Not long ago I was asked about Biblical principles for getting along with, for lack of a better description, “difficult” people. How should we handle situations where we find ourselves in conflict with a person of this type? What do we do about it when someone does us wrong? Is it ever right to retaliate against someone who hurts us? All these and more are legitimate questions. Does the Bible contain information that will inform and instruct us in our attitudes and behaviors in such circumstances? Certainly it does. The problem is not that the Bible contains too little information on this, or any other, subject. The problem is that we don’t know, or don’t want to know, how God desires that we handle these kinds of situations.
First, there is an overriding principle: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” (Romans 12:18). In other words, if there is a problem, those of us who are followers of Christ should never be the instigator nor the one who exacerbates that problem. Don’t be the one who “pokes the bear,” so to speak. If someone becomes angry with you for any reason remember the words of the wise man: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1). Jesus had quite a lot to say about maintaining peaceable relationships with others. “Blessed are the meek,” “blessed are the merciful,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” etc. (Matthew 5:3-12). In dealing with others who are also part of the body of Christ He commanded us to control both our feeling and actions toward our brothers and sisters. If there is a rift we should make every effort to repair it (Matthew 5:21-26; 18:15-17). Even in the process of dealing with an “evil person” it is better to be wronged than to do wrong (Matthew 5:38-42). It’s not that we do not know or that we disagree with what Jesus has said concerning this matter. The problem lies in our reluctance to actually practice the methods He has given us.
Second, in order to keep the peace we may sometimes have to do something that is not “legally” required of us. There were those who accused the apostle Paul of teaching things he had not taught. (cf. Acts 21:20-26). Paul was under no obligation to “appease” his accusers, but, in order to keep the peace and dispel any false notions concerning his teaching, he agreed to do something that would alleviate the situation. There may be times when we need to “go the second mile” (cf. Matthew 5:38-42), even though it is not “legally required.” In fact, we are enjoined to “bear with the scruples of the weak and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1). Sometimes we have to be patient with our spiritual siblings and give them time to grow in the faith.
Third, in some cases it may be necessary for us to break our ties with that person and avoid them entirely. It is true that “evil company corrupts good habits” (1 Corinthians 15:33). The “way of the wicked” is a dangerous place and, if we hope to see heaven we will steer clear of it (Proverbs 4:14-17). If we will avoid “the counsel of the ungodly,” “the path of sinners,” and “the seat of the scornful” we will be much more likely to “delight in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:1-5). In fact, we are specifically told to avoid “those who cause divisions” (Romans 16:17), “profane and idle babblings” (1 Timothy 6:20), and “foolish and ignorant disputes” (2 Timothy 2:23; Titus 3:9).
Of course there are times when a situation is more than a matter of opinion or a case of not being spiritually mature. There are situations that are clearly a case of right versus wrong. How should those situations be handled? Must we become angry and turn a discussion/debate into a shouting match. Must it become a contest to see who has the more forceful delivery and personality? Certainly not! How shall we who claim to be God’s children conduct ourselves in an ungodly manner?
People are human. As a result, people make mistakes. Some of those mistakes bear very minor consequences, but, depending on the mistake, there could be far reaching, even eternal, consequences. So how do we handle mistakes.
First, we recognize and own up to the mistake. That will probably be embarrassing, perhaps even to the point of humiliation. But unless a mistake is recognized it cannot be corrected. Once the mistake is recognized and admitted the next step is repentance and correction. The good people in the city of Corinth had make a mistake by allowing a church defaming, sinful activity to develop and continue within the congregation (1 Corinthians 5). While that may have been the most egregious mistake it certainly was not their only mistake. They had allowed themselves to be divided by aligning themselves with their favorite preacher (1 Corinthians 1:10-13), they had begun suing one another in the secular courts (1 Corinthians 6:1-8), they had disregarded the Lord’s instructions concerning the keeping of their marriage vows (1 Corinthians 7:10-16), they had tried to turn a local custom into a law and made it a bone of contention (1 Corinthians 11:1-16), they had made a mockery of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34), they were misusing their spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-31), they had turned their worship services into a time of confusion and bedlam (1 Corinthians 14:26-40), and had failed to fully appreciate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15). Yet, once these mistakes were recognized and admitted they repented, changed their behavior, and received forgiveness from God (2 Corinthians 7:8-12). When we follow their example we are rewarded with their results.
