If your child were facing a pivotal transition time, what advice would you give them? Surely you would want this advice to be pointed and practical; something that could help them in a variety of circumstances. Perhaps to your child heading to his first day of school you might say, “be nice to everyone and if you have any problems, talk to the teacher.” To your child heading into High School you might say, “Choose your friends wisely and get involved in as many things as possible.” Perhaps you will remind them that their high school grades will determine their College aid. When your young adult is heading to college you might say, “Make good decisions” or “Don’t forget that your primary purpose is to get an education.” As your child faces their wedding day you might advise, “Be kind to your spouse and don’t go to bed when you are still angry” or “Don’t spend more than you have or you will be enslaved for the rest of your life.” Practical wisdom is extremely valuable if a person will heed the advice.
In Romans 12, Paul has been giving us this kind of pointed and practical counsel for how to live in the grace of God. Like the advice of a parent to their child, this advice is anchored in wisdom and experience and can either be accepted or dismissed. Paul has already challenged us to love sincerely and he gave us a list of what that kind of love looks like practically. He has told us to speak well of those who persecute us, weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, be a person who is easy to get along with, and to combat conceit to pursue humility.
This morning we get into counsel that is more difficult. Paul now addresses how to deal with those people who are thorns in our sides. They are the people that irritate us, hound us, and infuriate us.
They may be a member of your family
They may be someone with whom you work
It might be a sales person you have to deal with on a regular basis
It could be a teacher or coach
It could be a neighbor
It might be someone in the church
Odds are, you have a name or two that pops quickly to mind. This is the person you dread to see coming toward you because you know they are going to say something rude, offensive, or inappropriate. It is that person that keeps you awake at night trying to think of snappy comebacks you should have used when you had talked to them earlier in the day. Paul’s counsel is found in verses 17-21 in the book of Romans. We are going to look at verses 17,18 this week and we will (I promise, Lord willing) finish Romans 12 next week.
Paul begins with a simple principle. Verse 17 begins, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” Immediately we realize that this is a tough pill to swallow. Our strong instinct is to strike back at those who strike us. When we are hurt, we want to hurt in return. When we are slandered we tend to slander back. If someone criticizes us we are quick to say, “But what about you . . . .?” as we fire back a counter charge.
The simple and profound wisdom of Paul’s comments however, are inescapable. Three things we need to remember about retaliation. First, it causes conflict to escalate. Whenever we add a log to a fire we are providing fuel to keep the fire burning. When we retaliate against a wrong that someone has done to us we add fuel to the conflict.
Consider two drivers on the road. One driver wants to go a little faster than the driver in front of him. At the appropriate place this driver passes the car in front of him. Maybe the passing driver pulls back into his lane a little too early so and the other driver is upset. This driver hits the gas and roars past the man who just passed him cutting in way too early. When he gets past him he slows to 10 mph under the posted speed limit to dare the man behind him to pass again. When the man tries to pass, the first man speeds up. Before long these two drivers are playing “chicken” on the road. They are driving recklessly all because neither would “let the matter go”. These two cars have become a danger to others.
Second, retaliation is usually excessive. We have already alluded to this. We never want to simply pay a person back for something they did. We desire to pay them back with interest!
In the Old Testament there is a very familiar law that states, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” [Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21) This law was established for a very specific purpose: to limit this tendency to retaliate to the excess. This law was not designed to say that if you poked someone’s eye out that they had to poke out yours. What the law was saying was that a person could not go BEYOND poking out your eye in response. The human tendency is to meet one offense with a great offense! Someone injures you and you try to kill that person! We see this in road rage. You get mad at another driver and then shoot them . . . that is excessive! Someone offends you so you do something to destroy their reputation! That’s excessive.
Take a lesson from summer baseball. A coach disagrees with a call and tells an umpire that he feels his strike zone is inconsistent. The umpire tells the coach to keep quiet or he will be thrown out of the game. The coach questions the parentage of the umpire and before you know it two adults are being restrained! All this at a children’s baseball game!
Third, retaliation always ruins our witness. When we retaliate against a wrong done to us we prove that the love of Christ is not in us. We show that we are no different from anyone else who is around us. A lifetime of witness can be destroyed with one act of retaliation.
Richard Weaver, a Christian worker, earned his living in the mines. He had the higher priority, however, of trying to bring his associates in contact with the savior and His soul-restoring Word. While most of the men were indifferent, one became offended by his witness, and finally exclaimed, “I’m sick of your constant preaching. I’ve a good mind to smack you in the face!” “Go ahead if it will make you feel better,” replied Weaver. The man immediately struck him a stinging blow. The Christian did not retaliate but turned the other cheek. Again the unbeliever struck him and then walked away, cursing under his breath. Weaver called after him, “I forgive you, and still pray that the Lord will save you!” The next morning his assailant was waiting for him when he came to work “Oh, Dick,” he said, his voice filled with emotion, “do you really forgive me for what I did yesterday?” “Certainly,” said Weaver extending his hand. As he told him again the message of salvation, God opened the man’s heart, and he received Christ.
This witness would not have taken place if Richard Weaver had responded to this man in kind. Retaliation is forbidden because, frankly, it is counter-productive. It accomplishes nothing that is good.
Reputation is More Influential than Words
The second piece of counsel is not any easier. “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.”
There is a wrong way to interpret this passage. Some conclude that Paul is telling us that it is our job to try to make everyone happy. If this is Paul’s counsel, it is a recipe for disaster because you can never please everyone! People want different things at different times and some people have no idea what it is that they want!
