I have heard and read Christians make some very harsh, mean, and cruel statements as they strive to defend the truth against error. Sadly, in the heat of a discussion even we Christians can get downright nasty with each other if we’re not careful. We can forget that God told us to restore others with gentleness (Galatians 6:1). We can forget that the servant of God is not to be quarrelsome but rather correct our opponents with gentleness (II Timothy 2:23-25). We can forget that we are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Instead we seem to think we can speak hatefully, cruelly, spitefully, condescendingly, and mockingly but we are still being gentle and loving because our words were the truth. That is just not so. If we are directed to speak the truth in love, that means it is possible to speak truth but not do so in a loving way.
Please do not misunderstand me. I’m not saying sin must not be rebuked. I’m also not saying there is never a place for sternness and firmness. I am saying that no matter what the situation, we are to be gentle and loving.
However, when some are accused of violating these principles, they will often turn to Galatians 2:11-14. “See, Paul withstood Peter to his face. I can do the same.” Yes, Paul withstood Peter to his face, but does this mean Paul was harsh or cruel? Does this mean Paul yelled at Peter, belittled him, called him names, and held his error against him for the rest of his life? It doesn’t mean any of those things and it doesn’t justify any of those things.
Regrettably, I fear we may read our own emotions and actions into Galatians 2:11. The text says Paul withstood or opposed Peter to his face. Too many of us picture this as Paul getting up in Peter’s face with finger wagging and voice raised. We read anger, wrath, and vehemence into this passage. That is what we read into it. It is not what is there. The word translated “withstood” or “opposed” means “resisted.” It doesn’t mean that he yelled. It doesn’t mean he got up in Peter’s face. It simply means he stood against Peter. He didn’t go along with Peter but resisted Peter’s actions. He did that to Peter’s face, not behind his back. He didn’t hide his opposition to Peter. Being opposed to someone or something doesn’t mean being cruel to them.
Further, take a look at how Paul actually withstood or opposed Peter. Did he say, “What’s wrong with you, Peter, you stinking hypocrite?” Did he make all kinds of accusations or call Peter names? Did he even chastise Peter for not holding the proper standard? Actually, he asked Peter a question. He prompted and provoked Peter’s thinking. He asked, “If you though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14).
But what about the fact that he did it in front of everyone? Doesn’t that show his intent to embarrass and shame Peter publicly? Actually not. In front of whom did Paul demonstrate his opposition? In front of those who were going along with Peter’s error. Paul was addressing the “ringleader” in front of those who were following him. He wasn’t blasting Peter in front of everyone; he was correcting a group by speaking to their leader in their presence.
What does this passage actually authorize about our conduct? It does authorize opposing error. It does authorize opposing error publicly. It does authorize rebuking sin. However, it does not authorize calling people names, shaming them, being mean to them, cruelly treating them, mocking them, abusing them, belittling them, berating them no matter how wrong they are. We must withstand, oppose, resist error and wrong practices, but we must do so with gentleness and love.
We have a tendency to live in extremes. We sometimes have a hard time walking down a middle path. For instance, some of us who have had trouble with our eating, have lived as if what we ate didn’t matter. We didn’t worry about any of the consequences. Then the New Year rolls around and we decide to drop a few pounds. We put ourselves on such a strict and controlling diet that we never get to enjoy anything. Usually, that doesn’t work and end up going right back to eating like it doesn’t matter. Some of us have spent money like it grows on trees, never balancing the checkbook, running up credit card debt, getting in to trouble. Then the New Year rolls around and we decide to get that money stuff under control. We opt for the plan Dave Ramsey ridicules deciding to hide in a cave collecting lint and only come out on coupon Thursdays. That usually doesn’t work out too well for us and we go back to spending money like water. We go back and forth from extremes that are unhealthy for us and have a hard time settling on that middle ground that is healthy and helpful.
One area where Christians have a tendency to walk in extremes is in the area of accepting help from brethren. Instead of walking down the middle road of accepting healthy help from brethren, most of us live in extremes. At one extreme, we act like we can’t take care of ourselves and the brethren owe us help for everything. We become shameless in our pleas for help. At the other extreme, we act like we never need help. We’ve always got everything under control. We become ashamed to ask for help. Both of these extremes are wrong. Neither is healthy.
Look at the balanced approach Paul presents in II Corinthians 8:13-15 as he talked about the Christians in Corinth helping out their brethren in Judea. “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.’”
Needs arise for everyone at some time. They may be large needs involving lots of money. They may be small needs merely involving help with a meal or getting a ride somewhere. Needs arise for everyone. There is no shame in having needs. There is no shame in asking and receiving help.
Sometimes we’ll be the person needing some help. Sometimes we’ll be the person able to give the help. God set it up this way so that we could each be a blessing to each other in varying times. We should not think we are less than worthy because we’re the ones asking for help at this time. Neither should we puff up with arrogance because on this occasion we’re the ones able to offer help.
We should avoid the two extremes. Some have an entitlement mindset. If someone has something that they don’t, they are entitled to it. They become shameless in asking for help and never take personal responsibility for where they are and overcoming their own problems. They become a leech on the church and their brethren. That is wrong. Others, however, have an ashamed mindset. They are afraid to be an inconvenience to people. They are embarrassed to admit they need help or made a mistake. They feel like they just aren’t worthy to receive any help. So they never ask and they refuse help freely offered even when they could use it. If they are prevailed upon to receive help, they feel guilty and ashamed as if they’ve done something wrong by getting help. That is also wrong.
Let’s not walk in the extremes. Let’s walk in the balance that Paul talked about. We shouldn’t be leeches. At the same time, there is no shame in receiving help. Who knows but at another time we’ll be the ones giving someone a ride, fixing a meal, offering some money.
By the way, though I’ve talked about a financial need, these same principles apply in every walk of life—emotionally, physically, materially, mentally, and spiritually. Walk with a healthy balance. Avoid the extremes.
I know the title sounds a little bit odd. Generally, we have the idea that everyone is already a bit kinder around the holidays. We’re all in the mood for giving. We’re a bit more generous. We offer well wishes more readily.
All that is true. But amazingly, at the same time, my experience has been that people also get a bit less kind at the same time. Because we are in a rush to get to the store and purchase that perfect present we react more harshly if someone cuts us off in traffic. Because the store is crowded and we feel pressed upon, we get a little tenser. Because the item we wanted to purchase is out of stock, we get a little angrier. Because somebody else got what we wanted, we get a little more jealous. Because we have so much to do and so little time to do it, we get a little less patient.
With all the pressures, time constraints, expectations and financial burdens at this time of year, we can actually forget that we are supposed to be kind to others. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (ESV). While this verse speaks about “one another” these are good principles to follow with everyone, whether they are Christians or not.
Matthew 7:12 says, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (ESV). When you accidentally cut someone off in traffic, how do you want them to treat you? Do the same for others. When you accidentally bump into someone in the store, how do you want them to treat you? Do the same for others. When you get someone a gift, how do you want them to treat you? Do the same for them.
Times of bigger pressures are not times when we should expect God to look the other way and make exceptions. These are times for us to rely on Him even more so we can live by His will no matter what. We are called to do this even when others do not reciprocate.
Make a concerted effort this holiday season to keep up your patience and kindness. Treat others as creations of God who are struggling with all these pressures as well. When you do that, you will likely treat them in a much better way. Not to mention, you will develop more fulfilling relationships with the people in your life, connecting with them through your kindness rather than separating from them because of your bitterness.
Let’s remember that we are Christians all the time, not just when it is easy. We’re in the pressure pot this month; let’s make sure we don’t get cooked.