Difficult Relationships

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For a number of years now, we have been emphasizing community, life together, fellowship, communion, and what the New Testament calls koinonia. The response to this emphasis has been significant—showing that there is a real spiritual hunger for this sort of thing. But there is a hitch—other people are involved. There is always a catch.

Some might remember the conclusion of Sartre’s famous play, No Exit, where he said, “Hell is other people.” But we are Christians, and so we are called to affirm, to the emphatic contrary, that Heaven is other people. But a long stretch of road in a fallen world lies in between us and that Heaven.

The Text

“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).

Summary of the Text

Paul is about to set before us the great example of Christ’s humility (vv. 6ff). This is an example that he wants us to follow, and he gives us the charge before the example comes in. 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 most certainly does, if there is a deep sympathetic connection in the gut between Christians, and there is, then he charges them to fulfill his 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 superficial motives (v. 3). Put the other person 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” first (v. 4). This is the kind of thing Jesus did, and Paul then proceeds to talk about that stupendous example (vv. 5ff).

Intelligent Fellowship

There are three basic assumptions that cause conflict in the Church, that contribute to what we might call difficult relationships. First, we tend to assume that every disruption is the direct result of sin, pure and simple. Second, we tend to assume that we know what the sin is. And third, we tend to assume that it is the other person’s sin. All three of these assumptions are drastically, radically, wrong-headed as default assumptions. They might be true, but always remember that you can’t see yourself as clearly as God does. And remember that the first two easily blend together—when you simply assume sin in others, it is usually “apparent” to you what the sin is.

God-Given Differences

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 as the starting point? Remember 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. At the same time, don’t let the American mania for personality tests run off with your wits because personality types don’t have decimal points. But at the end of the day, there are different kinds of people.

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 ethnicity: 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 there are others), 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 want 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, organized, perverse conspiracy, designed and operated solely in order to offend you grievously every day. And that is what we might call a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Esteem Others Better

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. Consider yourself, lest you also be tempted (Gal. 6:1).

As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, when you are dealing with a difficult family, or company, or class, you are only dealing with everybody else. God has similar problems with that same group of people that you do, only He is dealing with one person more than you are—He is dealing with you also. And He can see that you too are a player.

Strife or Vainglory

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 focused on identifying what his sin must be, that we neglect entirely what our sin might be. Always remember that one of the traits that difficult people usually share is the fact that they think that everyone else is being difficult. So don’t you be that person. The first step is dealing with difficult people is budgeting for the possibility that you might be the difficult one.  

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.                     

In One Accord

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 ingredients, 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.

This is the kind of humility that looks to Christ, and when we look to Christ in this way, the humility grows. And one of the things that Christ-centered humility can do is see the situation more accurately.

A version of this sermon was preached in 2007.

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2 years ago

Thank you Team
This is a great supplement to the preaching from my congregation here in South Africa

Don Davies
Don Davies
2 years ago

Beautiful message. Probably one of the best sermons on relationships I’ve heard in a while along with the ones by Keion Henderson https://www.keionhenderson.com/sermons-on-relationships/ which I really take into heart. Relationships are really a big part of our humanity and lives and we really need the right lessons and teachings from God to promote the right kind of relationships in our lives!

Edward Reeves
Edward Reeves
2 years ago

In this day and age, Sermons on relationships like these and from Keion Henderson, https://www.keionhenderson.com/sermons-on-relationships/ are really helpful in keeping families together.