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How to turn blame into blessing

A sermon by Rod Benson

Matthew 5:23-24

None of us likes to be blamed for things we did not do or say, especially if we are sure it’s not true. And we don’t like to be blamed for things we did say or do either! This is especially the case when the words or actions have resulted in hurt, or damage, or embarrassment, or the stoking of smoldering anger, or broken relationships.

To blame someone is to lay the responsibility of a fault or error on a person; to find fault with someone. For some, blaming and accusing others of wrongful action or inaction becomes a coping skill and an ingrained habit. Some people excel at this kind of conflict. I could tell you some stories from personal experience, but fear of litigation discourages me.

We all have faults. We all err. None of us is without fault in some area of our lives. Only Jesus was blameless, pure, without fault, without sin, without deceit. In some ways, Jesus was and is very much like us, but not in the area of character, ego, and a proclivity to sin. But because of his absolute goodness and holiness, Jesus is able to save and transform us to be more like him.

Both blaming and forgiving are actions that run both ways. We can give and receive blame, just as we can give and receive forgiveness. We can lay the responsibility of a fault or error on someone’s moral shoulders, or they on ours; and we can relieve such burdens through a process of forgiveness and reconciliation.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. What are some simple, transferable biblical principles for turning blame into blessing? Christian Scripture doesn’t only (or even predominantly) press us with propositions. The more I delve into the Bible, the more I discover its capacity not only to stipulate my duties, but to inspire virtues – to foster and encourage and celebrate godly character.

I suspect that the Good Samaritan did not rescue the injured traveller on the road to Jericho (Lk 10:25-35) because he understood his duties and did the dutiful thing out of a commitment to duty, but because he had become a virtuous person and did what came naturally out of a wellspring of virtue. Virtue trumps duty every time – especially when the issue is conflict and its resolution.

Hear these words of Scripture, showing us how to turn blame into blessing:

  • “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov 12:18).
  • “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Gal 5:22-26).
  • And the very next verse: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (Gal 6:1).
  • And one of my favourite New Testament verses, Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

That’s going to take work. That’s going to require thoughtful consideration, uncommon wisdom, humility and patience, probably courage too, and all the grace and mercy God makes available to us.

Another biblical principle for conflict resolution, especially helpful when we feel a responsibility to address a conflict where someone else appears to be in the wrong, and perhaps is unwilling to acknowledge the problem or work toward a solution (such as that proposed in Gal 6:1), is the advice of Paul in Ephesians 4:15: “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is head, that is, Christ.”

As Ken Sande observes in The Peace Maker,

Talking to other people about a conflict is usually an unpleasant experience. We often let tensions build to the exploding point and then confront people with a list of their wrongs. They become defensive and react with a list of our wrongs, which leads to a painful battle of words. Those who are more verbally skilled may win a few arguments this way, but in the process they lose many important relationships.[1]

How then do we overcome such weaknesses and detriments, and learn to graciously speak the truth in love; and, when we are the one at fault, learn to humbly hear the truth in love?

There are three important steps we should take.

  1. Ask God to help you resist the tendency to hammer your opponent into submission by dwelling on their failures.
  2. Listen carefully to what others are saying.

We need to become better listeners. Let me explain what I mean. As James advises his readers in James 1:19, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

Too often, we get it entirely the other way around! We are so quick to speak, and we say too much, and we’re quick to become angry, and slow to listen to the other person’s point of view. When you find yourself in the midst of a conflict, it pays to pause, and count to ten, or take a few deep breaths, before you react and respond.

Or you may write that long letter of bile and bitterness and blame, and get all those angry thoughts out of your head and down on paper, and work the negative emotions out of your system, and put down your pen, and burn that letter – or delete that unsent email! – and seek peace by other means.

Sometimes it is very important to demonstrate what we call active listening skills, so that you attend to what the other person is saying. Maintain regular eye contact. Avoid negative body language. Show the other person by your attention, posture and empathetic verbal responses that you are listening, and their words are getting through to you.

You may need to ask clarifying questions to show that you are hearing, and thinking about, what is said; and to encourage the other person to share more fully their emotions and perceptions.

It can also help to reflect what is being said, summarising the main points in your own words, so that the other person feels heard and understood.[2]

But in addition to praying for help, and listening carefully to what others are saying, we also need to:

  1. Speak to others in a clear, constructive and persuasive manner, bearing in mind the biblical principles I mentioned earlier, seeking to gently restore a person to fellowship and community, serving them by encouraging them to take responsibility for their contribution to the conflict.

Sometimes, sadly, this process will be fraught with difficulty. Sometimes it will feel as though you are taking two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes your actions aimed at peace will be rebuffed, and the conflict will escalate before it is resolved in a mutually acceptable way.

Sometimes it will become clear that resolution is not going to happen, and after an appropriate time, and after careful reflection and prayer, you need to admit defeat and move on, ad go your separate ways.

But that should not be the norm, especially among the people of God. We should always seek to entertain optimism, and hope for the best outcomes, and expect God to be at work among us, and do all we can to work toward peace.

How can we do this well? Ken Sande outlines 16 principles for speaking to others in seeking to resolve conflict:[3]

  1. Breathe grace to others in the midst of conflict – out of a Christ-like character, with the fruit of the Spirit matured by spiritual disciplines (Gal 5:22f).
  2. Make charitable judgments – believe the best about others until you have facts that prove otherwise (Jas 4:11f).
  3. Speak the truth in love – even to those who have wronged or mistreated you (1 Pet 3:9).
  4. Talk from beside, not above – don’t talk down to people; avoid every possibility of abuse of power; be humble and gentle.
  5. Help others look within – but begin by acknowledging the idols and weaknesses in your own heart (Jas 4:1-3; Mt 15:19).
  6. Choose the right time and place – confronting prematurely, or too late, or in an inappropriate context, is a recipe for trouble.
  7. Talk face to face wherever possible – if we did this more, rather than resorting to emails or social media, we would experience less conflict.
  8. Engage rather than denounce – “describe your concern in a way that captures their attention, appeals to their values, and gives hope that the issue can be resolved constructively.”[4]
  9. Communicate to avoid misunderstandings, which can easily fuel conflict. Choose your words carefully, aiming for peace.
  10. Plan your words (Prov 14:22b; 15:1). Be diligent; seek to ease tension; take the ministry of peace-making seriously.
  11. Use “I” statements, giving information about your own thoughts, feelings and actions rather than attacking the other person with “You” statements.
  12. Be objective – stick to the facts, avoid the temptation of dealing in half-truths, and try not to exaggerate.
  13. Use the Bible carefully (Eph 4:29). We can use Scripture texts as a weapon to harm others. Don’t proof-text to bolster your argument or to appear holier-than-thou.
  14. Ask for feedback – conflict resolution should never be a monologue; ask questions to promote dialogue, encourage clarification, and improve process.
  15. Offer suggestions and preferences – “If you can show a person a reasonable way out of a predicament, he or she may be more inclined to listen to you … At the same time, try not to give the impression that you have all the answers.”[5]
  16. Recognise your limits – you are not Wonder Woman, or Superman, and certainly not Jesus. Just do your best.

I close with these beautiful peace-making words of Paul from Colossians 3:12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”


Sermon 742 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 23 July 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Ken Sande, The Peace Maker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (third edn; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), p. 142.

[2] Ibid., pp. 166-167.

[3] Ibid., pp. 170-182.

[4] Ibid., p. 175.

[5] Ibid., p. 181.

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