Second, when someone else makes a mistake we still have duties and responsibilities. Our first responsibility is to make sure that our own life is as it should be. You cannot correct someone when you are guilty of the same thing they are doing. Thus, Jesus encourages us to make sure we have removed the “beam” from our own eye before we attempt to remove the “speck” from our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:1-5). Additionally, when we have the responsibility and opportunity to restore someone, God has seen fit to give us a Biblical way to do that. First, we must make sure that we are spiritual and that we have the spiritual interests of the person at heart. Second, the restoring is to be done in a spirit of gentleness, with the idea in mind that we could find ourselves in the same condition as the one we are trying to help (Galatians 6:1). And, if that was not instruction enough, we are also told to “bear with the scruples (weaknesses) of the weak, and not to please ourselves (Romans 15:1).
Third, Jesus commands us to resolve any differences between ourselves and a brother or sister as quickly, efficiently, and thoroughly as possible. His first admonition is directed to a situation where we have wronged someone else (Matthew 5:21-26). Please note in this passage that unresolved differences inhibits our worship. Jesus’ second admonition has to do with a situation where we have been wronged. It is possible that the person may not realize they have offended us and so the person needs to be made aware. There is a Biblical process for doing this (Matthew 18:15-17). If the brother will not relent in his position Jesus instructs us to treat him “like a heathen and a tax collector.” That does not mean that we are mean to that person or that we mistreat them in any way. To do so would be to sink to their level. Remain polite, considerate, humble, and conciliatory. After all, if the father can receive the prodigal son surely we can receive an erring brother.
Fourth, we (Christians, collectively) have a responsibility to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). In giving these instructions the apostle used the word “endeavoring.” The English definition of that word is “to attempt something (such as the fulfillment of an obligation) by exertion of effort; to strive to achieve or reach something.” The original word is spoudazo, which is defined as “to hasten; to exert oneself.” It is the same word used in 2 Timothy 2:15 where we are urged to be “diligent” in our study of God’s word. Paul also used the same word when he urged Timothy to “do your utmost…” (2 Timothy 4:21). The point is, we should never let personalities or squabbles over minor things divide the body of Christ.
Fifth, pick your battles. Is it worth “fighting over?” A similar point has already been mentioned in the previous article but it is worth reiterating. Paul was not required to appease those who accused him of teaching the Jewish converts to no keep the Law, but he did in order to avoid conflict (cf. Acts 21:20-26). Furthermore, Paul instructed Timothy to charge people “not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers” (2 Timothy 2:14), to “shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness” (2 Timothy 2:16), and to avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing they generate strife” (2 Timothy 2:23). There are things that must be done and done in a certain way. At the same time there are things that, while they must be done, can be done at different times and in different ways. There is no valid reason to argue over such things as how many songs are sung in worship, whether the Lord’s Supper comes before or after the sermon, what time the services begin or end, or what color the carpet should be. Those are not worth fighting over. While I realize that some “forceful person” may speak loudly and strongly enough to override the majority in some cases, we need to realize that God will ultimately deal with that person just has He ultimately dealt with Diotrephes (3 John 9-11).
The foregoing practices will not always be easy to implement, but God never promised that life on this earth would be easy. He does inform us that we are “strangers and pilgrims” here (1 Peter 2:11). Strangers and pilgrims never have it easy. However, He does promise that it will be worth the cost (Mark 10:29-31). Furthermore, His “yoke is easy and His burden is light” (Matthew 11:29, 30).