Part 2 of What To Do When Difficulty Appears outlined three foundational practices and eight action details to help us deny discouragement and embrace development when we encounter difficulties in life. In this third and final installment on your way to God's plan for development, we want to look at one area and walk through an example that puts the principle into action.
The majority of problems we must deal with tend to be directly or indirectly connected to people. There are times when our difficulties that arise from interacting with people can descend into strife, and if left unchecked become "fights" we later regret. It reminds me of the humorous illustrations titled, "And That's How The Fight Got Started." Let's consider a few of these funny examples of the moment dialogue turns into strife.
One year, a husband decided to buy his mother-in-law a cemetery plot as a Christmas gift. The next year he didn't buy her a gift. When she asked him why, he replied, "Well, you still haven't used the gift I bought you last year." And that's how the fight got started…
A woman was dropping hints to her husband about what she wanted for their upcoming anniversary. She said, "I want something shiny that goes from zero to 200 in about 3 seconds." He went out and bought her a polished silver scale. And that's how the fight got started…
A man asked his wife, "Honey, where do you want to go for our anniversary?" It warmed his heart to see her face melt with sweet appreciation. "Somewhere I haven't been in a long time," she said. So he suggested, "How about the kitchen?" And that's how the fight got started…
In this comedic way, you can readily see that most of these fights seem to have gotten started by men who spoke without thinking of the well being of the other person. But I'm sure that you can also see that the main point is that if we're not aware of what we're saying and thinking, or just plain don't care about the impact things we say or do will have on others, we can sometimes initiate our own difficulty. And insensitive living can open the door to strife, offense and unforgiveness.
James warned that "where envy and strife, or self seeking, exist, so too does confusion and every evil work." James 3:16 In the gospels, by studying through Mark 11:25-26, we can come to understand that the presence of unforgiveness in our lives hinders not only our personal relationships with others, but will alter and affect the way we see and relate to God.
What this means is that if difficulty appears in the way of interpersonal relationships, it is vital to our well being that we release forgiveness and develop in maturity right there in the midst of difficult, even toxic relationships. A toxic relationship is any relationship that repetitively draws the worst character traits out of you and turns you into someone you dislike and perhaps abhor.
The "toxic flag" should go up when you feel as if you're in a dark cloud that seems to envelope you whenever you're around that person or group. When someone seems to always "push your elevator buttons" and take you to areas filled with strife and contention, it's a sign of an undesired relational environment. It doesn't always mean dismiss people from your life, but it does mean something has to change.
So what do you do about difficulties that show up as relational hell or that establishes relational war zones?
The first priority is to remember something Paul said in Ephesians 4:31-5:2. "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma."
You have to maintain the understanding that people's experiences, environment, authority figures and repetitious informational encounters have shaped them to be the person they have become. Some had exposure to better shaping. Some got hurt in the shaping and grew a dysfunctional perspective somewhere inside themselves. People who have been hurt have a tendency to inflict hurt. Unfortunately, the statement that, "hurt people will hurt people" is too often true.
Presenting this take on things isn't to excuse individual responsibility or accountability, but moreso to explain and gain perspective on how to deal with difficult or hurting people. This is to highlight the approach that God maintains towards people who attempt to hurt Him with their sharp words, negligence, blatant disrespect and resistance to His overtures for life.
In this passage in Ephesians, Paul is emphasizing the necessity of taking charge of your responsibility toward rejecting the invitation to enter into strife. In fact, this is one of the important keys that will cause difficulty to dissipate and disappear. By inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul is directing each individual to choose to put strife and its causes away from their presence and relationships.
Proverbs 20:3 says, "It is honorable for a man to stop striving (to cease from strife), since any fool can start a quarrel." Earlier in this same book of Proverbs, we find this statement: "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city." Proverbs 16:32
The key in dealing with difficult people is found in not taking the bait and ruling your spirit, ruling your reactions that come from within. It's the honorable thing to do. Even when you're being treated unfairly. Especially when you're being treated unfairly.
Now here's the secret inside the key to being able to do this: You have to have already made the decision to forgive people BEFORE they knowingly, or unknowingly, try to bait you into strife and lead you into offense. Even further, you have to have already committed the act of forgiving, resisting strife and taking offense BEFORE a fight gets started.
Trying to forgive people after they've blindsided you with an attack is like trying to build a skyscraper in a gale force thunderstorm or trying to perform delicate surgical operations with bullets flying by your face. It's not impossible. It's just very difficult, mighty inconvenient and less likely to go well and succeed.
Remember what Paul said? Forgive one another, even as God in Christ forgave you, be imitators of God and walk in love as Christ did, as an offering and sacrifice to God. This begs the question: When did God forgive us and when did Christ become the Lamb slain, the sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world? The answer is in Revelation 13:8. "All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world."
Before the creation of the world, before sin, transgression and iniquity came to pass in humanity, God in Christ forgave man, and Christ in man became the sacrifice to solve the problem of strife between God and man. It was all done before the first sin was ever committed.
So now that you know that the answer to strife and unforgiveness must be decided BEFORE offense comes, there's one last thing we need to emphasize in handling difficulty and growing in development.
Whatever the difficulty that appears, let me remind you that you must employ and apply the antidote. The antidote is the opposite accurate truth that opposes the difficulty. In this example with the difficulty of relational strife, what's the opposite of strife? Peace. What has the capacity to produce and generate peace? The Word, yes, but bringing it closer to home, it's a heart at peace saturated in the Word.
The principle is "like produces like." The law of Genesis set the precedent that every seed produces after itself. A heart at peace can impart the Word of peace and produce after its own kind. Peace vigorously opposes anger, hatred and strife and when consistently released, will bring change. A specific, accurate opposite truth to strife can be found in a number of scriptures, but one that works well is "A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger." Proverbs 15:1
A heart at peace can speak a soft answer against strife. A peaceful, softer, more measured tone of voice is part of this, but it also involves the skillfulness of heart to speak wisely from a matured perspective. You don't need years of schooling to do this. What you must do is search your heart to hear what God's communicating in the situation before you begin speaking. And to a large degree, the soft answer and matured perspective is generated from the arsenal of love found in I Corinthians 13.
Your heart is at peace when you no longer feel compelled to justify your own needs above the needs of all others. A peace filled heart rules strife by taking proactive measures to make peace even at the cost of personal expense. Romans 14:19 requires us to "make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification."
This isn't saying you're never to have any of your needs met, and that you always exclude yourself from the circle of personal security to cover everybody else's needs to the neglect of all of your needs. Nor is this to say that every person to whom you present peace as the answer to strife will respond peacefully and exactly like you think they should. It's primarily saying that you choose to understand and respect the needs, concerns, fears, insecurities and dreams of others. And in a moment's notice, you're ready and willing to defer to the significance and value of others when it's right.
What if you seek to create peace to overcome the difficulty of strife but others still strive against the peace you're expressing from your heart. Paul addresses this, too. Romans 12:18 explains it this way. "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men."
Lodged in the heart of this verse is the core of defeating difficulty and delighting in your development. "As much as depends on you..." As your personal responsibility, you do all you can in a given season of time. Do all you can in personal relationships to create and make peace. Do all you know to be right.
But understand this, you can't override the independent free will of someone bent on remaining difficult in heart. Other people have their responsibility to respond to God's impressions as well. When you've done all to stand in peace, keep standing in peace, confidently resting with an assurance of doing the right thing. In doing this, you've won the battle over difficulty and discouragement. You're heart is conditioned to withstand even greater challenges that may come in the future. And you're developing into the person you were always meant to be.