A Biblical Pursuit of Relational Peace

For several months now – it only seems like longer – my wife and I have been doing our level-best to lean into the Apostle Paul’s abundantly-clear exhortation in Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Sounds simple enough.

And on one level – that being the level of comprehension – this verse truly is simple. You don’t need to study any classic Greek or consult multiple Bible commentaries to get at the meaning of what Paul is really trying to say here. His directive acknowledges that it may not be possible to live at peace with some people, and thus he frees Christians from the futility of trying to reason with people who are clearly unreasonable.

So far, so good. I only need to take responsibility for my own actions and heart motives. Got it.

The real payload to this verse comes at the end, though, when Paul exhorts us to do our utmost to live peaceably “with all.” Does Paul’s usage of “all” really translate to what I think of when I use the word “all?” Seeking somehow to escape from this command, I have asked numerous pastors and theologians about this and they all come back with the same awful answer; Paul really does mean all, whether I like it or not.

Does that include the guy who just cut me off? Yes. What about the obnoxious relative who is constantly meddling in how I run my home? Yes. The coworker who takes credit for my labors? Yes. Somehow, in a very mysterious way, God has made provision for all of these horrible people before He gave Christians this command through His carefully-selected missionary to the Gentiles.

Personally, I have taken this verse to heart in such a manner as to conclude that in any conflict – any conflict – I am at least partially to blame. If I feel anything unkind rearing its ugly head deep down in my heart, I can safely say that I have taken a wrong turn somewhere and forgotten a few salient truths:

1. God has made allowances for me and my selfish/stupid/unkind behavior in the concluding word “all” of Romans 12:18.

2. When someone else is angry or “acting up” in any manner, I am not – repeat, not – in any way obliged to get emotionally worked up and/or respond in kind. My poor reaction is always a choice, specifically a sinful choice to ignore what God has said about my interactions with others.

3. Strong negative emotions – such as wishing any manner of ill on another – are always a signal that I have fallen into sin and need to repent ASAP.

4. I have sinned against God (and continue to sin against Him, much as I would like not to) far more than any one person has ever sinned against me.

Beyond BoundariesOver the years, as I have sought to minimize the number of foolish conflicts taking place at any one time, I have read multiple books and listened to multiple sermon series on the value of Old Testament-style wisdom in dealing with “the unreasonable other.” Many of these books have shown up on my desk as a direct result of working in ministry with the recently-separated or the divorced, the end of a marriage being an extraordinarily-painful life event that tends to bring out the absolute worst in many.

Not to in any way diminish the value of those other volumes, I still would rank Beyond Boundaries by John Townsend in my personal Top Five. In many respects, it might even be #1. My primary reason for saying that would be that just about anyone can find valuable wisdom in managing difficult relationships by allowing the words and experiences of Townsend to sink in. Written in an easy-to-read and straightforward manner, Townsend (in my opinion) sheds helpful light on the dynamics that often cause confusion in the way we conduct our affairs with others, namely “Where does my part in this end…and yours begin?” Or, more matter-of-fact, “How much of this nonsense do I truly own?”

Since Townsend writes in such an easy-to-access format, I can imagine that many critics might take him to task for “stating the obvious.” Well, perhaps…but isn’t it equally true that what Paul said in Romans 12:18 seems “obvious” as well? Yes, the truths spelled out in this book are, viewed from a distance, somewhat obvious, but experience has taught me – for myself as well as many others I have spoken with – that obvious truths tend to get tossed out the window in the face of bruised egos and other strong emotions. For example, faced with a seemingly-oblivious Redbox “browser” – Come on, lady, make up your mind already! – we are all far too quick to overlook many of the obvious truths that Townsend lays out so clearly for us. Am I to blame when I get ticked off at the Redbox kiosk? Well…yes.

There is so much highlighter ink spilled on my copy of this book that it would be daunting to pick out a favorite quote; every chapter is rich with biblical truth. Though Townsend spends most of his time with human interactions – this is not a Bible-study companion piece – he fairly well sums up his global view of serenity and relationships that are healthy by saying that “the only life that makes sense is the life fully committed to, and fully engaged with, God.” If we accept this view, then we are (of course) right back to our need to wrestle with Paul and his “impossible” command in the 12th chapter of Romans.

Another key truth that has borne much fruit in many lives that I could point to is that as we grow in wisdom and grace ourselves, we tend to attract far fewer of the “crazies” who are able to reach deeply into our hearts and minds and upset the biblical life rhythm that we’re trying to embrace. Yes, of course, there will always be those who cannot imagine that the long line forming behind them at the Redbox kiosk may have something to do with their inability to make a decision – or simply not care one bit for those held hostage – but as we move over time from impatience to gratitude – and away from feeling “threatened” in any way – it slowly dawns on us that we are free to make better choices.

James 4:1-6 (ESV)
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us?” But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

One Comment

  1. Phil said:

    Thanks for your post Warren. I think you place the right emphasis on how you describe what you meant by strong negative emotions when you used as an example: Wishing to harm others. Harboring vindictive fantasies or grudges or nursing thoughts of revenge – these are paths to the dark side. God knows our true intentions and when my anger is really just an expression of my self-centered pride or self-righteousness i need to confess it.
    I’ve also come to believe that there is a time and place for strong negative emotions like anger, disgust and outrage – these emotions aren’t in and of themselves sinful. Not being angry about something I should care deeply about, is a sign to me of my hard heart and indifference. Anger may be the appropriate reaction when something valuable is treated as nothing. At those times, like David in Psalms, I need to take my anger to God not to confess it as a sin, but to ask his help in measuring my response in a way that honors Him.

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