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Biblical Models for Handling Controversy
Controversy is a lot like a young child, or a cat: it seems to find its way into everything. Wherever you go, whatever you do, whether that's in business, in organizations, in families, or even in churches, some sort of scandal arises sooner or later with differing sides and people pointing fingers. Sometimes scandals can be public, other times they can consist of gossip and be more passive aggressive or hidden. Thankfully, whatever the situation may be, the Bible is chock full of proverbs, firsthand accounts, and allegories that teach us valuable lessons on how to handle controversy when it arises.
The next few blogs I'll be writing are going to be a series on how to handle controversy, within and without. I'll be sharing what the Bible teaches, as well as including some quotes from 19th century pastor and teacher Mary Baker Eddy. In thinking about this topic, I realized that you can break down controversies into four categories using a "Punnett square" of scenarios. At the heart of every scandal, there's always someone who stands accused of wrongdoing. That person is either you, or someone who is not you. That's one axis of our Punnett square. And with every accusation of wrongdoing, that accusation is either well-founded, or malicious. It's either true, or false. So here goes... starting off with controversy aimed at you, when you really did do something wrong.
We all make mistakes. At one point or another, it's rather inevitable that you'll do something wrong. So what do you do if you've slipped up? Do you condemn yourself to hell and throw in the towel? Or do you hide your error and hope that no one notices? Both of those responses are actually quite common. I know I've attempted both myself at different points! But as you've already guessed, neither response has any Biblical basis, nor do they ever prove to be remotely helpful. So what then?
First of all, don't lie. Don't ever lie. The writer of Proverbs tells us: "People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy." I believe that God is Truth itself, and since each one of us is created in the image and likeness of God, in the image and likeness of Truth, it is in our nature to be truthful and honest. It goes against our nature to lie. Mary Baker Eddy put it this way: "Honesty is spiritual power. Dishonesty is human weakness, which forfeits divine help."
Secondly, do the right thing! If you've done something wrong, you won't ever improve your situation by just continuing in it. Make a U-turn and start doing the right thing, and do it right away! Jesus has a wonderful lesson about this in what's called the Parable of the Two Sons. He tells a group of church authority figures a story about a man with two sons. The man owns the family business -- a vineyard -- and tells both his sons to go out and work. The first one impudently says, "no way!" while the second one says, "sure thing, dad!" But both of them are liars. The first one changes his mind and does go to work after all. The second one, who said he would... doesn't. Jesus brings home the point when he asks which one truly obeyed his father. And even though the road to get there was a little messy, it's clear that the first son was in the right. Eddy puts it this way: "If you believe in and practise wrong knowingly, you can at once change your course and do right."
Thirdly, apologize where needed. But in so doing, you don't have to turn guilt into a false idol. Sometimes there can be a tendency to just gush when admitting to wrongdoing. I remember the first time I ever received a speeding ticket -- only nine days after being awarded my driver's license. I drove home immediately, crying, and handed the car keys to my mom telling her I was the worst driver ever. She just thought the whole thing was terribly funny -- mostly because of my own overreaction. And she was right! Humor can be a wonderful antidote to defuse the hurt feelings that come with admitting to wrongdoing. But unfortunately, not everyone receives apologies so gracefully. So if you've done something wrong, correct it, learn from it, apologize where needed (even if you don't want to!), but move on. Don't carry your guilt around forever. You don't have to constantly keep going back over the offense like a broken record.
Sometimes people will forgive you, and sometimes they won't. But how anyone else reacts, long term, is not your responsibility. The issue is always between you and God alone. But on this topic, the story of Ananias and Paul is so heartening. Paul, previously named Saul, had been a killer of Christians. You could say he was doing the wrong thing! But when he finally realized it, he had a profound 180° turnaround. Ananias, himself a Christian disciple, had heard of Saul and wanted nothing to do with him. But he was called by God not only to forgive Paul, but also to heal him. And so he did. That same healing principle is just as true today -- people that you've hurt and people that don't like you still have an open door to see what God sees in you. God can speak to them as He did with Ananias.
Oh, and last but not least, pray! God is listening and will help you. It is "His good pleasure to give you the kingdom." That "kingdom of heaven" being referred to isn't a far off promise or some cosmological locale; the very act of doing right, right now, is its own reward. That is heaven. And there are so many stories about how God, more than in other situations, helps people who are trying to turn around from a difficult or scandalous circumstance. You can't control how other people will react. But you can control your own actions and then trust God for the resolution. It may not be a flashy news story proclaiming your greatness and glory, but you can trust it will be good. And as you'll see in my next post, that can pay off!