The right interpretation of the passage is that we must lead consistent and godly lives in every circumstance. We are to do the right thing wherever we are. In other words we are to live consistently. Peter wrote,
“11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:11-12)
Once a man was out witnessing on the street corners. He handed one man a gospel tract. The man asked, “What’s this?” The Christian replied, “It is a tract and I want you to read it.” “I don’t read,” the man replied, “but I will tell you what I will do—I will watch your tracks!” The world is more attentive to the tracks that you make, than the tracts you give out. The statement is true: What you do, speaks so loud that I can’t hear what you say!
Here’s what this means,
- The person who professes faith but gossips about another has lost all credibility when they profess love.
- The person who talks about holiness but engages in deceptive practices in business, is dishonest with an insurance company, mistreats employees, or manipulates the system for his advantage will influence no one with the gospel.
- The person who preaches morality but is living with his girlfriend or cheating on his wife has destroyed his testimony.
- The person who says they are committed to Jesus Christ but gives no priority to Him in their schedule show they don’t mean what they say.
- The person who says they serve Christ but loafs in the workplace will find it hard to get anyone to listen to them about Jesus.
- The person who habitually distorts the truth should not be surprised when no one believes their testimony about the love of God.
- The person who can’t seem to admit his mistakes shouldn’t be surprised when people consider you self-righteous.
Frankly, if you aren’t going to seek to live consistently, it would be better for the Kingdom of God if you not tell people you consider yourself to be a believer.
However, when we live consistently in public (and in private because what we do in private eventually seeps into what we do publicly) even those who don’t necessarily embrace our lifestyle, WILL respect us and be a little more open to the message of the gospel. If you think back on your life, you probably have been influenced the most by those who have lived consistent lives before you. You were impacted by their words because you could tell that they believed them!
We Are to be Peacemakers
The last clause in our study says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” God wants us to be peacemakers. This command certainly sounds impossible. How is it possible to live at peace with all men? It is just as impossible as making everyone happy.
However, note carefully what Paul is saying. He is not saying that we can live at peace with everyone. He gives two conditions. First, “as far as it is possible” we are to seek peace. We cannot compromise truth simply to get along. We can’t desert the clear teaching of the Bible in order to have “unity”.
Our church several years ago was part of a denomination that tried to be all things to all people. There was no basic statement of faith that defined what things believers held in common. Consequently, the churches in the fellowship ranged from those who were Unitarian (they believed everyone would go to Heaven in the end and Jesus was just a good man) to those who believed that Christianity was basically a social reform movement and that faith in Christ was unnecessary. Our church decided that it was NOT possible to maintain fellowship with this organization. To do so would be to compromise the truth. We must never compromise the gospel in order to gain peace. Sometimes it is not possible to have peace.
Second, we are to pursue peace “as far as it depends on us.” Our job is to,
- Accept our responsibility for any conflict and be willing to make right any wrong we have done.
- Go to the person we are having a problem with in a serious attempt to work out the problem.
- Be willing to forgive a wrong done to us.
- Be willing to overlook an offense (we are to be “willing to be wronged” if that is what it takes to gain peace).
If we have made every effort (of course this implies that we must make some effort) then we have fulfilled our responsibility. If the other person refuses to be reconciled there is nothing more we can do. We are better to “keep our distance” and avoid making the conflict worse. In Titus 3:10 we are told,
“Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. 11 You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned”
This doesn’t mean that we will never be willing to pursue peace in the future. We should always be willing to pursue peace if it does not compromise the truth. Sometimes it is years before an opportunity for peace will come. When it does, we should be ready and willing.
I can’t help but wonder how some athletic events might be different if we applied these principles. What if a parent explained their frustration rather than screamed at a coach? What if a coach who disagreed with a call simply said, “It sure didn’t look that way to me” and left it at that? What if an official responded to a questioned call by saying, “It is certainly possible that I missed the call but I made the call I believed to be right and that’s the call that will have to stand?” What if we no longer had “buttons” that other people could push??
You know what would happen: everyone would have more fun. Our children would learn how to handle conflict in positive ways rather than learning the wrong way to handle conflict.
Imagine what would happen if Christian people became the voice of reason and understanding in heated meetings rather than becoming angry themselves? What if we were determined not to raise our voices? What if we saw the big picture and were willing to let the minor things go in order to gain the opportunity to share the gospel later? What if we were more concerned about the Kingdom than getting our way?
The answer is simple: we would transform our society. We would increase our influence. We would gain friends. We would function as salt and light in the world. We would be what Jesus wants us to be.
Are you facing some kind of a crisis situation right now? Is there someone who really irritates you? Are you known to have a quick temper? If so, this counsel from Paul is especially relevant. Paul’s advice is simple: the only thing blowing up and striking out accomplishes is to undermine your Christian witness.
Paul calls us to focus on the big picture. Every encounter . . . even with those people who are difficult, is an opportunity. Every encounter will either draw people TO the gospel or push them away FROM the message of new life. People are watching. They want to see how we respond to the irritations of life. They are watching to see if your faith crosses over into your daily lives. They are looking to see if your living is consistent with your profession.
These are practical words but they have eternal significance. Little things are important. They are like the “O” rings on the Challenger Space Shuttle. They seem insignificant, but if they are not taken care of, the destruction is greater than we can imagine.
Please take some time to evaluate your own life. Keep control when you are attacked. Live consistently. Work hard to maintain good relationships with others. It’s not the easy way. It’s not even the world’s way. But it is God’s way. And it is a way for God to use you to make an eternal difference in the lives of those around you.