Sunday, June 29, 2008
To be, or not to be...offended.
"Then Peter came to Him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.'" -- Matthew 18:21-22
Most Christians are familiar with Jesus' teaching about forgiveness, specifically with his explanation to Peter that someone wearing Jesus' name should continue to forgive a repentant offender time and again, without keeping count, and without ultimately claiming the well has run dry from overuse.
To answer Peter's question more fully, Jesus gives the example of a servant who is given undeserved, unprecedented grace by his master, only to turn right around and deny a small amount of grace to a fellow servant. The lesson is clear: We are expected to be generous toward others with the forgiveness God has extended to us. In fact, if we fail to do so, we cannot count on God's forgiveness at all (Matthew 18:35).
In addition to these instructions, Jesus lays out the right way to approach someone who has offended us. First, privately, and alone. Second, privately, with a witness or two, and only publicly if the first two approaches fail. Not as much fun as the more-favored approach of telling everyone else but the offender, but it's the only way that comes from God.
So, believers are given the tools they need to resolve conflicts that arise among them.
Needless to say, conflict still oftentimes goes unresolved, as believers oftentimes neglect the tools Jesus left. But, the tools are still there, in perfect working order, for those who choose to pull them out of the shed and use them. Between believers, everything from a dented bumper to a broken heart can be addressed and brought to a peaceful resolution, if the tools Jesus left are used with humility and pure motives.
But, dented bumpers and broken hearts are rare occurrences, aren't they?
What kinds of issues are frequently at the heart of conflict between Christians? Do we reserve getting our dander up only for serious matters of faith and conscience? Or, are we prone to becoming agitated, even angry, over incidents and issues in which the only thing at stake is our convenience, opinion, or pride?
When Jesus gave us the tools of reconciliation, did He envision us having to use them all the time, for all manner of insults and hurts, real and perceived? The same question, in another way: Do you anticipate having to jack up your car and change a flat tire on any kind of regular basis?
Or, is it possible we are expected to grow, mature, and gain the perspective that allows us to avoid taking offense in the first place, whenever possible?
What example did Jesus Himself set? Can you imagine how often the people around Jesus must have failed Him? We are told in Scripture about several instances, but it doesn't seem likely that every disappointment Jesus felt with His followers (and naysayers, for that matter) was recorded for us to read. But, in the Scriptural accounts in which Jesus openly takes issue with other people's words or deeds, what is typically at stake?
From the clearing of the temple, to the woman caught in adultery, to the storm He calmed on the sea, to Peter's attempted rebuke of Jesus as He foretold His death, to Peter's assault on Malchus, Jesus' rebukes involve critical, foundational issues of identity for Him and definition for His mission. He clarified purposes. He exposed hypocrisy. He challenged His followers' faith. He established His place and preeminence. He thwarted attempts to redefine His mission. Nothing here involving fleeting emotions, personal convenience, irritability, stubbornness, or pride. Just a focus on the Father, the mission, and the things that mattered most.
Few would claim to have the kind of perspective Jesus had, but there is hope for us as we strive to reduce unnecessary conflict, and reserve confrontation for things that really matter.
"If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men." -- Romans 12:18
Just how much does depend on you, when it comes to being at peace with your neighbors? Your family? Your spiritual family? It would be interesting to see how far many of us are willing to go in applying this verse to our lives. Just how generously do we tend to interpret this command? Does "as much as depends on you" involve anything beyond simply showing up and making our feelings known? Anything more than a moment's patience before giving in to anger and the feeling that the offender owes us something?
How did Paul himself interpret what he wrote? In another context, Paul discusses the issue of Christians taking one another to court over personal conflicts. Here, he makes clear just how far he assumes a Christian would want to go in order to maintain peace within the body of Christ, and to prevent the church from being discredited before unbelievers:
"Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?" -- I Corinthians 6:7
Paul believes a Christian who values the body of Christ would prefer to be defrauded by a brother, rather than risking the unforeseeable consequences of a public conflict. The mission of the church is of far greater importance to Paul than a personal loss suffered because of a brother's inconsideration, oversight, or outright sin.
Moving beyond Paul's specific context of lawsuits, can we not apply this concept to our daily dealings with our brothers and sisters in Christ? If we truly value peace in the body, in order to have a more effective body, should we not adopt Paul's mindset? Should we not prefer personal loss, in whatever form, over an avoidable conflict that could carry with it consequences we can't foresee or imagine?
It's worth pointing out, however, that the same Paul who wrote these admonitions against unnecessary conflict, was not afraid to initiate conflict himself, as long as the issues at stake warranted it. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells his readers the story of a confrontation he initiated with Peter, over Peter's initial hesitance to publicly fellowship with Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:11-21). He also admonishes the church in Corinth for their tolerance of open immorality among their members, and reminds them of their duty to confront that sin for the sake of the body (I Corinthians 5).
When Paul reminds us to do all we can to avoid conflict, and to prefer personal loss over discredit to the church, he's not saying a conflict should never happen. He's simply pointing us back to Jesus' standard of what is and is not worthy of conflict among brethren. And, in so doing, he reminds us of how often we create conflict among ourselves over issues that are more about us, and less about Christ.
So, what is the Christian to do? Where can the Christian find practical advice to help sort these matters out?
Some of the best advice can be found back in the Old Testament, in the book of Ecclesiastes. King Solomon, blessed with wisdom beyond any other man, gives today's Christian a pair of seemingly contradictory tools that will get us a long way toward doing "as much as depends on" us to avoid unnecessary conflict in the church.
"Do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. For many times, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others." -- Ecclesiastes 7:21
"Do not curse the king, even in your thought. Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom. For a bird of the air may carry your voice, and a bird in flight may tell the matter." -- Ecclesiastes 10:20
Such an interesting, practical pair of messages here. On the one hand, words are to be kept in perspective, not taken too much to heart. On the other hand, words are of deadly consequence, carrying significant weight. Which is true? Of course, both. And, therein lies a way in which today's Christian can be a peacemaker rather than a fire-starter.
The first passage from Ecclesiastes encourages us to adopt a forgiving, understanding, "cooler head" attitude toward the things other people say. A mindset ready to overlook an offense and extend forgiveness for any offense taken. And, why is such a mindset possible? Because the Christian knows that he is just as guilty as anyone else of saying things that were hurtful or offensive to other people. We want grace for those mistakes, so we should readily extend grace to others who make the same mistakes. We also understand that people often say things without thinking or out of frustration, and we know this because we've done it.
The second passage from Ecclesiastes, however, encourages quite the opposite attitude toward words, but in this case the words we ourselves use, and the things we say about other people. How differently we would speak if we knew everything we said would be repeated to the person we were talking about! Yet, how often do we speak carelessly about one another, despite knowing full well that stray words have a way of reaching the ears of the person we never meant to hurt. The Christian following Solomon's admonition will hold himself to an entirely different standard than that which he applies to everyone else around him. He will be as careful with words as he wishes others would be.
Imagine a church in which every member applied these two passages from Solomon to their everyday words and deeds.
Imagine every member holding himself to the highest standard, but being ready to extend grace when others fail. Imagine Christians truly finding it their glory, whenever possible, to "overlook a transgression" (Proverbs 19:11). Imagine a spiritual family that knows how to use Jesus' tools for confrontation and reconciliation, but that also reserves those tools for matters weighty enough to warrant them. Imagine all of us focused like Jesus on His priorities rather than our own feelings.
Think of someone who frequently annoys, aggravates, or angers you, and imagine choosing not to be offended.
Imagine choosing grace over grievance.
Is it to be, or not to be?