My father in the Lord, Rev. Charles Widdowson, often used to say that it is as wrong for a Christian to take offense as to give it. In the early days of my Christian walk I couldn’t quite understand why that would be so, but now I can see at least two reasons.
The first is the Biblical statement that “love believes all things” – or, to put it in slightly more modern terminology, “love always believes the best.” If we love someone, then even if he says or does something that we find hurtful, we will believe that he did not intend to hurt us. We will wait to hear his side of the story, to hear his heart. Love does not look for offense, but rather looks for – and expects to find – sincerity of heart and motive.
The second is that taking offense always involves reacting out of our emotions (the soul realm) rather than out of our spirit. When we react out of our emotions, we see things through a whole range of different filters – our past experiences, our personal prejudices, the things that we have been taught from our earliest years, our current physical and emotional health, even the experiences of other people. We react to all those things, not just to the situation at hand. It is quite possible that our offense is not with the present situation at all, but with something that happened when we were five years old that we don’t even remember, but has been stored in our emotions as a filter through which everything else is perceived. Or that, because of all the other things going on in our lives, something which should not be a problem is magnified out of all proportion.
On the other hand, when we choose to see things through the spirit rather than the soul, we look through only one filter: the heart of God. We see the person as God sees him, and see his words or actions from His perspective.
That, of course, is the ideal. All of us, if we are honest, would have to ‘fess up that we don’t always live by the New Testament standard of love. (Hey, we don’t even live up to the Old Testament standard of “love your neighbour as yourself.”) Being honest, we would also have to say that at times we walk in the flesh rather than the spirit. When that happens, because we don’t live in a world filled with people who think exactly as we do, there will inevitably be occasions when we find ourselves offended by the words or actions of a brother or sister in Christ. The question then becomes, what do we do about it?
Jesus knew that we would face this situation, and gave us very specific instructions concerning it: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” (Matthew 18:15, NIV)
Most people hate confrontation more than almost anything else in the world, and will do almost anything to avoid it. Yet if we will make the effort to go to the other person and actually talk to him about the thing that has offended us, most of the time we will find that the problem is purely the result of different viewpoints or interpretations. Not only will the problem be dealt with, but our relationship with the other person will be enhanced.
Take my Associate Minister, Fran, and me. We have been friends for over twenty years, but except for our shared passion for the Kingdom of God, we are about as different as two people could possibly be. I am task oriented; Fran is people oriented. I am “in-your-face”; Fran is reserved. I am time conscious to the point of being obsessively early. Fran’s attitude to time is best summed up by a clock, bought for her by her daughter a couple of Christmases ago, which instead of numbers marking the hours and minutes is divided into days of the week!
Many times in our relationship it has seemed like we are speaking different languages. If we had not taken the time to stop and talk through issues, either one of us could have taken offense thousands of times. Often Fran will say something that, if taken at face value, could be seen as highly offensive. But I know her heart, that she would never deliberately do anything to hurt me, and that it’s just Franny doing her foot-in-mouth trick again. So instead of getting offended, I just laugh at her (which is really fun, because then she gets all flustered and embarrassed and turns an interesting shade of pinkish purple.)
For her part, Fran has also had to work through things that I have said or done. Both of us have had times when we had to repent and apologize; but we have had many more times when no repentance or apology was needed, because once we have looked at the situation we have seen that the “problem” was just a matter of us looking at things from two totally different angles.
Yes, it can be uncomfortable to front up to someone and say, “We need to talk,” but it is well worth it. Unfortunately, many people choose the alternative route, talking to other people instead of the one who has offended them. This achieves nothing, other than to confirm you in your offense. It can also lead to gossip and backbiting, which will do far more harm to your own spiritual life than it will to the person who has offended you. What’s more, there’s just a chance that you could be wrong and the other person right – how embarrassing would that be when it came to light?
Others choose a different alternative, saying nothing to anyone but bottling the offense up inside them. There it festers away, poisoning not only their relationship with the person who has offended them, but every part of their own lives. Many years ago I served as an unofficial chaplain at a nursing home. Some of the ladies there were still holding offenses from forty or fifty years before. How sad to think that, simply by having the courage to confront the person involved, they could have saved themselves all those years of bitterness and heartache.
It was for very good reason that Jesus told us that our first response to offense should be to speak to the offender personally and alone. Only if we can not reach an understanding by talking to the person alone, are we to involve other people – and even then, they are to go with us, not instead of us. Only when we have exhausted every possible avenue of reconciliation can we have the luxury of avoiding confrontation.
By far the best way to deal with offense is not to take it in the first place. But if we do take offense, then – for our own spiritual well-being, if for no other reason – we need to deal with it God’s way, and seek reconciliation.