What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 18
Each of us has learned ways of coping with difficult people given the limitations of our personality. Some folks, for instance, deal with difficult people by completely avoiding them. Others deal with them by trying to beat them to the punch and become more agressive/abrasive than they are as a means of intimidating the difficult person or keeping him/her in check.
At different stages of my life, I have employed at least two different strategies – neither of which is all that healthy. And wouldn’t you know it, both of my coping strategies were taken on in today’s passage from Matthew.
The first strategy I have used is to talk with others about the nature of the conflict. I told myself that by doing so I would get fresh perspectives on (and perhaps even new ideas for solving!) the conflict and have the added benefit of getting support and encouragement from others. Such an approach made sense to me at the time. The only problem was that such an approach never encouraged me to do the most important part: sit down with the difficult person and actually work things through.
Along comes today’s passage that encourages me to set my passive-aggressive tendencies aside once and for all. “If a fellow believer hurts you,” Jesus said, “work it out between the two of you.” Jesus goes on from there to draw out a backup plan in case the one-on-one conversation doesn’t work. Each step of his plan, however, is predicated on the thing I spent years avoiding: open and honest communication.
And if losing my preferred way for dealing with difficult people wasn’t bad enough, Jesus went on to discredit my second favorite method. My partner Mike says I’m a master at playing the “If the shoe fits, wear it!” game. What he means by that is that when I’m in the presence of someone who has wronged me I prefer to speak in generalities about the offending behavior without specifically mentioning names. This feeds my passive-aggressive tendencies and still allows me to feel as if I’ve address the problem.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. If someone borrowed money from me, promised to repay it at a certain time, and broken that promise; I’ve been known to say (either to an individual or a group in which the individual is in), “Don’t you think it’s important that people a person honors his/her word by following through with his/her commitment.”
There are lots of problems with such a passive aggressive approach. In addition to the fact that the whole approach is predicated on avoiding the issue at hand, such an approach is often tremendously ineffective because some of the people who engage in inappropriate behaviors are the ones least able to see that behavior in themself. They will complain loudly if someone else does something to them. If they do the same thing to another, however, they will be completely oblivious to consequences of their own behavior.
That’s exactly what happened in today’s story about forgiveness. A king forgave the huge debt of one of his servants who couldn’t afford to repay the debt. And how did the servant respond to that act of grace? He immediately went out and attacked an underling of his who owed him a much smaller debt. The servant was completely oblivious to the hypocrisy of his actions! Eventually the king had to step in and directly expose the servant’s hypocrisy. The servant probably would have never made the connection on his own.
Once again, the lesson in dealing with our fellow human beings is this: “be direct”.
Chances are that you have at least one difficult person in your life. If you don’t, give me a holler and I might be able to help you find one – but I digress. One you’ve found that difficult person, look for opportunities to practice the sort of approach that Jesus encouraged. Be direct and name your concerns in a spirit of love and grace. Your new approach just might chance the whole dynamic of the relationship.
Til next time …