Thursday, June 4, 2015

How to Be Very Wrong When You're Right

You may have read the title and thought this is an article about checking all the facts before telling someone they're wrong. There is a great deal to be said about carefully exploring the whole story with true humility before becoming convinced that we're right; Truth is important, our pride is easily hurt, and we're not right nearly as often as we think we are. But this article is not primarily about that; It's about the step after that.

Let's assume a situation in which we're objectively, factually, legally, right. Feels great! Now we can make sure everyone knows it! Well, this article is about how to be right when we face someone that's wrong, whether in a disagreement or offense. What I mean is that it's easy to be factually right but then act in a way that makes us even more guilty than the person who is wrong.

When there is any kind of disagreement or offense in a relationship, we have two biblical options that can both be good for a relationship.* It requires wisdom to know when each is appropriate.

The first is to overlook the offense. Is it a trivial matter? Is the offender understandably immature, such as a young child or someone with a disability? Is the relationship not close enough to invest a great deal of energy into? Or is there a greater good within a truly valuable relationship that may be accomplished by absorbing this wrong? Paul teaches us to bear with one another with patience, just as Proverbs tells us that it is one's glory to overlook an offense (2 Tim. 2:24; Col. 3:13; Eph 4:2; Prov. 19:11). God himself is patient and slow to anger (Mic. 7:18; Ps. 103:8, Ps. 145:8; Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Rom. 3:25; Luke 6:35). It's worth noting that "overlooking" for us is not simply avoiding conflict while storing up internal bitterness, nor treasuring the fact that we're being the "better man;" It means forgiving and committing the issue of justice to God (Rom. 12:17-21; Rev. 6:9-11; Heb. 12:14-15; Luke 18:9-14).

The second option is being direct but gentle. Christian author and speaker Gary Chapman has written that, "Far more often [than overlooking an offense], the wise response to anger is to lovingly confront the person who has wronged you in an effort to seek resolution" [The Other Side of Love, p. 42]. I think he's right, and because it's often the better response, this second option is the one I'd like to focus on for the rest of this article. Jesus says that if your brother sins against you, the first step is to "Go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone" (Matt. 18:15). He also tells us how to confront, saying, "First remove the log from your own eye" and "Love your enemies" (Matt. 7:5; Luke 6:35). Passages such as 2 Timothy 2:24-26, Romans 12:9-21, Philippians 2:3-4, Ephesians 4:2, and Colossians 3:19 make it clear that we must be saturated with humility, grace, and gentleness. Truth in love (Eph. 4:15). And if the person repents, here too, we are to forgive "from the heart" (Matt. 18:35).

Several biblical proverbs give us more insight into this. All of these passages of godly wisdom teach that there are important factors beyond the content or factual truth of whatever is being communicated. Timing, volume, emphasis, tone, and body language all play in heavily -- so much so that they can change the perception of our message to the exact opposite of what we intend.
Proverbs 15:1
A soft answer turns away wrath,
   but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Proverbs 29:11
A fool gives full vent to his spirit,
    but a wise man quietly holds it back.

Proverbs 27:14
Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice,
    rising early in the morning,
    will be counted as cursing.
The "how" of communication matters. When we respond with a patronizing tone, or harshness, or frequent interruption, or inconsiderate timing, we're both unwise and incur guilt for ourselves.

Before going any further, we need to acknowledge something difficult. Whenever something we care about is trampled, communicating patiently and forgiving feel impossible. It's one thing to know that we should be humble and patient and gentle and gracious, but governing ourselves well and letting go of offense is unnatural for us. We want justice. It's not fair! What if they really hurt and disrespected me? What if they destroyed a lot of stuff and something irreplaceable? We want them to understand that, even if it means they have to hurt just like us... "eye for an eye."

When Jesus calls us to speak graciously and forgive, he doesn't minimize legitimate harm or falsehood. Quite the contrary, he hates sin and injustice. He sympathizes deeply with our pain; he experiences it too. His entire good universe got broken by sin. His beautiful image in humanity got defaced. His children have been attacked repeatedly throughout history. He was bodily betrayed and murdered. And he is still hated unfairly by many today; They curse him using the very lungs that he designed for them, and they continue to exchange the truth about God for a lie. Because of this and simply who he is, Jesus has immense compassion for the hurting (Heb. 4:15; Matt. 14:14; Luke 7:13; Luke 15:20; John 11:34-36; Isa. 49:13; Rom 12:15).

Jesus wants us to be confident in his compassion because it's real. Yet once he knows that we understand it, Jesus will still ask us gently: "Who experienced the greater abuse and injustice? Me or you?" If Jesus, the all-powerful all-good Author of creation, humbled himself, left heaven to enter into our suffering, was abused and murdered by the people he brought into existence -- all this simply to absorb and forgive the massive penalty incurred by me and you -- then maybe I can find it in my heart to absorb and forgive someone else's lesser offense against me.

