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Biff and Bert are long-time friends in the church, and they are angry with each other. They had a dust-up. You happen to be an unwitting bystander, unsure how to proceed. This inevitable spot is always tricky for friends and family as they watch two people in a stand-off, potentially destroying the relationship. Some guidance to help your two friends first appears to be a pay grade above your ability, but you know you can’t recuse yourself from what you’re observing (James 4:17).
Being around angry people is like walking down a sidewalk as a speeding motorist hits a mud puddle, splashing the yucky road grime all over your clothes. You were minding your business, but here you are. To complicate matters, offended people often place expectations on the bystanders—the helpers—in how they should respond to the offenses that happened to them.
What you do next is of utmost importance. This uninvited situation inevitability means the way you involve yourself will be a stewardship issue. Your obedience to God is your most significant concern. Will you be redemptive in the lives of your friends? Or will the enemies of God use you to exacerbate an already deteriorated situation? Passivity is an anti-gospel message, so you’re looking for tips to help the combatants. Here are a few foundational ones for your consideration.
1: Brother’s Keeper
I do not have to make a case on whether you should have a role in this matter. There are too many “one another” passages in the New Testament to prove that you must insert yourself. Whether it is you or someone else that you bring along to assist you, there is no question that the body of Christ should mobilize itself and get involved when relational conflict happens. Christianity is not a spectator sport.
Christianity is an “all hands on deck” call from God, especially when part of the body suffers. Sadly, too many Christians had rather evangelize the world than take care of themselves. This perspective is short-sighted. Our success in taking care of ourselves will directly impact how well we can spread the Lord’s fame globally. Trying to win folks to Christ “out there” when Christ does not transform our hearts will collapse our internal and external initiatives. (See Ephesians 4:12-13, 1 Corinthians 12:14-15, and Hebrews 13:3.)
2: Timed Repentance
How you help them will hang on their repentance, which is a gift from the Lord (2 Timothy 2:24-25). It is impossible to mandate repentance. Just because a person inserts himself into a relationship mess does not mean the problem will resolve itself. There will probably not be any quick fixes when the hurt is as painful as Biff and Bert’s situation. I wish it were not the case, but sin is always messier than our wishes.
Biff and Bert have a long history together, which only intensifies the hurt they are experiencing now. Two strangers who disagree can move on down the street without carrying the burden of their disagreement. But when it’s friends who have mutually invested in each others’ lives, the pain is more profound, and the narrative is always more complex because this is not their first disappointment with each other.
3: Understanding Compassion
Your call to compassion for them will be essential. Because you cannot speed up their repentance, they will need room to sin—at least to some degree. I realize this may go against what some people believe, but there is no way around it. Maybe if you thought about it like grieving the death of a loved one, it would make more sense—it takes time, and it’s messy.
If you have lost a loved one, you know that no matter how much you wanted to project yourself into your future to where you could be happy and whole again, you could not get there from where you were. Biff and Bert are imperfect men walking through the brokenness of a relationship. They need your compassion.
4: Overlooking Offenses
Part of your compassion will include overlooking some of the things they say and do. I do not think this is a stretch for you to understand, especially if you are married or have children. Expecting and demanding perfection from our family members would be a significant relational mistake. Wise spouses and parents tolerate imperfection while keeping their eye on a higher prize.
Mercifully, the Lord does not “ping me” every time I make a mistake. His patience, forbearance, and love have done many beautiful things for my sanctification (Romans 2:4). What you’re looking for is the general direction they are heading—see my next point. If these men are imperfectly moving toward repentance, you can overlook some of the stumbles along the way. The general rule of thumb is you overlook episodes of sin while addressing patterns of sin.
5: Considering Trajectories
The people who have had the most redemptive influence in my life are the ones who have overlooked a few offenses while holding on to the expected hope of a brighter future. The ones who have had the least amount of redemptive influence are the ones who have gotten angry with me when that is not what I needed at those moments. Knowing how to be this kind of redemptive friend requires a lot of compassion, patience, and wisdom.
This tension is where you will have to discern the present trajectory of their lives, which ties into the previous point. Are they imperfectly heading in the right direction? For example, if our children are moving toward God-centered goals, though they are doing so in an imperfect way, it is not hard to overlook some of the dumb things they do. But if they were heading toward degeneration, we would have no choice but to impose ourselves into their lives by speaking about what they are doing wrong—the things that are not honoring the Lord.
