guarantee of success or understanding. In Jeremiah 20, we find the prophet arrested and locked in stocks simply for obeying the Lord’s call to prophesy.
Jeremiah’s response is to prayerfully complain to God. He describes God’s call as enticement, as though he was swept up in some attractive or compelling vision of prophetic ministry only to discover the cold truth of rejection and misunderstanding after it was too late. Jeremiah wants to quit prophesying but finds he can’t. He describes God’s words as a fire in his bones he can’t contain.
I love the emotional realism in Jeremiah’s response. He complains of his calling, his message, and even the life and health that are enabling him to experience these distressing days. Jeremiah’s prayer corrects the unhelpful belief that prayers should be nice. Jeremiah doesn’t respond to misunderstanding by patiently and quietly enduring. His prayers don’t spare anyone’s feelings—his own, God’s, or his community.
God doesn’t criticize or challenge Jeremiah in his complaint. This opens the possibility of prayer as complaint as a faithful response to misunderstanding. Perhaps a willingness to complain to God in the face of misunderstanding is a sign of spiritual maturity.
Mary—Stay the Course
Mary of Bethany’s story reminds me of Jesus’ posture toward someone feeling misunderstood. It also inspires courage to persevere despite misunderstanding. In Luke 10:38–42, Mary astounds the community and her sister by choosing to sit at Jesus’ feet. Unfortunately, the image of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet has been framed in ways that keep us from seeing the layers of misunderstanding that Mary was experiencing.
For example, we tend to see Mary’s sitting at Jesus’ feet as her “doing nothing” while her sister Martha takes on the tasks of practical hospitality. But Mary is hardly doing nothing. Mary’s presence at Jesus’ feet is a bold move implying that she’s seeking to learn from Jesus as a disciple. In a culture and context where women could not be the disciple of a rabbi, this is highly significant. Martha voices the complaint as Mary’s neglect of her hosting responsibilities, but it’s possible that this complaint is also an indirect, face-saving way of correcting Mary to her culturally assigned ‘role.’
Mary’s sitting at Jesus’ feet undoubtedly created social discomfort. She was likely misunderstood by the disciples. She was certainly misunderstood by her sister. Fascinatingly, Mary doesn’t respond to the criticism. She continues to live out the implications of her bold choice despite other’s discomfort.
I love the courage and resilience Mary shows. It would have been easy for Mary to resolve the tension for Martha and others by abandoning her spot at Jesus’ feet. She doesn’t. Jesus’ response reinforces Mary’s agency by saying that Mary had chosen what was better and that it wouldn’t be denied her.
Sometimes misunderstanding is the result of a countercultural choice to follow Jesus. These choices may require courage. Mary’s story opens the possibility that, faced with misunderstanding, disciples of Jesus can stay the course, trusting in Jesus’ posture and commitment.
A Fresh Perspective
Misunderstanding is an ancient human and spiritual problem. Reflecting on these biblical examples helps me to consider my responses to feeling misunderstood in fresh perspective. God is still at work despite misunderstanding.
It leads me to prayerfully ask: Is this a situation where I should confront misunderstanding, bring a complaint or lament to God, or stay the course, trusting in Jesus’ care and sponsorship?
What biblical stories inspire or comfort you as you consider your own experiences of misunderstanding?
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