Have you ever spoken to someone and realized they’re operating from a completely different reality? Remember that best-selling book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray?
Its central premise is that women and men are from different “planets” – that men use language to build relationships, while men use language to compete. Here is a moving story from the preface, which explains why Gray started exploring this concept and writing about it. His second wife had just had a baby, and when he walked in the door, she complained that his brother had forgotten her pain medication. Gray says he felt attacked:
“After exchanging a few harsh words, I headed for the door. I was fired, irritable, and had heard enough. We had both reached our limits. Then something started to happen that would change my life. Bonnie said, “‘Stop, please donʹt leave. This is when I need you the most. I’m in pain. I haven’t slept in days. Please listen to me.’ʺ I stopped for a moment to listen. She said, “‘John Gray, you’re a fair-weather friend! As long as I’m sweet, loving Bonnie you are here for me, but as soon as I’m not, you walk right out that door.’ʺ Then she paused, and her eyes filled up with tears. As her tone shifted she said, “‘Right now I’m in pain. I have nothing to give, this is when I need you the most. Please, come over here and hold me. You don’t have to say anything. I just need to feel your arms around me. Please don’t go.’ʺ I walked over and silently held her. She wept in my arms. After a few minutes, she thanked me for not leaving. She told me that she just needed to feel me holding her.
“At that moment I started to realize the real meaning of love, unconditional love. I had always thought of myself as a loving person. But she was right. I had been a fair‐‑weather friend. As long as she was happy and nice, I loved back. But if she was unhappy or upset, I would feel blamed and then argue or distance myself. That day, for the first time, I didn’t leave her. I stayed, and it felt great. I succeeded in giving to her when she really needed me. This felt like real love.”
I love this story. I love the fact that Gray thought of himself as a loving person – bringing home the truth that we are so often blind to our own inadequacies. We tend to have myopic vision for our own faults and telescopic visions for other people’s faults. I also love the fact that Gray’s second wife (his first marriage had already ended in divorce) had the communication skills to tell him what she needed, in a way he could hear: “hold me now”. And I love that Gray listened, and that he realized how very good it felt to give love, and feel it received.
Gray posits this example as one where two people of opposite sexes learn each other’s languages. He says women are relational, whereas men are more achievement oriented. He says women tell their problems because they want empathy, while men think they want solutions. He says women try to change men under the guise of nurturing them, but Gray says men just want “acceptance.”
While Gray’s book is helpful in many ways (if a man is lost, for instance, he instructs women to never, ever, tell them where the right road is), and while I have no problem with its basic premise that women and men are different, I would suggest that the concept of operating from two different realities goes deeper than the gender divide. It goes to the issue of original sin – and if you don’t know what that means, just substitute the word “selfishness” and “pride.”
For instance, in Gray’s example above, Gray’s pride felt wounded when he thought his wife was attacking him unjustly for his brother’s lapse in memory. Wounded pride tends to want to wound back – so he started to walk out the door. Why? To hurt her back. The reason the story is so moving is that that was the very moment when Gray’s wife could have responded with pride. She could have yelled after his retreating back, “who wants you ANYWAY???” Instead, she cried out with humility. She used words like “help me” and “I need you” and “I’m in pain” and “I have nothing to give.” Her humility melted him – which is a testimony, in turn, to Gray’s humility. He turned around, listened, and everything transformed. In Biblical language, Gray and his wife went from having hard hearts toward each other to having soft ones.
Similarly, when Gray says women want to “change” men, and men want to “fix” women – those sound to me like different sides of the same coin called pride. Pride says: “I know what you need and I’m going to make you do it.” Likewise,when Gray says women want “empathy” and men want “acceptance” – how different is that, really? It sounds to me like, at heart, men and women want the very same thing – unconditional love, even when they don’t deserve it. And in their all too human hearts, men and women have trouble in the same way – we have trouble giving unconditional love – especially to people when they don’t deserve it.
To understand how these kinds of fights go deeper than gender differences, you can look at the many pop psychology books on the abusive husband syndrome. These books reiterate Gray’s gender distinctions – but on steroids. These books claim that abusive men are “crazy-making” because they are out of touch with reality. They say that women will ask, “would you like to go to a movie tonight,” and the abusive husband will scream, “why are you always trying to CONTROL me?” The woman, who thinks her man is speaking from a place of love and truth, will wonder what she’s done wrong. “AM I trying to control him,” she will ask herself. Meanwhile, the abusive husband isn’t trying to work on the relationship, figure out what to do that evening, or even to lovingly help his wife improve her communication skills. He’s just trying to put her down. He’s trying to get one over on her. Like a wounded animal, he’s lashing out and trying to hurt her, to make her feel as bad as he does. Her happiness actually annoys him to the very core. Why?
Perhaps because he’s jealous.
I’m not sure where such jealousy comes from, but if, as many people say, pride is at the heart of every human evil, I would suggest that jealousy springs up easily and quickly in a prideful heart – because a prideful heart is at core hollow. A prideful heart is based on the lie that one is better than other people. Pride therefore has to constantly puff itself up to try to maintain that lie. Pride has no rest, no peace, and no joy – it is at heart insecure. Pride bristles when other people seem to have a joy. Their joy shows pride’s lie for what it is. The abusive spouse books, like Gray’s, point to reality differences that go deeper than the gender divine – differences that go to what the Bible calls life and death.
If you really want to understand what lies behind people operating from two different reality systems, the Biblical truth is that all humans – male and female – can get blinded by jealousy, insecurity, pain and self-pity. We can get so out of touch with reality that we don’t see the truth of what’s in front of our eyes – and the resulting carnage is catastrophic. Lashing out at others from a place of insecurity or pain ruins relationships. It destroys hope, and the resulting lack of self-esteem in both abused and abuser can lead to addictions to all sorts of other things in a futile attempt to numb ourselves from the pain.
