The other day, I read a quotation attributed to Rev. Oswald Chambers: “Spiritual maturity is going from being thin-skinned and hard-hearted to thick-skinned and soft-hearted.” These words struck me as one very helpful way of communicating the heart of spiritual growth.
Thin-skinned: When we describe someone (possibly ourselves!) as having ‘thin skin,’ we often mean that the person gets offended, hurt, and unsettled very easily. It doesn’t take much to get ‘under the skin’ of a thin-skinned person. Even a sideways glance can do it. When we are around others who are thin-skinned, we may feel like we have to walk on eggshells around them, lest we set them off. When we are the ones whose skin is thin, we may feel like we are always on edge, always expecting something to go wrong.
Hard-hearted: When our hearts are hard, like the biblical character of Pharaoh, we are not willing to be affected by others. Hard hearts refuse to let others in. Hard hearts have no time to sympathize with the pain of other people. Instead, they are closed off to others, and they build a shell around themselves to protect themselves from being affected by others.
For those of us who realize that “thin-skinned” and “hard-hearted” can sometimes describe our own behavior (!!), the beautiful news is that these do not have to be permanent characteristics. With God’s grace and help, we can begin to develop:
Thick skin: A thick-skinned individual is someone who can “take a punch,” whether literally or emotionally. Whereas you must walk on eggshells around a thin-skinned person, thick-skinned people are not easily offended. They have a secure enough sense of themselves that they do not feel constantly at risk. Their identity is grounded in God’s love for them, which other people cannot take away. When someone else attacks them or says something offensive, it does not throw their lives out of balance. This deep, inner security is the very definition of “thick-skinned.”
Soft-hearted: But wonderfully, their thick skin is not a brittle shell, keeping the world out. It is a not a self-protective shell that locks other people out and tells them to “stay back.” The thick skin of the spiritually mature surrounds a very soft heart, a heart that is not afraid of hurt. Soft-hearted people are the kinds of people to whom you can tell your sorrows.
Jesus is the best example we have of someone who was thick-skinned (able to tolerate all of the accusations of his opponents) and soft-hearted (opening his arms to the pain of the world). This is one more way that our spiritual growth is the process of becoming more like Jesus. Blessings to you on your spiritual journey!
Scott Ramsey is the pastor at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, NY.