That's exactly what God communicates to us in the parable of Matthew 18:21-35 and when he says things like, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Col. 3:13; Eph. 4:32). I've found that when I have a hard time being either patient or forgiving (and I do far more often than I'd like), I need to ask God for a closer look at my own weakness, ignorance, and moral evil, and in that knowledge, become more thankful for Jesus' amazing grace for me. The gospel leaves no room for venting my anger at someone, demanding perfect justice, harboring bitterness, or comforting myself with self-righteous pride (Matt. 23:25-31; Luke 18:9-14; 1 Pet. 1:9; Jam. 4:6).

Receiving Jesus' compassion for our wounds and receiving Jesus' patience and forgiveness for our failings when we don't deserve it -- That's what empowers us to offer the same kinds of grace sincerely to others when they don't deserve it.

In addition to all of this, a personal story from Paul Miller's life (from his book, A Praying Life, p. 155-157) has been helpful to me as I've tried to put this wisdom into practice in my own life:

* * *

Emily called me over to the computer to help her with the modem (this as before broadband). She was a freshman in high school and needed to go online, but the modem wouldn't work. After doing a quick check, I realized I needed to reload the modem software. Fortunately, Dell provided the original disk. I reached up into the box of disks that came with our computer but couldn't find the disk. It was gone.

My blood immediately went to a low boil. I knew my son had taken the disk and not returned it. I called upstairs, "Andrew, come down here right now." He came out of the upstairs bathroom down to where we were in the living room. I could tell he was irritated by my abruptness, but I didn't care. I was tired of him not putting stuff away. It was just selfish.

Andrew rummaged around, found the disk, and went back upstairs. Feeling the tension between us, I wondered if I had been too harsh. Repentance usually starts with a question, a slight uneasiness. Unlike Jesus, who says, "The Son can do nothing of his own accord" (John 5:19), I had reacted on my own. I didn't ask God for any help on how to deal with my son. I knew he'd taken the disk and not put it back. Case closed. Self-will closed the door to a spirit of prayer.

Until we see how strong our own will is, we can't understand the second petition of the Lord's Prayer -- "your will be done" (Matthew 6:10). Not only was I prayerless with that incident, I was also prayerless about this area of Andrew's life. It had never occurred to me to pray that Andrew would put his things away because the solution was obvious: "Andrew, put your things away." There was absolutely no moral ambiguity about what needed to happen.

Consequently, I did the same things Andrew had done. He'd been thoughtless in not putting the disk back, and I'd been thoughtless in angrily demanding that he come down immediately. Andrew had been selfish, and I'd been selfish.

Sin is complicated. We are never a passive observer, dispensing wisdom and justice. We are part of the mess. My solution to the problem made it more complex. That's why we can't afford to do anything on our own.

Because I acted on my own, independent of my heavenly Father, my words by themselves had to do all the work. Because I had not asked God to work inside Andrew's heart, I felt it was up to me to deal with him about his irresponsibility, and this increased my intensity.

Now imagine if I were like Jesus, dependent on my heavenly Father for wisdom, grace, and courage -- wisdom to know how to interact with my son, grace to do it it without a demanding spirit, and the courage to actually do it. I've just reached into the box to find it empty. Instead of insisting that Andrew come down, I stop and pray. Lord, I think Andrew did this, and I'm really irritated. Help me to ask him without a demanding spirit. You know how quick I can be to judge. Then I could call upstairs, "Andrew, Emily and I can't find the disk for fixing the modem. Would you mind coming down and helping us? She can't get online."

Then I'd wait with Emily by the computer. That would mean hearing Emily get even more and more exasperated as she waited for her brother. While sitting there, I could quietly pray for Emily. I could pray for Andrew. I could pray for grace to wait. My restless spirit wants to get going, but when I accept the place that God has given me -- in traffic, a checkout line, or with a whining child -- I open a small door from my soul to God.

After my son eventually comes downstairs and find the modem, I could wait while he fixed it, thank him, and then ask, "Do you have a minute to talk with me about this disk?" If he says no, I could say, "Do you have time later on tonight?" When we finally got together, he might say, "Dad, I already know what you are going to say." I'd let him say it, and then I'd fill in the missing pieces with some questions. "Did you forget to put the disk back? Has that happened before? Do you have a tendency not to put things away? Do you see how that affected both Emily and me? Do you see how that was selfish?"

Notice the lack of self-will in this gentle pursuit of Andrew. Notice also that this is a hypothetical situation. I apologized to my son for the real one!

If I had been in touch with my self-will, then it would have opened up the door to prayer, to abiding. The great struggle of my life is not trying to discern God's will; it is trying to discern and then disown my own. Once I see that, then prayer flows. I have to be praying because I'm no longer in charge. Either I see all of life as a gift, or I demand that life have a certain look to it.

* * *

*Above I mentioned two biblical options that can be good for a relationship; My thanks to Gary Chapman among others for this insight. There is a third option that has biblical precedent - a more explosive, harsh, and even violent kind of confrontation for the sake of truth and justice. A fuller discussion would require a different article. Suffice it to say here, this sort of confrontation biblically is never self-serving and is nearly always used in the context of a major judgment and/or prophetic condemnation when God has determined that the time for grace has expired for that season. This method of relating is not taught by the Bible as normative for followers of Christ.

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