There’s a better way.
The first step is to understand the blindness. If you look, for instance, at the events described here in Acts 5, it reads almost like a tragi-comedy. The religious leaders throw Peter and the other apostles of the early church in jail for healing people. Peter was operating out of such Holy Spirit power that his very “shadow” was healing the sick. Acts 5:15. John writes here in Acts that the religious leaders arrested the apostles because they were “filled with jealousy.” Acts 5:17. That Biblical insight is what enabled me to suggest above that the abusive husband is operating from a place of jealousy. His jealousy makes him want to lower his wife’s self-esteem, so that she’ll think she’s lucky to be with someone as lame as he thinks he is. Of course, it backfires, because the abuse makes her quietly hate him. But jealousy, it may not surprise you to know, is not rational.
So while Peter and the others are in jail, an angel lets them out and tells them to go back to the Temple and “give the people this message of life.” Acts 5:20. Right there is our first hint at the real Mars-Venus divide, the one that underlies our every human fight – it’s a difference not between male and female, but between life and death.
So what do the apostles do? They listen to the angel (good choice) and go right back to their preaching. And here’s where the story gets so comical I had to read it five times to figure out what was going on. The religious leaders ask the guards to bring the jailed apostles to them. The guards return empty-handed and say the apostles were not in the jail, even though the jail was locked. Someone else arrives and says the apostles are preaching in the Temple. And the religious leaders arrest the apostles all over again and say: “Didn’t we tell you not to preach about Jesus?” Acts 5:28.
Do you see what’s missing?
That’s right. The leaders don’t ask the obvious question. No one says: “HOW THE HECK DID YOU GET OUT OF JAIL?????”
That’s the sign of someone operating out of irrationality. They don’t ask the obvious question. They’re so blinded by something – here the text tells us it’s jealousy – that they don’t see the obvious.
Peter seems to understand their blindness, because he, too, doesn’t mention the angel and their miraculous escape. He tells them instead “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Acts 5:29. He goes on to tell them the gospel – Jesus died for their sins.
If the religious leaders hadn’t been blind to the reality of God, Peter’s message of love and of God’s power – a power to which every locked door is no obstacle – they would have fallen to their faces.
Instead, they “were furious and decided to kill” the apostles. Acts 5:33.
A wise Jewish leader named Gamaliel (and I’ve elsewhere read that Gamaliel was indeed a wise man, whose writings are still honored, and who is still respected) steps in and appeals to the religious leaders’ reason. He has the apostles removed – which in itself sounds like a wise move as it presumably defused their rage. Gamaliel then tells the leaders to leave the apostles “alone.” He says that if the apostles were preaching and healing on their own, “it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God.” Acts 5:38-39.
Again, the leaders’ response is comical in its blindness. The text says that the others “accepted his advice.” Acts 5:40. And yet, even though they claimed to accept Gamaliel’s advice they then had the apostles “flogged” and ordered “them never again to speak in the name of Jesus” – which wasn’t at all what Gamaliel suggested.
When someone is operating from a place where they are blind to the reality of God – they will always be this blind and this irrational. The Bible talks of a “veil” being over the eyes of people who don’t yet accept God: “Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ.” 2 Cor. 4:4.
The true distinction, therefore, is not between male and female, but between those who understand that they are blind, and those who think they can see. It’s between people who are full of pride – pride in themselves and their own importance and superiority – and people who have the humility to know they are so flawed they needed God Himself to die on the cross for their sins. This is the real Mars and Venus – between those who are perishing in their pride, sins and blindness – and those who say to God: help me! I want life!
There’s one more part to Acts 5, and it’s a sobering but also ultimately liberating part. The chapter starts with the story of a husband and wife who sold some property, gave part of its sale price to the apostles for the early church, and claimed they were bringing the whole amount. Both husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, fall down dead after lying to Peter. Peter’s words to Ananias before he keels over are chilling. He tells Ananias: “why have you let Satan fill your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself. The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away. How could you do a thing like that? You weren’t lying to us but to God!” Acts 5:3-4.
Peter describes a God here who doesn’t demand we give Him everything. God doesn’t demand anything from us. Unlike we prideful humans – who go around in our pride thinking we know what other people need, and demanding that they do it – God actually DOES know what we need, and yet He never orders us to do it. Instead, He invites us. And more than that, He knows that no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how much we long to love each other, we will always fall short. God knows we will sometimes, perhaps often, react in pride. We will wound each other – sometimes intentionally. We will slam doors shut that we need to open, and we will wrench open doors we should gently shut. We’ll trip over our own two feet and fall to the floor maintaining someone else made us do it. We’ll hug when we should refrain from hugging, and we’ll walk away when we should hug. The solution, once we start to turn to God is clear: give God everything. Trust God in everything. Follow His ways. But knowing the solution, and doing it, are two very different things.
That’s why the good news is even better than this. The good news is that God and man do operate from two different realities. We humans are full of pride when we should be humble. God is full of humility even though He could have every reason to be “prideful.” And in His humility, God didn’t scorn the shame of the cross, in order to give us life. God, like Gray’s wife in the first example, made Himself vulnerable. God, on the cross, cried out that he was in pain; that he had given all for us; that He forgave us; and that He just wants us to embrace Him.
Shouldn’t we – couldn’t we – like Gray, turn around and go back and listen to that kind of love?
by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com in “A Chapter a Day”, my blog on Scripture, literature, life and love on September 11, 2011 a day we remember for the many people who died, and the people who gave up their lives to rescue others in Christ-like sacrificial love