6: Discerning Discernment
These moments are wisdom issues when each parent has to choose whether it is the right time to call them on their sin. One of the most powerful illustrations of this was when my friend came to my home after learning about my wife’s adultery. I was banging my fists into the wall while yelling into the night. My friend was sitting on the floor praying. There was nothing he could do to stop me, and if he had tried, it would not have gone well for either of us.
I wish I were more mature, but I was not, and I suspect my response would be similar if that event happened again. But what my friend did for me is forever etched on my mind. He was for me, and he gave me room to be imperfect, wobble, fall, and work out my salvation with the Lord (Philippians 2:12). When helping struggling people, you want to be pneumatic, asking the Spirit to show you when to speak and when to keep quiet.
7: Loving Confrontation
My friend knew I was a Christian and would eventually do what was right (Philippians 1:6). He also knew I was an imperfect Christian and needed time and space to work out my anguish. And I knew he would not let me continue in sin because he loved me too much to let me stay stuck. This situation requires you to “discern your discernment.” Knowing there are gray areas, you may need to confront your friends.
It would be nice if sin and sinners were more neatly packaged, but they are not. It is wise to give people space to grieve and work through their hurts, but it is not wise to let them continue in that condition forever. Of course, there is the possibility that they will not let you speak into their lives at all. Sometimes the hurt can be too extensive, and the anger has already captured their hearts.
8: Fully Understanding
As you talk to them, showing your heart of compassion, you will work to understand the situation entirely. The best approach as you do this is to enter into the discussion by asking more questions than making statements or providing answers. Never assume you understand the whole story.
In many of these situations, a helper will hear the complaints or arguments from one side, and armed with that information, they begin to draw conclusions based on half of the story. This approach is almost always a mistake. If you have not talked to both parties, be careful with how you respond to the little bit of information you have heard. Remember the wisdom of Solomon:
The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him (Proverbs 18:17).
Nobody communicates objective facts; they always share their interpretations of the events. Even as you listen to one side of the story, do not assume you heard their side the way the Lord wants you to hear it. Your friend will give you his perspective based on his interpretive filter—the subjective lens through which he sees life and experiences hurt. Each of us has an interpretive grid for seeing and interpreting life.
We build our “grids” by many shaping influences, what we have experienced, and how Adamic fallenness has wired us. This reality means no matter how right we think we are, we are subjective and deceived in real and specific ways. Only a fool would believe that he is entirely correct, and you would be a fool if you thought the people sharing their stories were inerrant.
10: Heart Guarding
At this point, you will have to guard your heart. It would be so easy to take up an offense for someone after you hear their story. To be critical of the supposed offender is unwise based on the information given to you by the offended. Even if the hurt person is correct in articulating the offenses, it would be wrong to respond with anger toward the offender.
If you cross that line, you will disqualify yourself from being part of the solution. Your best response is to begin walking the offended person through how they should respond to what has happened to them. Jesus would not begin by condemning the other person. His primary goal would be to help the troubled person. Help them to think and respond the way Jesus would respond to those who have hurt Him (Luke 23:34).
For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this, you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:19-21).
On your best day, you will only be able to water and plant into their lives (1 Corinthians 3:6). There may be a temptation to cross this line by expecting them to change on your timetable, according to your expectations and how you believe repentance should look. Your attitude toward them will tell you if you have crossed that line.
For example, if you lose patience with them or become frustrated with or critical toward them, you know you have become their “lord” while not trusting the Lord to bring the needed change into their lives, according to His time. Also, the way you talk to and about them will be clues that will reveal if you have crossed the line, i.e., grumbling, gossiping, complaining, worrying, and anxiousness reveal a mini-messiah complex.
12: Without Ceasing
Sin seems to always hang around longer than you expect. People entangled in sin will not unravel themselves quickly, and if you do not guard your heart well, you will add to their problems by becoming impatient with them. Paul encouraged us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). That is your most effective course of action.
Only the Spirit of God can go where no person has gone before. Only the Spirit of God can penetrate the dark recesses of our hearts to find and untangle the complications that sin has brought into our lives. Prayer is essential. It is the main thing. If you go into this battle without prayer, you will inevitably be a casualty of this battle. The kind of surgery that needs to happen with Biff and Bert is a pay grade higher than any of us possess.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).