This is for anyone who has ever felt “stupid” because of the hurtful words of another person.
When I was younger I stuttered. My early years of school were filled with praying that the teacher would not call on me to read out loud because I knew that I would stumble over every other word. In second grade, our class had three different reading groups. The first group was for the “excellent” readers, the second group was filled with “average” readers, while the third group had the “slower” readers. Can you guess which group I was in? I knew that I belonged in this last group because I knew that I was a poor reader. But it made me feel inferior to all the other students which had the opportunity to read in the first two groups. And to make matters worse, one day as a girl (from the “excellent” readers) overhead me trying to read out loud to my own group, she said to me in a loud, obnoxious voice: “You are so stupid!” I can still picture her squinty face and blonde hair with pigtails. I gave her a dirty look and went back to trying to sound out the word “the”, but even at that young age I wasn’t angry at her. I was angry at myself. In fact, when I would have to speak, I really hated myself. It is hard to put into words, but that is how I felt. I felt like my mind wasn’t connecting with my voice and some outside force was placing a lid on my ability to speak.
Fast forward to high school. Once again, my greatest fear became a reality as I was sitting in an English Literature class and heard the teacher state that we would be reading the story of Romeo and Juliet. And then my fear became pure agony when she said that every boy would read the part of Romeo and every girl would read the part of Juliet at some point as the story unfolded. My heart sank to my stomach as I looked at the words. I felt stupid. I remembered the words of the little blonde girl from second grade. She was right. I am stupid. I haven’t grown out of it. And so, I decided that when I would be called upon to read this romantic tragedy, I would do my best British accent and fill the room with laughter. Laughter was often the fuel which motored my words. When people laughed at me or at something I said, it would calm my nerves, and I would then have the ability to speak with flowing words that seemed so effortless. Yet, only a few lines into reading as Romeo in a British accent, the teacher stopped me and asked if I was trying to be a comedian. I told her that I was trying to bring life to the story and that was my way of honoring Shakespeare. She allowed it and so I continued to read. As I butchered every other word, the students snickered and some even laughed out loud. Everyone thought I was trying to be funny, while deep inside I knew that I was simply trying to survive this reading. The relief I felt when I was finished reading was immense. I felt like an anchor had been lifted from around my tongue.
Involvement in sports and the popularity that came with this allowed me to mask this major deficiency in my life. Most of the people around me didn’t know how hard it was for me to start conversations. If my sentence would start with the letter “t” I would often try to think of another word that would be easier for my tongue to pronounce. Once I would begin my first sentence, I was fine, but sometimes I would start my sentence with “t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t…” and my friends would just smile at me. I wasn’t made fun of much because of it, but there were a couple older guys on my athletic teams that would really let me have it if I would slip up a word or two when I was trying to talk. I can still picture them doing this to me on the bus as we were driving to and from basketball and baseball games. I always laughed it off, because what else are you going to do when your peers make fun of you, right? But it was something that pained me deep inside.
Fast forward to early adulthood. I was now a pastor. Wait, isn’t a pastor someone who teaches up on a stage with people listening to them? When God started to lead me into Christian ministry, I was actually confused because I knew that I was a shy speaker. I hated giving speeches in high school and I hated starting conversations with strangers. How could I be a pastor? This just didn’t make sense at first. But when I would stand before people, and I would start preaching, the words flowed out of my mouth. It was as if it wasn’t really me speaking. Because when I would speak with people just a few minutes after my sermon as they were leaving the church, I would have a hard time starting sentences again. When I was in my twenties, I found that I would stutter the most when I was talking with someone who intimidated me. The shy, little boy would come out and want to just hide in his shell. I guess I still feel that way sometimes. I don’t want fame. I don’t want fortune. Some public speakers might want that and will even strive towards that, but I have never wanted that. I have always been driven with a passion to please God with everything that comes out of my mouth as I preach.
Fast forward to today. My stuttering problem is almost completely healed. Every once in a while, I might feel it when I am talking with someone I have never met, but for the most part, it is a part of my past. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have people telling me that I am stupid. A few years ago, I received an email from someone who criticized me for how I pronounced a certain word in one of my sermons. He sent a few painful arrows at how inadequate of a speaker I was and wasn’t sure that I was even good enough to be a public speaker. I humbled myself and sent an email back, thanking him for correcting me for mispronouncing the word and that I would try my best to say it correctly the next time. As I sent the email, I could picture that little girl with blonde pigtails making fun of me again, calling me stupid. It was a humbling email and reminded me that when I speak, I speak for God, and therefore it is His power that flows through me. And yet, God uses me in my weakness (i.e. stuttering, mispronunciation).
Over the years, plenty of people have told me when I mispronounce certain words. And usually they are kind when they tell me. Even my wife points them out from time to time. I work at all this, more than people will ever realize, but I have learned to accept that my speech will never be perfectly eloquent in the ears of those who hold high the English grammar. I guess that makes me like most other people. And I am okay with being like most people.
I find it ironic that my greatest fear (speaking in front of others) because of my greatest weakness (stuttering) has turned into one of my greatest joys because God uses my weakness for His glory. He took the worst part of me, and made it into something that will exalt Him until the day that I die. This seems to be how God works. I look back now and am thankful that I stuttered when I was younger. Because I stuttered, I now have empathy for people who feel inadequate. Because I stuttered, I can now appreciate the joy of being able to speak with fluent words one after each other. Because I stuttered, I am reminded that the greatest gift God has given to me (preaching), is just that: a gift.
I leave you with this thought. What do you struggle with? Have you allowed God to use this weakness in a way that brings glory to Him? And if you have children, what are their weaknesses? Once you notice his or her weakness, you can be aware of them and guide your child to have the courage to overcome those weaknesses. No matter how stupid I might have felt growing up, my parents always believed in me. I can’t think of anyone else who has encouraged me more than my parents. Never forget, a weakness to us can be a strength to God!
That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10(NIV)