The views expressed in this item are those of the writer, and may not represent the views of other members of St Aidan’s Parkdale.
In my professional work as a social worker, I am frequently called on to deal with relationships that have broken down entirely. One thing that is striking about these relationships is the frequency with which people avoid approaching difficulties that arise in their personal relationships – intimate partner relationships, parent/child relationships, friendships – preferring to internalise the problem, withholding their thoughts and feelings. Perhaps motivated by concern to avoid tensions and difficulties and an honourable desire to protect relationships, the results, however can be very damaging. Inevitably, this internalising of the problem emerges in indirect behaviour that can eat away and destroy the fabric of the relationship.
Recently, a fellow church member approached me to share her thoughts and feelings about a view that I had expressed in both a talk presented at Church, and also in a blog posting on this website. I was really grateful to her for having the courage and respect for our relationship to take this step, as, while we still have differences of opinion, we were never-the-less able to express our views to one another, to listen, and to respectfully embrace one another as brother and sister in Christ when we next took communion at church.
Jesus clearly took relationships very seriously. Christians are supposed to be remarkable for their fraternal love for one another (John 13:35 “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”) It was therefore extremely important to him that Christians, of all people, understand about when and how to repair relationships.
In Matthew there are two very important passages that refer to this matter directly:
Matthew 5: 23-24 “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.…”
Matthew 18:15-16 15“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you…”
In a relationship any substantial duration or depth there are bound to be differences arise. We are imperfect human beings, after all. So, irrespective of whether you are the person who has the problem with someone else, or you are the person who becomes aware that someone else has a problem with your behaviour, Jesus puts the onus on us to address the matter directly – even before we attend to spiritual matters. Perhaps even as a means of paving our spiritual relationship with God.
The pattern he taught is also very significant: do it one-on-one and in private, at least in the first instance. There is no room for gossip in the teaching of Jesus, and no room to leave relationship tensions unaddressed, at least insofar as it depends on you.
Approaching tensions and difficulties with one another’s behaviour is central here. Jesus teaches that addressing the way someone acts – what they do or what they have said – is at the core of this approach: avoiding character assassination or back-biting is vital. Assertively sharing with someone the specifics of what they have done that has been a problem for you can go a long way towards repairing relationships.
It’s also important not to let things go on for long, “leave your offering there before the altar and go.” Find a time as close to the event as possible. In private, one-on-one, tell the other person directly and specifically what they have said or done. Explain how you have been affected, perhaps adding what you would prefer differently in future. Stick to the one point of their behaviour, and do not allow the discussion to wander onto other differences, or to degenerate into character assassination. Telling someone else that they are a bad person will do nothing to heal fractured relationship!
If this approach proves unsuccessful, then call on someone mutually respected as a mediator. Not to take sides, but to do their best to resolve the problems.
Modern social science has found that holding on to tensions, internalising felt anger can be really toxic to your health. Stewing on hurts and stresses can often be the source of sleep loss, headaches and other even more serious health issues. Almost inevitably, the tensions will emerge in the manner in which you act towards others. It can also be the source of ‘boil-overs’ when the anger cannot be contained any longer. When it does so, it can often be in the form of passive aggression, fights and arguments. Of course, there’s no rocket science in knowing how damaging such incidents can be to relationships!
Whilst the approach taught by Jesus to repairing relationships is not 100% guaranteed to work, and you may feel awkward and even somewhat stressed approaching things in this manner if you’re not already accustomed to it, it is the pattern of our Lord, and is the most likely means of dealing with problems in a relationship.
Thank God for my sister who raised her issue directly with me! May others indeed know us by our love, marked by such mutual respect and the desire to protect and preserve our relationships!