This article has its roots in one of my latest books, The Most Misunderstood Women of the Bible.
A few years ago, I walked through a difficult misunderstanding with a loved one. No matter what I did, I could not convince them of my innocence, nor did any sort of verbal wrangling help them understand things from my perspective. To be misunderstood is to experience some of the greatest pain in our lives. It’s especially hard when someone you love assigns nefarious motives to you that simply don’t exist.
If this has happened to you, I’m sorry someone misunderstood you. I know it hurts. If you’re like me, you may re-hash the pain, wondering how to resolve the problem, or you blame yourself for making a misstep, or you bang your head against the wall because you could’ve done better, or you place the blame solely on the shoulders of the one who misunderstood you or your intentions.
What are we to do when we are misunderstood?
First, we understand that we’re in good company with the God of the universe.
Jesus was deeply misunderstood in his context—by the religious elite, the crowd, and even his own disciples. They kept expecting him to do one thing, while he joyfully did another. Most misunderstood his mission, thinking he would overthrow the Romans rather than overthrowing sin’s power and stench.
Because Jesus understands being misunderstood, we can run to him when we feel similarly. We can rest in Hebrews 12:3, “Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up” (NLT).
We can also learn from his lack of reputation management. When folks uttered accusations, instead of defending, Jesus kept quiet. He entrusted himself to His Father. When I’ve learned the art of being quiet and letting the misunderstanding remain in the world, peace comes. I realize it’s not my job to make sure everyone in the world understands me. Jesus holds my reputation, thankfully.
When I walked through the misunderstanding with my loved one, I felt a kinship with Jesus, knowing he truly understood me. I didn’t have to convince him of my innocence, and I could ask him to please search my heart in case I needed to repent of any impropriety.
Second, we can read the Bible.
The Bible is full of people who were misunderstood. I recently wrote a book about ten women (Eve, Hagar, Leah, Rahab, Naomi, Bathsheba, Tamar, The Proverbs 31 Woman, Mary of Magdala, and Phoebe). Not only did I jump into their stories, I also realized these women were so much like us—with dreams, broken promises, and misunderstandings aplenty. Watching them, then mining their beautifully broken stories helped me navigate my own journeys of misunderstanding.
Many of their stories served as cautionary tales of how not to treat others. It’s often very easy for us to make ourselves out to be the blighted hero of our own stories, forgetting that we, too, misunderstand others. We jump to unhealthy conclusions. We assume the negative. Seeing how these kinds of misunderstandings hurt others (and remembering how it hurts me to feel misunderstood) now informs the way I interact.
Third, we can change from a fortress to a fence mentality.
In the aftermath of misunderstanding, we can erect a fortress of protection around our misunderstood heart. For a time, this wall feels absolutely necessary. And it served us well. Inside that fortress, we didn’t have to hear the painful words of our friend, our frenemy, our lover, our child. As long as we didn’t engage with the big, bad world, we could be free of misunderstanding.
Except that God knows we’re most joyful when we live in messy community, loving and being loved, seeking to be understood, and choosing to ask questions so we don’t misunderstand others. In that place, there’s risk, yes, but there’s also the potential for genuine life.
A fortress prevents both pain and joy. A fortress isolates. A fortress removes you from real life lived alongside others.
You may be afraid because you worry if you demolish the wall, all those folks who misunderstood you will overrun you, kicking over the furniture in your heart, taking advantage of the most precious parts of you. You’ll rightly quote Proverbs 4:23. “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
If you tear down that wall, won’t you let bullies overtake you?
Not if you build a fence. With a gate. And a key.
A fence is a friendly reminder to everyone that you have your own yard, your own soul, your own “you” that’s worthy of protection. It helps keep out fools and sociopaths and takers. It lets you create a boundary between you and those who constantly choose to misunderstand you. But because there’s a gate to your fenced enclosure, you can welcome those who enrich your life: safe people, friends, sweet family.
I am still living in an incomplete story. The misunderstanding that I shared at the beginning of this story still exists. But by running to Jesus who truly understands, mining the stories of people in the Bible who experienced something similar, and demolishing fortresses and erecting gated fences, I am no longer living in the sting of that misunderstanding. I’m sad, yes, but I’m okay.
That’s my prayer for you—that you’ll navigate misunderstanding with intention, find healing as you grieve, and eventually let go of the pain and engage again with good, strong friendships.