Sometimes I can’t get out of my own way.
Some of the most common arguments that Helen and I have are because of defensiveness on my part. It’s offensive, for a lot of reasons. She makes a comment or an observation that is intended to build me up, I take it as trying to break me down (it’s not), I get defensive, and in the process offend her. It’s a cycle that doesn’t need to exist, especially when I consider the person who I most love and who most loves me is the subject of my defensiveness. The huge offense is my defensiveness against the person with whom I should be most unified.
I think Paul was equally perplexed and offended with some of the behaviors of the Corinthian church. In particular, a passage in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 highlighted this during the course of my reading from 1 Corinthians 6 – 10 this week …
When one of you has a dispute with another believer, how dare you file a lawsuit and ask a secular court to decide the matter instead of taking it to other believers! Don’t you realize that someday we believers will judge the world? And since you are going to judge the world, can’t you decide even these little things among yourselves? Don’t you realize that we will judge angels? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disputes in this life. If you have legal disputes about such matters, why go to outside judges who are not respected by the church? I am saying this to shame you. Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these issues? But instead, one believer sues another—right in front of unbelievers! Even to have such lawsuits with one another is a defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated? Instead, you yourselves are the ones who do wrong and cheat even your fellow believers.
Ultimately, Paul is rebuking the church of Corinth for some common behaviors that persist even today. Behaviors that perhaps persist with each of us. In this particular instance, it was regarding the members of the church suing one another in the civil court of the time. Why were they suing one another? We can only assume and generalize, but the generalities are instructive.
The source of a lawsuit, even today, is because there are disputes that aren’t otherwise resolved. The disputes arise when we feel as though we have some right and have somehow been wronged, and a lawsuit is an ultimate step in our pursuing the dispute being remediated (i.e., in our favor). Not only is it an ultimate (last-ditch) effort, but it’s an effort that requires an outside mediator, because the dispute is unresolved between the parties. It’s also an effort that categorically surrounds looking out for our interests (defensively) at the exception and expense of the other party (in an offensive way). Inevitably, the parties to the conflict are not the only ones that are harmed … our skirmishes inexorably drag others in, including others who’ve neither asked to be involved, who have no stake in the game, and who are unable to meaningfully contribute to the fray.
This is Paul’s inherent point to the Corinthians … their disputes were motivated by impure and selfish motives, fueled by the presumption that they had some right that was undermined, and unable to be resolved among the parties in a way that each party felt was favorable to them. The escalation resulted from neither party being willing to accede to the side of the other, and the pursuit of being made whole ensued no matter the overall cost and damage to adjacent parties (in this case, nonbelievers). As Paul points out, in the end, no one wins (“Even to have such lawsuits with one another is a defeat for you.”).
In relationships, certainly in mine with Helen, there are times when I feel I’m being wronged, and like the Corinthians, my impurity and selfishness overtakes my responsibilities as the provider, protector, and spiritual head of my wife and family. I become defensive (to “protect” myself) and offend the very person / people who God has left in my charge to safeguard. At the very cornerstone of these disputes … besides just my inherent human sinful nature … is the sense of need not to protect my wife, but to protect ME. And by so doing, I need to right a wrong I perceive has been perpetrated upon me.
That’s the core of defensiveness … the feeling that I need to step in on my own behalf and guard myself from pain someone is trying to exact on me. It’s a symbolic embodiment of putting myself in the front of a line of importance. It’s clearly the opposite of the position in my marriage and family that God calls me to be. Sure, I am called to step in front of the danger when it comes to preserving my wife and kids unharmed, but my service as a husband and father means that I situate myself at the back in terms of importance. It’s the difference between servant-driven leadership and authority-driven leadership in the home. When I break from that standard, I weaken the fabric of my family indelibly.
But why do we feel we have to defend ourselves? I think it’s because we forget Who our real Defender is. Psalm 121 tells us our help comes from God. As usual then, when we get defensive on our own behalf, we usurp God’s role and authority in defending us (or sometimes, not defending us … for our own good somehow). We step into God’s shoes, offend the other party(ies), harm those on the periphery, and ironically in our attempt to win, everyone loses in the end.
Being defensive isn’t just defensive, it’s destructive. God doesn’t call us to defend ourselves, He wants us to leave that to Him and He wants us to rely on Him. He calls us to sacrificially love and serve our family, friends, fellow church members and our “neighbor” (that is, everyone else) live in harmony and unity with one another to the extent it depends on us (Romans 12:18). As Rick Warren points out in The Purpose Driven Life, it ain’t about you (us). If we desire our family life, friendships, and relationships to flourish, it means we subordinate our importance in favor of the importance of others. It’s not typical, but it is Biblical.
When we defend, we offend. Instead we should depend and amend. Depend on God as our defense, and amend relations with those we’ve wounded. Let’s commit this week to ask Him in prayer to reveal where we’ve fallen short and to loosen our grip on our need to shield ourselves, and to give us the faith, fortitude, and courage to stop adding to the offenses and to repair the damage of offenses past.
It’s true that the worst offense is a big defense, but let’s thank God that we can rely on Him to defend us now and in the future, and to repair the prior damage of our previous offensive behaviors.
Soli Deo gloria!