Fashioning Thick-Skinned into a Virtue
In various Evangelical and Reformed Christian circles, being “thick-skinned” is seen as being next in line to the cardinal virtues. To not be easily offended, hurt, or affected by the words and actions of others is placed next to godliness.
Many of us within these circles imbibe this idea and think that the fact that we are not affected by the pain, insults, and lies of others shows our maturity or strength. “I don’t let things really get to me” is a badge of honor many of us wear. “I don’t let them get under my skin” is the trophy we brandish. We strive to become emotionally impervious.
Being Thick-Skinned is Not How God Made Us
Yet, being “thick-skinned” isn’t virtuous or healthy, especially if we believe in a Christian anthropology. Our bodies, minds, and souls should be responding to traumatic events and injustices done against us. We should have a visceral reaction to insults and offenses. The core of our beings should know and feel that these are not what the good life is supposed to be like.
A Christian ethic of love, justice, and mercy as prescribed for us in the New Testament is impossible to live out simultaneously as the pursuit of being “thick-skinned.” The New Testament paints a portrait of the weak and the strong loving and forbearing, those who have much lifting up those who have little, and those who are in need finding their needs met by others within the church. Those who are hurting, weeping, and wincing within the church are not told to have thicker skin. We are told to cast all of our cares on Christ, not to live as though we shouldn’t have any cares at all (or just have “legitimate” cares).
The Right Response to the Hurting
Applying this Christian ethic today, the right response to those who claim to be victims of injustice and/or oppression (whether racial, sexual, emotional, etc.) is not to say, “Stop being such a snowflake!” or “Just grow up and be more thick-skinned!” Nor is the right response to harden your heart so that what should disturb and disgust you only makes you more indignant towards the hurting rather than those who hurt.
Further, we need to be careful about how social media can make us emotionally numb and too familiar with insults and toxic rage. We are not in a good place if we don’t feel anything when someone lashes out on us on social media. We should rightly feel hurt, distressed, confused, angered, and even traumatized and sickened by these actions.
Perhaps it would be helpful for our spiritual formation to take stock of the ways in which the false virtue of being “thick-skinned” has seeped into our lives, especially in our walks with Jesus and walks with other people. Something cannot be virtuous if it is neither making us more like Jesus in His empathy toward others nor bringing us closer to Jesus in our trust of His compassion. I’m afraid that “thick-skinned” is just another subtle form of “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” works righteousness that is not consonant with the gospel of grace.