Difficult Relationships

Sharing Options


For a number of years, we have been emphasizing community, life together, fellowship, communion, what the New Testament calls koinonia. The response to this emphasis has been significant—showing that there is a real spiritual hunger for this kind of thing. But there is a hitch—other people are involved. A number of months ago, Doug Jones quoted the conclusion of Sartre’s famous play, No Exit, where he said, “Hell is other people.” We are Christians, and so we are called to affirm, to the contrary, that heaven is other people. But a fallen world lies in between us and that heaven.


If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus . . . (Phil. 2: 1-5).


Paul is about to set before us the great example of Christ’s servant-heart (vv. 6ff). This is an example that he wants us to follow, and he gives us the charge before the example comes. If there is any consolation in Christ (v. 1), and there is, and if God provides any comfort of love, and He does, and if He creates fellowship in the Spirit, which He certainly does, if there is a deep empathetic connection in the gut between Christians, and there is, then fulfill Paul’s joy (v. 2). How would we go about fulfilling Paul’s joy? We need to be like-minded, sharing the same love, being in agreement, and settled in one mind (v. 2). We should guard ourselves against noble-sounding but creepy motives (v. 3). Put the other first, and do so in lowliness of mind (v. 3). Don’t think about your own stuff, your own issues, first, but let every man consider the “things of others” (v. 4). This is the kind of thing Jesus did, and he then proceeds to talk about that stupendous example (vv. 5ff).


There are three basic assumptions that cause conflict in the Church, that contribute to what we might call difficult relationships. First, we assume that every disruption is the direct result of sin, pure and simple. Second, we assume that we know what the sin is. And third, we assume that it is the other person’s sin. All three of these assumptions are drastically, radically wrong-headed.


We are commanded in this passage to strive toward certain things in common—like-mindedness, being of one mind, a shared fellowship in the Spirit, mutual giving, and so on. This does not mean that we can only do this if we start from some clone-like identity. No, we serve and worship a triune God, who has built some glorious differences into the world. We are to proceed from those differences to the unity described, which is not the same thing as obliterating those differences for the sake of a unity not described. What are some of those differences that have to be embraced at the starting point? You are cooking with onions and eggs, not trying to turn onions into eggs. Here are some of the glorious built-in differences, some of the onions.

Personality types: do not dismiss this just because you have heard it described by some secular psychologist. Every observant person in the history of the world has known the differences between Pooh, Rabbit, Eeyore, and Tigger. Give them other names (e.g. choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic), or rearrange them and call them something else. Like the fact of gravity, it is something we all have to deal with and, also like gravity, this reality is equally stubborn.

Men and women: the differences between how men and women think, respond, emote, etc. are deep and profound. Men are linear; women think laterally. Men are goal-oriented; women are relationship-oriented. Men seek respect before love; women seek love before respect. Men want honor; women want security. Men want solutions; women want conversation. What a world we live in!

Culture and race: there are deep differences between a hardscrabble Scot, an expressive Greek, and an inscrutable Japanese. Our PC world should deal with it.

Age and birth order: how can someone who is sixty-years-old still be the little sister? And still feel like she has to compete for dad’s attention?

Mix and match: now take the categories outlined above, and see how many other different combinations you can get. Out-going African woman, shy, retiring, introspective Asian man. You get the picture.

Now if you tend to think that every “head bonk” is the result of sin, you are going to wind up thinking that the whole world is engaged in a vast, perverse conspiracy, designed and operated solely in order to offend you grievously every day.


We tend to judge others by their actions, and ourselves by our motives. And since this collision “must be” the result of sin, we immediately try to diagnose what sin it is. And naturally, we always lift the hood of the other guy’s car first. We always give ourselves the advantage. But Paul says here to give the advantage, the benefit of the doubt, the other way.


Ignoring the creational distinctives that God has given us is a good way to get “one up” on everybody. If you had done that, then your motives would have been thus and such. They did that, and so their motives must have been what yours would have been. This is a recipe for one conflict after another. Those who resort to this tactic frequently accuse others of sin, but they are the ones bringing the sin to the situation. We are so focussed on identifying what his sin must be, that we neglect entirely what our sin might be. When Paul says to avoid strife and vainglory, he says that we are, in lowliness of mind, to consider the possibility that the person with the other perspective has a point. Yes, but—you want to scream—you have a point too, and nobody’s listening! Well, let go of it, and maybe they will. Put it down for a second.


The apostle knows that striving for this kind of like-mindedness is not a day at the beach (4:2), but it most necessary. To return to the cooking metaphor, we are not trying to make a bowl of cream of wheat, without the sugar. We are making a complicated dish, with hundreds of ingrediants, and when we are done we want to still be able to taste both the rum and the coconut. This is Trinitarian community, Trinitarian koinonia.

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