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living in peace when others are contentious

Last Sunday I was asked about an all-too real scenario: how are we to handle family members who are constantly stirring up trouble? How are we to respond when family members cut us off and later demand to know why we never reach out to them? How are we to live at peace when others are contentious? This is an important question because Scripture demands it!

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12:18 ESV

The apostle instructs us to live in peace, or to be peaceful with others. Sometimes, however, others refuse peace but live in a state of constant tension and contention. Some revel in drama and constantly pick at others and find fault with others. To a certain point there is a sense in which we bear with one another. Some people are, frankly, irritable and irritating, yet we love them for they are family. Or we love them because they are friends. Or maybe they’re co-workers. Or perhaps they are our enemies. The command remains: love your enemies. How do we do this, though, when our “enemy” refuses to be civil and courteous? This is especially compounded when the person is a family member and so we cross paths frequently. Paul says to live peaceably with all.

Notice, however, the command is not absolute. He adds a necessary caveat: “so far as it depends on you”. In other words, with some people it is impossible to live in peace, though you yourself can be peaceable. What I mean is there are certain individuals in our lives who are never satisfied and who always find fault—and the fault is always with other people. You know the sort of person I mean. Paul also knew the sort of person I mean, which is why he added the clarification. Yes, we must seek to live peaceably with all people, but for some people our attempts will always fall short. In the second century biblical scholar Origen helpfully explained this instruction:

The apostle here gives a very balanced command because he knows perfectly well that peace depends on both parties, and the other party may well be hostile and block peace. What he asks is that our mind should always be ready for peace and that the blame for any discord should lie with the other side and not with us.

Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans

To do what the apostle instructs us to do means to live in such a way that we are open to peace and willing to be peaceful, knowing full well if the other party is not willing, there will not be peace. Origen explains when this is the case the blame should not fall on our shoulders. We should live in such a way that if there is not peace, it is clear it is the other party who refused peace.

This is where the problem lies: what if the person is a family member? How do we navigate this? Must we live in constant friction? My answer would be no, but maybe. Sometimes we are called to suffer. Think of the great many martyrs throughout church history who have suffered, whether to the point of death, or “merely” the loss of reputation or work, or living with the slander of others. It may be that for a particular person God is calling you to endure suffering for the sake of the gospel. Unless God makes this clear to you, however, I would say the answer is no.

We must live peaceably with all. This is the clear command of Scripture. It does not say we must live with all, however. That is, our conduct must be above reproach in this matter, but Scripture does not require us to live in hostility. Take the situation that was presented to me as an example. For this person certain family members verbally abuse and then cut off the relationship, refusing any contact. After some time the pattern is they forget about the hostility and then reach out to the one they cut off and demand to know why that person hasn’t reached out before this. The true answer is, “You told me not to!” For such a one, this is never acceptable for the angry and contentious person never admits to fault.

There is an even further complication here, however. After teaching his disciples how to pray in Matthew 16, which includes praying “forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors” Jesus immediately adds:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:14–15 ESV

Much of our confusion and consternation over this statement by the Lord Jesus himself is we’ve been taught that forgiveness always requires reconciliation. Paul is surely drawing on Jesus’ own teaching when he instructs the Romans to live peaceably with all people, which is only possible to the degree they let you. So it is with forgiveness. Jesus is instructing people to live in such a way that we do not hold their sins against them, but not holding on to their offenses is not the same as reconciling with them. For this to happen, such a one must acknowledge his or her offense. The apostle John wrote if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us. There is a reconciliation that takes place when we confess our sins. So it is with those who sin against us. There cannot be reconciliation if the other person refuses to acknowledge culpability.

Returning to Paul’s instruction in Romans 12, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. This means if there is any way in which you are culpable for friction in a relationship seek to make it right. Confess your sins. Ask for forgiveness. If the other person continues acting in a manner that is irreconcilable, know that you have obeyed God’s will in this matter. You did all that was in your power to do, so if peace is not possible, you are not at fault.

In such a case, it is the other person who is responsible for cutting off the relationship, even if he or she continues to blame you and continues to accuse you of all sorts of things. I’m sure you know the sort. Some people are simply impossible to live with peaceably. What are we to do with such people—especially if they are family members? Paul has another instruction in Romans 16.

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.

Romans 16:17 ESV

The immediate context is of those who cause problems in the church, but surely this principle applies elsewhere in the lives of believers. In Titus Paul gave him instructions that at first glance may appear to contradict the process Jesus outlined in Matthew 18, but is actually complementary:

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

Titus 3:10–11 ESV

Here Paul instructs him to remove from his life the one who stirs up division, who is constantly causing problems and refuses to listen to instruction. It comes down to this: such divisive people are often unteachable. The problem with an unteachable person is he is not able to be taught. Unteachable people may well be willing to learn, but they cannot be taught. It is because you can do nothing for an unteachable person that Paul instructs Titus to have nothing more to do with such a person. Paul does not expect Titus to simply endure the person who is constantly causing strife.

Sometimes we must grant people what they continue to push for: isolation. When people are angry and contentious, sometimes we must simply leave them alone. We must always be civil toward them. We must, as far as it depends on us, live peaceably with all, yet we must also understand that sometimes this means we cannot remain in relationship with a person. Whether the offending party is a biological family member or one who claims to follow Christ, God not only calls us to live peaceably, but to live in peace. Sometimes this requires we avoid those who refuse peace.