There is nothing like trying to plan a family gathering to bring out the worst in everyone. All of our selfish tendencies and sensitivities collide as we try to plan how we will get together to celebrate and spend time together. Christ's birth, a family member's wedding, or the arrival of a new baby can lose their celebratory nature when they are proceeded by conflict and estranged relationships. Events that should bring joy become shadowed with frustration and anger. It can be hard to be together in the same room after the painful things said along the way.
Let's face it: sometimes people are terrible. In Reformed circles this is called total depravity. Our sinful nature, broken by the Fall, keeps revealing the depravity sin has created in our hearts. People can be thoughtless and ignore our struggles, and may often even be the cause of them. In this broken world filled with broken people, people are going to let us down. The question is not if people will be hurtful to you, but how you will respond to the hurt. We can respond out of our sinful nature or with the love of Christ Jesus. Our response is always our choice.
When people treat you like crap, you have a choice about how you will respond. Paul addressed this struggle in his letter to the Romans chapter 12 stating, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' To the contrary, 'if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Choose to step out of the conflict and trust that God to enact justice.
Our character is seen in our ability to rise above our circumstances to respond with Christ's love. Michelle Obama summarized this truth this way, "when they go low, we go high." She was pointing out the importance of not sinking to the level of someone else's poor behavior, but instead rising above defensiveness and retaliation to show love. Responding in anger is the knee jerk response, but opting to function in grace shows courage. Demonstrating love to those who have hurt us can be difficult, but we can feel good about following Christ's example of sacrificial love.
Choosing to love does not mean ignoring the challenges. Jesus gave instructions in Matthew 18:15-20 for how to deal with a brother who has sinned against us. It involves addressing the problem directly and moving on a path to be restored to your brother with steps toward accountability. We are not to ignore the problem or act like it was no big deal. Instead Jesus tells us to be honest about the hurt with the one who hurt us so that healing can be found. This involves a direct and loving approach to work through the conflict and restore the relationship. It also involves accountability and limit setting for those who are unrepentant.
In conflict, we often seek to win and be right, but we are called instead to seek a higher goal of harmony and peace. It is not about getting our way, but seeking the best outcome for all involved. Romans 12 instructs us to do what is in our power to live in peace. We can't control the behavior of others, but we can control the way that we respond to situations. It is worth setting aside our desires to seek the best interest of our neighbor as well as the greater community.
These steps can guide us to follow God's heart for extending love and restoring fellowship. Relationships can be messy, but they can also find healing and restoration when we infuse them with the love of Christ.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster