The other day I saw a post on Facebook that I just couldn’t ignore. Normally, I don’t engage in arguments, especially political ones online, but the comment was just so absurd and so out there that I couldn’t help myself. Admittedly, I was perhaps a little more snarky and condescending than I should have been. But I presented what I felt was a very logical response to the post.
Debate immediately followed with another commenter, and after a while, I invited the commenter to a private discussion through messenger, where we continued to hash out our different perspectives.
And the most amazing thing happened. The commenter actually listened to me. We had a friendly civil discussion, resulting in them seeing my perspective. And I think we might continue to be friends.
Said no one, ever, who has used social media.
Social media reveals what we all already know, that people can be difficult. That we get very attached to our views and opinions. That we don’t particularly like it when someone disagrees with us.
What do we do when we’re faced with difficult people who just can’t see reason?
We can all think of people off the top of our heads right that we dread interacting with because we know that we do not see eye to eye with them ever. We feel like there is no way to bridge that gap between us. For example, there are a handful of students whose names in my inbox provoke a sigh because I know that what is coming is going to be difficult and exhausting and contentious.
Then there are also people in our lives that we love and care about — our friends, family members, others close to us – whom we disagree with sometimes, but one of us mishandles the situation, and it explodes. (Because, really, who likes dealing with conflict?)
How do we bridge the gap between perspectives? How do we deal with challenging people?
How do we find common ground? Especially if we are absolutely convinced that we right and the other person is wrong.
One thing is sure: You can’t provoke people into positive change.
Our go-to strategy is often to coerce, argue, or debate. We try to nag someone into making the changes that we feel are beneficial for them. Usually, it comes from a somewhat positive place; we really do think we know what is best. If they would just listen to us and do exactly what we want, everything would be better. Perhaps, on occasion, we have a point. But we don’t go about it the right way. And that makes it worse.
Because – We can’t provoke someone into positive change.
The Bible is clear on this. Fathers are specifically told NOT to provoke their children.
Colossians 3:21 – “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (ESV)
The CSB translates “provoke” as “exasperate.” This is not a command against discipline or holding children responsible, but rather addresses the parents’ attitude towards their children regardless of the situation.
We know that being combative with our children just does not produce in them a positive, consistent change in behavior. Perhaps we will see a temporary change in external actions, but their inner character has not been addressed.
The same is true with us as adults. We never really get to a point where we’re cool with people angrily trying to coerce us into doing what they want.
The model that we see in Scripture is to address disagreements clearly, directly, and quickly in a spirit of love and humility, after first evaluating our own standing with God and the sins that are present in our own lives.
Galatians 5:22-26 says “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” (CSB)
That’s hard to do. It is so much easier to argue with someone about their bad habits, bad routines, or opposing positions. It is definitely easier to tell others what we don’t like about them and ignore our own flaws. But we are to not only come in love and humility, but also to check our own eyes for beams first.
Our goal as believers should always be restored relationships, whatever the nature of the relationship is. Therefore, as a Christian educator, it is my job to deal with conflict with my students by first evaluating whether I have handled myself correctly and making it right if I have made a mistake. And then, after making myself right, I pursue resolution in the most humble and loving way possible, without compromising beliefs and values that are essential. The goal should be a restored trust and a line of open communication between myself and the students.
The same applies to our personal relationships.
It is absurd to think we will never have a moment where we disagree with someone who we care for and value. We all have the capability of being difficult at times. People in our circles will “be difficult” to us at some point, and they are going to view us as difficult at some point as well.
The goal isn’t to beat the other person into conforming to what you think is best.
The goal is to build each other up so that we all look more like Christ to the end.
And that doesn’t happen through provocative language, through nagging through dissension, through mindless quarrels. It certainly doesn’t happen through snarky comments on social media or airing our grievances publicly for others to discuss instead of directly addressing them ourselves.
All of those approaches center on us as the one who controls the situation, and who has some right to form the situation into what we think is best. But in reality, any type of conflict we have, particularly within the body of Christ, is not about us getting our way. It’s about God being glorified in the end.
The motivation and methods that we use to deal with difficult people or situations should be just that – How can I glorify God in handling this? How can God mature me through this situation? How can I come alongside this other person and help them grow in their relationship with God as well?
When we take that mindset, a tone of humility and love naturally flows.
Changing people is not our job. Our job is to submit to the established guidelines for dealing with conflict and, above all, to do everything in service to God and the gospel. Our job is to keep short accounts and to regularly address our own sinful behaviors, attitudes, and values.
God handles the rest.