“Offended” is getting to be a pretty common word. And in this age of social media and instant information, there’s certainly plenty of occasion for disagreement and tension.
Unfortunately, “unplugging” doesn’t completely solve the problem. As long as we live among other human beings in a fallen world, there will always be things out there that offend us – and ways in which we offend others.
In such situations, it’s tempting to fall into extremes. Either we bottle up our unease, or we vent our outrage. Either we try to avoid offending anyone for any reason, or we dismiss others’ discomfort on the grounds of “it’s my decision”.
But what does the Bible say?
I’m reminded of a passage in Romans 14 (with parallels in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10:23-33) in which the apostle Paul counsels a local church on whether or not Christians should eat meat sacrificed to pagan deities. This was a hot topic at the time, as it was hard to find any meat in Rome that hadn’t been part of a pagan sacrifice. Apparently, some church members were buying and eating such meat, much to the scandal of other members, who viewed the practice as an endorsement of paganism.
Paul’s response to the Roman church went beyond the debate at hand to offer principles that can be applied to many different situations, even today. Anytime Christians find themselves offended by someone else’s behavior, or offending someone else by their own, they can look to this passage (among others) for wisdom.
Here are a few of Paul’s principles:
Let God be the judge.
Paul clearly expresses his own convictions regarding sacrificed meat. However, he also acknowledges that some fellow Christians don’t share those convictions. Rather than forcing those people to follow his lead, he tells them to heed their own consciences and warns church members not to judge each other.
We love being right. We’d love for God to step into our disputes and prove us so. But let’s be honest: sometimes we’re wrong. And right or wrong, God is not our lawyer in our disputes with one another. Rather, as Paul reminds the Romans, He is judge of both parties. And we’ll answer to Him individually.
So focus on your case, and let God work through theirs. As hard as it is, let go of the need to be right before others. Instead, seek to be right before God, putting your faith in Jesus and seeking to live with Christlikeness. Don’t violate your own conscience to follow someone else’s, and don’t expect others to violate theirs in order to follow yours.
We might not understand how some people can hold the convictions they do, especially if we otherwise like or agree with them. But we don’t have to understand in order to obey God’s command to love our fellow humans as ourselves – even those with whom we clash.
Realize the issue at hand isn’t always the real one.
When something gets labeled “offensive”, all eyes on both sides tend to immediately hone in on it. Yet the offense itself isn’t always the heart of the problem. Often, it’s more of a mirror to the wider state of things, a symptom rather than a disease.
In the Romans passage, Paul didn’t fixate on the issue of sacrificed meat. Instead, he compared it to the question of Sabbath observance, showing how both issues were really part of a trend – the saga of a church full of people with different opinions and practices, all trying to figure out how to love and worship together. The real question wasn’t so much what Christians could eat, or when they could rest and work, but how they could live in a way that honored God and built one another up.
In our own lives, we would do well to look past the face of an issue and consider whether there’s more going on than what we see. What seems like an issue of bad manners might really be one of bitterness. What seems like an issue of malice might really be one of ignorance. What seems like obstinacy might be insecurity. And what seems like bad doctrine might be an outgrowth of flawed fundamental beliefs.
So pause and reflect before you respond to perceived issues. If you must respond at all, it’s much more effective to tackle the real problem than an illusion, and to address the root of a matter than to pick at the branches.
Whatever you do, leave room for what you don’t know – and be sure to give lots of grace.
It’s not about us.
Paul clearly states that he believes no food in and of itself is “unclean”. He himself has no qualms about eating sacrificed meat. Yet because he knows that some fellow Christians feel differently, he refuses to flaunt his freedom and commands others to do likewise. To him, a meal isn’t worth someone else’s soul.
Similarly, when we become aware that our actions make others uncomfortable, we should take time to assess the situation. Why are they uncomfortable? How might their discomfort affect their spiritual health and/or your relationship? Is any loss to them worth the gain to you? If your choices encourage them to sin or devalue the Gospel – no matter what your intentions – it definitely isn’t. Otherwise, you might be able to go about your business in a way that minimizes tension and conflict.
On the flip side, if you find out someone believes, says, or does something you disapprove of, pause before you respond. Why do you disapprove? Is the thing an actual sin according to Scripture, or just something you dislike? How will expressing your disapproval affect the person, the situation, and/or your relationship? Can you express yourself humbly, thoughtfully, and lovingly? If you can’t, and the situation isn’t serious, a course of quiet patience and prayer might be your best option.
To be sure, there are situations where accountability is needed regardless of how anyone feels. If someone’s actions are harming another person, or if a church member is committing a clear sin or preaching beliefs contrary to the core tenets of the faith, they need to be addressed. The Bible offers guidelines for addressing such situations occurring in a church context.
Further, we should never lie about our convictions. And no matter how offended others may be by the Gospel, we should take every opportunity to proclaim it – because we know it alone gives true life and hope.
Yet even in those cases, our responses should be shaped by love. Even being right never gives us the right to harm others’ spiritual welfare.
In all our decisions, our goal should be to build others up, encouraging them to be more like Jesus and to love and trust Him more.
We can’t always control the way we feel in contentious situations. But with God’s help, we can control how we respond.
Remember, the people around us – even those with whom we clash – are as much loved by God, as equally bearing of His image, as we are. Respect that. Ask God to help you see them as He does and love them as He does.
You’ll be making the world a better place.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’Galatians 5:13-14 (NIV)